John Lennon’s quality catalog extends far beyond Beatles classics like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and solo highlights like “Imagine.” In fact, some of his greatest musical moments come via his deep cuts, tunes off the beaten path of FM radio that cement his status as one of rock’s greatest songwriters. In honor of what would’ve been Lennon’s 77th birthday on Monday, read on for six of his best hidden gems.
1. The Dirty Mac, “Yer Blues” (1968)
With the Beatles disintegrating around him in December 1968, Lennon appeared on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, a goofy event staged by the Rolling Stones that also featured the Who, Marianne Faithfull, Jethro Tull, and Taj Mahal. While Lennon appeared alongside Yoko Ono for a strange performance and Mick Jagger for a bizarre comedy sketch, his standout — and, perhaps, the entire event’s standout — was a one-off supergroup formed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. Dubbed The Dirty Mac, the ensemble performed Lennon’s Beatles tune “Yer Blues” with a raucous gusto that makes the original version sound quaint.
2. John Lennon, Hold On (1970)
Lennon’s visceral post-Beatles debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has its standouts — tragic “Mother,” ominous “Working Class Hero” — but even the deeper cuts find him inhabiting a rarefied songwriting air. For an album inspired by his stint in primal therapy, “Hold On” is remarkably reserved, a gorgeous ode to persevering wedged in album that often seems resigned to defeat.
3. John Lennon, “Crippled Inside” (1971)
While former bandmate Paul McCartney retreated from the Beatles’ sphere to record his early solo masterpiece Ram with wife Linda, Lennon doubled-down on collaboration, recording his second solo album with a cast of characters that included another ex-Beatle, George Harrison. Harrison provides some Imagine‘s juiciest guitar licks, like on the superficially gleeful rockabilly ditty “Crippled Inside.” But, with lines like “One thing you can’t hide / Is when you’re crippled inside,” the cut isn’t as lighthearted as its title would suggest.
4. John Lennon, “Woman Is the N—-r Of the World” (1972)
The title to this one, the lead track off Lennon’s third solo album Some Time In New York City, hasn’t aged well. Neither has the LP, which pales in comparison to Lennon’s one-two post-Beatles punch of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. But this saxophone-drenched, Phil Spector-produced proto-feminist ode packs as much of a lyrical punch as it did decades ago, making claims like “If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man” that remain relevant as the struggle for gender equality continues.
5. Harry Nilsson, “Many Rivers to Cross” (1974)
Both McCartney and Lennon lauded Harry Nilsson as one of their favorite American artists, and when Lennon moved to Los Angeles in 1973 — as part of his separation from Yoko Ono known as his “Lost Weekend” — he took the Brooklyn native under his wing. The resulting product was Pussy Cats, an album produced by Lennon filled with covers, Nilsson originals, and even a couple tracks co-written by the ex-Beatle himself. On top of that, Lennon recruited industry all-stars like Ringo Starr, Who drummer Keith Moon, and Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys to contribute to the album. Another by-product of the sessions? A Toot and a Snore in ’74, the infamous bootleg recorded when McCartney and Stevie Wonder stopped by the studio early in the album’s recording.
6. John Lennon, “Cleanup Time” (1980)
Lennon released his final album — 1980’s double-LP Double Fantasy — just three weeks before his death, following a 5-year retirement from music to raise his son Sean. Double Fantasy flips between compositions by Lennon and Ono, but Lennon’s contributions ooze with promise that further magnifies the tragedy of his murder. The disco-inflected “Cleanup Time” is yet another instance of Lennon’s long-proven ability to adapt his rock ‘n’ roll swagger to whatever the trendy musical aesthetic was. (And, 35 years later, we can’t help but hear a little “Uptown Funk” in the horn section on this one.)