The song is ranked 23rd on Rolling Stone‘s December 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” On a separate Rolling Stone listing of the Beatles’ 100 Greatest Songs, “In My Life” is ranked No. 5. The British music magazine Mojo named it the best song of all time in 2000.
Over the last 50 years “In My Life” has become a fan favorite, heard frequently at funerals, weddings, anniversaries and other occasions. More on the song’s legacy a bit later. First, some background on Lennon and the song’s creation.
In March 1964, Lennon had published an 80-page book titled, In His Own Write. It was comprised of short stories, poems, and line drawings, along with some surreal and nonsensical content. Parts of the book drew on his own life and childhood. A British journalist, Kenneth Alsop, noted that the book revealed more about him than his songs did, and that he should write more songs about his life.Lennon, whether acting on Alsop’s comment or his own initiative, would later take stock of his growing-up years, returning to Liverpool for a retracing of his boyhood haunts. He traveled by bus from his old home through Liverpool, taking notes of all the places of his youth. From this, a working title for a song became, “Places I Remember.”
Yet, it turned out that Lennon’s field trip into his youth produced, by his accounting, a boring compilation of place names, which after the fact seemed to him a ridiculous exercise. Still, he had worked up various drafts incorporating some of his listings. But it wasn’t clicking as a song.
So then, he set it aside, and gradually, the basis for a song began to come to him and take form. Lennon would later say. “…I struggled for days and hours, trying to write clever lyrics. Then I gave up, and ‘In My Life’ came to me – letting it go is the whole game.”
Lennon, working with McCartney and George Martin on the song, settled on some more general phrasing for the lyrics rather specific place names which he had tried to use in earlier drafts.
McCartney also helped with the music (although there are varying accounts from McCartney and Lennon over who did what on the song), and George Martin would added some instrumentation in the middle.
“In My Life”
There are places I’ll remember
But of all these friends and lovers
[ harpsichord-sounding interlude ]
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
During work on the song in the studio, Lennon asked Martin for a piano solo – “something Baroque-sounding,” according to one source. What Martin came up with is one of the signature parts of the song, as he recorded a Bach-like piano piece, but had the taping machine run at half speed, so when it was played back, it was faster, sounding like a harpsichord.
“In My Life” – 1965
“In My Life” was recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studio in London during sessions on October 18th and October 22nd, 1965. It was first heard by the public in early December 1965 on the Rubber Soul album – as the 4th track on side two of both the Parlophone (U.K.) and Columbia (U.S.) recordings. On both albums, the song follows “I’m Looking Through You,” which some believe helped the emotional nature of “In My Life” to stand out. The song, however, was never released as a single.
In the song’s lyrics, the narrator begins by marking all the places he’ll remember throughout his life; some good, some not so good; some etched deeply, others more fleeting – but all of which have their memorable moments. Lovers and friends are part of this tableau as well – some living, some departed – all loved as part of the narrator’s life. But in the song’s second part, the verse is offered to one present friend/lover, who is singled out as standing above the rest, if only for the moment, when love is new, and memories of the past take something of a lesser hold, but do not recede. In fact, the narrator states he will never lose affection for the people and places that have gone before, and will think of them often. But in the present moment, he appears focused on one friend/lover. Thus, the narrator’s lyrics capture the repeating pattern of life; with friends, family, lovers and their places as a cumulative process; accretive to life experience and emotional memory – elements that give this song its universal appeal.
Bernadette McNulty, an editor at London’s Telegraph newspaper, listed “In My Life” as one of her favorite Beatles tunes in 2012, citing it as “a strangely simple, beautiful song that manages to touch on charged emotions like grief, loss, nostalgia and remembrance but without shedding a tear of sentimentality….” And in Lennon’s case, there were real people and real places that had fueled the poetry – places such as Penny Lane, a street in Liverpool; Menlove Avenue, where Lennon had grown up as a boy with his Aunt Mimi; and “the Clock Tower in the Circle of the Abbey,” which he wrote about in earlier drafts – and real people, including his first wife, Cynthia Powell; good friend and biographer Peter Shoton; and departed friend and former Beatles’ bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, who died of a brain tumor in April of 1962.
Lennon would later say of the song: “’In My Life’ was, I think, my first real, major piece of work. Up until then it had all been glib and throw-away. I had one mind that wrote books and another that churned out things about ‘I love you’ and ‘you love me,’ because that’s how Paul and I did it…It was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously, about my life…a remembrance of friends and lovers of the past.”
Bruce Eder of AllMusic.com, reviewing the song, noted that “In My Life” was also “a creative watershed in the Beatles’ songwriting and recording history,” calling it “unique in its musical and lyrical sensibilities,” expanding the horizons of both. Eder adds:
…The song altered the public sensibility not only of what constituted acceptable songwriting in which a rock & roll composer could engage, but also the range of emotions that rock & roll musicians were allowed to express. … “In My Life’s” lyrics were steeped in a mix of innocent nostalgia and an acknowledgment of distance from those emotions. Essentially, it was a song about maturation and accepting the passage of time, and the loss that comes with it, all attributes that were unusual, if not extraordinary, in mid- 1960’s rock & roll… [E]ven the confession of feelings of nostalgia was totally unexpected in the repertory of a rock & roll band in this period….
Eder also explains that the song “helped start John Lennon down a creative road that led to songs such as ‘Julia’ and much of the content of his best post-Beatles recordings….”
However, what is most notable about “In My Life,” in addition to its role in the evolution of the Beatles’ and Lennon’s music, is the song’s usage and popularity since 1965.
Among Beatles fans, and even non-fans, “In My Life” has become a favored piece of music. It is heard frequently at weddings, anniversaries, funerals and other occasions, whether family celebrations or more somber public occasions where nostalgia and reflection are called for. Some who have grown up with the song, have requested in advance that it be played at their funerals as a remembrance and farewell song.
According to SongFacts.com, “In My Life” was played at Kurt Cobain’s funeral in 1994. Cobain was the frontman for the rock group Nirvana. The Beatles were an early and important music influence on him. Cobain had cited Lennon as his “idol” in journals he kept during his time with Nirvana. At the 2010 Oscars ceremony, James Taylor performed “In My Life”during the “In Memoriam” segment, honoring film stars and entertainers who died the previous year. And among everyday people, too, the song has resonance in a variety of ways. “Charles” of Bronxville, New York, for example, adding a comment at SongFacts.com, noted:
…When my daughter was born, she was delivered by C-Section. I was in the delivery room and got to hold her. Once she was bundled up, the Dr. said I should take her out to the waiting area while they closed the incision. I took her out and held her. I sat there with tears rolling down my face and sang this song to her. I thought it should be the first. I still do.“Mister P” of Magnolia, Texas, also writing on SongFacts.com, noted: “As fine a song as ever penned. It took several decades of maturing for its lyrics to finally hit me. I don’t know how such a young man could create such mature lyrics.” Lennon was 25 years old when he wrote “In My Life.”
And for some, after Lennon’s death at age 40 in New York by deranged gunman Mark David Chapman, “In My Life” took on more meaning. Michael Lewis, co-author of 100 Best Beatles Songs: A Passionate Fans Guide, noted of the song: “I’m always a sucker for a melancholy tune, an ode to loves lost, the time that is fleeing and our lost youth. But John’s passing made this song even sadder for me. Fortunately, the song ultimately puts forth a message of hope – love lives on – and that’s all that really matters…”
“In My Life” has been covered by several artists, including Judy Collins, Bette Milder, Johnny Cash, José Feliciano, and others. It has also been used in some film and TV soundtracks, including: the 1987 film Five Corners with Jodie Foster and Tim Robbins (the Beatles version); the 1991 movie For the Boys (Bette Midler cover); the 2005 film Little Manhattan (Matt Scannell cover); various episodes of the 1988-1993 TV series, The Wonder Years (Judy Collins cover); the theme song for the 1999-2002 TV series, Providence (Chantal Kreviazuk cover).
For another John Lennon story at this website, from later in his life, see “Watching the Wheels.” Additional Beatles stories can be found at the “Beatles History” page. See also the “Annals of Music” page for other music stories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 16 July 2016
Last Update: 16 July 2016
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Jack Doyle, “In My Life: Lennon, 1965,”
PopHistoryDig.com, July 15, 2016.
Sources, Links & Additional Information“In My Life,” BeatlesBible.com.
“In My Life,” Wikipedia.org.
“In My Life: No. 5 – The Beatles 100 Greatest Songs,” Special Collectors Edition, Rolling Stone, 2010, pp.20-22.
“In My Life, by The Beatles,” SongFact.com.
“My Favourite Pictures of John W. Lennon,” All You Need is The Beatles, website.
Dave Rybaczewski. “In My Life” (John Lennon – Paul McCartney), Beatles Music History, website.
Bruce Eder, Song Review, “In My Life,” AllMusic.com.
Sam Jeffries / Sonicnetcom, “Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ Named Greatest Song Ever Written; Poll of Top Songwriters Ranks Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ at #2,” MTV.com, July 13, 2000.
“Famous Beatles Fans Choose the Band’s Best Song; From a Day in the Life to You Won’t See Me, Musicians, Artists, Critics and Writers Pick Their Favourite Ever Beatles Track,” The Telegraph, October 4, 2012.
Other Beatles Stories at this Website
Jack Doyle, “Beatles’ D.C. Gig, March 1964” (history of Beatles’ first U.S. concert appearances), PopHistoryDig.com, July 9, 2008.
Jack Doyle, “Nike & The Beatles, 1988-89” (pop music & advertising history), PopHistoryDig.com, November 11, 2008.
Jack Doyle, “Michael & McCartney, 1980s-2009” (Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney history), Pop HistoryDig.com, July 7, 2009.
Jack Doyle, “Dear Prudence, 1967-1968“(Beatles & pop music history), PopHistoryDig.com, July 27, 2009.
Jack Doyle, “Beatles in America, 1963-64” (early Beatles in America, first tours, etc.), Pop HistoryDig.com, September 20, 2009.