Serve Yourself

John Lennon Anthology box set artworkWritten by: Lennon
Recorded: 27 June 1980
Producer: John Lennon

Released: 2 November 1998

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar

Available on:
John Lennon Anthology
Wonsaponatime
John Lennon Signature Box

A parody of Bob Dylan’s 1979 song Gotta Serve Somebody, Serve Yourself was released on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology.

Serve Yourself (Home Recording) - Signature Box (Remastered)

Lennon’s spiritual and religious beliefs were never particularly consistent. He had tackled the subject of Christianity, albeit obliquely, in the Rubber Soul song Girl, and had caused widespread controversy the following year by proclaiming that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus“.

He had aligned himself with, and then rejected, the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Dr Arthur Janov, and much of his solo work, such as Instant Karma and I Found Out, was largely concerned with the power of the individual to make a change.

Anybody who wants to hear Dylan just because of who he is isn’t gonna understand what Dylan is saying now or then. They’re just following some kind of image. They’re the sheep anyway. Still, the whole religion business does suffer from the ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ bit. There’s too much talk about soldiers and marching and converting. I’m not pushing Buddhism, because I’m no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian, but there’s one thing I admire about the religion: there is no proselytizing…

You have to think in terms of process. Relying on your own spirit is healthy. If Dylan is into Jesus because of needing to belong, whatever, perhaps the next step will be to see the good of the experience as well as the other side.

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Bob Dylan announced his conversion to Christianity in 1979 with the album Slow Train Coming. Lennon commented on the change in his lengthy 1980 interview with Playboy magazine:

I must say I was surprised when old Bobby boy did go that way. I was very surprised. But I was also surprised when he went to that Jewish group. That surprised me, too, because all I ever hear whenever I hear about him is – and people can quote me and make me feel silly, too – but all I ever think of is ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.’ It’s the same man, but it isn’t the same man, and I don’t want to say anything about a man who is searching or has found it. It is unfortunate when people say, ‘This is the only way.’ That’s the only thing I’ve got against anybody, if they are saying, ‘This is the only answer.’ I don’t want to hear about that. There isn’t one answer to anything.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

In private, however, Lennon was more scathing. In his diary tape dated 5 September 1979 he was recorded as saying: “Gotta Serve Somebody… guess he [Dylan] wants to be a waiter now.”

He wrote Serve Yourself – the date of composition is uncertain, but may have been as early as October 1979 – in which he unleashed his caustic tongue upon Dylan, although without mentioning him by name. In 1979 and 1980 Lennon made a total of 12 home recordings of the song, which together would last more than 40 minutes, although none contained as much vitriol as the John Lennon Anthology version.

Most of the versions had mock preaching monologues in which he tackled subjects as diverse as creationism, masturbation, aliens and childbirth. The mother figure recurred in several; although Lennon had lost his own in 1958, but he often referred to Yoko Ono as Mother or Mother Superior.

Some were recorded on a piano, others with acoustic guitar, and not all were laden with expletives. Given the fact that none of the recordings could have been released commercially, it is fascinating to hear how Lennon’s wit was as strong in private as in public.

Well you may believe in devils and you may believe in lords
But Christ, you’re gonna have to serve yourself and that’s all there is to it.
So get right back here, it’s in the bloody fridge.
God, when I was a kid, didn’t have stuff like this, TV fuckin’ dinners and all that crap.
You fuckin’ kids are all the fuckin’ same. Want a fuckin’ car now!
Lucky to have a pair of shoes!
Serve Yourself

The version included on John Lennon Anthology was recorded in Bermuda on 27 June 1980, and features Lennon on acoustic guitar and vocals. It is perhaps Lennon’s most focused performance of the song, and was made to amuse Ono, who had recently arrived in Bermuda to join him.

Well there’s somethin’ missing in this God almighty stew
And it’s your goddamn mother you dirty little git.
Now get in there and wash yer ears.
Serve Yourself

A less profane version was included in the 2010 John Lennon Signature Box, and was a blues-style performance on a piano.

4 responses on “Serve Yourself

    1. mja6758

      I have to disagree with your dating, Joe. The story is that Lennon wrote it in response to Dylan’s “Saturday Night Live” appearance on 20 October 1979, which included a performance of “Gotta Serve Somebody”. It seems to me that the earliest demos date to late-October/November 1979 (though some claims are that the first two demo’s are September – could be true if Lennon was responding to the album version). My view is that it was the “Saturday Night Live” performance he responded to, and that he would have done within it in days/weeks, not months – which even if you placed it in January 1980, would still be 2 months plus. I just don’t see John responding that slowly. I am not questioning your dating of the released versions, just whether the song is early 1980 or late 1979. Just came to mind as I’ve just been listening to Bob’s “Saturday Night Live” performance.

      1. Joe Post author

        Thanks. I wasn’t aware it was that early, but you may well be right. My sources were Eight Arms To Hold You by Madinger/Easter, and The Art & Music of John Lennon by Peter Doggett. Eight Arms says there *may* have been a version dating from September/October 79, but doesn’t say conclusively, and Doggett doesn’t mention it at all until 1980.

        I’ve amended the article to hopefully clear things up a little!

        1. mja6758

          Thanks for taking on board my thoughts, Joe. Glad they made some sense.
          Anyway, it got me to looking at what there is around “Serve Yourself”, and how that helps in dating.
          As you yourself say, there is the spoken reference to “Gotta Serve Somebody” in 5th September ’79 audio diary. So we can say without doubt that he’s heard “Slow Train Coming” (released 20 August) by then, and he’s beginning to have a reaction to it.
          Then there is Bob’s “SNL” appearance on 20th October, which included a performance of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, and is what’s often cited as the spark. Thoughts about the song already bubbling in his head, sees Bob perform it along with two other “Born Again” songs (the magnificent “I Believe in You” and “When You Gonna Wake Up?”) and, BANG!, Johnny’s back to writing a straight of-the-moment song like “Instant Karma” or, as he’d show in Bermuda a few months later, “I’m Stepping Out”.
          Anyway, point of this wasn’t just to restate things I’ve already said, but to say looking at the available tapes I’ve discovered another piece of evidence in the “Sean” tapes.
          “In the Sky”, “With a Little Help”, “Loud”, etc.
          They are dated to either Thanksgiving Weekend or late 1979. My guess, listening to them, is that they are all Thanksgiving Weekend.
          The important thing in regard to this is that one of the unreleased segments of that tape has Sean singing a little bit of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” preceded by around thirty seconds of “Serve Yourself”, which means “Serve Yourself” had been heard enough by Sean by 22 November for him to give a little rendition, maybe what he’d been listening to Daddy work hard on over the previous month?

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