The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn’t come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I’ve attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That’s because I took him to the ‘Y’. I took him to the ocean. I’m so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.
Lennon began writing the song in 1979, alternating between the titles ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Darling Boy’. He recorded a home demo with guitar and vocals, which had some draft lyrics which were later changed: “Hold my hand before you cross the street/The traffic’s slow but you never know who you’re gonna meet.”
Well, what can I say? It’s about Sean. It’s self-explanatory. The music and the lyric came at the same time.
Lennon recorded another demo in early 1980, using an electric guitar and drum machine. He made several attempts, experimenting with different ideas until he had the final lyrics. One of these performances lasted around 10 minutes; another turned into a medley incorporating two unfinished songs, ‘Memories’ and ‘Across The River’.
A final demo was made in June 1980, ahead of the studio sessions for Double Fantasy. Lennon recorded versions of most of his songs for the album, as reference points for producer Jack Douglas and the session musicians.
Most of Lennon’s songs on Double Fantasy documented the domestic contentment he had enjoyed in the later 1970s during his househusband period. ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ was written for Sean Ono Lennon, who was born in 1975, and demonstrated how Lennon had fully embraced fatherhood.
Both of us wanted to be a parent for the first time is what it was. Even though both of us had children by previous incarnations. We’d both been so self-occupied. It was also wanting a child that was our child as opposed to a child – ’cause we could have adopted one, you know. Some people want a child, which I admire, too – people who have that generalised love. But we wanted our child.
He had become a father on 8 April 1963 when Julian Lennon was born in Liverpool. Sadly he was absent or distant for much for much of Julian’s formative years, caught up in the demands of life in The Beatles and lacking the intuition or will to be an attentive father.
Whether it was the revelations about his own parents brought about through Primal Therapy in 1970, his marriage to Yoko Ono, or simply the changed perspective that came with being an older man, by the time of Sean’s birth in 1975 Lennon was a changed man. He doted on his young son, retreating from the music industry for five years to help bring him up.
‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ contains some of Lennon’s most memorable lyrics. Perhaps best known is the maxim “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”, words which were given added poignancy after his murder on 8 December 1980.
McCartney chose ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ during his appearance on the 40th anniversary edition of the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs in 1982. The episode was filmed, and showed McCartney discussing his song choices with presenter Roy Plomley. In June 2007 Yoko Ono appeared on the same show and also picked ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ as one of her eight choices.
I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s very moving to me
In the studio
I was guilty all through the making of Double Fantasy. We had his picture pinned in the studio ’cause I didn’t want to lose contact with what I’d got. We had the picture up there all the time in between the speakers so whenever you’re checking the stereo, he was looking at me all the time.
The basic track for ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ was recorded at New York’s Hit Factory studio on 12 August 1980. An alternative take from the session, without the later overdubs was released on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology.
John played a piano part for me and I harmonized his original line, which had an Asian flair, and he didn’t object. Listening to the album recently, that song hit me the strongest of anything I heard. It’s got that great line, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ I mean, who can ever forget that line? Originally, they wanted to hire a steel drum orchestra for the song. The number that was bandied about was twenty-plus. They finally decided that they could get the effect with one. He was a real Jamaican steel drum player and I had to teach him the song at the session.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
Lennon re-recorded his lead vocals on 17 September. The steel drums and sounds of waves were also added in the studio, as a reference to his time in Bermuda in 1980.
John and I played acoustic guitar on ‘Beautiful Boy’ and Hughie [McCracken] played electric. I played John’s black Yamaha acoustic guitar with a dragon on it.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ begins with the sound of a Tibetan wishing bell, which had previously been used for the opening of ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’. It ends with a whispered message to his son: “Good night, Sean. See you in the morning. Right again.”
That was one of my arrangements and it really came off, the way it was colored and structured. Sean came by at least three or four times a week and the song was played for him in the studio.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
Before he added the whispered ending, Lennon had experimented with an invitation for listeners to “fill in your own child’s name”. This idea was dropped in the studio. The Anthology outtake also shows how the final line was originally “Darling, darling, darling, darling boy,” rather than including Sean’s name.