On his debut solo album John Lennon closed the book on many aspects of his past. Much of the record was devoted to his troubled relationship with his parents, but The Beatles – in many ways his surrogate family throughout the 1960s – still loomed large in his life and career. On the song ‘God’ he finally broke the spell, telling the world that the dream was over with his stark revelation: “I don’t believe in Beatles”.

Lennon always had ambivalent feelings towards religion. His 1966 claim that “We’re more popular than Jesus” had caused eruptions of anti-Beatles sentiment across the world, and the chorus of 1969’s ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ led to further disquiet over its use of the word ‘crucify’.

Other references were less overt. In his lengthy 1970 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Lennon explained that the Rubber Soul song ‘Girl’ explored his fascination with religion.

I was just talking about Christianity in that – a thing like you have to be tortured to attain heaven. I’m only saying that I was talking about ‘pain will lead to pleasure’ in Girl and that was sort of the Catholic Christian concept – be tortured and then it’ll be all right, which seems to be a bit true but not in their concept of it. But I didn’t believe in that, that you have to be tortured to attain anything, it just so happens that you were.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

‘God’, the penultimate song on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, was composed in Los Angeles while Lennon was undergoing Primal Scream therapy.

He rented a house in Bel Air, which is a very ritzy area here, and we talked about things. He said: ‘What about God?’ and I would go on and on about [how] people who have deep pain generally tend to believe in God with a fervency. And he said: ‘Oh, you mean God is a concept by which we measure our pain.’ Just bang. I would go all around it and he was there, just like that. And that was John. John could take very profound philosophical concepts and make it simple.
Dr Arthur Janov
Classic Albums: Plastic Ono Band

Lennon recorded several demos of ‘God’ in the house on Nimes Road, Bel Air, where he stayed during his course of therapy. One of the recordings was included on 2004’s Acoustic album. Playing a distorted acoustic guitar, Lennon began with a semi-spoken introduction in the style of a gospel preacher.

I had a mission from above. And I’m here to tell you that this message concerns our love. The angels must have sent me to deliver this to you. Now hear me now, brothers and sisters.

Some of the words were different in the demos: Zimmerman was known as Dylan, and the phrase “Yoko and me” was absent. The “dream is over” section was also missing; instead Lennon sang the verse and litany once again.

Like a lot of the words, they just came out of me mouth. It started off like that. ‘God’ was stuck together from three songs almost. I had the idea, ‘God is the concept by which we measure our pain’. So when you have a [phrase] like that, you just sit down and sing the first tune that comes into your head. And the tune is the simple [sings] ‘God is the concept – bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp’ ’cause I like that kind of music. And then I just rolled into it. [Sings] ‘I don’t believe in magic’ – and it was just going on in me head. And I Ching and the Bible, the first three or four just came out, whatever came out.

I don’t know when I realised I was putting down all these things I didn’t believe in. I could have gone on, it was like a Christmas card list – where do I end? Churchill, and who have I missed out? It got like that and I thought I had to stop… I was going to leave a gap and say, just fill in your own, for whoever you don’t believe in. It just got out of hand. But Beatles was the final thing because it’s like I no longer believe in myth, and Beatles is another myth. I don’t believe in it. The dream’s over. I’m not just talking about The Beatles is over, I’m talking about the generation thing. The dream’s over, and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.

John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

‘God’, like ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ before it, was made from three unfinished compositions. Lennon and Paul McCartney often worked in this way, combining unrelated works on songs such as ‘She Said She Said’, ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, as well as much of Abbey Road. Lennon also combined three different works in progress to create the Double Fantasy song ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’.

In the studio

‘God’ was recorded at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, later in 1970. John Lennon initially performed the song on an acoustic guitar; a version was included on the John Lennon Anthology box set in 1998.

He later turned to the piano, and also brought in his old friend Billy Preston to add another piano part.

Preston had first met The Beatles in Hamburg in the early 1960s, and in 1969 performed with them on the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums. On ‘God’, Preston played a Steinway grand piano, while Lennon performed on a honky tonk-style upright Steinway which offered a considerably different sound.

He was on Let It Be and they got on really well. Billy loved the band and they loved Billy. John actually said, ‘Come on Billy, do a little of your gospel piano, it’s about God, you know.’ So it inspired him to something that’s his upbringing; Billy learned piano playing and organ playing in church. He really believed in God and that’s the way he played on this song. It’s beautiful.
Klaus Voormann
Classic Albums: Plastic Ono Band

Ringo Starr’s performance during the ‘I don’t believe’ litany was remarkable for its variety of drum fills, none of which were the same. Starr later explained that he never played the same part twice, preferring instead to perform with instinct depending on what was required at that moment.

The studio version of ‘God’ also included the ‘dream is over’ coda. Having delivered the bombshell that ‘I don’t believe in Beatles’, Lennon reinforced the message further:

I was the dream weaver, but now I’m reborn
I was the walrus, but now I’m John.
And so dear friends you just have to carry on.
The dream is over.

The section featured some of the finest vocals of John Lennon’s entire career. It was as if, finally free from making myths, casting spells and co-writing the 1960s, he had at last found his true voice. All illusions had been cast off and he had found his reality with Yoko Ono. The rest of the world had to find its own way now.

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