‘Mother’ was the first song on John Lennon’s début solo album. An edited version was also released as a single in the United States.
The song crystallised Lennon’s experiences of Dr Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy, which he had undergone earlier in 1970. The trauma-based psychotherapy involved the use of screaming to uncover layers of pain associated with past experiences – in this case the loss and neglect Lennon felt were caused by his parents.
Many, many people will not like ‘Mother’; it hurts them. The first thing that happens to you when you get the album is you can’t take it. Everybody reacted exactly the same. They think, ‘fuck!’ That’s how everybody is. And the second time, they start saying, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little…’ so I can’t lay ‘Mother’ on them. It confirms the suspicions that something nasty’s going on with that John Lennon and his broad again.
Lennon began writing ‘Mother’ in England, and completed it during his stay at Janov’s Primal Institute in Los Angeles in April 1970. During his therapy he recorded a number of demo versions of the song, some of which were on guitar rather than piano.
‘Mother’ was recorded at EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London, with Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo Starr on drums. Lennon initially performed the song on an electric guitar, as can be heard on the John Lennon Anthology box set.
During the session Lennon switched to piano and played simple sustained chords, and slowed the tempo of the song. The skeletal arrangement suited the song’s sentiment perfectly, creating a platform for Lennon’s increasingly anguished howls during the “Mama don’t go/Daddy come home” finale.
The screams which ended the song were overdubbed after the rest of the vocals. Lennon double tracked the lines, recording a new attempt each night after the rest of the day’s work was complete in order to avoid harming his voice.
I express myself best in rock, and I had a few ideas to do this with ‘Mother’ and that with ‘Mother’, but the piano does it all for you. Your mind can do the rest of it. I think the backings on it are as complicated as the backings on any record you’ve ever heard. If you’ve got an ear, you can hear. Any musician will tell you, just play a note on a piano, it’s not a lot of harmonics in it. So it got to that. What the hell, it didn’t need anything else.
The four church bell chimes which open the song were added during an edit session after the recording. Lennon slowed the bells down to give a suitably funereal introduction. Lennon had the idea after watching a horror film on television.
I was watching TV as usual in California, and there was this old horror movie on. I just heard the bells, which sounded like that to me. But they were probably different ’cause those that I used on the album were actually other bells slowed down. I just thought, ‘That’s how to start ‘Mother’.’ I knew ‘Mother’ was going to be the first track.
‘Mother’ was edited when released as a single; the shorter version has been used subsequently on compilations. The tolling bells were removed, and the song was faded early. It was also presented in mono.
See, I keep thinking ‘Mother’ is a commercial record, because all the time I was writing it, it was the one I was singing the most and it’s the one that seemed to catch on in my head…
I write singles. I write them all the same way. But ‘Mother’ – you’ve got to take into account the lyrics, too. If I can capture more sales by singing about love than singing about my mother, I’ll do it.
Lennon performed ‘Mother’ at both his concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 30 August 1972. One of these performances was later included on the album Live In New York City.