Written by: Lennon
Recorded: July-August 1974
Producer: John Lennon
John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar
Elton John: backing vocals
Nicky Hopkins: piano
Jesse Ed Davis: electric guitar
Eddie Mottau: acoustic guitar
Ken Ascher: clavinet
Klaus Voormann: bass guitar
Arthur Jenkins: percussion
Jim Keltner: drums
Bobby Keys, Steve Madaio, Howard Johnson, Ron Aprea, Frank Vicari: horns
Written for his girlfriend May Pang during the Lost Weekend, ‘Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)’ was one of John Lennon’s most revealing and passionate songs.
He had begun a relationship around the time that Mind Games was recorded in the summer of 1973. The following year the couple decamped to Los Angeles, where Lennon lived some of his wildest times.
The couple’s relationship lasted a little over 18 months. While several of the songs on Walls And Bridges were inspired by Lennon’s feelings of loss over Yoko Ono, ‘Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)’ showed how he was far from completely down and out.
Although he later dismissed the song as “Just a piece of garbage,” the song showed how deep his feelings for Pang were, describing his love and lust for her in unusually earthy phrases:
Sweet as the smell of success
Her body’s warm and wet
She gets me through this God awful loneliness
A natural high butterfly
Oh I need, need, need her
Lennon recorded a series of home demo of ‘Surprise, Surprise’ in the early summer of 1974, along with several other songs that later appeared on Walls And Bridges. The recordings show how the song began as a 1950s-style ballad; Lennon later cited The Diamonds’ ‘Little Darlin” as an influence.
Although the song eventually became an unashamed celebration of his love for Pang, the demo recordings were stark and blues-based. The change came when Lennon hit upon the middle eight, which became the emotional heart of the song:
I was wondering how long this could go on, on and on
I thought I could never be surprised
But could it be that I bit my own tongue
It’s so hard to swallow when you’re wrong.
An outtake from the Walls And Bridges sessions was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology, and shows how the production changed after overdubs were later added. Among these were harmony vocals by Elton John, who had duetted with Lennon on ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’.
Elton spent over three hours recording his vocals, and had trouble matching Lennon’s phrasing. Shortly after the album was released he recalled the frustration, saying: “People were leaving the room. Razor blades were being passed out!”
One addition which appeared late in the sessions was the closing refrain “Sweet sweet, sweet sweet love”. An echo of The Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car’, it was one of two references to his former band on Walls And Bridges; the other was the line “Somebody please, please help me” on ‘Going Down On Love’, demonstrating the range of emotions Lennon bounced between during 1974.