John Lennon’s only US solo number one single in his lifetime, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ was recorded with Elton John during the Walls And Bridges sessions in the summer of 1974.
The melody and rhythm was inspired by George McRae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’. The title, meanwhile, came from a late-night television show about alcoholism, as May Pang explained to Radio Times magazine in 2005.
At night he loved to channel-surf, and he would pick up phrases from all the shows. One time, he was watching Reverend Ike, a famous black evangelist, who was saying, ‘Let me tell you guys, it doesn’t matter, it’s whatever gets you through the night.’ John loved it and said, ‘I’ve got to write it down or I’ll forget it.’ He always kept a pad and pen by the bed. That was the beginning of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’.
Lennon recorded a series of guitar demo in the early summer of 1974. Realising the melody bore a resemblance to one of his earlier songs, he segued into a brief rendition of ‘Jealous Guy’; an edit of these demos can be heard on the John Lennon Anthology box set.
Another version of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ was also included on John Lennon Anthology, this time from the Walls And Bridges studio sessions. While not featuring Elton John or Bobby Keys’ saxophone overdub, the results were tight-sounding and could have been a contender for the album.
Elton John visited the studio while Lennon was recording Walls And Bridges, and contributed harmony vocals and keyboards to ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ and ‘Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)’. Although Lennon didn’t rate the songs highly, Elton declared that the slickly commercial ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ would be a chart topper.
I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple – you know, we’re all good friends – and the next minute Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play. A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes – obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm… And then he sang with me. We had a great time.
Lennon was the only former member of The Beatles yet to have achieved a number one solo single, and told Elton John: “I’m out of favour at the moment”. However, he agreed to Elton’s wager that if the song made it to number one Lennon would join Elton on stage to perform it at a Thanksgiving concert that year at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
It was going to be like ‘Rock Your Baby’, but I often have an idea what it is going to be like but it never turns out anything like it. It’s a very loose track. I call it the ‘Jealous Guy’ of the album, you know, or the ‘Oh Yoko!’ of the album, which are tracks I made which people say I should put out as a single, and I always fought it. But this time I swayed with the people who told me to put it out. I think they were right. It’s almost the first or second take, and the musicians are ragged but swinging. We tried to cut it a few times again but it never got that feel.
New Musical Express
The pair sang their vocals around the same microphone, and Elton also swiftly added an organ part.
Me playing organ on someone’s record? I mean, really. That’s disgusting because I’m the worst organist. But we put that on and it was over and done with in five minutes.
Elton’s manager John Reed later complained that his artist was less prominent than Lennon in the song’s final mix.
I said, ‘Well, who’s the main artist here?’ He said, ‘John,’ and I said, ‘Right. I know Elton is the artist, too, but if we bring that piano up, that’s all you’re going to hear on the radio.’ He wasn’t happy, but the rest is history. The record was a hit and you could hear Elton very well on the radio.
Sound On Sound
Although Lennon’s popularity may have declined by the mid-1970s, he could scarcely pass up the opportunity to release a duet with the biggest star of the decade. In November 1974 ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ knocked Bachman–Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet from the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
It remained at number one for just one week, although it fared less well in the UK, peaking at number 36. The single was credited to John Lennon with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, and was accompanied by ‘Beef Jerky’ on the b-side.
[Elton] sang on a single that turned out to be a cut from Walls And Bridges, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’. He sang harmony on it and he really did a damn good job. So I sort of halfheartedly promised that if ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ became number one, which I had no reason to expect, I’d do Madison Square Garden with him. So one day Elton called and said, ‘Remember when you promised…’ It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck. I had to go on stage in the middle of nothing.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon appeared onstage with Elton to perform the song on 28 November 1974, as well as versions of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. The performance of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ was included as a bonus track on the 2005 compact disc reissue of Walls And Bridges.