The Beatles’ most misunderstood song: ‘In My Life’

In My Life Beatles


Jonny Amies in “My Very Own British Invasion.” Note the incorrect lyrics to “In My Life” above him.

John Lennon wrote the Beatles song “In My Life,” with some help from Paul McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin (who should have received a co-writing credit) in 1965. Fifteen years later, in his last major interview, Lennon described it as “a remembrance of friends and lovers of the past.”

That is, I think, how most people see it: A sweet song about looking back on the past.

But that’s not what it’s about. It’s really the least nostalgic song you could imagine.

I’ve thought this about “In My Life” for a long time, but was inspired to write this post after seeing the new jukebox musical, “My Very Own British Invasion,” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. (Here’s my review). The song is used at the end of the evening, to put a sentimental spin on a story of love won and lost in the heady days of the 1960s British Invasion.

“In My Life” ends with the line “I love you more,” but in “My Very Own British Invasion,” it is changed to “I loved you more.” And it wasn’t just sung incorrectly on the night I happened to be there, or heard wrong by me: The change is spelled out in a projection above the actors. (See photo above.)

I believe the change (“love” to “loved”) makes the song into what most people think it is — that whole “a remembrance of friends and lovers of the past” thing — but this represents a huge change in the intention of the song, as it was originally recorded.

Let’s take a close look at the song’s lyrics, starting with the first verse:

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all

Okay, that fits the conventional thinking about the song: Nice, sweet nostalgia. Fine. But then we get to the second verse:

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

This upends the first verse, where Lennon sang about the past. Now he is singing about the present. His meaning couldn’t be clearer. Those old friends and lovers can’t compare with the person who is standing before him, now. Not only that, those memories “lose their meaning” (!) in the presence of new love.

He reiterates his “affection” (a carefully chosen word; “affection” is not as powerful as love) for the past and says he’ll still think about it. But “I love you more.” In other words, the past just can’t compare. (Now that I think about it, “I Love You More” really would have been a better title for this song.)

The song ends by repeating the second half of the second verse. This emphasizes the point: This is a song about the present, and rebirth.

That’s not how the song is used in “My Very Own British Invasion.” The singer there hasn’t found anyone new, but is just revisiting the past. That’s why “love” had to be turned into “loved.” But this turns the song on its head.

I’m sure most of the musical’s attendees don’t mind. That’s what they think “In My Life” is about, anyway. Even Lennon himself, apparently, thought about the song that way, years after he recorded it.

But I just wanted to set the record straight.

12 thoughts on “The Beatles’ most misunderstood song: ‘In My Life’

  1. Over analysing methinks. It is a simple sentimental “pop” song and nothing more. There is no meaning beyond the nostalgia expressed. This is the trouble with too much thought being given to what is merely slight music of a past time.

  2. Over analysing methinks. It is a simple sentimental “pop” song and nothing more. There is no meaning beyond the nostalgia expressed. This is the trouble with too much thought being given to what is merely slight music of a past time.

  3. Well analysed and written Jay – thank-you for taking the time. I agree with you 100%. Using the seamless transition from memories (past) to actual reality (present) to put the latter into the right perspective is a fine literary art. It must be a pain for artists to have their work misinterpreted or even repeated incorrectly, but as the level of true appreciation and careful understanding is decreasing globally, such unfortunate mishaps continue to occur more and more often – basically unnoticed by most but the handful of us.

  4. I never considered this song to be misunderstood but perhaps I am not as close as some to how it may be viewed today by those living in a very different environment with different values and tradition. I never felt the meaning of this song as strongly as when I first fell in love and left things behind that used to seem so important, but only important in the absence of love. It is only when love is absent that we retreat to the past, rather than look ahead to a future.

  5. I recall John saying at the end of his life that this was a song written to an imaginary lover, who turned out to be Yoko. Indeed, if it had been written in 1968 instead of 1965, no one would misunderstand the meaning.

  6. I saw the show and was more uncomfortable with another lyric change. and it doesn’t change the essence of the song, just came across as careless …. the line “I know I’ll often stop and think about them” was sung (and appeared on the lyric thread above the stage) as “and though I’ll often stop and think about them”.

  7. But who specifically was he singing about??

    Was he a religious man or did he have a personal connection with the creator that he could be referencing? No one ever asks who the song is about

    • I don’t know who he was singing about, specifically. Maybe no one. I think prolific songwriters such as Lennon write about love so often that they’re not necessarily writing with someone in mind. Sometimes, they’re just writing about love in general. It is interesting to try to put this song into some context in regard to Lennon’s life, though. He wrote “In My Life” in late 1965. He met his first wife Cynthia in ’57 and they married in ’62 (after Cynthia became pregnant with Julian). It’s unlikely that he had her in mind for this song, though. It’s a song about new love, and even if he was thinking back to when they first met, that wouldn’t make sense, since he was so young in ’57 he couldn’t have had an abundance of nostalgic memories then. He didn’t meet Yoko Ono until late ’66. But it’s interesting to think that this song expresses his yearning for the kind of romantic rebirth he found with Yoko.

  8. You can’t just give songwriting credit to George Martin just because he “composed” the bridge. The verses and melody have already been laid down, and obviously also the key of the song. The Beatles just needed a bridge to the last verse of the song and this isn’t hard to do. But you can give credit to George Martin for using the harpsichord in the bridge. That’s what producers normally do, determine which instruments to use in certain parts of a song.

    And I doubt whether Lennon needed help from McCartney in composing the song. Maybe in the arrangement but that’s what Paul usually does, arrange their songs. Usually, in the Beatles, the one who wrote the lyrics also wrote the melody. This is how John, Paul, and George write. The melody is in their heads. They write down the words, and just try to remember the melody or put it in tape. They are not the sort of Elton John / Bernie Taupin type of songwriters.

    • My thinking was that the solo/bridge, composed by Martin, does not grow naturally out of the Lennon/McCartney melody, but feels like a mini-song of its own. Certainly, people have been given songwriting credit for less, or for the same kind of thing: Ray Manzarek, for instance, is credited as a co-songwriter on “Light My Fire” just for coming up with the organ intro. On the other hand, I concede that tradition dictates that that kind of contribution usually does not result in a songwriting credit, so perhaps I overstated it. Mainly, I just wanted people to be aware of Martin’s contribution.

    • You’re so right. This song has new meaning to me as I’ve had friends that left, places changed. So I choose to focus on my son and husband. In my life, I love them more.

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