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

In My Life Beatles

EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE

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.

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33 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.

    • “For ‘In My Life’, I had a complete set of lyrics after struggling with a journalistic vision of a trip from home to downtown on a bus naming every sight. It became ‘In My Life’, which is a remembrance of friends and lovers of the past. Paul helped with the middle eight musically. But all lyrics written, signed, sealed, and delivered. And it was, I think, my first real major piece of work. Up till then it had all been sort of glib and throwaway.”
      John Lennon.
      As stated to David Sheff in one of Lennon’s last interviews. Sheff interviewed Lennon for a three week period in 1980. Sheff authored the excellent “All we are saying”.

    • As for who wrote the song, I read that’s it’s heavily John Lennon. I even read that the only true musical portion contributed by Paul was the unusual “A 11th” chord on the phrase “with lovers and friends” and on similar phrases in the other verses. This chord is voiced with an “A” note on the bottom and a G major chord (first position) above it.

      As for George Martin getting song-writing credits, I agree that he did not earn that. If he were to be given credit, there are numerous other Beatles songs to which he contributed keyboard parts on which he would then have to be credited as a co-writer: He was classically trained. E.G. “Lovely Rita”, “Misery” and many others.

  9. This song has all the meaning of love; love of life and love of relationships past and present, all inclusive of friendships, family, and lovers. The title is perfect! It would be even more perfect if that last solo line sung by John Lennon said “In my life I loved you all.”
    It’s meant for everyone who has crossed your path in life. There aren’t any coincidences.
    To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. ECCLESIASTES 3:1

  10. The part that George Martin played was on a piano not a harpsichord. The tape was sped up so it sounded somewhat like a harpsichord. This part of the song is not “the bridge”.
    The bridge is the term for that section of a pop song the is usually the middle eight bars, and connects the verses and chorus with a different melody.
    The part in In My Life that John said Paul wrote was only ” the bridge”(middle eight), where the lyrics are…. though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things that went before,I know I’ll often think about them,
    The Beatles used the term “middle eight” even if it wasn’t eight bars.

  11. To illustrate;

    1). “No one compares with you.”

    2). “There is no one compared with you.”

    Both of these phrases when used to declare how you feel about somebody in the present right in front of them are both grammatically correct and would convey the same intent and meaning.

    But the effect of adding the extra “There is” in option 1 would ruin the structure and using the “s” at the end of “compare” instead of a “d” in option 2 would have the same effect as well not to mention that it just doesn’t sound right.

  12. I have loved this song for this reason, “And these memories lose their meaning
    When I think of love as something new”. It says to me, that he logically knows and understands that love doesn’t go away, if I loved you once I always will, that love has no location, and even if it was romantic love and that romantic feeling is gone that that is still separate from actual love which remains, that he understood the truest meaning of love, meaning there is no “amount: of love, and that love is radiated from him not something in another location or person as far as he is concerned etc… He himself did know this, he was a wise man, he espoused love and knew it couldn’t be compartmentalized. But he shows by the way he ended the song that in and of himself as a man, that although he knows the truth about love, that in the natural he was still feeling that this current love is most special. I have always thought this of awakened souls who know truth and see the bigger picture that even so, we still want to express those things we currently feel even though we know it is in reality much bigger than that. This makes this his most special song, to me.

  13. “I Love You More”

    An empty broken heart always loves more.
    – after the anger is gone –

    John never got a chance to say goodbye
    – to anyone-

  14. This is why I assume a lot of artist don’t explain their work… what it means to them, what it means to you and what it means to one another are all different things.. this is an interesting take on it as your trying to tell me Lennon didn’t know what his own song was about 🤣 to me this songs exactly what Lennon says it’s about… It’s about friends growing up and going their own way ,meeting new friends… It’s about the field you used to party in that is now a strip mall… It’s about the girlfriend you had before you met your wife… it’s about a journey and not forgetting how you got there… The verse that brings the song into the present is the most sentimental of them all… It’s the acknowledgment that these people places and things are an important part of who they have become… the most beautiful sentiment being the realization that they don’t want this person to become a part of their past like everything else…

  15. Not to imply what Lennon was feeling or going through when he penned these amazing lyrics. And everyone is allowed to relate and respond to this song in there own way. I believeIf your a parent, as Lennon was still newly founded at the time with a young Julian as his first born it makes since this song is about the love you have for your child. You would never know this love before and all prior family love and romances immediately fall short of this newly understood unconditional love. “And these memories lose there meaning…when I think of love as something new.” All these things that shape you in your life have meaning and you will never forget them of course but when you’ve experienced this new love it changes you forever on how you understood what real love means going forward. To me it’s a retrospective of a person looking back in there life and understanding the world never stops spinning – things change and people leave – but because of this new love and revelation you now understand you’ll never love anything more than this child in this moment your in. In my life I love you more. Perfect! I enjoy singing it to both my young children.

    • Right, everyone can and should interpret it in their own way. For me, though, there are two things that work against your interpretation. (1) Lennon uses the phrases “lovers and friends” and “friends and lovers,” underscoring, to me, that he’s comparing the present love/friendship relationship to past love/friendship relationships. Nothing in the lyrics adds children into the equation. (2) While Julian was born before the writing of “In My Life,” John, by all accounts, was distracted by Beatlemania and other relationships and never developed the kind of deep relationship with Julian that he had with Sean, later. Knowing this about him, it’s hard for me to believe that that’s what he intended. (On the other hand, of course, songs can take on meaning beyond what the artist intended; that’s one of the things that’s great about them.)

  16. For me I dont feel he has to name a child or indicate he’s referring to a child. Hes spelling it out ambiguously, and possibly without himself even realizing, he thought he knew love before, and recalls memories of lover(s) and friend(s) and he still recounts that in the present tense as friend(s) and lover(s), past and present he always uses a plural sense. Yet, the song is obviously being sung with direction, toward one person. I agree it could be the new love of his life (not John’s necessarily, just anybody) but it works so well to point this toward your own kin. Nothing replaces the love you discover when your child is born, and you don’t really get to have a say in the matter, it just happens, its wonderfully part of being human. You now love that child unconditionally and you never knew you could love something so much, considering you thought you knew love before in other capacities of your life. Those prior feelings, acquaintances, and memories will never change but they will never compare to what you now have experienced. I do understand its hard to consider this would have been about John reflecting as a new father given his track record with Julian, but he was still his father and I imagine very proud at the time. Even absent fathers still love their children unconditionally (even if they write them out of their will lol), they just may not be good at showing it or don’t make great choices in the long run. I’m not right, I’m not the end all be all, but I personally always struggled with the ambiguity of the lyrics and tried to apply them to my owner personal love interest as I grew up, loving this song. It wasn’t until I found myself singing this to my first born son as an infant with all those feelings and emotions pouring out of me that it seemed to make so much sense! Like you said that’s the amazing part of song writing, it affects everyone differently and we all get to relate to it in our own special way. I appreciate the discussion!

  17. I read that Dave Grohl sang this to his wife as she was giving birth to their first child. It gives me the chills. So lovely and precious

  18. Just one thought…although it can be interpreted in many ways, who are we to decide that he meant anything more or less than what HE said it meant to him.

    • Art often means one thing to the person who created it, and other things to the people who experience it. I don’t see any problem with that.

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