In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The day John Lennon was murdered, “(Just Like) Starting Over” was on a steady climb up the Billboard charts. That day, “Starting Over,” the last single that Lennon would release during his lifetime, was at #6 and rising. There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t have eventually hit #1. As the first John Lennon single in five years, “(Just Like) Starting Over” certainly had public curiosity working for it. It’s a modest shrug of a song, but plenty of modestly shrugging Paul McCartney songs had ascended to the top of the charts after the Beatles’ breakup.
To plenty of people, “(Just Like) Starting Over” probably sounded like a pleasantly breezy love song from a guy whose voice they knew and loved. But then Mark David Chapman pumped four bullets into Lennon’s back, inflicting a generational trauma and altering the course of popular music. “(Just Like) Starting Over” probably sounded pretty different after that.
“(Just Like) Starting Over,” as the title implies, was supposed to mark a new beginning in Lennon’s public life, not an end to it. In 1975, Lennon had enjoyed his busiest pop-chart year since the Beatles’ breakup. Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” which landed at the end of 1974, had been his biggest-ever solo hit. He’d also sang and played guitar on Elton John’s smash cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” the Beatles song that he’d written years earlier. And Lennon had co-written, sang, and played guitar on David Bowie’s “Fame.” All three songs had been #1 hits. Before “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” Lennon didn’t think America was interested in him anymore. Suddenly, though, he was on fire.
But then John Lennon became a father again. Sean Ono Lennon was born in October of 1975, on the same day that his father turned 35. Sean was John’s second son, and John hadn’t really been around for the childhood of his older son Julian. (Julian Lennon’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Too Late For Goodbyes,” peaked at #5. It’s a 5.) But when Sean was born, John walked away from his career completely, spending the next five years as a full-time husband and father. After Lennon sat out the late ’70s, he and his wife Yoko Ono started writing songs during a 1980 vacation to Jamaica. When they returned, they got together with co-producer Jack Douglas and recorded the comeback album Double Fantasy.
Double Fantasy is a weird record. Lennon and Ono alternate songs on the album, assembling it like a dialogue. The two sing to each other, and about each other, and about their son. Aesthetically, the album veers all over the place. Some of the songs sound like not-great approximations of late-period Beatles tracks. Others seem to be informed by spiky art-punk and new wave, which Lennon had come to love. (Lennon believed, quite rightly, that new wave groups like the B-52s shared a few musical ideas with his wife’s early and experimental records.) And then there’s first single and opening track “(Just Like) Starting Over,” where Lennon goes full-on ’50s nostalgia.
Talking to Playboy shortly before his death, Lennon said that he’d never really written a ’50s-style song before “Starting Over”: “In the Beatles days, that would have been taken as a joke. One avoided clichés. But now, those clichés are not clichés anymore.” Talking to Rolling Stone, Lennon said that he’d thought of “Starting Over” as his “Elvis/Orbison track.” So “Starting Over” was not especially original. In fact, it’s the second Elvis-pastiche love song from an iconic British rocker to hit #1 in the US in 1980, after Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
But where “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was over-the-top Vegas schmaltz — in a good way — “(Just Like) Starting Over” is something else. In that Rolling Stone interview, Lennon said that the song is “like Dylan doing Nashville Skyline, except I don’t have any Nashville, being from Liverpool. So I go back to the records I know — Elvis and Roy Orbison and Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis.” (Let the record show that Lennon was one of the few songwriters who could compare himself to Bob Dylan without coming off as a hopeless fuckhead. Nobody else should try it.) The comparison is apt, since “Starting Over” is more of a loose and fond-hearted love letter to ’50s rockabilly than an attempt to resurrect those sounds in a 1980 pop context. “Starting Over” only barely even registers as a pop song. Instead, it’s a loose and pleasant amble, a contented sigh.
Lyrically, “(Just Like) Starting Over” could easily be one of Paul McCartney’s many odes to blissful domesticity. Lennon, hitting middle age, reflects on how he’s still completely in love with his wife: “We have grown.” They’re content together, but Lennon wants to make sure he stays that way, so he tries to recapture the feeling of when he first got together with her. It’s pretty much a hey, let’s take a vacation proposition in song form: “Let’s take our chance and fly away somewhere alone.” (Lennon wrote “Starting Over” while on vacation. Maybe he wanted a vacation from his vacation.) It’s not an especially meaningful song, though its opening line — “Our life together is so precious together” — takes on a tragic weight considering what happened to Lennon so soon after its release. When a global icon dies, nobody really seems to mind that he used the same word twice in a single line.
When “(Just Like) Starting Over” hit #1, Lennon became the fourth star to top the Hot 100 after dying. The other artists who’d had posthumous #1 hits all did it with songs that were, in one way or another, sad: Otis Redding with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” Janis Joplin with “Me And Bobby McGee,” Jim Croce with “Time In A Bottle.” “Starting Over,” on the other hand, is warm and happy, and that’s what’s sad about it. Lennon doesn’t present himself as a wild flame like Joplin, or a wounded soul seeking peace like Redding, or a melancholy philosopher like Croce. Instead, he’s a happy middle-aged guy looking forward to a life that he would never get to live.
Since Lennon had lived his entire married life in public, he could probably presume that his listeners knew all the sordid details of that marriage. They knew that Lennon once had taken off with Ono’s personal assistant and spent a year and a half living in drunken and drugged-up debauchery before returning to Ono. They knew that he’d left his career behind, walking away from pop stardom to be a good husband and father. They may have had some ideas about Ono causing the Beatles’ breakup in the first place.
“Starting Over” is so slight and low-stakes that it’s hard to imagine it meaning much coming from anyone else. It’s a perfectly nice little song. The basic progression of the bassline and the doo-wop-adjacent vocals are time-worn pleasures. Lennon sings with a casual elegance even without much of his old intensity. He does a hiccupy and gimmicky rockabilly-revival thing with his voice on the verses and halfheartedly reaches for some bigger notes on the chorus. The song finds Lennon in a misty and nostalgic place. He doesn’t stay there on the rest of Double Fantasy, and he might’ve never returned there again if he’d had a chance to keep making records. We’ll never know.
On December 8, 1980, Lennon and Ono posed for the famous Annie Leibovitz portrait that later appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, the one where a naked Lennon clings to a clothed Ono. Then, they went to the studio and finished the mix for “Walking On Thin Ice,” Ono’s amazing mutant disco single. (Lennon, who co-produced and played guitar on it, was convinced that “Walking On Thin Ice” would be Ono’s first solo hit. He was sort of right. It’s the only Yoko Ono song that’s only charted in the US, though it peaked at #58.) Somewhere in between, Lennon signed Mark David Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy. Chapman later said that Lennon was much nicer to him than he had to be.
Later that night, Chapman, a deeply disturbed Beatles fan from Hawaii who’d been working as a security guard, shot five bullets at Lennon’s back. Four hit; one missed and broke a window. Lennon staggered into his apartment building and collapsed, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital later that night. Lennon was 40. Howard Cosell interrupted his own Monday Night Football broadcast that night to report Lennon’s death. The entire world went into shocked mourning immediately.
Our tendency to grieve dead stars by buying and playing their music is a strange collective impulse. I feel it all the time: This sudden drive to properly appreciate the person I’ve just lost. Lennon’s death is one of the great defining moments in the history of popular music — just as momentous as when the Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan more than 16 years earlier. “(Just Like) Starting Over” was the John Lennon song that happened to be on the charts at that moment. A few weeks later, it was #1.
“(Just Like) Starting Over” was Lennon’s second and last #1. Like “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” Lennon’s previous #1, “Starting Over” barely even registers as a John Lennon song anymore. It’s not some iconic piece of work. Celebrities don’t film themselves doing emotional eyebrow things and singing “(Just Like) Starting Over” into their phones during global crises. But for a few weeks in 1980 and 1981, it’s the John Lennon song that people wanted to hear.
Lennon remained a pop-chart presence a few years after his death. Two more Double Fantasy songs hit the top 10 in 1981. (“Woman” peaked at #2; it’s a 6. Later on, “Watching The Wheels” peaked at #10; it’s a 7.) In 1984, Ono took the leftovers from the Double Fantasy sessions and compiled them into the album Milk And Honey. One of those songs, “Nobody Told Me,” peaked at #5. (It’s a 6.)
Americans would continue to mourn John Lennon in the years ahead, sometimes in ways that registered on the pop charts. At least one example will be in this column pretty soon. The Beatles’ pop-chart story did not end with Lennon’s death. Still, it remains astounding that the saga that began with such widespread excitement in 1964 eventually led to such trauma and tragedy. If we had to have a memento of that moment, we could do a lot worse than “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “(Just Like) Starting Over” cover that the Flaming Lips contributed to the 2007 tribute compilation Instant Karma:
(The Flaming Lips have never had a top-10 hit. Their highest-charting single, 1993’s “She Don’t Use Jelly,” peaked at #55.)