John Lennon passed away 17 years before the invention of Auto-Tune in 1997, but if you’re curious what the late Beatles frontman and “Imagine” singer would have thought of using the technology in his music, apparently he would have been extremely into it.
We know this thanks to producer Mark Ronson’s documentary series “Watch the Sound” for Apple TV+, in which he interviewed Lennon’s son Sean Ono Lennon, and ran some of John’s vocals through Auto-Tune and a digital harmonizer to create an entirely new, yet still familiar sound.
John Lennon’s composing partner Paul McCartney told Ronson in the first episode of “Watch the Sound” that he thinks John would have actually loved to play around with Auto-Tune. “I’d say that if John Lennon had had an opportunity he would have been all over it,” McCartney said. “Not so much to fix your voice, but just to play with it.”
McCartney pointed out that the Beatles were frequently open to unorthodox ideas when it came to creating music, and were known for being ahead of the times musically. Lennon, too, was always interested in the idea of how to create a unique sound by layering different samples over each other to create an immersive, sometimes overwhelming sonic landscape. In episode two of “Watch the Sound,” McCartney discusses this and notes that in “Tomorrow Never Knows” off the band’s 1966 “Revolver” record, they used avant-garde looping techniques to include seagull sounds and everyday noises in the song.
“Yeah Auto-Tune, I would use it,” McCartney said of his more current solo work. “If I’ve done a vocal that I don’t think is that good… ‘oh come on, let’s stick it through,’ why not,” he said.
Unforgettably, Lennon was shot dead by murderer Mark David Chapman outside his New York City apartment in December 1980. Auto-Tune was created in 1997, and the first use of it in a mainstream song was Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe,” off the album of the same name.
The technology’s creator Dr. Andy Hildebrand realized after years of working on underground sonar technology that he could use that same mapping tech to map the human throat and digitally correct pitch. It started with Cher and, billions of hit songs later, here we are today.
Even Lennon’s son Sean agreed that Lennon probably would have loved the invention if he had been around to use it. “It’s definitely true that my dad didn’t like his voice alone, like a single voice,” Sean told Ronson. “Part of it is why he found all those phase effects, because he was always trying to find a way to make his voice sound better to him.
Ronson ran the vocals in John Lennon’s 1970 track “Hold On” (which he recorded with the Plastic Ono Band) through Auto-Tune and honestly it sounded pretty strange. After trying robot Lennon voice, Ronson used a digital harmonizing software and layered more of Lennon’s original vocals into the song, and even Sean admitted it sounded “pretty cool, man… you’re bringing him into 2021.”
“He always was not just keeping up with the technology, but the Beatles and my dad, they were always on the cutting edge of what was happening,” Sean added. “I think for sure he would have tried Auto-Tune.”
Catch all episodes of “Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson” streaming on Apple TV+ Friday, July 30.