Lennon began the song in 1976 with the title “Everybody’s Talkin’, Nobody’s Talkin’,” a nod to his friend Harry Nilsson, who had covered Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” to indelible effect in the classic film MIDNIGHT COWBOY.
Lennon figured he would give it to Starr for his next album. As he had always done for his friend, Lennon did a guide version in the studio. During the DOUBLE FANTASY sessions, Lennon did 10 takes, with live vocals each time.
The sardonic lyrics reflect a ’60s fighter resigned to the apathy of the disco era, where everyone’s making a lot of noise but not really saying or doing anything. People smoke but don’t get high, and Nazis lurk under the stairs, perhaps an exaggerated reference to the rightward turn old radical Lennon sensed his two countries were about the take under Reagan and Thatcher. Their conservatism would make Nixon seem like a liberal centrist by comparison.
One of the Beatles favorite girl groups, the Shirelles, had a hit called “Mama Said (There’d Be Days Like This),” but Lennon didn’t really have a mother so nobody told him. But it doesn’t stress him out, because he’s hip to the statues of Katmandu – i.e., he’s incorporated a detached Buddhist perspective. (The lyric is a quote from the poem “The Green Eye of the Yellow God” by J. Milton Hayes.)
Lyrics aside, it’s one of his happiest sounding songs, more so for being laidback, as opposed to the “we’re gonna be happy if it kills us” euphoria of “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” Since he was just recording a demo for his pal, there was no pressure as he sang. He sounds refreshed and eager to be back in the studio, still musing over a U.F.O. he might’ve seen with May Pang back in 1974. (He wrote in the WALLS AND BRIDGES liner notes, “On the 23rd August 1974 at 9 o’clock I saw a U.F.O. – J.L.” The night it actually happened, he thought about calling the police but knew what kind of response he’d get if he called the station and said, “I’m John Lennon and I just saw a UFO.”)
Lennon was also going to give Starr another slogan song he’d written for the Baby Boomers, a country tune called “Life Begins at 40,” as both he and Starr hit that milestone in 1980. (Lennon’s demo can be heard on the JOHN LENNON ANTHOLOGY.) But after Lennon’s murder by Chapman, the irony of the songs was too depressing for Starr and he didn’t record them. So a few years later Yoko Ono polished Lennon’s best take of “Nobody Told Me,” with jaunty bass to the fore and rippling arpeggios recalling the fade out of “A Hard Day’s Night.”
When the song came across the airwaves in 1984, it was as if Lennon’s ghost had risen up from the sidewalk where he’d been shot, cracking as only he could, “Nobody told me there’d be days like this.” The band captured the bustle of the city he loved as he turned in his surprise final anthem for all the hippies-turned-yuppies, looking around both amused and alarmed by all the changes that kept coming. And like the best of his work it spoke for everyone else, as well, from kids to senior citizens; a last goodbye as buoyant as his first hello.