[15 November 2005]
It’s hard to get past this collection’s misnomer title. Granted, John Lennon is a hero of sorts to many, but as soon as Beatlemania took over his life in the early ‘60, Lennon’s working class days were over for good. Even so, the song “Working Class Hero” is still one of Lennon’s best creations due to its mournful acoustic guitar backing and lyric that gets straight to the heart of blue collar doldrums. Nevertheless, this set’s other 37 songs reveal much more about Lennon’s emerging politicization, as well as his romantic relationship with (and sometimes without) Yoko Ono. So with the exception of its title track, labor struggles of any kind are rarely mentioned again here. Of course better titles, such as Anthology and Legend were already taken anyhow, so this labor-friendly little name was probably the best Capitol Records could do.
Unlike his prior band’s catalogue (Y’all remember The Beatles, right?), compilations offer the optimal vehicles for exploring John Lennon’s best work. It’s safe to say that The Beatles’ whole was far better than the sum of its individual (i.e. solo) parts. If you don’t believe me, just inquire with Paul McCartney and/or George Harrison’s harshest critics, but don’t even bother to consider Ringo Starr. Lennon’s solo powers peeked around about the mid-‘70s with albums like Imagine, and his creativity mostly vacillated between great and average throughout his post-Beatles career. Beatle fans may passionately argue forever over whether Sgt. Peppers is, in fact, better than Rubber Soul, but few such opinionated fights to the death will likely ever erupt over Lennon’s solo material.
Sifting through these mostly familiar tracks makes one thankful that Lennon rarely released fluff songs as singles. Thus, this healthy selection gathers up the cream of Lennon’s crop. It’s simply impossible to go wrong with radio staples like “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)”, “Whatever Gets You through the Night”, and “Mind Games”. Furthermore, although you probably won’t want these tunes constantly rotating on your iPod play list, much insight can be gathered from Lennon’s non-hit personal-struggles-in-song, which is a subset that includes “Mother”, “God”, and “Cold Turkey”. No doubt, Lennon never filled the world with silly love songs.
As with much of his prior Beatles work, many of these tracks are almost beyond criticism, due to their undeniable cultural significance. For example, when was the last time you attended a benefit concert where “Imagine” was not performed? Furthermore, has there ever been a Christmas season where “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” didn’t receive excessive airplay? Lastly, “Give Peace a Chance” is more than just a song; it’s a rally cry.
John Lennon was oftentimes portrayed as the brains of The Beatles; sometimes at the expense of revealing his equally strong heart. Let’s face it: poor John’s romantic side is sometimes severely underrated. This CD set, however, contains plenty of Lennon’s love lyrics. Heartfelt sentiments include “Oh Yoko!”, “Woman”, and “Real Love”. Additionally, Lennon’s sometimes strained relationship with Yoko give these songs all the more power and weight. His public relationship with Yoko—as well as his equally public infidelities—turns these songs into journal entries of the most personal and moving kind.
Naturally, there is also plenty of political discourse going on in Lennon songs here. A few, like “Power to the People” and “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”, however, come off slightly dated now. Nevertheless, you can’t really blame Lennon for making such strong statements, because he was well aware of his powerful public platform at the time. He certainly wasn’t going to waste the chance to point out what he saw as wrong in the world around him.
Listening to all of these songs again is a little sad. Obviously, Lennon still had plenty of great music in him. For instance, one has to wonder what he would have made of our terrorized modern world. As a transplanted New Yorker, what would he have said about 9/11? Would he have written something akin to “Give Peace a Chance” in response to the war in Iraq? Strange, isn’t it, how such a re-release as this one raises more questions than it answers?
As initially stated, John Lennon was never a pure working class hero. Instead, he was in a class all by himself. Much like the Biblical character of Peter in the New Testament, this man was never afraid to speak his mind—even though he sometimes may have regretted some of his bold statements later. He was just the guy that couldn’t restrain himself from speaking out, and he never worried too much about coming off politically or socially incorrect. He may never make it into the union hall of fame, but John Lennon certainly deserves some kind of a medal for his lifetime of consistent artistic bravery.