Music

Revolutionary Man: John Lennon As Political Artist

Rachel Johnson

John Lennon helped to transform the art and image of the pop star. His very public political activism and socially and politically aware lyrics have earned him a prominent place in the creative and political history of rock.

In the late '60s and early '70s, John Lennon began to actively endorse a wide variety of progressive and radical political causes. He championed the anti-war movement as well as Native and African-American rights while demonstrating a deepening interest in feminism. Lennon began to forge potent links between his music and the politics of his time. His craft became a weapon of social and political change. The Englishman demonstrated against US involvement in Vietnam and provided the American anti-war movement with one of its most consequential anthems, "Give Peace a Chance" (1969). In 1971, he also released what is widely recognized as one of the greatest and most important pop songs ever written, a humanist plea and Socialist anthem called "Imagine".

Lennon and Ono's peace protests were highly individualistic and idiosyncratic. Following their marriage in March 1969, the couple spent a week in bed in Amsterdam to protest the human suffering caused by global conflict. The 'bed-in' protest was dismissed by many as politically illegible, pointless and ineffective. From a pacifist perspective, however, the eccentric protest does make sense as it denotes a light-hearted continuation of Gandhi and King's principles of non-violence. "War will cease when men refuse to fight," went the 1930s British Pacifist slogan. The bed-in protest could be said to endorse a loving stasis, a playful passivity over dynamic violence. The protest was intended as an amusing political happening, a stunt with a serious message.

Whether righteous or silly, what can't be denied is Lennon and Ono's willingness to take risks. Lennon was prepared for public mockery and vilification. He explained, "Bed-ins are something that everyone can do and they're so simple. We're willing to be the world's clowns to make people realize it". (Richie York, 1969) Another bed-in was soon held in Montreal where Lennon reiterated his commitment to non-violence. Although sympathetic, Lennon did not believe that an on-going people's occupation of a park south of the border in Berkeley was a cause worthy of dying for. In evaluating the effectiveness of such protests, it is perhaps worth quoting Joan Baez on peace: "The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of non-violence has been the organization of violence." (Joan Baez, Daybreak, 1987) The protests were not as spontaneous and stupid as perceived but creative, studied acts with roots in conceptual and performance art. They were an example of what Lennon described as a 'revolutionary happening'. (The Dick Cavett Show, 1972)

Lennon's involvement with anti-war movement grew deeper and more directly political. "Give Peace a Chance" was the chant of the massive Vietnam Moratorium March in Washington in the fall of 1969. As detailed by Jon Wiener's Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I Files (2000) and shown in fairly recent documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon (David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, 2006), Lennon become the target of FBI surveillance for his part in the anti-war movement and engagement with the leftist politics. A planned 1972 anti-Nixon tour with Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis caught the attention of the authorities. A past drug's offence would be used to threaten the singer with deportation. The American government appeared genuinely fearful of the singer's talent and power. He would struggle to gain permanent resident status in the U.S. period to come.

While Lennon cannot ultimately be said to have advocated violent class war, he was profoundly aware of the politics of class. As a child of working/lower-middle class origins in Liverpool, Lennon was shaped and marked -- if not scarred -- by the English class system. As early as 1966, Lennon noted, ‘The class thing is just as snobby as it ever was. People like us break through a little -- but only a little.' ("A Shorn Beatle Tries It on His Own", Leonard Gross, Look, 1966) The observation would be developed in the 1970 track "Working Class Hero". The song reveals a strong political awareness of the deceptions of a class-based society. Social mobility is a con: "Keep you doped with religion and sex and t.v./ And you think you're so clever and classless and free?/ But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see."

Lennon critiqued the lauded break-through of the working-class Beatles in an interview with the British Trotskyite magazine Red Mole: "But nothing has changed except we are all dressed up a bit, leaving the bastards running everything." He also affirmed, "when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they (the establishment) won't let the people have any power; they'll give all the rights to perform and dance for them, but no real power." (Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, 1971) "Working Class Hero" is also about working-class psychic pain. The psychological effects of the English class system on working-class children have perhaps never been fully grasped and acknowledged. It is difficult perhaps for an American to understand what it is to be entirely defined when you open your mouth in the United Kingdom.

Lennon was direct and open about the psychological trials of a working-class kid as he navigates a class-ridden society. To Ali and Blackburn, he related: "I mean we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes and showbiz and Lord Mayors and all that. They were so condescending and stupid. Everybody trying to use us. It was a special humiliation for me cause I could never keep my mouth shut and I always had to be drunk and pilled to counteract the pressure. It was really hell." The wounded lines in "Working Class Hero", "As soon as you're born, they make you feel small" and "When you can't really function, you're so full of fear", are perhaps particularly compelling and revealing.

It was also in Red Mole interview that Lennon reflected, "you can't take power without a struggle". This remark would have undoubtedly fuelled the paranoia of the U.S. government. Lennon identified himself as a left-winger. He also expressed left-wing beliefs in his most popular song. Imagine is a Socialist song. It asks the listener to contemplate the destruction of property: "Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world." It is a bland song with an ideological bite as Lennon himself noted: "Imagine is anti-religious, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic… but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted." (David Scheff, All We Are Saying, 2000) Its radicalism also lies in its powerful secular humanism. Lennon pointedly explained: "The World Church called me once and asked, ‘Can we use the lyrics to Imagine and just change it to "Imagine one religion?" That showed they didn't understand it all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea." (David Sheff, All We Are Saying, 2000)

It was also during the early seventies that Lennon began to express a deeper commitment to the concerns of oppressed people of color. Lennon backed both Native-American and African-American rights. He expressed a human sympathy for the African-American struggle and an understanding of the need for black consciousness. In a 1972 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon stated support for the 10-point program of the Black Panthers and their faith in self-defense. The 10-point program encompassed calls for black self-determination, a decent education for black children free of racist historical bias as well as "land, bread, housing… justice and peace." (Huey P. Newton, War Against the Panthers, 1966) The Panthers were criminalized and pathologized by the White Establishment. Hoover even called the group the greatest threat to America's national security and subjected it to FBI surveillance. The party's radical reputation was partly due to its commitment to armed self-defense. Its community programs also sought to provide free health care and clothing for the poor as well as hot breakfasts for children.

Lennon's music in this period sought to reawaken the moral conscience and political consciousness of the people. He wrote songs for Black Panther campaigner Angela Davis and the co-founder of the White Panther party, John Sinclair. The latter had been sentenced to 10 years for a drug possession charge in 1969. Lennon performed at a concert for Sullivan in Ann Arbor in December 1971. He also wrote about Ireland ("Sunday, Bloody Sunday") and in early 1972 attended a demonstration in New York City against the January killing of 13 Catholic civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland by British forces.

He penned "Attica State", a song about the insurrection and repression of prisoners in Attica prison and attended a concert benefit for the relatives of the slain inmates on December 17th, 1971 with Ono. He also participated that year in a demonstration with the Native-American tribe the Onondaga Indians against the government's planned construction of a freeway through their land. In 1971, Lennon released an album containing several of these political songs. Some Time in New York City was not a great commercial and critical success but remains a fascinating social and historical document.

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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