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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