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john-lennon

Image by stuart hampton from Pixabay

John Lennon: Revolutionary Man As Political Artist

John Lennon helped 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 1960s 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“.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono‘s peace protests were highly individualistic and idiosyncratic. Following their marriage in March 1969, while in Amsterdam the couple spent a week in bed 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 makes sense as it denotes a light-hearted continuation of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principles of non-violence.

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Image by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

“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.

img-1514Lennon and Ono at a Bed-In at Hilton Amsterdam, March 1969. Photo: Eric Koch (CC0 1.0 / Wikipedia)

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 activists Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis caught the attention of the authorities.

A past drug 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 US 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)

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