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john-lennon

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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.

“Working Class Hero” is also about psychic pain. The psychological effects of the English class system on working-class children have perhaps never been fully grasped and acknowledged. For many in the United Kingdom, as elsewhere, peoples lives are defined when they open their mouths and their accents and idioms reveal their origins.

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 particularly compelling and revealing.

It was also in the Red Mole interview that Lennon reflected, “you can’t take power without a struggle”. This remark would have undoubtedly fuelled the paranoia of the US 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 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 ’70s 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 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 Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program and their faith in self-defense. The Ten-Point Program encompassed calls for Black self-determination, a decent education, for Black children free of racist and historical bias, as well as “land, bread, housing… justice and peace.” (Huey P. Newton, War Against the Panthers, 1966)

The Black Panthers were criminalized and pathologized by the White Establishment. Former President Herbert 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 supportive White Panther Party, John Sinclair. The latter had been sentenced to ten years in prison 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’s “Troubles” (“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 in December 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 it remains a fascinating social and historical document.

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Lennon and Ono in 1980, shortly before his murder. Photo: Jack Mitchell (CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikipedia)

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