John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’: Boundaries, Mobility, and Honesty

The working class song has to speak of boundaries and ambition, but it also has to say where the performer stands among the people, among the classes—or where he thinks he stands, or wants to stand.

I. The Diagnosis

In my last column, “A Town Called Malice: What’s Happened to Working-Class Music? I began to argue that working class music in America has more or less vanished. That’s a hunch more than a fact, but it damn sure isn’t something you hear much of on the radio or online or television, except maybe in Nashville pop, and even then, well…

Maybe before we can determine if working class music has gone up in the smoke of Carrie Underwood’s “Smoke Break”, we need to ask how we define it in the first place. After spending the past month talking to friends and digging through listicles, academic books and my own record collection, I’m convinced that “we” can’t agree on much of anything except the most expected, traditional examples. Every Labor Day — the one day a year we in the States pretend to care about the working class — a handful of media sites trot out their Top 20 song lists. Inevitably, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” makes the cut.

Trawl some online playlists labeled “working class”, however, and you might be surprised by how totally disconnected from working class content they are. One list on Spotify included Lana Del Rey and Imagine Dragons. That just reminded me of something I mentioned last time: when you perceive yourself as working class, isn’t it possible that everything you listen to is filtered through its lens, and that any song, any singer, can belong to the working class? Even Imagine Dragons?

Still, one song that comes up again and again is “Working Class Hero”, so often that it’s a kind of ur-text of rock-era working class music, or more precisely, the concepts and cultural narratives of working class music. So what if I begin again at the beginning — or at least a certain beginning, the beginning of a post-Beatles world — and ask what this traditional-in-more-ways-than-one song says about the working class, how it says it, if it’s any good, and why it’s so divorced from my own experience.

As it appears on Lennon’s 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the song is sandwiched between the unnerved and unnerving “I Found Out”, which I like to think of as a Stooges song, and the bluesy ballad “Isolation”, both of which musically blow “Working Class Hero” out of the water. In fact, I’d argue that “Isolation” is the more working class song, embodying what “Working Class Hero” diagnoses — and that’s the first thing to recognize: “Working Class Hero” is a diagnosis song. Lennon sits you down on one of those uncomfortable tables in the examining room and explains the lab reports:

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel smallBy giving you no time instead of it all,
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

Not much of a bedside manner. The weariness in Lennon’s voice is that of a doctor who’s seen too many like you and has grown tired of giving the bad news. All the energy, all the expression has been sapped, and the rest of the performance is sung as an attempt to get them back. The melody in each verse climbs in the first line, climbs again in the second line, then drops into defeat and misery in the third line. This tension foreshadows the resolution in the lyrics; things just get worse and worse — “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool” — and still you know the gut punch is coming, that there’s no relief, that you end up further debased, “so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules”.

For Lennon, the working class is a social conditioning that starts at birth and ends with the eternal promise we still cling to in adulthood and clutch as we die: the possibility of climbing the ladder, punching through the glass ceiling, achieving the American Dream and becoming “like the folks on the hill”. If there’s any doubt this is a relentless and exhausting promise, the song’s repetitive structure and funereal pace make those qualities felt. If the drudgery doesn’t kill you, the insanity will. Working class life is defined here as being caught in paradoxes, traps: “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise fool.” Here you are, Lennon says, 20 years into your life, “tortured and scared”, and now “they expect you to choose a career” at the precise point you’ve become immobilized, incapable of making a decision. The result is either paranoia or the numbness of being “doped with religion and sex and TV”. Maybe today Lennon would have amended that to “reality TV”. Or added “social media” if he could’ve figured out a rhyme for it.

Like everyone else, I thought “Working Class Hero” was a Bob Dylan song when I first heard it. In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon brushed off the connection. “Anybody that sings with a guitar and sings about something heavy would tend to sound like this,” he said. “I’m bound to be influenced by those, because that is the only kind of real folk music I really listen to.” Maybe he was alluding to his song’s musical predecessor, “Nottamun Town”, also the source of Dylan’s “Masters of War”, but as Jean Ritchie sang her influential version in 1950, “Nottamun Town” is unaccompanied, utterly alone and mysterious. It also lilts forward, unimpressed by its own severity or surreality. Like many compelling performances, Ritchie’s “Nottamun Town” holds opposites in a tense balance.

“Working Class Hero” contains very few oppositions at all. Everything about it musically, the sparse acoustic guitar, the major-to-minor shifting, the dirge tempo and circular melodic structure, reinforces the misery and order in its lyrics. The only ambiguous element is the refrain, “A working class hero is something to be”, but then, I don’t know how you can hear the verses and not hear at least some sarcasm and defeatism in the refrain. Is a working class hero a protestor, someone who changes social conditions for others, or just someone who escapes the traps and the routines? Are any of them worth a damn?

Lennon sings the song like someone who escaped. In his final interview, given to Rolling Stone three days before he was murdered on 8 December 1980, Lennon answered a question about the song “Woman” and what it said about the meaning of success:

I’m not saying success as a famous artist and star is no good, and I’m not saying it’s great. The thing about the “Working Class Hero” song that nobody ever got right was that it was supposed to be sardonic—it had nothing to do with socialism, it had to do with “If you want to go through that trip, you’ll get up to where I am, and this is what you’ll be.” Because I’ve been successful as an artist, and have been happy and unhappy, and I’ve been unknown in Liverpool or Hamburg and been happy and unhappy. But what Yoko’s taught me is what the real success is—the success of my personality, the success of my relationship with her and the child, my relationship with the world… and to be happy when I wake up. It has nothing to do with rock machinery or not rock machinery.

Apply that to “Working Class Hero” and you’re left with a familiar idea: by being happy where you are, you can transcend your social condition. I have to tell you, as a person who, until a few years ago, never made more than $40k a year, who has never bought a new car and doesn’t own a house, that as much as I want to admire this idea, as much as I think it’s good advice for dealing with everyday problems, there’s a part of me that thinks “the success of my personality” is regressive, defeatist, apolitical and essentially rolling over onto your back and handing the bastards a knife so they can cut you open. Drowning in debt (like the late-night commercial says)? Making one dollar for every five hundred the CEO makes? Unable to afford health care, even still? On the brink of being homeless? Put a smile on your face!

Lennon spoke those words a decade after recording “Working Class Hero”, but they still explain to me why the song makes me feel uneasy. (Which doesn’t make it a bad song, by the way; in fact, it might be what makes it a great song. Wrote Nik Cohn in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, “Painful and obsessive, [Lennon’s] best songs have been no fun whatever…”) Lennon sings like he’s not just escaped but transcended the working class—transcended the very notion of class. From that place, he speaks down to his patients.

Sardonic? You bet. In retrospect it’s hard to believe anyone could have missed it. I can’t shake the feeling that the song flatters the singer. Instead of being about the working class, it’s ultimately about the person singing about the working class. His voice practically oozes the lyrics, devoid of any sympathy, sneering, poking his finger in your chest. And then there’s that penultimate verse —

They keep you doped with religion, and sex, and TVand you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see

— in which the working class person, edging into the middle class, is still blind to the class and powerlessness that confines her. But not Lennon. He’s enlightened.

Well, look, any song performed by an honest singer is about the person singing as much as it’s about whatever the song is about.

Let me take that again: an honest performance implicates the singer, even if he or the audience don’t like the implication. In his best performances and songs after the Beatles, Lennon was so blunt about himself, so unmannered and raw, that you could forget he was singing about himself and find yourself in his words and music. But you never lost sight of him. “Working Class Hero” may flatter Lennon, but his honesty as a performer is to make sure the flattery is known instead of hidden or played off with a wink.

That’s the sarcasm in the song’s final words, “If you want to be a hero, just follow me”, which comes across not as a wink but a dark joke. One of the targets of Lennon’s mockery was certainly the perception circa 1970 that the Beatles were still just four working-class lads from Liverpool. They weren’t anymore; their career was extraordinary. Lennon would never pretend otherwise. Even if he sounds like a snob doing it, the last thing he’s going to gloss over is the futility of one misguided ideal exchanged for another, one lie (upward mobility) exchanged for another lie (Lennon as hero).

Still, in this performance, Lennon is a man who’s disconnected from the reality of the suffering he describes, the social conditioning he’s figured out. It’s your problem, not his.

II. Called to Account

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Working Class Hero”. I know I was a teenager; I worked at the town library and checked out every album I could, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to pay overdue fines. At some point I forgot the song. Why? I didn’t need to be reminded of the problems of being working class. Even after I got my college degree, I worked low-wage jobs at a harness racking track, a bookstore, a recreation center, and for a short time I drove an ice cream truck. My father was a one-man computer business, still is, and my mother worked second- and third-shift at a nearby hospital until she landed a first-shift job there after she finally got her college degree. Growing up and for most of my adult life, the ground seemed like it could open up at any moment, the money disappear and the lights go out.

For a long time, then, all “Working Class Hero” could offer me was a tired explanation. Then I heard the live version of the song from a rehearsal in 1972. Lennon, backed by Village musicians calling themselves Elephant’s Memory, was preparing to play the One to One benefit concert, and with the band behind him, “Working Class Hero” becomes a different beast. Transformed from a depressive dirge into a snarling blues, the song prowls across the stage, Wayne “Tex” Gabriel’s leads lashing out at its prey. You can’t exactly tell who or what that is. The folks on the hill? The working class heroes who buy into the absurdity? Lennon himself?

He paces himself on the first verse, then he calls, “Give us that backbeat!” and the urge starts rising in his voice. The self-righteousness doesn’t really disappear, but now it sounds like he’s singing on the factory floor, getting in the workers’ oil-smeared faces as he shouts, like a carnival barker, “Hey, listen! There’s room at the top!” The safe distance is gone. He’s losing the singing altogether. “But first,” Lennon shouts, turning the word into “foist”, “you must learn to smile as you kill,” then he adds, “I want a big smile from everyone on that line!”

What draws me to this performance is the sense that Lennon’s caught up in it and can’t get out—Nik Cohn again: “[Lennon] wrote songs as if he was suffocating”—and that he doesn’t want to get out. What was made new for me the first time I heard this version was the vicious absurdity of the social conditioning he describes. The diagnosis has been dramatized, and at some point you might wonder when the song turned into a Bertolt Brecht outtake.

If there’s to be a definition of what makes a song “working class” or not — and I generally hate definitions, but I’ve cornered myself into this trap, which itself, by Lennon’s reasoning, might be a very blue-collar thing to do — then let it include the requirement of boundaries and mobility: walls that seem impossible to climb but the possibility that they might, borders that you cross in fear and cross back again, and most of all the mental precincts we live in and the little ways we thwart them.

When I worked at the harness racing track, there were long hours with not much to do. So I brought books, and Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity was one of them. Even if Algren is one of the most grounded, criminal-minded American intellects of the 20th century, reading that book was a signal to me that I didn’t belong at the track. I figured the bettors and track staff knew it, too. I hid the book, and rarely underlined or made marginal notes in it for fear that I’d look academic. I was waiting to hear if I’d gotten into graduate school, my ticket out of the low-wage spin cycle. (Or so I thought, until I became an adjunct.) Still, there was an urge to stay at the track, too. I was barely getting by, but I was getting by. I was reluctant to cross a certain boundary that was as clearly marked as the fencing along the dirt track.

Algren writes in Nonconformity:

Our practice of specializing our lives to let each man be his own department, safe from the beetles and the rain, is what is really meant by ‘a professional, artistic point of view. For it is not a point of view at all, but only a camouflaged hope that each man may be an island sufficient to himself. Thus may one avoid being brushed, perhaps even bruised, by the people who live on that shabby back street where nearly all humanity now lives.

In the studio version of “Working Class Hero”, Lennon sounds like he’ll never be brushed or bruised again; in the 1972 rehearsal — he never played it at One to One — he’s running around on the back streets, yelling at anyone who will listen. But there are two things each version has in common. The first is that the working class life is mainly boundaries and false movements, ladders that go nowhere except maybe into corruption and betrayal. The only true mobilization is individual, a self-actualization. This is where I break with the song, even in the furor of its live performance.

The second kinship is Lennon’s honesty, the irrefutable sense as I listen to each performance that he was striving to be honest with himself about who he was and where he stood. In the best of his solo work after the Beatles, this raw candor created a trust between him and the listener, and for whatever my disagreements with “Working Class Hero”, I trust the song and the singer are telling me their truths.

There’s a belief not just in Lennon’s song but in the many songs about the working class that the singer must define his relationship to the working class community, must call himself to account, must diagnose himself, and that this is of heightened, paramount importance more than it is in songs about other subjects. The working class song has to speak of boundaries and ambition, but it also has to say where the performer stands among the people, among the classes—or where he thinks he stands, or wants to stand. To say where she has been and where she’s going. Then, because this is music, the performer has to prove it.