Matthew Cookson uncovers John Lennon's radical past 25 years after his death.
John Lennon was murdered in New York 25 years ago. This year has seen a slew of articles about the former Beatle's life. One key aspect that few of the media remembrances touch upon is Lennon's radical politics, but these were integral to his music, particularly in the later Beatles years and after.
Lennon was born in Liverpool on 9 October 1940. He lived with his socially conservative aunt Mimi in the relatively prosperous Woolton area. His seeming rejection by both his parents scarred Lennon emotionally for life. Julia, his mother, only re-entered his life when he was in his mid-teens. They were growing closer when she was tragically killed after being run over in 1958, throwing John into grief. He found release in rock and roll and The Beatles, whose popularity seemed to confirm the dawning of a meritocracy in society.
His relationship with the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono strengthened his radical beliefs. Yoko was a fervent believer in peace and women's liberation. Dissatisfied with the life of a Beatle, his marriage to Cynthia Lennon, and the state of the world, John was drawn towards her. He began to use music to oppose war and try to change the world.
This got off to a rather inauspicious start with the recording of 'Revolution'. One version of this song came out at the end of the summer of 1968 after the May events in Paris when students and workers looked like they could overthrow the French regime, inspiring millions of people around the world. Lennon was a pacifist, and was worried that the calls for revolution would make the state brutally repress the movement. 'Revolution' is an idealist song that says if people 'free their mind' rather than challenge the state then 'it's gonna be alright'. The first version said Lennon could be counted out from any revolution. The song brought a furious response from many people in the movement. However, Lennon was more ambiguous about revolution, and the version of 'Revolution' released later on The White Album said to count him in and out.
He and Yoko launched their famous 'Bed-in' for peace after their marriage in 1968 at the Amsterdam Hilton, inviting the world's press to their bedroom to hear them condemn the war in Vietnam. He returned his MBE to the queen 'in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts'.
Musical, personal and financial differences conspired to break The Beatles up in 1969 and 1970. Lennon was glad to have broken free of The Beatles' straitjacket and went his own way with the aid of his new life and creative partner Yoko Ono. Plastic Ono Band, Lennon's first solo album, is stripped bare emotionally and musically.
The failure of the 1960s to change society fundamentally caused him to think deeper. Lennon told Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn about The Beatles' success, 'At the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realise in retrospect that it's the same phoney deal they gave the blacks. It was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That's the choice they allow you - now the outlet is being a pop star. It's the same people who have the power, the class system didn't change one little bit. Nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.'
The song 'Working Class Hero' is based around this statement - working class people are only allowed certain opportunities within the parameters defined by the ruling class. Lennon's interview with Ali and Blackburn, published in the Red Mole socialist newspaper, touched on racism, women's liberation, revolution, workers' control of industry and socialism. It clearly excited Lennon, as he wrote 'Power to the People' after it. It references 'Revolution' but is a rejection of that song's conclusion. Lennon sings, 'We say we want a revolution/We better get on right away/We're going to bring you down/when we come into town/Singing power to the people.' He wanted people to sing it on demonstrations.
His next album, Imagine, contains the eponymous title track, Lennon's most famous solo song. It is a hymn to a socialist world without oppression, racism, religion or countries. It still features at the top of the most popular songs of all time lists. Another song, 'Gimme Some Truth', is an onslaught on the lies and brutality of Richard Nixon's warmongering regime in the US.
John and Yoko moved to the US in 1971. They moved away from the British movement that was connected to the working class. The people they got involved with in the US were 'Yippies' Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who were well known for their isolation from the working class. John and Yoko still involved themselves in the movement, supporting the Black Panthers and demonstrating after Bloody Sunday in Derry. They wrote the Some Time in New York City album. This was made up of political songs like 'Woman is the Nigger of the World' and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. The album was an artistic and commercial failure. The response to it shocked Lennon away from political music.
What really crushed his commitment, though, was the US state. Lennon planned a tour of US cities calling for people to vote against Nixon in the upcoming elections. Nixon's paranoid regime were worried that this would tip the balance against them, and ordered the FBI to watch Lennon's every move. The state also attempted to deport John and Yoko from the US. The pressure got to Lennon, and he cancelled his tour plans. He had to engage in a four-year campaign to stay in the US, further sapping him. The victory of Nixon in the 1972 presidential elections also deeply disillusioned him.
Lennon moved away from direct involvement in politics, but he saw his life as showing commitment to change and social equality. He spent 1975 to 1980 as a 'feminist househusband' bringing up his and Yoko's son Sean before returning to music in 1980 with the love-soaked Double Fantasy album. This month we should remember the life and listen to the music of a man who imagined a better kind of world.