Many members of the World Socialist Movement have considered John Lennon’s song Imagine an anthem of universal hope. In few other songs, and perhaps in no song that reached as wide an audience as that one, is the socialist vision so accurately and movingly conveyed. It was originally featured on the 1971 album “Imagine,” and made the top of the charts in England no less than 3 times (its first release as a single, 1975; in 1981 following Lennon’s death in 1980 (when it shot up to number 1 for several weeks); and again during the Christmas season in 1999, after it had been voted the nation’s favorite song lyric and second favorite all-time song in a large best-music-of-the-millennium poll.
Imagine is a humanistic song par excellence, denying humans the place they often accord themselves in the spiritual universe, and instead relegating them to their material and exquisitely beautiful home of Earth. This Lennon does to urge his fellow men and women to unite in creating a world fit to live upon, one without countries, war, religion, or private property. Sharing this world together as a true “brotherhood of man,” some in the World Socialist Movement have wondered if he wrote this song after reading a copy of the Socialist Standard, which is not impossible considering his extensive reading of radical journals following the demise of the Beatles, although it is not known if he actually read the Standard, a journal that has also been advocating a nationless, classless, moneyless society of common ownership since 1904.
The Beatles, a band he not only founded (along with Paul McCartney) but also named, was a group whose fame and meaning he often felt uncomfortable about. It was after all Lennon who also brought the Beatles to a close by telling the other members he was planning to leave, prior to the release of his “Instant Karma” single.
The story of John Lennon is one much closer in spirit to what would be termed punk rock than to traditional pop. First of all, the way John Lennon and thousands of other youth embraced skiffle in England, is reminiscent of the way punk bands exploded in the 1970s often similarly without knowing how to play an instrument! Secondly, John Lennon’s famous antics on the stage while the Beatles played in Germany included mocking the Nazis’ salute and wearing a toilet seat around his neck. Such attempts to shock are often associated with the later punk era. Indeed, one of John Lennon’s youthful pranks had been to urinate from the rooftop of a Liverpool church upon nuns passing below. Thirdly, the early Beatles’ scruffy Teddy Boy leather and T-shirt look was also much closer to the attire of the rebellious and radical punk musicians of the 1970s than their later cleaner moptop image dressed in capitalist business attire.
John Lennon’s anger and sense of the absurd was of course expressed in his acerbic lyrics. Interestingly, his later political self only appears as a logical extension of his former pre-Beatles and early Beatles self if we do not consider his brief 9 years as a famous Beatle. It is true that traces of his rebelliousness were often found in his Beatles interviews, and his statement that the Beatles had become more famous than Christ was a rare albeit unwitting use of his fame to upset the status quo that would probably not be rivaled until the Sex Pistols starting swearing on British national television a dozen years later.
One could argue, then, rather successfully, that John Lennon’s Beatles spell, while it of course contributed enormously in melody and marketing to pop music in the 20th Century, was a sort of “selling out” and a turning away from his enormously creative potential and in particular from his genuine, political and critical nature. Beatles fans might take exception to that statement. But imagine if a contemporary grunge band like Nirvana of the 1990s for example had abandoned their aggressive look and musical style in favor of suits and short hair and singing pretty love songs guaranteed to win them a larger if not international audience, as well as to earn them favor with the royal family, in short, a similar “cuddly” look as the Beatles opted for in 1962?
The first time you hear John Lennon on a Beatles album (“Please Please Me,” their first) in 1963 is interestingly titled “Misery,” and begins “The world is treating me bad.” Indeed, Lennon often threw these little lyrical bombs from his true self into otherwise pop-perfect gems that echoed the musical sensibilities of American pop (Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Motown). Perhaps Lennon enjoyed using his songs, as he had the world around him, as an opportunity to put a foot in, or, as a title of a book he was to write a few years later suggests, a spanner in the works (in a pun that ended up actually being “Spaniard In The Works”).
Those lyrical contributions contrasted sharply with the oftentimes drippier McCartney lyrics, in which love songs (as the Beatles mostly sung) were more banal expositions of the heart. While all Beatles songs were attributed to the Lennon-McCartney partnership, such a thesis is supported by how after the Beatles split, the Lennon songs immediately (beginning that very year of 1970) began exploring profoundly political, psychological and existential themes, while McCartney’s solo work has mainly continued to delve into the nostalgic and romantic, and is for the most part either far less interesting to analyze and far too boring to listen to, with the possible exceptions of such few lone political statements as “Give Ireland Back To The Irish.” On the LP “Please Please Me,” “Misery” contrasted with “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” on the very same album. Even on the more traditional love song, “Ask Me Why,” Lennon sings: “If I cry, it’s not because I’m sad, but you’re the only love I’ve ever had. I can’t believe it’s happened to me, I can’t conceive of any more misery.” Thus even on that song in which the object of his affection has been won over, Lennon sings from his dark side as the Everyman who is amazed that he found love, or is himself loved, while an uncertain cloud of doubt and pain hangs over the lover.
The common perception that Lennon sang the more biting lyrics is generally borne out by analyzing them, and since it is apparently true that McCartney and Lennon each tended to sing the songs they contributed to the most as writers, one can only assume that Lennon’s struggling spirit was largely responsible for investing that struggle and discomfort more profusely into his own lyrical creations, and hence into the Beatles repertoire itself.
The songs Lennon crafted for “With The Beatles” (1963) were all love songs, and this was generally true on all the early LPs. In the 1964 album “Hard Days Night,” (hands down the classic early Beatles album) John states in the title song that he has been “working like a dog,” an all too brief reference in a Beatles song to our working lives, although in this song the woman’s love makes him “feel okay.” In the song “Help!” from the 1965 album of the same name, John appears to be describing his own pain in the Beatles, with his independence lost and his insecurity mounting, and his need for someone to soothe him and point him in a different direction (interestingly, as Yoko Ono was apparently to have precisely that positive effect he was seeking in a relationship).
“Nowhere Man” on “Rubber Soul” (1965) is similarly a song about alienation, although it does not place it in the world of work or power, yet admonishes those who allow themselves to be so invisible for losing themselves thus and for their passivity, and urges them (and indeed all of us, “isn’t he a lot like you and me?”) to take more control of the world around them. In “I’m Only Sleeping” from “Revolver” (1966), Lennon again discusses our rushed lives and his unashamed laziness (and socialists do promote the “right to be lazy,” in contradistinction with the capitalist “right to work”). On the albums “Sgt. Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour” (both 1967), John Lennon’s lyrics began to turn increasingly surreal (“I Am The Walrus”), as they are influenced by drugs, Eastern culture, and an obvious personal liberation reflected in the liberation of his artistic expression. “Revolution” on the “White Album” (1968) is the first overtly political Lennon song, often misunderstood as being either apolitical or conservative, but rather a critique of the especially Maoist and other fringe leftist groups of his time who advocated a revolution that only “talks about destruction.” Successful revolution, after all, is not only about destroying an old order, but also about building a new one.
Already, Yoko Ono’s influence is felt in his music and in his actions. While Yoko Ono is often portrayed as a negative influence upon his life, a study of that period would seem to suggest the opposite, that indeed she provided the intellectual, political and aesthetic influence and permission he needed to flower to the fullness of his creative potential. After he met her, his songs began to really take on the inner world of his painful feelings that he endured as a child who lost his mother, and as a genius perhaps hampered by the Beatles, and the outer world we must all endure. Indeed, even while the Beatles were still together, he had released with Yoko Ono three experimental albums (the two “Unfinished Music” albums, and the “Wedding Album,” all from 1968 and 1969).
As soon as the Beatles were history, John Lennon began to make history with his painfully honest and political songs. The 1970 “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” album was a case in point. Besides the two songs exploring the loss of his mother, and one of the two most beautiful melodies to be found on any Beatles or non-Beatles record, “Love” (the other was “Oh My Love” on “Imagine”), this album began to explore humanistic and political themes big time. Lennon’s understanding that he dwells in a godless universe is revealed in different places. For example, in “I Found Out,” he stated: “There ain’t no Jesus gonna come from the sky,” and in the song “God” he goes one further: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” a Feuerbachian and Marxian rooting of God in human psychology and material culture. The song “Working Class Hero” is a classic exposition of the humiliation of being a worker in such settings as home, school, and work. John Lennon, though himself a millionaire many times over, has nonetheless here identified with the plight of working masses and himself arrived at full class consciousness when he sings that: “There’s room at the top they are telling you still, but first you must learn how to smile as you kill, if you want to be like the folks on the hill.”
It was the “Imagine” album from 1971 that contained the title song, selected by Citizens of the World as its official anthem. Other political songs of note were “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier” (“I don’t wanna die”), and “Give Me Some Truth” (“I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians, all I want is the truth now”).
John Lennon’s most overtly political album was side one of the 1972 “Some Time In New York City” (side two was extracts from a concert with Frank Zappa). On this album, John penned the famous feminist statement “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” (“We make her bear and raise our children, and then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen. We tell her home is the only place she should be, then we complain that she’s too unworldly to be our friend”). Lennon asks us to “think about it, do something about it.” The next song “Sisters O Sisters” by Yoko Ono is another feminist song calling on her human sisters to build a new world because “we lost our green land, we lost our clean air.” Song three, “Attica State,” is an anti-prison, pro-freedom song urging us to “free the prisoners, jail the judges, free all prisoners everywhere, all they want is truth and justice, all they need is love and care.” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Luck Of The Irish” deride British rule (“You should have the luck of the Irish, and you’d wish you was English instead!”). Finally, John and Yoko both contributed songs about prisoners John Sinclair (sentenced to 10 years for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer) and Angela Davis, black activist. This was not a musically strong album for the man who had once penned the melody of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but it allowed Lennon to devote an album to the news of the day.
Speculations have abounded as to why John Lennon was assassinated. Klint Finley (as reported on the website www.technocult.net in February 2002) quoted Lennon’s son Sean as stating: “Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests, is insane. Or very naive. Or hasn’t thought about it clearly. It was in the best interests of the United States to have my dad killed. Definitely.” Several conspiracy as well as “lone nut” theories are advanced. The conspiracy theories advance the hypotheses that John Lennon was viewed as a national security threat on several occasions, for Nixon and later for the new president Reagan. Several documented FBI instances of surveillance of John Lennon and trumped up arrests in the 1970s are used to back up the theory. It is of course true that John Lennon was a major national figure who was involved publically in diverse radical political causes, including supporting the IRA, a Trotskyist group, and the causes of various prisoners, at different times. There is also considerable support for the “lone nut” theory as Mark Chapman had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia for his entire life since childhood, as well as had entertained numerous delusions about John Lennon and Todd Rundgren as well.
So what if Mark Chapman had not actually been a “Manchurian Candidate” for a secret group of governmental officials? The greater likelihood is that John Lennon and the other Beatles came on the heels of the post-war and Cold War spectacle begun by Kennedy of Camelot, in which Americans stood unified behind a President mystically and mythically conceived as from the ranks, facing the glorious future he promised rife with social programs. The Beatles arrived as the nation was mourning the loss of more than a man but of his and now their dreams, and indeed one might say helped to soothe their loss, divert from them as only the power of the Spectacle can.
Following Kennedy’s assassination, it was John Lennon in particular who stood as the most visible and most vocal opponent of this unified land. He had been the archangel of the new society and now had become the archenemy, whose records were being burned by Christians for his statement about Christ and later who supported the various forces of opposition and apparent destruction. For a young man (Chapman) already suffering from paranoid delusions, John Lennon may have presented himself as the obvious symbol of the historical split within his world, and of course it may be that all paranoid delusions represent projections of the split within the sufferer’s mind, projections of anger about vulnerability that is externalized upon evil others, and so kept from personal accountability.
There is truth in all paranoid delusions. For example, John Lennon was in fact both the prime creator of pop music and its greatest critic. He elevated it to dimensions that even dwarfed Elvis and helped to tear it apart. He became a public figure with whom millions identified, yet he also alienated millions. He turned the rock star into a figure that expressed the words and feelings of a generation and so became at once its figurehead and target, its liberator and its curse. Once he had entered into the homes of a hundred million young people, as the very symbol of the spectacle of the new media, he also dragged in with him in the parents’ heretofore safe houses the generation gap, the antiwar movement, and the “communist menace.” John Lennon embodied more than anybody the very dialectic of the 1960s—the tension between liberalism and freedom to exploit on the one hand, and anti-capitalism and freedom from exploitation on the other, between America’s pleasure principle (exemplified by the Beatles) and its reality principle (the world of false information, impossible wealth, and even more impossible power), between music as entertainment and music as the chorus for the revolution.
It is surely no coincidence that at the advent of the Reagan era, that was perhaps more than any other to silence its massacres abroad and its perceived aesthetic and political excesses at home, liberties were to be taken with the hand that had helped to send its house of cards tumbling down. It often takes the mad to see the madness around them with acute hypervigilance. Yes, Mark Chapman was most probably mad, but his assassination of John Lennon expressed unwittingly a social wish for the assassination of others like Lennon (some successful, others only in fantasy). It is therefore easy to fall prey to a (often false) conspiracy theory these days, as the ruling class conspires daily to protect its domain, and the working class does not yet conspire in numbers greater than a few thousands here and there to undermine it. John Lennon was the perfect target, in many ways, even if his murder was not a concerted effort by the powers to be to be rid of him.
What he left behind was the utopian imagination we all share that still exists in a million brains refusing to be silenced.
“Imagine,” the song, was unquestionably Lennon’s finest moment. Its lyrical and conceptual clarity shone sunlight of vision upon our dark and violent world. It urged us to imagine a world without property, without religion, without nations, living in peace. It postulated an economic order in which both greed and hunger would be impossible. Socialists also share this vision. They support the cause that approaches humanity towards the goal of a classless economic order in which wage labor, money and buying and selling have been replaced by free people working together to meet their needs without the constraints imposed by the market system, in short a world of peace, equality, abundance and ecological sustainability. You may think that we are dreamers, but we are not the only ones. I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.