Working Class Hero


At 14 I naively thought that the upside of the Beatles breakup was that instead of one album we would now get three, even four. This rational was supported in 1970 when by Christmas we got “ McCartney", "Plastic Ono Band" and "All Things Must Pass". A treasure trove of songs from George, a virtuoso home-made recording from Paul and the blistering Plastic Ono Band from John.

Johns's desire to come clean, to demystify himself and the Beatles was plain from the outset. From the haunting opening bells of Mother - his primal scream to his mum Julia, to his revelatory "God" where he casts aside all deities, rock and otherwise, John was out to destroy all idols and to recast himself as one human being made up of only the pain of his past and the love of his love, Yoko.

I admit that I had a hard time getting my young mind around this album. But, the song that most mesmerized me initially was "Working Class Hero." Without going into lots of detail, as a child who wore glasses that my sister once described as, "thick as coke cans" the first two verses spoke to me directly. The outcast, the class clown, the confusion and resentment of looking for approval. The prevalence of fear as motivation and media, sex and religion as succor for the masses was radical politics, but the indictment that "we're still ****ing peasants" stopped me in my tracks. What was John saying? This voice that through my childhood had embodied love, happiness, optimism, even doubt, was suddenly judgmental and harsh. John could be cruel, but usually masked it with humor. He could be opaque disguising his meaning in fanciful verse. There was no punch line, no obfuscation. This was John at his most direct. But wait, weren't we all, as fans on the inside of this - we got it, the repression, the need for change, we said we wanted a revolution, didn't we?

The last verse suggests another path, a path to power that involves compromising moral, ethical values. When John, tells us that we too can be a working class hero by following him, he presents us no good choice. We either choose to be sheep deluded into seeing ourselves as "classless and free" or "like the folks on the hill” who learn “ ow to smile as they kill.” This time John offers no third way. For those of us who thought all we needed was love, this was a cold hard truth. It would take me many more years to fully understand, even appreciate this new reality. 

John Lennon lived his life in full view of the world. Over the next ten years he would take us through other realities. As I listen to his solo music, I'm amazed at how often he's singing about what he's going through at that very moment. How on "Walls & Bridges" he could be singing about his sexual joy with Mae Pang, while reaffirming his eventual return to Yoko. On the track “Scared” from that same album, Lennon sings prophetically:

"Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me

I guess I knew it right from the start

Sing out about love and peace

Don't want to see the red raw meat

The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart

John Lennon's life became an open book, an honest and sometimes painful appraisal in real time. Once he opened that book on "Plastic Ono Band", he never looked back."

Working Class Hero

As soon as you're born they make you feel small

By giving you no time instead of it all

Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school

They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool

Till you're so ****ing crazy you can't follow their rules

A working class hero is something to be

When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years

Then they expect you to pick a career

When you can't really function you're so full of fear

A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV

And you think you're so clever and classless and free

But you're still ****ing peasants as far as I can see

A working class hero is something to be

There's room at the top they're 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

A working class hero is something to be

If you want to be a hero well just follow me

John Lennon

(1940 - 1980)