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John Lennon - Working Class Hero

In September 2010 the music channel VH1 launched the conclusive list of the best and most influential rock artists ever. And no surprise, the ranking was topped by The Beatles.

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The Beatles (torn paper)

The Beatles, the Fab Four from Liverpool, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had a hectic and creative career from 1962 to 1970, and their music is still classic rock and pop material. John Lennon was killed in 1980, a fact which may have added to his legendary status, but there is more to it than that; his iconic personality and his diverse artistic career has ranked him as one of the most significant pop artists of the 20th century. He actually holds 31st position on the above-mentioned VH1 ranking as a solo artist.

Childhood and Music

John Lennon
John Lennon

John Winston Lennon was born in 1940. His mother left him with her sister, and John grew up with his aunt Mimi. His father left before John was born. He saw his father once after he had become famous, but John was bitter and and they never achieved any relationship. John and his mother regained contact in the mid-1950s, but some years later she was killed in a car accident. This was a turning point for John; he became very, very bitter, as he said it in an interview many years later. John at an early stage showed a talent for the arts; drawing, writing and music, and soon he got his own guitar. (Aunt Mimi said: "A guitar is all right, John - but you'll never earn a living by it.") His inspiration at the time was skiffle king, Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley. He was determined to start his own group, and together with his friend Paul, and Paul’s friend George formed “The Quarrymen”. Later they changed the name to "The Silver Beetles" and finally "The Beatles."

Poetry and Film

In 1964, John published In His Own Write, a collection of poems, drawings and philosophical reflections. The book became a best seller and received good reviews, his texts were even compared to those of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. His second book, A Spaniard in the Works, came the year after. John said that these books were personal and private expressions that came from another John than the “songwriter John” who produced music with the Beatles for what he called “the meat market.”
Many of John Lennon’s Beatles songs tell the story of a maturing artist with a strong poetic language. “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I am the Walrus” are all examples of John Lennon’s brilliant ability to play with words and put together images, creating surreal and original poetry. When the Beatles were at the top, John was once quoted as having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, a statement he had to retract after heavy criticism, particularly in the US. But it is just another example of John’s way of making a point in a provocative manner.
He was offered a minor part in the film How I won the War in 1966, a satirical presentation of British soldiers in a more or less surreal setting. This opened up for a new John Lennon. First of all he had a haircut and started to wear glasses. He had always had a bad eyesight, but thought that glasses would ruin his pop image. But more importantly, John Lennon got the chance to see that there might be a life outside the Beatles. This phase also became an important initiator for his political anti-war engagement.

John and Yoko

John and Yoko
John and Yoko

That same year John met the Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono and this became a crucial point in both his career and personal life. Critics have claimed that she was the one who broke up the Beatles, but the fact is that the group was already in a process that sooner or later would end in a break-up, with or without Yoko Ono.
John and Yoko married in 1969, and after the break-up of the Beatles, they worked together on several projects including music, photography and film – none of which appealed to a broader audience. In 1971, he published his first solo album Imagine which became an international success, and the title cut has become a pop classic in its simple clarity – “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, and above us only sky”. In the same year he and Yoko formed “The Plastic Ono Band” which was a rather noisy sort of musical happening with various members. The songs became more politically explicit, promoting anti-war and leftist issues; “Power to the People”, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy X-mas (War is Over if You Want It"). But also, many of Lennon’s songs are deeply personal and carry the evidence of his traumatic childhood, memories that never left him – “Julia” which was his mother’s name, the desperate “Mother” from the Imagine album, and the bitter “Working Class Hero”, a folk-style song in the Dylan tradition. The latter is a cynical text about his own disillusionment with money and fame, and the self-indulgence he experienced as a Beatle.
In 1971, John Lennon moved to New York, never to return to the UK again. John and Yoko tried to set up a family life in America, but after a time their marriage went through a turbulent period, and John moved to Los Angeles, hanging out with friends indulging in alcohol and partying, a period referred to as “the lost weekend”. Lennon’s political left wing stand along with his popularity was by the American authorities seen as a combustible combination, as they thought he might influence young people to riot against the establishment. This was pre-Watergate and President Richard Nixon feared that Lennon's anti-Vietnam stand would make the first-time 18-year old voters go against him at the next election. The CIA and the FBI followed him closely in order to have him expelled from the country on account of an old drug sentence from England. However, after a hearing in 1976, John Lennon was granted a permanent leave of residence and got his green card.

“Starting Over”

John and Yoko were reunited in 1975, and now John headed for a new phase in his career; John, the family man, living with his wife and their son, Sean, in their apartment in New York. He was working on a literary project with Yoko (which was finished and published after his death), and they were starting to produce music again. The album Double Fantasy came in 1980 and is, according to John, strictly autobiographical. The album contains the song "Beautiful Boy" (for his son Sean) where he in a personal way sums up his own life and career: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans". The song also indicates his new attitude to life: "Every day, in every way it's getting better and better". The album was released in November, and three weeks later, on December 8 John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his home in New York.

John Lennon’s influence goes far beyond his music. He was a poet, a writer, film maker and artist. He was a political activist with a social conscience and keen observation. He certainly deserves a legendary status within Anglo-American culture. After the terror attack on New York City in 2001 a huge banner was spanned across a building in Times Square reading “Imagine all the people living life in Peace.”

Last updated 05/28/2018
Text: Jan-Louis Nagel (CC BY-SA)

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