Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Saint John Lennon – a modern parable

There was an article in last week’s Spectator by Michael Henderson (Imagine There’s no Lennon), written to mark what would have been the singer-songwriter’s seventieth birthday but for his assassination in New York in December 1980.

I can recognise the significance of The Beatles as a band and the importance of Lennon’s collaboration with Paul McCartney in the composition of some memorable tunes, though I never really warmed to their music, the music and the preoccupations of my parent’s generation. That doesn’t really matter; as light entertainers they were incomparable. The trouble is they, particularly Lennon, began to see themselves as something more; as the voice of a generation, as the avatars of the age, as the conscience of the world. In this they became both laughable and ridiculous, an example for people even more deluded and conceited than themselves.

In 1972 Paul McCartney, now post-Beatles and performing with Wings, his own band, produced a song called Give Ireland back to the Irish, a comment on the political troubles of the day in Northern Ireland, in which he had clearly cast Britain in the part of the ‘imperial’ aggressor. It was banned by the BBC for political reasons though, as Dominic Sandbrook says in State of Emergency, they might have done better to suppress it for crimes against musical taste. “Great Britain you are tremendous”, McCartney witters on “”And nobody knows it but me, but really what are you doing in the land across the sea.” Protecting the Unionist majority against the atrocities of the Provisional IRA, is the simple answer, though clearly too complicated for McCartney.

And then there is Lennon, bad to begin with, even worse after the absurd Yoko Ono, that talentless self-promoter, took hold of him. Now the hectoring and the shouting began, in such ‘masterpieces’ as Give Peace a Chance and Woman is the Nigger of the World. But the worst piece of messiah-speak has to be Imagine. I’ve written about this dreadful ditty before, a piece in which I concluded;

On a wider point for me Lennon the message, as opposed to Lennon the medium, is all wrong. When I was in my teens his song Imagine came top in a list of the hundred greatest pop songs. I hate it, I absolutely hate it; I hate the lazy, utopian sentiments behind it, this Communist Manifesto turned into a lullaby. I don’t need to imagine what Lennon-world would be like; I saw traces of its aftermath in a land scarred forever by Year Zero and the ‘brotherhood of man.’ No hell below us; just hell on earth.

Henderson stresses that while Lennon cannot be blamed for every banality spewed out by the likes of Bono or Richard Gere (he forgot to mention Saint Bob Geldorf), the moral infantilism and the obsession with public virtue unleavened by private examination is a process that he began. I fully agree that, as a political figurehead, or symbol of rebellion, John Lennon was a poor joke, a ‘working class hero’ who could lecture the world about peace from the comfort of a bed in the Amsterdam Hilton. No wonder they wanted to crucify you, John; I would.

As a postscript, Henderson’s article was followed up this week by a reader’s letter;

Further to Michael Henderson’s excellent article about sanctimonious pop stars…I remembered that story about Bono saying at a concert that ‘Every time I clap, a child dies in Africa.’ A member of the audience shouted: ‘Well, stop f***ing clapping then!’

It’s time these clots were put back in their place. Let’s have no more tiresome twaddle.


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  4. I like to distinguish between the individual and his reputation. Had you lived through the 1960s, you would have certainly formed a different opinion of The Beatles and other innovative musicians of the day than is possible for anyone who can only look upon the shadow of their legacy. The power of their art and influence was that it reached so many individuals and was more than just background entertainment. There were better musicians, and, maybe, better songwriters to come, but The Beatles were what made it possible for those new voices to be heard.

    I never cared for John's politics, or George's religious views, or Paul's second-hand veganism . . . but I think they were entitled to express their opinions in song and in action. Only an idiot would take such posturings seriously. Of course, there are always plenty of those around.

    Our media feed on celebrity nonsense, and nonsense is easy to elicit from celebrities. Their notoriety and preoccupation with career concerns isolate them from the real world.

    But if you want celebrities to despise, I offer Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, Che, Fidel, Mao, Stalin, Mugabe . . . the list is long and notorious.

  5. Britts out of Ireland ! The Irish are taking in a lot of third worlders . Pretty soon you will all be in the same mess and will wonder what all the Christian infighting was all about.The early Beatles had some catchy pop tunes. When they went their own ways so did their majic. Screw Bono.

  6. The Irish are taking in a lot of third worlders and soon you will all be in the same mess.The early Beatles did have some catchy pop tunes.As for Bono clap faster,faster,faster!Best thing for them really as they are a burden on civilization.

  7. "Stop fucking clapping then!" I love that.

    Your parents' generation didn't/don't take any of this Lennonism seriously anyway. His shenanigans in the post-breakup era were an object of mockery and his bogus efforts to effect world peace by protest were regarded as pathetic.

    Some of those issues which preoccupied people were real enough. (You haven't lived 25 years waiting to see a flash outside that meant the end. I did and I can attest it wasn't a trivial worry.) It really tried one's patience to observe the silly stunts he used to pull and that's all they were..he was just taking the piss.

  8. I never ever really like Beatles' songs, no matter how popular it was/is. And I found John Lenon look so sick. I didn't like his "talentless" wife either.
    Thanks Ana. Very sharp! I agree with you 100%!

  9. I don't think it is stretching the point to draw parallels between Lennon, in his cultural context, and (Lev) Tolstoy, in his.

    Thank God Dostoyevsky was nothing like the Rolling Stones.

  10. Calvin, I suppose there is no better way of putting it than this: it's the I'm bigger than Jesus phenomenon. I cannot think of any previous period when the opinion of a musician mattered so much; I cannot work out why it mattered when most of the opinions were infantile and banal. Yes, you are right: only an idiot would take this kind of posturing seriously, but the modern age is the age of the idiot, and there are plenty of them around! Your political list is spot on.

  11. Retarius, if only Lennon were just 'taking the piss'; that's something I could understand. I really do think he took his antics seriously.

  12. Lennon's opinion was only important because morons buy newspapers and magazines full of such drivel. Exploitive reporters were just as good back in the "old days" at eliciting a controversial quote. We all knew it, and ignored it, knowing that such nonsense just spices up a slow news day and excites the bigots. The other list, however . . . well, their nonsense was treated with full journalistic respect, but ended in countless bloody bodies and ruined lives. I know whose nonsense I prefer.

  13. You clearly understand newspapers, Calvin, understand the way they work. Lennon, it seems to me, went out to court controversy, to create news where there was no news, a dull day's dream. He took himself seriously, and if the principle here is idiot shall speak unto idiot, well, so be it. :-)

  14. Imagine... A truly appalling dirge; I cringe every time I hear the first few bars.

  15. When he cried respectable senators burst with laughter
    And when he smiled the little children died in the streets

    I don't like all of their music, I like 'War is Over' 'Imagine' 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Maggie Mae' - this gem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFTzFUlxjr8

    Recently a film was made about his early life called Nowhere Boy which I thought was really good.

  16. I grew up with the Beatles, and they remain one of my three all-time favourite bands (you'll have to guess which the other two are). It's inevitable that someone of your generation has a different perspective on their output, because you view it as a whole. We got it one single or one album at a time, spaced out over seven years.

    However, disillusion was setting in by the time of the white album, especially that atrocious wall of noise Revolution #9. I learned only later that it was the work of Yoko Ono ("talentless", as you say). I was almost ashamed to be a Beatles fan by the time of the bed-ins for peace.

    I think it's ironic that Lennon got Phil Spector to produce Imagine, which he must have regarded as one of his most 'important' songs. The result? An already dreadful song sounds as if it was recorded inside a tin shack. All his political songs are trite and juvenile in their sentiments.

    I elaborated on the above comments in The Beatles: A Personal Memoir.

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