Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years

By Patrick Cadogan

“I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere. I mean, it’s just a basic working class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system. In my case I’ve never not been political, though religion tended to overshadow it in my acid days; that would be around ‘65 or ‘66. And that religion was directly the result of all that superstar shit – religion was an outlet for my repression. I thought, ‘Well, there’s something else to life, isn’t there? This isn’t it, surely?’”
– John Lennon, 1971

John Lennon began his career as a regular pop star who happened to make extraordinary music. All that changed in 1966 when Lennon was criticized for remarking that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Ticket sales soon dwindled in United States during what was to be their final tour. The Beatles were now a studio band and could write songs for themselves, rather than to please the public. Lennon was free to write about his childhood (“Strawberry Fields Forever”), his personal state of mind (“I’m So Tired,” “Yer Blues”) or politics (“Revolution”). Meeting and falling in love with Yoko Ono fueled his creativity in songwriting and other fields of art. John also gained the confidence to express his politics publicly and take action in promoting peace. Radicalized through meetings and associations with Tariq Ali, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Phil Ochs, John now called himself a “revolutionary artist.” Focusing primarily on his radical years (1968-1972), The Revolutionary Artist is an examination of Lennon’s forays into activism, his political views, and the music he created during the period. Specific areas of focus include:
  • An in-depth look at the 1969 Montreal bed-in, with extensive and wide-ranging interviews
  • Lennon’s 1969 testimony concerning drugs at the Le Dain Commission in Canada
  • Previously unreleased transcript of peace seminar Lennon attended at the University of Ottawa
  • Unheard discussions between John and Yoko recorded during their Primal Therapy sessions in 1970
  • A song-by-song analysis of Lennon’s first three solo releases (Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, and Some Time in New York City), with commentary from John
  • Lennon in 1972 running through and commenting on all of the songs that he and Paul wrote as the Beatles


What new materials could possibly be out there be when it comes to a subject like John Lennon? The answer is apparently quite a lot when it comes to The Revolutionary Artist, a new book that takes a look at the period where John actively promoted peace and wrote some of his best music. Here are some of the highlights:
  • Yoko's thoughts on John, and the other Beatles, recorded on a tape made during the recording sessions for "Revolution." Interestingly, she is much more fearful here of her tenuous relationship with John than is typically portrayed in Beatles books. She also is quite positive in her feelings about Paul McCartney: "He’s treating me with respect," she says.
  • Tells how George Harrison left the group in January 1969. John's only response to him was: "We aim to please." Also has a conversation between John and Paul soon afterwards recorded secretly by Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg where they discuss George and problems internal to the group.
  • Several interviews with John during the Montreal bed-in for peace event, including a wide-ranging discussion on various topics such as war, student radicals, systems of government, nationalism, the generation gap, parent-child relationships, educational systems, marriage, meditation, religion, money, censorship, and music records.
  • Testimony from John at a government commission on the use of drugs: "The problem still remains that all of us needs a drug," he says, "whether it is sleeping pills, barbiturates, alcohol or what have you."
  • John's last interview promoting a Beatles LP -- discussing Abbey Road in 1969.
  • John talking about his association with the family of James Hanratty and Michael X (there's one tense moment where a TV host refuses to shake Michael's hand and John interjects: "“Racialism! I saw it.”).
  • Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau giving his thoughts on meeting with John and Yoko.
  • A great discussion on the songs of the Plastic Ono Band LP vis-a-vis Dr. Arthur Janov's ideas on Primal Therapy and how they influenced the material. There is also a lengthy section on some private discussion recorded by John and Yoko at the Primal Therapy Institute where they carry out exercises prescribed by Janov and run through their histories of relationships.
  • Lennon talking to Phil Spector on Paul's (and Wings') Wild Life ("It’s really bad," Spector says).
  • John discussing the tracks of Imagine and Some Time in New York City ("If it’s a choice between the IRA or the British army, I’m with the IRA," John says at one point).
  • Frank Zappa talking about how John ripped him off in releasing the live cuts on the Some Time in New York City album.
Probably the most fascinating section is the final chapter (#9), where in 1972 John discusses all the Beatles tracks he wrote with Paul, giving his thoughts on each and pointing out who wrote what (it also includes a few of George's tracks that he contributed to). It goes all the way from "Love Me Do" to the Beatles' last single, "The Long and Winding Road" (it also includes the so-called "songs the Beatles gave away," like "Hello Little Girl," "Bad to Me," etc.). The thoughts are then augmented with occasional affirmations or rebuttals from Paul, who offers his own insights on the tracks (it's interesting to note that in 1972, they only disagreed on one song as to who wrote which part).

All in all, worth picking up if you're interested in some of the above-mentioned topics, especially John's music from the Beatles era to circa 1972. Those were the days, my friend...

1 comment:

Chris said...

The most interesting thing about this phase of his career is that he created both the best and worst music of his career during this time.