John Lennon: Great songwriter with a bullying streak and a scornful tongue

Middle-class hero

John Lennon’s kicking against the pricks was mere window-dressing

Sacred Cows

John Lennon was one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century. His partnership of opposites with Paul McCartney produced at least two dozen songs people will be singing 500 years from now. He was also a bully and a buffoon, whose political posturing spawned a tribe of imitators who knew even less than he did. Whenever you hear the word “activist” Lennon’s face may come to mind — a face that symbolised the corruption of an idealism which, when The Beatles emerged in 1962, seemed so fresh.

Give peace a chance. War is over. Power to the people. All you need is love. A working-class hero is something to be. Woman is the nigger of the world. Worst of all, Imagine no possessions. Yes, let’s imagine! No sooner had Lennon recorded that revolting song, a kind of Radetzky March for the Me Generation, than he put his Weybridge mansion on the market for a tidy screw and skedaddled to New York with his partner in idiocy, Yoko Ono. If any man liked to count his coins it was J. Lennon.

On that song’s parent LP, recorded in the summer of 1971, Lennon taunted his former collaborator with the question: “How do you sleep at night?” Pretty well, one imagines. McCartney had just topped the American charts with Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, an enchanting song in two parts which revealed more wit and melodic invention than Lennon could manage in his fury.

The leather-coated goader of establishment types, was in reality a well-spoken middle-class boy

By then, under the thumb of the haggish Ono, he had entered a realm of fantasy a long way removed from Menlove Avenue, the well-endowed road in Liverpool where, a decade later, Simon Rattle grew to maturity.

There is often an element of mythology in the making of stars, yet Lennon’s self-advertised role as a horny-handed son of toil stands out as being exceptionally false. Recalling their youthful adventures, McCartney said Lennon’s house was the first he had known that had a name as well as a number.

Jolly Jack Lennon, the leather-coated goader of establishment types, was in reality a well-spoken middle-class boy who parted his hair, cleaned his boots, and politely asked Aunt Mimi for sixpence to buy an ice lolly.

He was certainly quickwitted. George Martin, unimpressed by the demo tape Brian Epstein was hawking round London in the summer of 1962, agreed to give The Beatles a second chance because he found them agreeable company, and in those days the band belonged to Lennon. The Beatles were popular in part because they were always smiling or laughing. People of all ages responded to their optimism, and to their cheekiness.

Lennon’s talent burned most brightly in the two years leading up to Revolver. “Ticket to Ride” is a magnificent pop song, which will never pall. “I Feel Fine”, “Girl”, “In My Life”, “Norwegian Wood”, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, “Help!”, “It’s Only Love”, “Nowhere Man”, “Day Tripper”: every one a winner. Even when McCartney lengthened his stride in 1966, pop’s golden year, Lennon was hardly idling. Revolver is the best of all Beatles records because it is Janus-faced, summing up all the group had done up to that point and indicating what they were about to embark on.

The final cut, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, turned out to be prescient: “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” This is a world away from “Taxman”, the opening track, which would not have been out of place on Rubber Soul. Alas, Lennon took his own advice. Ultimately he did turn off his mind, with troubling consequences. He was by now heavily into hallucogenic drugs, and his introduction to Ono, a conceptual artist of no demonstrable talent, led to a floating downstream which unmoored a band that had given the world so much innocent pleasure.

Despite the success of Sgt Pepper in 1967, a year which also gave us “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields”, The Beatles had done their best work. The White Album of 1968, a double, was far too long. Abbey Road blows hot and cold, and Let It Be was a hodge-podge. There were memorable songs (the last 15 minutes of Abbey Road constitute a touching leave-taking) but the fire had gone out of their bellies. You can’t blame them. From the moment they conquered America in 1964 they were the most famous people in the world. They left us riches, and we must be thankful.

By 1969, when he walked out, Lennon had become self-parodic. His scornful tongue — Queer Jew was the title he offered for Epstein’s autobiography — he now turned on the world at large. Nothing, it seemed, was ever good enough for a pop singer who saw himself as an uncompromising settler of scores. “All I want is the truth,” he bellowed on “Imagine”. All right, Johnny, how about this: you’ve become a bore.

As the pop world is peopled by gormless chumps there was no shortage of folk eager to cheer him on. And so it grew, this buffoonery, like topsy. There was the Amsterdam love-in, attended by the half-witted poetaster Allen Ginsberg, and television interviews conducted in a bag. It wasn’t hard to detect the guiding hand of Ono, the sort of person who can talk about “performance art” with a straight face.

At the same time there was the chronic sentimentality which ran through Lennon like Mr Formby’s little stick of Blackpool rock. On “Let It Be” he sang of “limitless undying love”, the kind of love, presumably, that led to his support of Angela Davis and other sixth-form revolutionaries. Like many people who seek to change the world Lennon was very good at declaiming about the general, the faraway. When it came to the particular, being considerate to those close at hand, he was less skilful.

Bernard Levin, in a magnificent essay, once took a clergyman to task for suggesting that an artist who painted Lennon as Christ, yea, with a crown of thorns, was making a statement on behalf of humanity. No, said Levin. To wear a crown of thorns you must earn the right. Lennon was a gifted songwriter: we could all hear that.

But if you wanted to know what he thought about matters beyond the parish of popular entertainment it was only necessary to tip him upside down until what was lodged in his brain fell out.

Lennon was no rebel. Unlike David Storey and Alan Sillitoe, novelists who grew up in the years immediately before the pop explosion, he knew nothing about hardship. So when he sang of that “room at the top” in “Working Class Hero”, quoting from John Braine, he was a fantasist in the mould of Billy Liar. His was a comfortable life. The kicking against the pricks was mere window-dressing.

For years his spirit lived on in Private Eye as Spiggy Topes, the trendy pop star for whom no cause was too ludicrous. Craig Brown, an Eye stalwart, has now added another book to the Beatles library. One Two Three Four offers a lively, deliberately unchronological summary of the group’s life and afterlife.

McCartney is the author’s Beatle of choice, as he is for most people who look beyond the headlines. Lennon and McCartney needed each other to fulfil their talent but in human terms the younger man, who was the slower starter, stands taller.

Six years it lasted, once they had found their voice. We can all give thanks for that gift, jointly held and generously bestowed. Best to ignore the student rabble-rouser in Lennon, and celebrate the man who helped to write so many terrific songs. There’s no doubt about it: a middle-class hero is something to be.

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