REVOLUTION: ‘Build Around It’ / ‘You better free your mind instead’
1968. The system was rotten. The Socialists wanted to destroy it. John wanted to build around it. They all wanted to change the world.
John Hoyland: Towards the end of 1968 I discovered that John Lennon, who I had never met, really didn’t like me very much. Back in the beginning of that year, on March 17, I took part in the demonstration against the Vietnam war in Grosvenor Square, London. The scale and the violence of that demonstration took the country by surprise.
John Hoyland: Yet near the beginning of Leo Burley’s South Bank Show documentary Revolution 68, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the riot and the extraordinary year that followed it, there are some iconic images that make the passion in Grosvenor Square understandable. They show a naked Vietnamese girl, aged about six, running along a dirt road, the skin of her back burned off by napalm dropped on her village by American planes. Seeing those images again made me shudder with horror, just as I did when I first saw them 40 years ago. This was the world’s first televised war. The people in Grosvenor Square were very angry.
John Hoyland: That anger fuelled a political radicalism that grew wider and deeper in its scope as the year went on, leading to a series of dramatic confrontations with the authorities around the world. There were major riots in Germany, Paris, Mexico City, Brazil, Tokyo and Chicago. And in Czechoslovakia, Russian tanks rolled into the country to silence the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubcek.
What had started as protests against the Vietnam war expanded to something far wider. The talk was of revolution. Everything about modern capitalist society was suddenly called into question.
John Hoyland: “Be realistic – demand the impossible,” said the Paris students during May’s showdown. For a few days, as they fought nightly pitched battles with the police while the communist trade unions called a national strike, there really was the feeling that a revolution might happen there.
My personal contribution to this upsurge was to set up a cultural organisation called Agitprop with a group of friends. Working from my home, we built up a list of people with skills such as graphic design that might be useful to the left, leading to the Daily Mail describing us as a “rentamob” agency. We also formed a street theatre group (later known as Red Ladder), set up a poster workshop, started a bookshop and – in the summer of 1968 – staged an arts festival in Trafalgar Square called Thang Loi, Vietnamese for “victory”. This featured a giant polystyrene hamburger with the effigy of a GI as the filling, plus music from Mick Farren & the Deviants. We also took part as individuals in guerrilla publicity strikes, including unfurling a banner in front of TV cameras at the boat race that read: “Oxbridge paddles while Vietnam burns.”
In June, I was invited to join the board of a revolutionary newspaper, The Black Dwarf. Named after a radical 19th-century publication, The Black Dwarf asserted continuity with its predecessor by numbering its first issue “Vol 13 Number 1”.
John Hoyland: The Black Dwarf quickly established itself as the house journal of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the wider New Left politics that was developing around it. Edited by Tariq Ali, then a prominent member of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and a fiery orator, the broadsheet paper pulled no punches. The in-your-face front page of the first issue showed a photo of triumphant students in the Paris May events with the slogan: “WE SHALL FIGHT WE SHALL WIN PARIS LONDON ROME BERLIN”.
The next issue’s cover announced: “STUDENTS – THE NEW REVOLUTIONARY VANGUARD”, a sentiment that caused apoplexy among old-guard Marxists.
Then came: “DON’T DEMAND – OCCUPY”. Earlier in the year, Hornsey College of Art had been occupied by its students – led, incidentally, by current Labour minister Kim Howells – demanding participation and a more relevant curriculum. With The Black Dwarf’s enthusiastic encouragement, occupations followed at Colchester, Hull, Brighton, Coventry and the London School of Economics.
The paper was supposed to appear weekly, but seldom achieved this, partly because printers kept refusing to print it. Banned by many retailers like WHSmith, it depended on voluntary street vendors for sales, and frequently ran out of money. Even so, for a while, it was a brilliant and effective mouthpiece for the rebellious youth of the day.
John Hoyland: Shortly after The Black Dwarf hit the streets, John Lennon wrote ‘Revolution’ and recorded it with the Beatles. I admired Lennon hugely, and had adored the Beatles ever since their first exuberant shouts of joy in 1963. Their development over the following five years had been extraordinary and each new record they produced seemed somehow to capture the spirit of the times.
Mick Jagger had been on the Grosvenor Square demo and had gone on to write ‘Street Fighting Man‘, a song that reflected the 1968 mood of rebellion. How would Lennon respond?
John Hoyland: Musically, ‘Revolution’ was superb – Lennon at his best – but the lyrics were a bitter disappointment. Instead of identifying with the rebellious ferment among the young, he was hostile to it. He complained about “minds that hate”. He said, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” Above all, he said: “You tell me it’s the institution, you better free your mind instead.”
Those sentiments might have fitted the previous year and the dreamy mind expansions of the “Summer of Love”, but things had moved on and they now seemed entirely off the mark.
John Hoyland: When Lennon was arrested for a dope offence in October 1968 I felt the inadequacy of this philosophy was even more evident. So I wrote “An Open Letter to John Lennon” which was published in the October 27 issue of The Black Dwarf. The same issue featured the handwritten lyrics of ‘Street Fighting Man’, donated by Mick Jagger. In my letter I pompously pronounced: “Perhaps now you’ll see what it is you’re (we’re) up against. Not nasty people. Not even neurosis, or spiritual under-nourishment. What we’re confronted with is a repressive, vicious, authoritarian system.”
I went on to say that this system had to be “ruthlessly destroyed” and added: “Now do you see what was wrong with ‘Revolution’? That record was no more revolutionary than Mrs. Dale’s Diary.” Finally, in a passage that seems to have galled him more than anything else, I hinted that his music was losing its bite, unlike that of the Stones. I concluded: “Look at the society we live in and ask yourself: why? And then – come and join us.”
from Power To The People by John Hoyland, The Guardian, 15 March 2008
AN OPEN LETTER TO JOHN LENNON
John Hoyland, The Black Dwarf, 27 October 1968.
So they’ve done you after all. I didn’t think they ever would. It’s a nasty experience and I offer you my sympathy, for what it’s worth. But I hope you won’t be depressed about it. In fact I hope this experience will help you understand certain things that you seemed a bit blind to before. (That sounds patronising but I can’t think of how else to put it…)
Above all: perhaps now you’ll see what it is you’re (we’re) up against. Not nasty people Not even neurosis, or spiritual undernourishment. What we’re confronted with is a repressive, vicious, authoritarian system. A system which is inhuman and immoral, because it deprives 99% of humanity of the right to live their lives their own way. A system which will show you if you step out of line and behave just a tiny bit differently from the way those in power want.
Such a system – such a society – is so racked by contradiction and tension and unhappiness that all relationships within it are poisoned. You know this. You know, from your own experience, how little control over their lives working-class people are permitted to have. You know what a sick, evil, and brutalising business it is to be a “success” in this kind of rat race. How can love and kindness between human-beings grow in such a society? It can’t. Don’t you see that now? The system has got to be changed before people can live the full, loving lives that you have said you want.
Now do you see what was wrong with your record “Revolution”? That record was no more revolutionary than Mrs. Dale’s Diary. In order to change the world we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world. And then – destroy it. Ruthlessly. This is not cruelty or madness. It is one of the most passionate forms of love. Because what we’re fighting is suffering, oppression, humiliation – the immense toll of unhappiness caused by capitalism. And any “love” which does not pit itself against those things is sloppy and irrelevant.
There is no such thing as a polite revolution. That doesn’t mean violence is always the right way, or even that you should necessarily turn up on the the next demonstrations. (There are other ways of challenging the system.) But it does mean understanding that the privileged will do almost anything – will murder and torture and destroy, will foster ignorance and apathy and selfishness at home and will burn children abroad – rather than hand over their power.
What will you do when Apple is as big as Marks and Spencers, and one day its employees decide to take it over and run it for themselves? will you let them get on with it? Or will you call in the police – because you are a business-man, and Business-Men Must Protect Their Interests?
One last thing. You’ve written some marvellous, honest, beautiful music. (And it’s an indication of the weird effect capitalism has had on you that you felt it was necessary to pretend that in doing so you were only conning people.) But recently your music has lost its bite. At a time when the music of the Stones has been getting stronger and stronger. Why? Because we’re living in a world that is splitting down the middle. The split is between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. You can see it here, and in the jungles of Vietnam, and in the mountains of South America, and in the ghettos of the U.S. and in the universities all over the world. It’s the great drama of the second half of the twentieth century – the battle for human dignity fought by the exploited and the underprivileged of the world. The Stones, helped along a bit by their experiences with the law, have understood this and they’ve understood that the life and authenticity of their music – quite apart from their personal integrity – demanded that they take part in this drama – that they refuse to take part in this drama – that they refuse to accept the system that’s fucking up our lives. You did it for a bit when you were taking acid – the only time in your career when you stepped outside the cheeky chappy slot the establishment had slid you into, and the time when your music was at its best. But they didn’t bust you (Why not, John?), and the way was open for you to come to represent not rebellion, or love, or poetry, or mysticism, but Big Business…
But after all, they still hate you, even if you are a company director. They hate you because you act funny and because you’re working-class (in origin at least) and you’re undisciplined and you weren’t in the army and, above all, you’ve been going out with a foreigner. So now it’s happened.
As I said before, don’t be too upset about it. In an unjust and corrupt society there is no dishonour in being arrested, and certainly none of us on the left are going to think any the worse of you for it.
But learn from it, John. Look at the society we’re living in, and ask yourself: why? And then – come and join us.
John Hoyland: To our utter amazement at The Black Dwarf, Lennon wrote back (on 3 December). We printed his letter in the 10 January 1969 issue of the mag (see below).
But first, Maurice Hindle takes up the story…
THE MAURICE HINDLE INTERVIEW
Kenwood, 2 December 1968
Maurice Hindle: Without telling anyone about it, in mid-November 1968 I wrote a long-ish letter to both John and Yoko showing interest in their lives and work and asking if I could come and do an interview with them about how they saw ‘Revolution’ at that cultural moment. I was in my first term at Keele and living in one of the huts. I addressed the letter to them and put it in an envelope addressed to the Beatles fan club, c/o Beatles Monthly magazine (bought in Keele Shop), as I didn’t know where Lennon lived. I was amazed to find a reply to this about a week later in the Student Union pigeonholes with my name and address written on it in a scrawl I didn’t recognize. It was written by John Lennon, gave me his phone number, and suggesting I call him if I wanted to.
I immediately gathered together as many florins as I could for the phone and rang him up there and then. I haven’t time to render the whole conversation here, but the upshot was that if I wanted to come and do an interview, it would have to be within the next three days, as he and Yoko never planned ahead doing things any longer than that. This was Friday, so I arranged for the interview the following Monday at Weybridge. John said that when I got there to call him from the station and he would come and pick me up. At that stage, he was under the impression that I would be alone. It was only then that I went to see Helen Varley, the editor of UNIT, and she suggested I take Daniel Wiles with me, as he had a cassette recorder, and had already done articles for UNIT.
In the event, there were three of us standing on the M4 hard shoulder early the next Monday morning, thumbing it for a ride, as I invited along an ‘A-level’ friend of mine, Bob Cross (also in his first term at Keele). When we finally got to Weybridge rail station, I called John from the red public phone box there, and he asked me to wait. I hadn’t mentioned there were three of us, which is maybe why he and Yoko turned up ten minutes later in his Mini Cooper rather than the psychedelic Rolls!
Outside Weybridge station, a Mini Cooper with smoked-glass windows skidded to a halt, like something out of The Italian Job. In the driver’s seat was Lennon, looking much as he does in the colour photograph included with the Beatles’ 1968 White Album: faded blue Levi’s jacket, white T-shirt and jeans, dirty white sneakers, his shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, and wearing the now famous “granny glasses”.
John - portrait from The Beatles album (aka The White Album) photographed by John Kelly, 1968.
John at the wheel of his black custom Radford Mini Cooper De Ville, outside EMI Studios, Abbey Road, 1967.
We shook hands and he said it might be a bit cramped for three of us in the back seat. Lennon then drove off, up his house on St George’s Hill, Kenwood. St George’s Hill in those days wasn’t gated, it was just a private (therefore poorly maintained) road. So with five people in the Mini, it was quite a bumpy ride!
In the sitting room at the back of the house, we sat down on thick-pile Indian carpets around a low table, cross-legged. I decided to kick-start the interview by showing Lennon John Hoyland’s ‘open letter’ to him in Tariq Ali’s The Black Dwarf paper – I knew it would get Lennon’s back up and make him talk about the things I wanted to hear about. Yoko said little, as we all knew this was primarily John’s day – and he said a lot. Apart from a short break, when Yoko fed us macrobiotic bread and jams she had made, Lennon talked continuously for six hours.
THE MAURICE HINDLE INTERVIEWS
Kenwood, 2 December 1968
CHRISTMAS WITH JOHN AND YOKO.
An excerpt of John Lennon and Yoko Ono interviewed with Maurice Hindle
Kenwood, 2 December 1968.
Maurice Hindle: What’s your response to the attack on you and the Beatles in The Black Dwarf letter?
John: He says “Revolution” was no more revolutionary than Mrs Dale’s Diary. So it mightn’t have been. But the point is to change your head – it’s no good knocking down a few old bloody Tories! What does he think he’s gonna change? The system’s what he says it is: a load of crap. But just smashing it up isn’t gonna do it.
Maurice Hindle: So what’s your approach to change? Is there any political angle at all?
John: My angle is what I am, you know – that’s my “angle”. And all the statements I make are in my songs or in the things that I do. You can change people you know, change their heads. I’ve changed a lot of people’s heads and a lot of people have changed my head – just with their records, apart from anything else they do. I believe in change. That’s what Yoko’s and my scene is: to change it like that.
Maurice Hindle: But don’t you see this age we’re in as different from any other?
John: Yeah, I do. I believe that it is different this time. And that’s why I don’t believe that [The Black Dwarf] will be ‘it’ – because that’s the same old game. I mean, smashing it up – who’s gonoa run it? Who’s gonna take over? The ones who are the biggest smashers. They’ll be the ones who get in first, like in Russia. They’ll take over again. I don’t know what the answer is.
I think it’s just down to people. He [John Hoyland, the author of the “open letter”] wants to just practise communicating with somebody he knows, and see how well he does that, before he smashes up the feller’s house. He’s saying in that letter about the Mop Tops, and that. OK, so we [the Beatles] Mop-Topped it to get where I am – I’m here. But what’s he doing? That’s the point.
There have been millions of changes, of course, but I’m still doing exactly the same thing I was doing at school, or at art school, and as a Beatle. The Mop Top image was the kind of thing that happens when you’re finally cornered in school, and you either had to just get smashed completely – [or] I’m not going to get myself crucified, if can help it, and so I’ve compromised. But I just want to see someone who hasn’t and who’s still alive!
Maurice Hindle: Are you optimistic?
John: I vary. I’m still a cynic. But I believe [that] with all the student bit, and everything that’s going on, we do have a better chance now, just because we can communicate with Czechoslovakia and everywhere – and just touch them a bit, even if it’s just from a record or a poster, or whatever. So I can’t believe we can all get beaten down again, with all that communication between us.
Maurice Hindle: It can only get better?
John: I believe it gets better. The Buddhists said it gets better, but only after you’re dead or something. I believe in reincarnation and that each time, it’s better. Even if you had a shit time this time, the next time will be just a little less shit. You’ve got to go through it. You can’t forget it – I’ve tried that one. And you can’t do it all in a sort of holy buzz – I’ve tried that one.
And I’ve tried the other one when I was younger: let’s smash it and kick it down. I agree with taking the schools over and never let[tingJ any tutors in; you don’t need ’em. If you really want to learn all that crap, you can get it out of books. So that kind of smashing up, I agree with. But you may as well keep the building and the books, otherwise you’re gonna have to learn it from some old guy, one way or an other. You may as well keep what they’ve got, and just change it.
I’ve always said that: “Don’t drop out, man, just stay in and subvert it! ” I mean, what we did as Beatles was subvert, even if we nearly got submerged while we were doing it. We got an MBE, which is one of the biggest jokes in the history of this island, probably. But that’s subversion, and that’s revolution.
Yoko: Yes, I believe in that, too. I don’t think that anything I do is compromise really – but if you’re a monk, just sitting there …
John: It’s easier to be a monk than to stay out here. And the point is, we all really know the compromise we’re talking about is the one where you “sell out”. So everybody thinks everybody else has sold out. But there’s even guys just in business that don’t think they’ve compromised, and really they haven’t. They’re secretly trying to do what everyone else is trying to do, but they don’t know it half the time.
I was talking to that guy Lord Beeching, and I was saying: “We want help with Apple [the record label set up by the Beatles in 1968], but we don’t want any creeps, we’re idealists.” I was giving it to him straight, saying how we wanted a happy office, and all that. But he rightly said: “listen, man, they’re not a complete set of fascists – there’s one or two human beings in the City!”
Which I hadn’t allowed for, with my great open-minded awareness and all that. I just hadn’t allowed for any human beings in the banks – but there are some human beings there. There’s probably some in [Harold Wilson’s] government, though I still find it hard to believe that somewhere, in that pile of slush, there might be. There’s people everywhere of the same mind.
Even among ourselves, we can’t communicate, which is the hard bit, among the people that really agree. [But] I believe that when you talk, it sets up a vibration that goes on infinitely. You know, it just goes on and on and on. So every thought-wave you have just goes on and on and on. It doesn’t end here, just because we can’t hear it, or see it, or smell it. So it’s a lot of hokey pokey and magic. But I believe in that, too – I believe in everything, till it’s disproved.
Maurice Hindle: Don’t you think people are too absorbed in materialistic things to change?
John: If people were just different, regardless of what material things they want and have, they’d see what material things were anyway. And I’ve found out by having it. It took me having it to find out you don’t need it.
My goal in life wasn’t to succeed and have ten cars and a house on the stinking hill. But there was always that, “Mmm, I’m going that way, I wouldn’t mind.” I thought, “I’ll be miserable in comfort!” That’s what one of my aunties used to say: “I’d sooner be miserable in comfort.” So I thought riches would sort of get me out. It did get me out, but it only got me out of Liverpool.
I used to think anybody can write songs and be a pop star. I think we even said it in the Beatles book by Hunter Davies. I’ve changed that much since then – I don’t believe it now. I made it ‘cos I’m me, and I have that thing that makes that music, and makes those things up. I believe everybody’s got something; it ‘s just they’ve got to bring it out.
You can come from anywhere and have it. Like Yoko and I are like that, mentally [holds up fore and middle fingers together and hums]. She comes from some kind of high-class Japanese banking family that wouldn’t even let me sweep the floor, and I come from Liverpool east/west, all the symbolic bit. And she’s the nearest thing to me I’ve ever come across in me life!
I believed before that you could come from the working class, or be born royal, and still make it. Even though I think that’s harder, to be born into that situation and be taught that you’re superior. Yoko’s hardest thing was being brought up to believe that she and her class were special and that you don’t [need to] communicate or worry. But at least if you’re born at the bottom, you are told that you’re nothing, and you either accept it or you try and set out and do something about it.
Maurice Hindle: Have money and success brought any of the other Beatles happiness?
John: No, no. They’re all in the same boat, the rich people I’ve met. The ones that are so-called happy with it are happy in the way that the woman in the semi-detached is happy. We used to live in a row of about 20 houses, and the ones at the end who had two cars were so-called happy, supposed to be happier than those of us with no phone or car, or whatever. But I’ve never met anyone completely happy. I don’t believe it exists. There’s always got to be the positive/ negative, yin/yang bit. There’s no such thing as just happiness, pure, like that.
I think you can reach a certain state of consciousness, a state where you’re not aware of anything. I’ve had that playing. I mean, anybody that paints, draws, or anything, the bit about “being” is the same – or almost the same, I’m not sure – as when you play in a groove. Every time there’s a good session and the musicians are playing well, they’re out of it. That’s when you’re just being. The happiest people are those who are being, more times a week than anybody else. It’s just down to that.
Maurice Hindle: Let’s talk about “Revolution 9” on the new Beatles album. You can be heard intoning, “Again and again and again…” What came across to me was a sense of how violent revolution inevitably produces more violence, that there’s no way of avoiding that outcome.
John: Yeah, that’s right, there is no way out by smashing it, or whatever. But all the words on “Revolution 9” were just random talking – nothing written down, like a script or anything. I think it was just George, Yoko and I. I did a lot of it with loops and bits of old Beethoven that were lying around EMI , any bits and pieces – and stuck them together. We did some sort of “priming the canvas” tracks. We had the tape on, a bit of echo and a cup of tea or something [rattles a teacup in the saucer] and George and I just talked for about 20 minutes about anything. We’ve been doing it on tape around the world for years. Just an ” …and so, brother, I’d like to say welcome” just any rambling.
And then I got all the loops and basic tracks on different machines. So it was like a big organ or something, where I knew vaguely which track will come up if I did that. And I just tried to get the bits of conversation in that I liked, that seemed to say something, like “Do what you can, brother”, or anything like that, and tried to pull out the ones I didn’t like.
I think I did it in one go: I just got it, and I did some slight editing after that. So most of it is completely random in that respect – it’s like throwing the dice, or the I-Ching, or whatever. But there’s no such thing as random really. It’s random compared with sitting down and writing: “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog.” But even that’s random.
With this latest Beatles album, do you feel you’ve moved on from the earlier records, which you’ve said were “self-conscious”?
On this album, we rid ourselves of the self-conscious bit. We’re doing what we were doing earlier on, but with a better knowledge and technique of recording.
Quite a few of the tracks are just straight takes of us playing. “Yer Blues” was recorded in a smaller room just for a change from the big studio. We just did it. And “I Will“, “Julia” and all them, it’s just us singing like that. But the technique makes it a bit better than one of us just singing in the early days; it’s just we know the technique of recording better.
If we did the first album again, with “Twist and Shout” and all those things on, it would be the same. But we sound more like we sounded then, on this record, than we do on the first record. You know, people who heard us in Liverpool and Hamburg before we turned into a mass scream – that’s how we played, just heavy rock. But when it was put down on the early records, there was never enough bass in it, the guitar solo never came through, and generally we just didn’t know about recording. So now we know how to record a bit.
Maurice Hindle: What are the other Beatles doing right now?
John: They’re all doing their bit. George is out in the States reconnecting with Dylan and a few people out there that we’ve lost touch with, seeing who we can pick up for the label. There’s a great record he’s got, God knows how we’re gonna release it: “The King of Fuck” [issued by Apple in 1969 as “The King of Fuh“]. lt’s just fantastic, by a feller called Brute Force. “Hail, the fucking” [laughter]. So we’re hoping to put that out soon, one way or another. [Sings] “All hail the King of Fuck!”
Maurice Hindle: Did your recent drugs bust happen because you’d been friends with the establishment?
John: Oh, that was in the The Black Dwarf thing. Well, he’s probably right. Earlier on, the Mop Top thing was preventing us from getting busted, because we were open about it years ago – it was common knowledge. I don’t know the reason why they suddenly busted me. Probably because I’ve been waving my flag a bit, that’s all, like Two Virgins [John and Yoko’s 1968 album of experimental music, which feature s a nude photo of the couple on the sleeve] and various other things. But this guy [John Hoyland] is one of those “The Rolling Stones are changing it and you’re not” types.
In fact, the Stones and I are great mates. I’m sick of this Sort of petty thing. It’s been going on for years. It used to be “The Stones do this, and you do that” with the fans and that. But now it’s all down to these revolutionaries, y’know. And the thing is, the Stones and I are close.
Yoko: [who had been out of the room]: I haven’t seen that, have I?
John: Oh, this is the one in The Black Dwarf – it’ll get you going!
Maurice Hindle: It’s about street-fighting groups versus the capitalistic Beatles …
John: Yeah, well. They’ll see – I’m not here to change them. They can get on with it. Let them break down people’s places and see where it gets ’em. But I’ll tell you what – if those people start the revolution, me and the Stones’ll probably be the first ones they’ll shoot.
[Reads through The Black Dwarf letter again] He talks about the Stones and the Who, how they came “bursting out”. He’s forgotten to mention that if it wasn’t for us, the Stones and the Who wouldn’t have been allowed out. Amazing. These people are so bitter, they’re holding the whole thing back.
They’re showing with what they write, and how they say it, how they can never run a new scene, because before we’ve even done anything, they’re already quibbling about who’s doing what, and who’s the ethnic one, and who isn’t. And let them go and talk to the Stones, the Who, Dylan, me, Yoko, Andy Warhol: anybody doing anything doesn’t think like this.
And what none of ’em can understand is that they’re the ones who are holding it back by breaking it up in the ranks already. Before anything has moved forward even half an inch, there’s some fool like this trying to get it into another bag, before we’ve even burst the old bag.
[He goes back to reading The Black Dwarf letter] I think he might get his wish here – that I get so fucked up with the money that … he might be right.
Maurice Hindle: Were you ever unhappy when you and the Beatles were rushing around making money?
John: Oh, that was the most miserable time of our lives. The Mop Top, MBE, cop-out period was torture. And that’s why we dropped touring.
Maurice Hindle: But it’s brought you here.
John: But it’s put me back where I started, y’know. That’s why l’m saying it wasn’t worth the drum – it wasn’t worth the MBE and that, or whatever happened then. You know, anybody listening, or [who’s] gonna read it: Don’t bother, ‘cos you’re back where you started. Just play it by ear, but forget about making it, ‘cos there’s nothing to make.
And I could never have done it alone. There always had to be one of us [Beatles] carrying it at the time, to do the compromise – everyone else was in such a state, that we had to take it in turns to be the Mop Top.
Maurice Hindle: Some people were quite upset the Beatles stopped touring.
John: Yeah, but I mean, they’d want us to carry on like Flanagan and Allen [the English vaudeville act], wheeling ’em on at 81.
They still haven’t realised that we’re not your all-round-boy-next-door entertainers. I mean, that’s what they want, the Crazy Gang [another English vaudeville act] or the Marx Brothers, or something.
Maurice Hindle: How do you go about writing your songs?
John: Well, we haven’t written together since (Sergeant] Pepper, really. Vaguely in India, we were writing a bit together. But this album we wrote least of all together, just’ cos of circumstances and all that. Or maybe we didn’t feel like it, I don’t know what.
We do it any way, any combination you can think of. We do it from a line, from nothing – like “Birthday” was written in the studio, from nothing. There’s no way of describing it, unless I go into ” …and when we wrote this, I was on piano and he was on guitar”. It’s all right, that kind of talk, but l’ve said it all somewhere or other, and it’s just a bit of a hassle to say it.
Yoko: Did you know about some of the things we did this year, like the Coventry thing?
Maurice Hindle: Planting the acorns for peace at Coventry Cathedral? Yes, you were invited to take part in a major exhibltlon of British sculpture, but when the organisers heard of your plan to plant live acorns, they said it wasn’t sculpture and banned it from the main exhibit area.
John: Can we give ’em some of the handouts if we’ve got them?
Yoko: Yes, we should have some. The thing is… well, that’s actually the most important thing we did this year, creatively.
John: It was the first thing we did together. She just said there’s a sculpture show on, and why don’t you come in it? So I thought I’d just put an acorn in – it’s living sculpture, y’know? And they said, “Yeah, come along, come along.” They wanted something, so we gave them a seat round it, for when the tree grows, just to sit on it and wait for it to grow.
But we had such a bloody hassle getting it in; the organisers didn’t want it shown alongside the Henry Moores, a real battle. And then we finally buried it, the acorns and that. See, her piece was pinching the acorn idea from me, so we put two in. It was pretty good – it’s the best thing we’ve done, y’know …
Maurice Hindle: There would never have been any letters story (or indeed interview in the way it actually developed) if I hadn’t drawn Lennon’s attention to the letter in The Black Dwarf, which he had never seen until I showed it to him. But the story as conveyed reads as if he had been a reader of the ultra-left paper and ‘wrote back immediately and angrily’ – that is not what happened. The key point is that The Black Dwarf episode and response by Lennon could not and would not have happened if I had not taken the initiative by setting up the interview, quite alone, with John Lennon.
The day after this interview, December 3rd, John Lennon typed out a reply to John Hoyland and sent it to Tariq Ali the publisher of The Black Dwarf, for publication in the paper.
Tariq Ali takes up the story…
Tariq Ali: Our first direct contact in 1968 was formal. I was editing The Black Dwarf, a radical politico-cultural magazine. We had published “An Open Letter To John Lennon” — a savage review of the Beatles’ song ‘Revolution’ by John Hoyland, our music/popular culture critic. John Lennon had been busted by the cops. The tone of the letter was undoubtedly patronising, and we thought he would ignore it. But a week later he sent a reply to John Hoyland with a covering note hoping I would publish it. We did. As these extracts suggest, it was a spirited exchange.
The Black Dwarf, 10 January 1969.
A VERY OPEN LETTER TO JOHN HOYLAND FROM JOHN LENNON
John Lennon, The Black Dwarf, 10 January 1969.
Your letter didn’t sound patronising – it was. Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? I’m not only up against the establishment but you, too, it seems. I know what I’m up against – narrow minds – rich/poor. All your relationships may be poisoned – it depends how you look at it. What kind of system do you propose and who would run it?
I don’t remember saying ‘Revolution’ was revolutionary – fuck Mrs Dale. Listen to all three versions (Revolution 1, 2 and 9) then try again, dear John. You say, ‘In order to change the world we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world. And then – destroy it. Ruthlessly.’ You’re obviously on a destruction kick. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it – People – so do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until you/we change your/our heads – there’s no chance. Tell me of one successful revolution. Who fucked up communism – christianity – capitalism – buddhism, etc? Sick Heads, and nothing else. Do you think all the enemy wear capitalist badges so that you can shoot them? It’s a bit naive, John. You seem to think it’s just a class war.
Apple was never intended to be as big as Marks and Spencers – our only reference to it was to get the kind of deal we used to get from this nasty capitalist shop when we were downtrodden working class students and bought a sweater or something which was reasonably cheap and lasted. We set up Apple with the money we as workers earned, so that we could control what we did production-wise, as much as we could. If it ever gets taken over by other workers, as far as I’m concerned, they can have it.
When I say we con people – I mean we’re selling dreams. Friends of mine like Dylan and Stones, etc who are doing their bit would understand what I said – ask them – then work it out.
The establishment never slotted us into a ‘cheeky chappy’ bag, dear John – WE DID – to get here to do what we’re doing now. I was there, you weren’t. So suddenly the papers told you we were taking acid – two years after the event! So you decided that our music was best then. You’re probably right about why they didn’t bust me before – they, like you, had me ‘tagged’. I’ll tell you something – I’ve been up against the same people all my life – I know they still hate me. There’s no difference now – just the size of the game has changed. Then it was school masters, relatives, etc – now I’m arrested or ticked off by fascists or brothers in endless fucking prose.
Who’s upset about the arrest? OK. I’ll have a cup of tea. I don’t worry about what you – the left – the middle – the right or any fucking boys’ club think. I’m not that bourgeois.
Look man, I was/am not against you. Instead of splitting hairs about the Beatles and the Stones – think a little bigger – look at the world we’re living in, John, and ask yourself: why? And then – come and join us.
Love, John Lennon
PS — You Smash it – and I’ll build around it.
JOHN HOYLAND REPLIES
John Hoyland, The Black Dwarf, 10 January 1969.
It must be nice for you not to be in any boys’ clubs.
You’re right, though. My letter was patronising, and maybe some of the things I raised in it were trivial. It’s what you say about the more serious ones that I want to deal with. Above all, my point was that we’ve got to understand that the hang-ups emanate largely from the kind of society we live in. Unless you see this you end up blaming it all on nasty men. I think this is much more naïve than blaming it on the class war. Yet this is what you do. You say what’s wrong with the world is narrow minds, sick heads – people.
That’s funny, because we’re supposed to be the ones with ‘minds that hate’ who are ‘on a destruction kick.’ But we don’t blame people, and we wouldn’t want to shoot all the capitalists even if they did wear badges, because we think it’s natural for them to behave the way they do. What we blame is the form of society which produces them – which BY ITS NATURE is competitive, puts profit before principle, places power and privilege in the hands of the few at the expense of many, etc. Given such a society a lot of people (rich/poorj are necessarily selfish, narrow-minded, unscrupulous. They have to be. That’s the way the system works. Build a better form of society – one based on co-operation and participation and sharing – and people will respond accordingly. And we know this will happen, because we see history moving inexorably towards this kind of society – both in the capitalist countries and in the communist ones.
You talk a lot about sick heads. This also depends how you look at it. What do you think about a person who’s content to sit around being beautiful while the rest of the world burns? What do you think about a person who claims to be concerned about people and their values, but remains silent when confronted by the actual struggles and sufferings of most of the human race? Are they sick too?
Not that 1 think you’re wrong about people needing to straighten their heads out. It’s just that in ‘Revolution’ you say that people who want to change institutions should free their minds ‘instead.’ Why INSTEAD? What makes you so sure that a lot of us haven’t changed our heads in something like the way you recommend – and then found out IT WASN’T ENOUGH, because you simply cannot be completely turned on and happy when you know that kids are being roasted to death in Vietnam, when all around you you see people’s individuality being stunted by the system. Why couldn’t you have said ‘as well’ – which is what I would say?
You say you sell dreams. So do Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck. Is it just a question of whose dreams we like best? Or should we start to ask what role these dreams play in people’s lives, what they make them do, whether they make them act or go to sleep, whether they’re revolutionary dreams or go-to-sleep-and-forget-it-all dreams.
Let me tell you something back. I’ve been very involved in some of your music. The feeling I’ve got from songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘A Day in the Life’ is part of what has made me into the kind of socialist I am. But then you suddenly went and kicked all that in the face with ‘Revolution.’ That was why I wrote to you – to answer an attack YOU made on us, to criticize a position YOU took… in relation to the revolutionary socialists movement – knowing that what you said would be listened to and respected by millions, whereas whatever reply we make here is read by only a few thousand.
Now you say you’re not against us after all. Well, that’s nice, because I’m certainly not against you. I just wish you were a bit more on our side. (We could do with a few good songs.}
As for who I am – what kind of question is that, for Christ’s sake?
What do I know? I know it’s possible for us to create a world which could one day become a loving paradise for every human-being. Is that thinking big enough for you?
love and revolution,
John Hoyland: I had the last word in a reply that we printed below his letter. “What makes you so sure that a lot of us haven’t changed our heads in something like the way you recommend – and then found it wasn’t enough, because we simply cannot be turned on and happy when you know that kids are being roasted to death in Vietnam, when all around you, you see people’s individuality being stunted by the system.”
These letters were syndicated round the world and were described by Richard Neville, the editor of the hippy magazine Oz, as “a classic New Left/psychedelic left dialogue”. They summed up a tension between two tendencies in the counterculture – the hippy strand that had come to the fore in the mid-60s and embraced self-expression, spirituality and “love”, and the leftwing radicalism that was sweeping the world in 1968 and was concerned with changing structures. These weren’t necessarily exclusive positions; they were more a question of emphasis and a lot of people had a foot in both camps. But there was still a tension between them, and the “Dear John” letters epitomised that tension.
In the years that followed, Lennon shifted his position. He invited Tariq Ali to his house to talk things over with him and subsequently gave his support to a number of leftwing causes.
He returned his MBE, partly in protest against the Vietnam war, and wrote Power To The People, seemingly in order to correct the impression of non alignment he had given in Revolution.
Meanwhile, I like to think I shifted my position as well to one that was a little less naively and narrowly political. At the very least, I valued the emotional honesty of Lennon’s post-Beatles music much more than I might have done earlier.
A few years later I wrote to him to ask if we could discuss a new socialist paper I was involved with. I was delighted to find he held no grudges. He sent back a letter from a plane on the way to New York (“Altitude: light hearted. Location: here”) agreeing to talk to us as soon as he came back to England. But, of course, he never did come back. Despite our tiff, I loved and admired him and I’m very glad we closed our earlier disagreement so amicably.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Bed-In For Peace, Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam, 25 March 1969
John Lennon: What we’re really doing is sending out a message to the world, mainly to the youth, especially the youth or anybody really that’s interested in protesting for peace, or protesting against any forms of violence and we say everybody’s getting a bit heavy or bit intellectual about it. Everybody’s talking about peace, but nobody’s doing anything about it, except for a few people, and the things like the Grosvenor Square marches in London. The end product of it was just newspaper stories about riots and fighting.
And we did the Bed Event in Amsterdam and the Bag Piece in Vienna just to give people an idea, that there’s many ways of protest and this is one of them. And anybody could grow their hair for peace or give up a week of their holiday for peace or sit in a bag for peace, protest against peace anyway, but peacefully.
Because we think that peace is only got by peaceful methods and that to fight the establishment with their own weapons is no good, because they always win and they’ve been winning for thousands of years. They know how to play the game ‘violence’ and it’s easier for them when they can recognise you and shoot you. They don’t know how to handle humour, and peaceful humour. And that’s our message, really.
I am returning my MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.
THE RED MOLE
Tariq Ali: There was a long silence. And, as was also common in those days, there was soon a split in The Black Dwarf. How strange it seems now and how stupid and destructive, but that’s the way we were. The Leninists left to set up Red Mole and moved from swinging Soho to proletarian Pentonville Road, a seedy zone near Kings Cross station in London.
One day John rang and we talked. He suggested a meeting and a week later he and Yoko showed up at my bed-sit in North London with a delicious Japanese take-away as supper. We discussed the state of the world, including the state of the student movement in Japan. John’s views had sharpened considerably since the letters in The Black Dwarf. He told me that, like Mick Jagger, he had wanted to march on the big anti-Vietnam war demos but the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had forbidden any such outing. Epstein was fearful that the group might be denied visas to the States, which would be a commercial disaster. John always regretted having obeyed his manager, but that was in the past.
The biggest and best influence in his life was now Yoko Ono. I was in no doubt that Yoko had radicalized him further on the artistic and the political front. She had also been accused of breaking up the Beatles and we laughed a great deal at the suggestion. He was angered by the racist gibes against Yoko in the tabloid press. I suggested they should be taken as compliments. It would be awful if the creeps who attacked her decided to turn their coats.
Before they left, I suggested an interview with both of them and he agreed, wondering aloud whether it would be appropriate since “Red Mole was very serious and interviewing me might lower the tone.” He wasn’t joking, but I assured him that an interview would be enormously helpful for our little newspaper. I asked if I could bring my colleague Robin Blackburn—more attuned to popular culture than myself—to which he readily agreed.
A week later, a large limo pulled up outside our offices to the astonishment of bystanders. Robin and I piled in and were driven to Tittenhurst. We spoke for most of the day, saw one of Yoko’s avant-garde films (which Robin Blackburn simply adored) and were driven back to London. The interview had gone extremely well. Both John and Yoko had been disarmingly frank. All that was now left was the editing.
Tariq Ali: The very next morning John rang. He had been so inspired by our interview that he had written a new song. Could he sing it on the phone? He could. That was how I first heard ‘Power to the People’.
Power To The People / Open Your Box, UK single, 5 March 1971.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE.
Power to the people, Power to the people
Power to the people, Power to the people, right on
Say you want a revolution, we better get it on right away
Well you get on your feet and into the street
Power to the people, Power to the people
Power to the people, Power to the people, right on
A million workers working for nothing
You better give ‘em what they really own
We got to put you down when we come into town
Power to the people, Power to the people
Power to the people, Power to the people, right on
I’ve got to ask you comrades and brothers
How do you treat you own woman back home
She got to be herself so she can free herself
Power to the people, Power to the people
Power to the people, Power to the people, right now.
The Red Mole, 22 March 1971
POWER TO THE PEOPLE!
John Lennon & Yoko Ono talk to Robin Blackburn & Tariq Ali.
The Red Mole, 22 March 1971
Interview: Tittenhurst Park, 21 January 1971.
Tariq Ali: Your latest record (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) and your recent public statements, especially the interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, suggest that your views are becoming increasingly radical and political. When did this start to happen?
John: 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?’ But I was always political in a way, you know. In the two books I wrote, even though they were written in a sort of Joycean gobbledegook, there’s many knocks at religion and there is a play about a worker and a capitalist. I’ve been satirising the system since my childhood. I used to write magazines in school and hand them around. I was very conscious of class, they would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about the class repression coming down on us–it was a fucking fact but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out, I got farther away from reality for a time.
Tariq Ali: What did you think was the reason for the success of your sort of music?
John: Well, at the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realise in retrospect that it’s the same phoney deal they gave the blacks, it was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That’s the choice they allow you — now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I’m saying on the album in ‘Working Class Hero’.
John: As I told Rolling Stone, it’s the same people who have the power, the class system didn’t change one little bit. Of course, there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes. But nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.
Robin Blackburn: Of course, class is something the American rock groups haven’t tackled yet.
John: Because they’re all middle class and bourgeois and they don’t want to show it. They’re scared of the workers, actually, because the workers seem mainly right-wing in America, clinging on to their goods. But if these middle class groups realise what’s happening, and what the class system has done, it’s up to them to repatriate the people and to get out of all that bourgeois shit.
Tariq Ali: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?
John: Even during the Beatle heyday I tried to go against it, so did George. We went to America a few times and Epstein always tried to waffle on at us about saying nothing about Vietnam. So there came a time when George and I said ‘Listen, when they ask next time, we’re going to say we don’t like that war and we think they should get right out.’ That’s what we did.
John: It seems a bit silly to be in America and for none of them to mention Vietnam as if nothing was happening. Americans always ask showbiz people what they think, and so do the British. It doesn’t matter about people not liking our records, or not liking the way we look, or what we say. They’re entitled to not like us. And we’re entitled not to have anything to do with them if we don’t want to, or not to regard them. We’ve all got our rights, you know, Harold.
Memphis, 19 August 1966
At that time this was a pretty radical thing to do, especially for the ‘Fab Four’. It was the first opportunity I personally took to wave the flag a bit. But you’ve got to remember that I’d always felt repressed. We were all so pressurised that there was hardly any chance of expressing ourselves, especially working at that rate, touring continually and always kept in a cocoon of myths and dreams. It’s pretty hard when you are Caesar and everyone is saying how wonderful you are and they are giving you all the goodies and the girls, it’s pretty hard to break out of that, to say ‘Well, I don’t want to be king, I want to be real.’
So in its way the second political thing I did was to say ‘The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.’ That really broke the scene, I nearly got shot in America for that. It was a big trauma for all the kids that were following us. Up to then there was this unspoken policy of not answering delicate questions, though I always read the papers, you know, the political bits. The continual awareness of what was going on made me feel ashamed I wasn’t saying anything. I burst out because I could no longer play that game any more, it was just too much for me. Of course, going to America increased the build up on me, especially as the war was going on there. In a way we’d turned out to be a Trojan horse. The ‘Fab Four’ moved right to the top and then sang about drugs and sex and then I got into more and more heavy stuff and that’s when they started dropping us.
Robin Blackburn: Wasn’t there a double charge to what you were doing right from the beginning?
Yoko Ono: You were always very direct.
John: Yes, well, the first thing we did was to proclaim our Liverpoolness to the world, and say ‘It’s all right to come from Liverpool and talk like this’. Before, anybody from Liverpool who made it, like Ted Ray, Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, had to lose their accent to get on the BBC. They were only comedians but that’s what came out of Liverpool before us. We refused to play that game. After The Beatles came on the scene everyone started putting on a Liverpudlian accent.
Tariq Ali: In a way you were even thinking about politics when you seemed to be knocking revolution?
John: Ah, sure, ‘Revolution’ . There were two versions of that song but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out’. The original version which ends up on the LP said ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure.
There was a third version that was just abstract, musique concrete, kind of loops and that, people screaming. I thought I was painting in sound a picture of revolution–but I made a mistake, you know. The mistake was that it was anti-revolution.
On the version released as a single I said ‘when you talk about destruction you can count me out’. I didn’t want to get killed. I didn’t really know that much about the Maoists, but I just knew that they seemed to be so few and yet they painted themselves green and stood in front of the police waiting to get picked off. I just thought it was unsubtle, you know. I thought the original Communist revolutionaries coordinated themselves a bit better and didn’t go around shouting about it. That was how I felt–I was really asking a question. As someone from the working class I was always interested in Russia and China and everything that related to the working class, even though I was playing the capitalist game.
John: At one time I was so much involved in the religious bullshit that I used to go around calling myself a Christian Communist, but as Janov says, religion is legalised madness. It was therapy that stripped away all that and made me feel my own pain.
Robin Blackburn: This analyst you went to, what’s his name…
Robin Blackburn: His ideas seem to have something in common with Laing in that he doesn’t want to reconcile people to their misery, to adjust them to the world but rather to make them face up to its causes?
John: Well, his thing is to feel the pain that’s accumulated inside you ever since your childhood. I had to do it to really kill off all the religious myths. In the therapy you really feel every painful moment of your life–it’s excruciating, you are forced to realise that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky. It’s the result of your parents and your environment.
As I realised this it all started to fall into place. This therapy forced me to have done with all the God shit. All of us growing up have come to terms with too much pain. Although we repress it, it’s still there. The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realising your parents do not need you in the way you need them. When I was a child I experienced moments of not wanting to see the ugliness, not wanting to see not being wanted. This lack of love went into my eyes and into my mind.
Janov doesn’t just talk to you about this but makes you feel it–once you’ve allowed yourself to feel again, you do most of the work yourself. When you wake up and your heart is going like the clappers or your back feels strained, or you develop some other hang-up, you should let your mind go to the pain and the pain itself will regurgitate the memory which originally caused you to suppress it in your body. In this way the pain goes to the right channel instead of being repressed again, as it is if you take a pill or a bath, saying ‘Well, I’ll get over it’.
Most people channel their pain into God or masturbation or some dream of making it.
The therapy is like a very slow acid trip which happens naturally in your body. It is hard to talk about, you know, because–you feel ‘I am pain’ and it sounds sort of arbitrary, but pain to me now has a different meaning because of having physically felt all these extraordinary repressions. It was like taking gloves off, and feeling your own skin for the first time. It’s a bit of a drag to say so, but I don’t think you can understand this unless you’ve gone through it–though I try to put some of it over on the album. But for me at any rate it was all part of dissolving the God trip or father-figure trip. Facing up to reality instead of always looking for some kind of heaven.
Robin Blackburn: Do you see the family in general as the source of these repressions?
John: Mine is an extreme case, you know. My father and mother split and I never saw my father until I was 20, nor did I see much more of my mother. But Yoko had her parents there and it was the same….
Yoko: Perhaps one feels more pain when parents are there. It’s like when you’re hungry, you know, it’s worse to get a symbol of a cheeseburger than no cheeseburger at all. It doesn’t do you any good, you know. I often wish my mother had died so that at least I could get some people’s sympathy. But there she was, a perfectly beautiful mother.
John: And Yoko’s family were middle-class Japanese but it’s all the same repression. Though I think middle-class people have the biggest trauma if they have nice imagey parents, all smiling and dolled up. They are the ones who have the biggest struggle to say, ‘Goodbye mummy, goodbye daddy’.
Tariq Ali: What relation to your music has all this got?
John: Art is only a way of expressing pain. I mean the reason Yoko does such far out stuff is that it’s a far out kind of pain she went through.
Robin Blackburn: A lot of Beatle songs used to be about childhood…
John: Yeah, that would mostly be me…
Robin Blackburn: Though they were very good there was always a missing element…
John: That would be reality, that would be the missing element. Because I was never really wanted. The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing else would have driven me through all that if I was ‘normal’…
Yoko: … and happy …
John: The only reason I went for that goal is that I wanted to say: ‘Now, mummydaddy, will you love me?’
Tariq Ali: But then you had success beyond most people’s wildest dreams…
John: Oh, Jesus Christ, it was a complete oppression. I mean we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes and showbiz and Lord Mayors and all that. They were so condescending and stupid. Everybody trying to use us. It was a special humiliation for me because I could never keep my mouth shut and I’d always have to be drunk or pilled to counteract this pressure. It was really hell …
Yoko: It was depriving him of any real experience, you know…
John: It was very miserable. I mean apart from the first flush of making it–the thrill of the first number one record, the first trip to America. At first we had some sort of objective like being as big as Elvis–moving forward was the great thing, but actually attaining it was the big let-down. I found I was having continually to please the sort of people I’d always hated when I was a child. This began to bring me back to reality. I began to realise that we are all oppressed which is why I would like to do something about it, though I’m not sure where my place is.
Robin Blackburn: Well, in any case, politics and culture are linked, aren’t they? I mean, workers are repressed by culture not guns at the moment …
John: … they’re doped …
Robin Blackburn: And the culture that’s doping them is one the artist can make or break…
John: That’s what I’m trying to do on my albums and in these interviews. What I’m trying to do is to influence all the people I can influence. All those who are still under the dream and just put a big question mark in their mind. The acid dream is over, that is what I’m trying to tell them.
Robin Blackburn: Even in the past, you know, people would use Beatle songs and give them new words. ‘Yellow submarine’ , for instance, had a number of versions. One that strikers used to sing began ‘We all live on bread and margarine’ ; at LSE we had a version that began ‘We all live in a Red LSE’.
John: I like that. And I enjoyed it when football crowds in the early days would sing ‘All together now’–that was another one. I was also pleased when the movement in America took up ‘Give peace a chance’ because I had written it with that in mind really. I hoped that instead of singing ‘We shall overcome’ from 1800 or something, they would have something contemporary. I felt an obligation even then to write a song that people would sing in the pub or on a demonstration. That is why I would like to compose songs for the revolution now …
Robin Blackburn: We only have a few revolutionary songs and they were composed in the 19th century. Do you find anything in our musical traditions which could be used for revolutionary songs?
John: When I started, rock and roll itself was the basic revolution to people of my age and situation. We needed something loud and clear to break through all the unfeeling and repression that had been coming down on us kids. We were a bit conscious to begin with of being imitation Americans. But we delved into the music and found that it was half white country and western and half black rhythm and blues.
Most of the songs came from Europe and Africa and now they were coming back to us. Many of Dylan’s best songs came from Scotland, Ireland or England. It was a sort of cultural exchange. Though I must say the more interesting songs to me were the black ones because they were more simple. They sort of saidshake your arse, or your prick, which was an innovation really. And then there were the field songs mainly expressing the pain they were in. They couldn’t express themselves intellectually so they had to say in a very few words what was happening to them. And then there was the city blues and a lot of that was about sex and fighting. A lot of this was self-expression but only in the last few years have they expressed themselves completely with Black Power, like Edwin Starr making war records. Before that many black singers were still labouring under that problem of God; it was often ‘God will save us’. But right through the blacks were singing directly and immediately about their pain and also about sex, which is why I like it.
Robin Blackburn: You say country and western music derived from European folk songs. Aren’t these folk songs sometimes pretty dreadful stuff, all about losing and being defeated?
John: As kids we were all opposed to folk songs because they were so middle-class. It was all college students with big scarfs and a pint of beer in their hands singing folk songs in what we call la-di-da voices-‘I worked in a mine in New-cast-le’ and all that shit. There were very few real folk singers you know, though I liked Dominic Behan a bit and there was some good stuff to be heard in Liverpool. Just occasionally you hear very old records on the radio or TV of real workers in Ireland or somewhere singing these songs and the power of them is fantastic. But mostly folk music is people with fruity voices trying to keep alive something old and dead. It’s all a bit boring, like ballet: a minority thing kept going by a minority group. Today’s folk song is rock and roll. Although it happened to emanate from America, that’s not really important in the end because we wrote our own music and that changed everything.
Robin Blackburn: Your album, Yoko, seems to fuse avant-garde modern music with rock. I’d like to put an idea to you I got from listening to it. You integrate everyday sounds, like that of a train, into a musical pattern. This seems to demand an aesthetic measure of everyday life, to insist that art should not be imprisoned in the museums and galleries, doesn’t it?
Yoko: Exactly. I want to incite people to loosen their oppression by giving them something to work with, to build on. They shouldn’t be frightened of creating themselves–that’s why I make things very open, with things for people to do, like in my book [Grapefruit]. Because basically there are two types of people in the world: people who are confident because they know they have the ability to create, and then people who have been demoralised, who have no confidence in themselves because they have been told they have no creative ability, but must just take orders. The Establishment likes people who take no responsibility and cannot respect themselves.
Robin Blackburn: I suppose workers’ control is about that…
John: Haven’t they tried out something like that in Yugoslavia; they are free of the Russians. I’d like to go there and see how it works.
Tariq Ali: Well, they have; they did try to break with the Stalinist pattern. But instead of allowing uninhibited workers’ control, they added a strong dose of political bureaucracy. It tended to smother the initiative of the workers and they also regulated the whole system by a market mechanism which bred new inequalities between one region and another.
John: It seems that all revolutions end up with a personality cult–even the Chinese seem to need a father-figure. I expect this happens in Cuba too, with Che and Fidel. In Western-style Communism we would have to create an almost imaginary workers’ image of themselves as the father-figure.
Robin Blackburn: That’s a pretty cool idea–the Working Class becomes its own Hero. As long as it was not a new comforting illusion, as long as there was a real workers’ power. If a capitalist or bureaucrat is running your life then you need to compensate with illusions.
Yoko: The people have got to trust in themselves.
Tariq Ali: That’s the vital point. The working class must be instilled with a feeling of confidence in itself. This can’t be done just by propaganda–the workers must move, take over their own factories and tell the capitalists to bugger off. This is what began to happen in May 1968 in France…the workers began to feel their own strength.
John: But the Communist Party wasn’t up to that, was it?
Robin Blackburn: No, they weren’t. With 10 million workers on strike they could have led one of those huge demonstrations that occurred in the centre of Paris into a massive occupation of all government buildings and installations, replacing de Gaulle with a new institution of popular power like the Commune or the original Soviets–that would have begun a real revolution but the French C.P. was scared of it. They preferred to deal at the top instead of encouraging the workers to take the initiative themselves…
John: Great, but there’s a problem about that here you know. All the revolutions have happened when a Fidel or Marx or Lenin or whatever, who were intellectuals, were able to get through to the workers. They got a good pocket of people together and the workers seemed to understand that they were in a repressed state. They haven’t woken up yet here, they still believe that cars and tellies are the answer. You should get these left-wing students out to talk with the workers, you should get the schoolkids involved with The Red Mole.
Tariq Ali: You’re quite right, we have been trying to do that and we should do more. This new Industrial Relations Bill the Government is trying to introduce is making more and more workers realise what is happening…
John: I don’t think that Bill can work. I don’t think they can enforce it. I don’t think the workers will co-operate with it. I thought the Wilson Government was a big let-down but this Heath lot are worse. The underground is being harrassed, the black militants can’t even live in their own homes now, and they’re selling more arms to the South Africans. Like Richard Neville said, there may be only an inch of difference between Wilson and Heath but it’s in that inch that we live….
Tariq Ali: I don’t know about that; Labour brought in racialist immigration policies, supported the Vietnam war and were hoping to bring in new legislation against the unions.
Robin Blackburn: It may be true that we live in the Inch of difference between Labour and Conservative but so long as we do we’ll be impotent and unable to change anything. If Heath is forcing us out of that inch maybe he’s doing us a good turn without meaning to…
John: Yes, I’ve thought about that, too. This putting us in a corner so we have to find out what is coming down on other people. I keep on reading the Morning Star [the Communist newspaper] to see if there’s any hope, but it seems to be in the 19th century; it seems to be written for dropped-out, middle-aged liberals. We should be trying to reach the young workers because that’s when you’re most idealistic and have least fear. Somehow the revolutionaries must approach the workers because the workers won’t approach them. But it’s difficult to know where to start; we’ve all got a finger in the dam. The problem for me is that as I have become more real, I’ve grown away from most working-class people–you know what they like is Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s the students who are buying us now, and that’s the problem. Now The Beatles are four separate people, we don’t have the impact we had when we were together…
Robin Blackburn: Now you’re trying to swim against the stream of bourgeois society, which is much more difficult.
John: Yes, they own all the newspapers and they control all distribution and promotion. When we came along there was only Decca, Philips and EMI who could really produce a record for you. You had to go through the whole bureaucracy to get into the recording studio. You were in such a humble position, you didn’t have more than 12 hours to make a whole album, which is what we did in the early days. Even now it’s the same; if you’re an unknown artist you’re lucky to get an hour in a studio–it’s a hierarchy and if you don’t have hits, you don’t get recorded again. And they control distribution. We tried to change that with Apple but in the end we were defeated. They still control everything.
EMI killed our album Two Virgins because they didn’t like it. With the last record they’ve censored the words of the songs printed on the record sleeve. Fucking ridiculous and hypocritical–they have to let me sing it but they don’t dare let you read it. Insanity.
Robin Blackburn: Though you reach fewer people now, perhaps the effect can be more concentrated.
John: Yes, I think that could be true. To begin with, working class people reacted against our openness about sex. They are frightened of nudity, they’re repressed in that way as well as others. Perhaps they thought ‘Paul is a good lad, he doesn’t make trouble’. Also when Yoko and I got married, we got terrible racialist letters–you know, warning me that she would slit my throat. Those mainly came from Army people living in Aldershot. Officers.
Now workers are more friendly to us, so perhaps it’s changing. It seems to me that the students are now half-awake enough to try and wake up their brother workers. If you don’t pass on your own awareness then it closes down again. That is why the basic need is for the students to get in with the workers and convince them that they are not talking gobbledegook. And of course it’s difficult to know what the workers are really thinking because the capitalist press always only quotes mouthpieces like Vic Feather* anyway. [Ed. Note: Vic Feather 1908-76 was General Secretary of the TUC from 1969-73.]
So the only thing is to talk to them directly, especially the young workers. We’ve got to start with them because they know they’re up against it. That’s why I talk about school on the album. I’d like to incite people to break the framework, to be disobedient in school, to stick their tongues out, to keep insulting authority.
Yoko: We are very lucky really, because we can create our own reality, John and me, but we know the important thing is to communicate with other people.
John: The more reality we face, the more we realise that unreality is the main programme of the day. The more real we become, the more abuse we take, so it does radicalise us in a way, like being put in a corner. But it would be better if there were more of us.
Yoko: We mustn’t be traditional in the way we communicate with people–especially with the Establishment. We should surprise people by saying new things in an entirely new way. Communication of that sort can have a fantastic power so long as you don’t do only what they expect you to do.
Robin Blackburn: Communication is vital for building a movement, but in the end it’s powerless unless you also develop popular force.
Yoko: I get very sad when I think about Vietnam where there seems to be no choice but violence. This violence goes on for centuries perpetuating itself. In the present age when communication is so rapid, we should create a different tradition, traditions are created everyday. Five years now is like 100 years before. We are living in a society that has no history. There’s no precedent for this kind of society so we can break the old patterns.
Tariq Ali: No ruling class in the whole of history has given up power voluntarily and I don’t see that changing.
Yoko: But violence isn’t just a conceptual thing, you know. I saw a programme about this kid who had come back from Vietnam–he’d lost his body from the waist down. He was just a lump of meat, and he said, ‘Well, I guess it was a good experience.’
John: He didn’t want to face the truth, he didn’t want to think it had all been a waste…
Yoko: But think of the violence, it could happen to your kids …
Robin Blackburn: But Yoko, people who struggle against oppression find themselves attacked by those who have a vested interest in nothing changing, those who want to protect their power and wealth. Look at the people in Bogside and Falls Road in Northern Ireland; they were mercilessly attacked by the special police because they began demonstrating for their rights. On one night in August 1969, seven people were shot and thousands driven from their homes. Didn’t they have a right to defend themselves?
Yoko: That’s why one should try to tackle these problems before a situation like that happens.
John: Yes, but what do you do when it does happen, what do you do?
Robin Blackburn: Popular violence against their oppressors is always justified. It cannot be avoided.
Yoko: But in a way the new music showed things could be transformed by new channels of communication.
John: Yes, but as I said, nothing really changed.
Yoko: Well, something changed and it was for the better. All I’m saying is that perhaps we can make a revolution without violence.
John: But you can’t take power without a struggle…
Tariq Ali: That’s the crucial thing.
John: Because, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they won’t let the people have any power; they’ll give all the rights to perform and to dance for them, but no real power…
Yoko: The thing is, even after the revolution, if people don’t have any trust in themselves, they’ll get new problems.
John: After the revolution you have the problem of keeping things going, of sorting out all the different views. It’s quite natural that revolutionaries should have different solutions, that they should split into different groups and then reform, that’s the dialectic, isn’t it–but at the same time they need to be united against the enemy, to solidify a new order. I don’t know what the answer is; obviously Mao is aware of this problem and keeps the ball moving.
Robin Blackburn: The danger is that once a revolutionary state has been created, a new conservative bureaucracy tends to form around it. This danger tends to increase if the revolution is isolated by imperialism and there is material scarcity.
John: Once the new power has taken over they have to establish a new status quo just to keep the factories and trains running.
Robin Blackburn: Yes, but a repressive bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily run the factories or trains any better than the workers could under a system of revolutionary democracy.
John: Yes, but we all have bourgeois instincts within us, we all get tired and feel the need to relax a bit. How do you keep everything going and keep up revolutionary fervour after you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve? Of course Mao has kept them up to it in China, but what happens after Mao goes? Also he uses a personality cult. Perhaps that’s necessary; like I said, everybody seems to need a father figure.
But I’ve been reading Khrushchev Remembers. I know he’s a bit of a lad himself–but he seemed to think that making a religion out of an individual was bad; that doesn’t seem to be part of the basic Communist idea. Still people are people, that’s the difficulty. If we took over Britain, then we’d have the job of cleaning up the bourgeoisie and keeping people in a revolutionary state of mind.
Robin Blackburn: …In Britain unless we can create a new popular power-and here that would basically mean workers’ power–really controlled by, and answerable to, the masses, then we couldn’t make the revolution in the first place. Only a really deep-rooted workers’ power could destroy the bourgeois state.
Yoko: That’s why it will be different when the younger generation takes over.
John: I think it wouldn’t take much to get the youth here really going. You’d have to give them free rein to attack the local councils or to destroy the school authorities, like the students who break up the repression in the universities. It’s already happening, though people have got to get together more.
John: And the women are very important too, we can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority. It took me quite a long time to realise that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She’s a red hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.
Robin Blackburn: There’s always been at least as much male chauvinism on the left as anywhere else–though the rise of women’s liberation is helping to sort that out.
John: It’s ridiculous. How can you talk about power to the people unless you realise the people is both sexes.
Yoko: You can’t love someone unless you are in an equal position with them. A lot of women have to cling to men out of fear or insecurity, and that’s not love–basically that’s why women hate men…
John: … and vice versa …
Yoko: So if you have a slave around the house how can you expect to make a revolution outside it? The problem for women is that if we try to be free, then we naturally become lonely, because so many women are willing to become slaves, and men usually prefer that. So you always have to take the chance: ‘Am I going to lose my man?’ It’s very sad.
John: Of course, Yoko was well into liberation before I met her. She’d had to fight her way through a man’s world–the art world is completely dominated by men–so she was full of revolutionary zeal when we met. There was never any question about it: we had to have a 50-50 relationship or there was no relationship, I was quick to learn. She did an article about women in Nova more than two years back in which she said, ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’ .
Robin Blackburn: Of course we all live in an imperialist country that is exploiting the Third World, and even our culture is involved in this. There was a time when Beatle music was plugged on Voice of America….
John: The Russians put it out that we were capitalist robots, which we were I suppose…
Robin Blackburn: They were pretty stupid not to see it was something different.
Yoko: Let’ s face it, Beatles was 20th-century folksong in the framework of capitalism; they couldn’t do anything different if they wanted to communicate within that framework.
Robin Blackburn: I was working in Cuba when Sgt Pepper was released and that’s when they first started playing rock music on the radio.
John: Well hope they see that rock and roll is not the same as Coca-Cola. As we get beyond the dream this should be easier: that’s why I’m putting out more heavy statements now and trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image. I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct.
Robin Blackburn: Your latest album sounds very simple to begin with, but the lyrics, tempo and melody build up into a complexity one only gradually becomes aware of. Like the track ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ echoes the nursery song ‘Three Blind Mice’ and it’s about a childhood trauma.
John: The tune does; it was that sort of feeling, almost like a Haiku poem. I recently got into Haiku in Japan and I just think it’s fantastic. Obviously, when you get rid of a whole section of illusion in your mind you’re left with great precision. Yoko was showing me some of these Haiku in the original. The difference between them and Longfellow is immense. Instead of a long flowery poem the Haiku would say ‘Yellow flower in white bowl on wooden table’ which gives you the whole picture, really….
Tariq Ali: How do you think we can destroy the capitalist system here in Britain, John?
John: I think only by making the workers aware of the really unhappy position they are in, breaking the dream they are surrounded by. They think they are in a wonderful, free-speaking country. They’ve got cars and tellies and they don’t want to think there’s anything more to life. They are prepared to let the bosses run them, to see their children fucked up in school. They’re dreaming someone else’s dream, it’s not even their own.
They should realise that the blacks and the Irish are being harassed and repressed and that they will be next. As soon as they start being aware of all that, we can really begin to do something. The workers can start to take over. Like Marx said: ‘To each according to his need’. I think that would work well here.
But we’d also have to infiltrate the army too, because they are well trained to kill us all. We’ve got to start all this from where we ourselves are oppressed. I think it’s false, shallow, to be giving to others when your own need is great. The idea is not to comfort people, not to make them feel better but to make them feel worse, to constantly put before them the degradations and humiliations they go through to get what they call a living wage.
Tariq Ali: We met several times after that, sometimes before a recording session at the Abbey Road Studios, more often at Tittenhurst. Robin and I took a French friend, Regis Debray, to one of these sessions. I first heard the words of “Imagine” at the kitchen table in Tittenhurst.
“The Politburo approves, John,” I joked at the time, wondering whether I would have been in a minority on the Politburo on this question. His lyrics had moved beyond matrimonial moonings. Love and happiness now became a feminist call for a new way of life. Here again, Yoko’s influence was visible. The fantastic, as well as the surreal, were given a rest. Lennon, as Epstein feared, had become ultrasubversive and political. “Working Class Hero” and “The Luck of the Irish” did not please the conservative critics, but were enormously popular.
John & Yoko protesting on the Northern Ireland / Oz march, Picadilly, London, 11 August 1971.
It was on one of these visits to Tittenhurst that he told me how fed up they were with England. It was too parochial and racist, Yoko hated it and so did he and they were moving to New York. I could understand all this, but did warn him that there were too many kooks in that country and he should be careful. During his first year in New York we spoke on the phone, but soon lost touch. Computers, alas, had not yet been invented.
Together with the rest of the world, one felt a great deal of pain the day he died. I think the tribute he would have loved was the spontaneous grief in Moscow as kids rushed to the Lenin Hills and sang “Back in the U.S.S.R.” I thought of him during the giant global demonstrations against the Bush-Blair war on Iraq. His spirit was marching with us.
WE’D ALL LOVE TO SEE THE PLAN
John: I certainly don’t agree with the philosophy that you can’t be left-wing because you’re rich. I just happen to be rich by a rather dubious process called show business. We’re artists, so we’re revolutionaries too. The other revolutionaries we meet, whether it’s Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman or Tariq Ali, agree that our place is as artists. We’re revolutioniary artists. All we’re doing is exactly the same as when we met only instead of me being another poor artist, I’m a rich artist.
Time Out, August 1971
John: ‘Power To The People’ – I remember that that was the expression going round those days. Tariq Ali kept coming round wanting money for the Red Mole or some magazine or other, and I used to give anybody who was left-field, avant-garde or in the art field or political field, money out of guilt because I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m working-class and I am not one of them; but I am rich, so therefore I have to fork out’. So anytime anybody said something like that, I would fork out. He was hustling and I wrote ‘Power To The People’ in a way as a guilt song – I thought, ‘I’d better do that’.
BBC Radio interview, 6 December 1980
John: We’d got a bit of a reputation from hanging out with the Cambridge Graduate School of Revolutionaries in the U.K. They made us feel so guilty about not hating everyone who wasn’t poor that I even wrote and recorded the rather embarrassing “Power To The People” ten years too late (as the now-famous Hunter “Fear and Loathing for a Living” Thompson pointed out in his Vegas book). We kept the royalties, of course.
Skywriting by Word Of Mouth by John Lennon
Even with the Jerry Rubins and the Tariq Alis, we’d always comment, ‘Where’s the women running Red Mole? Where’s the women socialists? Where’s the women left-wingers? Where’s the women in on the meeting about how they’re going to overthrow the government?’ They’re all going to liberate the world, but they’re all doing the typing and making the coffee. Come on, this is garbage; but it took us time to see through it all.
BBC Radio interview, 6 December 1980
LETTER TO TARIQ ALI AND ROBIN BLACKBURN, 1971.
Dear Tariq & Robin
After a few month’s thought, talk with and without you. After carefully trying to read your paper – which as far as we can see can never have anything but a limited intellectual appeal to a few students, we’ve decided it would be a complete waste of money to cough up £15,000 to print even more words. We are still going ahead with the foundation idea. By ourselves.
We enjoyed meeting you and Robin and found it quite interesting, but our primary concern must inevitably be to revolutionise through art. Maybe in certain instances there would be a reason for the J&Y Freedom Fund to allocate money to your group in future, one never knows.
We’re sending a copy of this to Robin – so as you’ll both be able to compare notes.
P.S. Never talk in front of chauffeurs – it’s a typically middle class mistake!
Yoko: ‘Build Around It’ – this is by John. I have learned a lot from John because I was doing all these instruction pieces, to make people get involved. And then he suddenly one day said, ‘Why don’t you use this as a piece and call it “Build Around It” and it’s also an instruction piece to let people do something to it. But the idea is that most art, people and artists are interested in destructive things to destroy the establishment, etc. And we never thought of something like just keeping this as-is, and building around it. The concept was so beautiful.
Yoko Ono, Frost on Saturday TV Show, 24 August 1968.
John Lennon: Build Around It, 1968, enclosed by
Yoko Ono: Danger Box, 1968 'Open At Own Risk'
Perspex display case with embossed printing, 6.3 × 6.3 × 0.7cm.
BUILD AROUND IT
John Lennon: Build Around It, 1968, enclosed by
Yoko Ono: Danger Box, 1968 ‘Open At Own Risk’
Perspex display case with embossed printing, 6.3 × 6.3 × 0.7cm.
Multiple artworks created for 3 → ∞ [3 to Infinity]: New Multiple Art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E.1 19 November 1970 – 3 January 1971.