Short introduction of status and success of John Lennon
- General overview of his political activism
+ Early year in Beatles
+ Break up with Beatles – Revolution
+ Yoko Ono – Most active against war (Bed-in Peace, John Sinclair, Luck of Irish, Nutopia)
+Lennon vs US government – Wilson/ FBI investigation/ deportation
- Analysis of “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance”
- In the flow of political activism of popular music in US culture
Impact of his death and his political activism on his generation and other generations
John Lennon was the founding member of the world-famous rock band The Beatles, the most commercially successful band in the history of popular music. He was ranked the fifth-greatest singer of all time by the Rolling Stone. However, what intensively marked his name into the history of music and history of the world as the whole was neither his beautiful voice nor song-writing talent, but how he made use of these talents against political injustices. “John Lennon’s name will always be synonymous with peace and political activism.” said William Hammett, the author of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café. Throughout his life was the constant fight against war, injustice, and call for peace, and equality. His most well-known activity was the anti-war movement, strongly criticizing the government’s persistence in Vietnam War. He was considered a “Rebel”, “the last great Anti-war Activist” with rocking anthem of Give Peace a chance, but at the same time a passionate and gentle peace-guarder with resounding melody of “Imagine”.
Let us first go through an overview of John Lennon’s political activities.
Although his name was mostly associated with his later commitment to criticism on Vietnam war in Bed-in peace and activist songs such as Give peace a chance and Imagine, John Lennon showed his passion for peace and political activism even since his early days in Liverpool. A rebellious student, failing all his exams and being thrown out of college before his final year, John Lennon seemed to be a born activist, acquainted to ridiculing teachers – his authority when he was a student. His self-made school magazine – the Daily Howl reflected on how he was observant, attentive, and critical of the events around. One of the Daily Howl posts was titled “The Farmer Speaking: “Arrreeee…arrr”, which coincided with the period of increasing consumerism and capitalism in USA and considerably declining numbers of farms, famers and rural residents. The same post also contained the notes of “women needed”, “heard on bus: Crumbs; What a life for a loaf”, “News for the Firework night…the sad news has just come through that only 80 people above the age of 76 were killed. Most of the spoilsports just lost their sight…”. These words and comments seemed to prove the point that John Lennon was always interested in criticism and his sense of humor and arts, which he sustained and developed later in his adult political activism.
In Beatle Press Conference: New York City 8/22/1966, when asked to give comment on the war in Vietnam, John briefly replied “We don’t like it”. The interviewer continued “Could you elaborate any?”, John said “No. I’ve elaborated enough, you know. We just don’t like it. We don’t like war”. Rather than the brevity of the sentence, the theme “we don’t like war” was repeated three times indicated the obvious grudging stand against war by John Lennon, not only against Vietnam War, but also against wars in general. It’s like a declaration against the war by John that later he transmitted into his anti-war anthem “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
In 1968, the song “Revolution” (Platoff, 2005) was released, criticizing the hypocrisy of the government, saying a lot but doing nothing. “You say you got a real solution – Well you know – We’d all love to see the plan”.
In September of 1969, in order to condemn on Great Britain’s support for the Vietnam War, John returned his Member of the British Empire (MBE) awarded to him by Queen of England in 1965 (The Beatles Bible & Hammett). John’s passion for political activism against Vietnam War was followed by two-week long Bed-Ins for Peace during John – Yoko honeymoon later in the year (Hammett). Although his interest as a political activist dated much earlier, the presence of Yoko into John’s life seemed to be a remarkable change. Since her appearance, one can observe a series of campaigns for peace. Even in John’s most famous song, “Imagine”, John attributed his inspiration to Yoko’s book Grapefruit “Imagine the clouds dripping. – Dig a hole in your garden to – put them in.” (The Beatle Bible).
The biggest campaign of the couple against war was Bed-ins.
The Bed-ins were non-violent protest against wars and John’s experiment on new methods for peace promotion. The idea for Bed-ins recalled similar features of “sit-in” movement, where a group of protesters remains seated until their demands are met. The Bed-ins attracted attention from worldwide media. In one week from March 25 to 31, the hotel room of John and Yoko were open for the world’s press every day from 9 am to 9 pm. The public proceedings were recorded and later turned into a documentary movie. (cbc.ca & beatlesbible.com)
John himself admitted the Bed-in was not as successful as they had expected mainly because the press failed to take the couple’s efforts for peace seriously (John and Yoko’s first bed-in for peace: Amsterdam, the Bible Beatle). At the beginning, because of the scandalous nude cover of the Two Virgins album, the press was even expecting the couple to have sex in public. That was also my expectation, knowing their motto “make love not peace”, before actually watching the film “Bed peace” on Youtube.
The documentary totally changed my assumption. After watching Bed Peace, one would have to admit it was a beautiful message for Peace. Throughout the film, John, Yoko and their young son were dressing in white, the symbolic color of Peace. The soundtrack from the beginning was “Because“, a gentle song creating a peaceful theme for the film
Because the world is round it turns me on
Because the world is round…aaaaaahhhhhh
Because the wind is high it blows my mind
Because the wind is high…aaaaaaaahhhh
Love is all, love is new
Love is all, love is you
Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry
Because the sky is blue…aaaaaaaahhhh
The lyrics was quite short and simple with the repeating theme of “.. because the world..” and “love is all” unconsciously drawing attention to the Peace message.
The Hotel room they were staying was also decorated immensely in white color; white walls, white blankets, white flowers. Then, John, Yoko, and their son, together, also made many drawings and paintings with messages for love and peace and decorated the room with all these massages. The scene of the whole family working together in love was itself an implication of the hope for peaceful world where humans love each other and cooperate in peace. This meant that John and Yoko took the protest very seriously and John put his passion and heart for political activism. Despite the sarcasm and criticism from the press, John persisted his standpoint against war and positive attitude for peace.
“That’s terrible, but that’s no reason to give up. Even more reasons to fight over it you know…we have no space or no time for negative thoughts…we just have to make it…” (Yoko)
John, facing argument from the press, insisted, “We believe”
“What we’re really doing,” said John, “is sending out a message to the world, mainly to the youth, to anybody who is interested in protesting for peace or protesting any form of violence.” John summed up his message in the short motto : “Give peace a chance.”
The second Bed-in for Peace taking place three months later in Montreal, where John and Yoko recorded “Give peace a chance” in their hotel room, “aided by a host of celebrities such as Tommy Smothers, Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, Dick Gregory, and Murray” (William). The song soon became the anti-war anthem and was sung by the wave of Vietnam War protestors at the second Vietnam Moratorium Day in Washington.
Christmas time, December 1969, John and Yoko continued to spread another message for peace “WAR IS OVER! If you Want it – Happy Christmas from John and Yoko”.
Later, John and Yoko also supported activities against injustice the case of James Haratty, who were hanged for murder in 1962. In 1971, the couple financially supported the UCS workers’ work-in with a cheque of £5,000. On moving to New York City in August, they participated in the protest and benefit concert for “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” to save another political activist – John Sinclair. Their album Some Time in New York City contained John’s most overtly criticism towards the government. The album was inspired by the radical left-wing’s policies in the early 1970s. The two songs “Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” showed straight opposition against the British government’s actions.
“If you had the luck of the Irish
You’d be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you’d wish you was English instead!”
(Luck of the Irish)
Right from the 4 starting sentence of the lyrics, the miserable situation of the Irish was revealed. The lyrics was simple and catchy, like telling a narrative story.
In 1973, John introduced the declaration of Nutopia, “the conceptual country without boundaries or needs for passports, only people. Nutopia has no law other than cosmic and all people of nutopia are ambassadors of the country”.
John’s political activism was so intense that the US government considered him a serious threat and tried to impose deportation on him in 1975. Even FBI was conducting investigation on John’s Lennon activities and making 300 pages of files on the singer in the period of 1971-1972, which was President Nixon’s attempt to deport John and silence his criticism of Vietnam War. John was truly fighting hard for peace, struggling with his government despite the risk of being deported. His struggles against Nixon’ administration and US government, which was summarized in the documentary movie the U.S vs John Lennon, was proof of his devoted political activism.
John Lennon made contribution to peace process in many spheres, including books, poems, movies and music. However, most notably was from music with “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance”.
Give Peace a chance ☮
The song was recorded during Lennon and Yoko Ono’s First Bed-in, which immediately became anti-war anthem. It was the greatest slogan for the artist couple’s commitment to fight for peace. The song reflects Lennon’s views on the Vietnam War, and wars in general. Lennon initiated the phrase “All we are saying is give peace a chance” from one of the interviews on the first round of the bed-in. From then on, he developed the song with such rebellious inspiration.
The song started with John’s obvious condemn towards “ism”. “Ism” was repeated over and over again “Everybody’s talking about – Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism – Ragism, Tagism, this-ism, that-ism – Ism ism ism” was critics by John to politics and the prejudice-dividing people into groups. Here Lennon created his own expression “bag-ism”- a synonym to discrimination. “Bag-ism” is a imaginary idea that when someone wears a bad over his or her head, that person simply became blind by the darkness and closed space of the bag, which dictates how he or she will discriminate others (Marier Blog spot). Depending on the “bag” is of race, sex, or any other attributes, discrimination will make people judge others unfairly. Hereby John wanted to say Peace could have a chance if people stop wearing the “bag” and discriminating others.
“Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout ministers, sinisters
Banisters and canisters, bishops and fishops
Rabbis and pop eyes, bye bye, bye byes”
Lennon showed the involvement of ministers, sinisters, and canisters in wars. The term minister reflects how religious preferences exert effect on a person’s view of war. The next term, sinisters is refering to scary and evil people actively participated in the course of war. One cannot assure whether Lennon directed these statements against the US government, spies, or the enemy. However, considering the context of Vietnam War in the song, it seems John was overtly criticizing Nixon’s policies, making him a serious threat for US government. Canister can be interpretation of technology and weapons of war. Canisters followed soldiers to the battles, bringing with them many shells, bullets, guns, menacing means of wars (Dictionary. reference).
The next phrase Bishops and fishops was an interesting word game. Bishops were high-ranking status in Christianity and yet John equaled them with fishops – literally means shops selling fish with the disgusting smell. The illogical comparison and equation of Bishops to fishops showed John’s criticism for Church people.
Rabbis and Pop-eyes is another religious pair. Rabbis is the high position of Jews and pop-eyes direct myriad meanings. Pop can be short word of popular; putting together with pop-eyes may be interpreted as public administration’s observation. In another way, reading out loud “pop-eyes” one can associate the word with Pope, the high status in Christianity. In short, pop-eyes, however one may interpret, seems to show John’s criticism for the control of the leaders against the freedom of people.
“Everybody’s talking about, revolution
Evolution, masturbation, flagellation
Regulation, integrations, meditations
United Nations, congratulations”
Many “tion” were mentioned by John. The suffix occurs in words of Latin origin and is used to form abstract nouns from verbs, whether as expression action, or a state, or associated meaning (dictionary.reference). Here John seemed to show his distrust and doubts about the sincere wish for “revolution”. These “tions” also just add up to the ways of dividing people. US government, despite its name “United Nations”, did not appeal to Lennon as a true unity. That means John criticized the word declaration for Unity by government, nice of the surface but unpractical in actions. The aim is “United Nations” but in reality the country had more separation, discrimination and wars.
Finally, John mentions many well-known figures
“Timmy Leary, Rosemary, Tommy smothers
Bobby Dylan, Tommy Cooper, Derek Taylor
Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare Krishna”
The reason why John chose these names was probably because they were well-known to the majority of Americans. John connects all these people with “All we are saying is give peace a chance”. This is the representation of the world with different perspectives but common idea of desire for peace, not war.
John, as many others, disagrees with the actions of the US government on certain political issues. He wanted to reflect his opinion through the song and speak against Vietnam War. The song was followed by the Xmas – War is over slogan, which bore a lot resemblance to John F. Kenedy’s opinion of war “Too many of us think [peace] is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable–that mankind is doomed–that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable–and we believe they can do it again.”
John, like JFK, was utopian peace speaker. He believed in peaceful solution for non-peace violence. John’s time was the time of public expression, with first the Beat generation, whose dominance dated since 1950s , and later the Hippe movement in 1960s, initiating the idea of subculture. John, together with many other artists such as Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Buffalo Springfield, addressed his view on war, peace, and acted as political activist.
Imagine was considered the signatory song of John Lennon (The Beatle Bible). The song ranked 3th in the Chart of Greatest Songs of all times. The beautiful message for unity has marked the song as the anti-war and anti-violence symbol and universal anthem for a peaceful world that rings true for each generation. By the time the song was released in the album of the same name, “Imagine” immediately rocked the charts in Us, Canada, Uk and Australia. The song has been covered by countless artists, from Diana Ross to Elton John, Neil Young to Lady Gaga in protesting or benefit concerts (The Beatle Bible).
While it is easy to comprehend and listen to the song, the lyrics seems to offer a deeper utopian significance.
Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
The song as a whole was considered deceptively simple. It includes of short introduction on piano, 2 verses in question-answer form
“Imagine there’s no Heaven – It’s easy if you try”, “Imagine there’s no countries – It isn’t hard to do”
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will be as one”,
the third verse,
“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can”
and a repeat chorus, followed by a short “payout” more or less a recap of the intro, then turned to end on the tonic chord.
There are several symbols in the lyrics “Heaven”, “country”, “Possessions” (Samsuli). The first contradictory pair of “heaven-hell” symbolizes the world after life. By using this symbol, he simply depicted the perfect peaceful world, with no life after death, no need for fear to go to hell or effort to get to heaven. What matters is to enjoy the current life one is living. The second one “country” suggests a border. He meant to convey that physical borders of countries have limited people from sharing, helping, and getting along with each other. Finally, Possessions symbolizes materially “wealth” and spiritually “religion”, which are the obstacles that keep people from equality. In the historical context of the song, 1971, possessions here deem to stress the gap between the haves and the have-nots. By saying that, John initiated if we can limit and cut of our greed, we can achieve universal brotherhood for mankind.
One does not need to be a professional musician to realize the pattern of rhyme in Imagine can as below:
The elegant structure begins with the request “Imagine” and answers with comments. Each request grows more and more challenge, from “easy”, to “not so hard”, and finally “I wonder if you can”. The repetition of “Imagine all people” in three times created a resounding effect, naturally attracted the listeners to John’s invitation to “Imagine” peaceful world. We have three offers for “Imagine all the people”
living for today
living life in peace
sharing all the world
It is easy to misunderstand the first phrase “living for today”. It is neither an apology for hedonism nor a selfish expression of living just for a moment. In Paraglider’s opinion, the phrase itself was very much an echo of the Sermon on the Mount ” ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin’. Then,living life in peace”. Then comes “living life in peace”- the realization that most people merely want to live out their lives peacefully. And finally “sharing all the world” draws a NUTOPIA world without any border, which resounds in the Michael Jackson’s “We are the world …It`s true we`re make it a brighter day just you and me”. Although it was not until 1973 that John introduced the concept of boundary-less country, he seemed to have developed and aspired the concept much earlier than that. The rhetoric follows naturally from an opening of borders “all the people”, cutting through all geographical boundaries by explaining how people share the wish “living for today…live life in peace”, and concluding with the wish of living at peace without any countries, only Nutopia. The song seemed to signal the maturity and peace in John’s mentality. In his previously written songs “Revolution” or “Give Peace a Chance”, there was a protest and critics.
“You say you’ll change the constitution
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead”
“Everybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism
Ragism, Tagism, this-ism, that-ism
Ism ism ism”
(Give Peace a Chance)
trying to show John’s resistance against the government and injustice, blaming them for making the world a conflict. The music of these two songs itself was very rebellious with hard rock. However, “Imagine” was something unique and different, as sweet and gentle as a Bible song. In “Imagine”, there is no protest, no blame, only hopes and beautiful vision of a better world. The song did not contain any obvious political message or big words describing specific phenomena such as “constitution”, or “ism”. It sounds so simple, yet touching to the heart of each and every listener, telling the story of an “Imagine” peaceful world.
The chorus – “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” showed how John, by sincere sharing and revealing his ideas, made the listeners internalize themselves with the song. Imagine was not a one-sided talk and preach by John to people, but an open conversation where he considered listeners part of his melody “I’m not the only one”. By giving the listeners the chance to internalize their feelings, John convincingly deliver his message, making the song one of best songs of all time.
“I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one” – this phrase has great influence on all generations to come, which we can see from the song “We are the world” USA for Africa released in 1985, 15 years after John’s imagine. Yet so much similarity could be sensed
“When you’re down and out, there seems no hope at all
But if you just believe there’s no way we can fall
Let us realize that a change can only come
When we stand together as one”
Both of the great songs for peace ended with the word “as one” conveys the hope and yearn for unity in the world. Imagine was a truly peaceful revolution. Throughout the lyrics, there was no anger, no frustration, no criticism, or blame. Only hopes, patience, and concern for general humanity keep resounding. John’s passive optimism, non-aggressive, non-demanding the listeners to do or change, just patiently motivates listeners to consider and “Imagine”.
The message was simple, the melody was simple, but that’s how it becomes effective the most.
“[Imagine] is anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic… but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted.” said John Lennon.
Concerning the video of Imagine, it was also a piece of art, simple, yet fascinatingly beautiful. In the video, Lennon is dressed as a cowboy, and Yoko Ono is dressed as an Indian squaw despite the fact the he was British and she was Japanese (Songfacts). This seems to suggest the messages that all cultures should get a long for a peaceful world without any boundary, a Nutopia. Again, white was the background color in the whole room, covering the walls, the windows, the clothes, and the piano, from which the music was born. What was really suggestive of a better peaceful world is the fact that the video goes from dark and foggy to light. Video of Imagine starts with the couple walking along the tree road in the foggy morning, then entering the room with closed doors and windows. As John continued to sing, Yoko gradually opened the doors and the curtains, letting the light pouring into the room. The visualization illustrates and suggests so much hopes and belief, ending with the message of love when the couple slightly kissed each other. It seems John and Yoko put efforts in making the video the perfect support for the music itself.
“Imagine” – John Lennon seemed to propose a simple request, since we could do anything in our imaginary world. Imagine suggests that, instead of violent revolution, Lennon aspired “nothing to kill or die for” and just a life of peace. With that message, the song harks back to the spirit of summer 1967 more than any of his other 1970s work and becomes so influential that Jimmy Carter once commented “In many countries around the world – my wife and I have visited about 125 countries – you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”
Putting John Lennon in the historical background, it is not difficult to realize he was in the flow of popular activism in US. USA, even since its birth in 18th century, has been through a turbulent history with constant fighting for the concept of liberty and freedom. Being a democratic society from the start, political songs were not rare in US culture (Muroe & Rodnitzky). Entering the 20th century with the ambition of US government of expanding US influence, there were more complaints about wars and protests for peace. At that time, social media did not exist and music was used as means of mass media to connect the population and transfer the message. The celebrities also played the role of leaders of political activism and took the responsibility to include their message and awaken the mass. They became the heroes of the political movements. Among them was John Lennon.
According to US news, in his last interview before he was shot, Lennon challenged a new generation of would-be-rebels to think differently.
“The thing the ‘60s did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had,” Lennon said. “It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”
John made great contribution to political activism in US. He extracted great influence on the generation, even after he was murdered. Some artists also imitated the idea of Bed-ins for Peace, by Marijke van Warmerdam or Noel Gallagher, or recently Maroon 5 in “Never gonna leave this bed” with the image of he and his lover lying on the bed on tour around the country. On the sad announcement of his passing away, the world showed deep sympathy for the great leader of Peace movement and indicated worry about who would be the next political activist. John was regarded as the last Great Anti-war activist. Many comparisons were drawn between John Lennon and later singer activist, such as Bono (William, 2010) saying that in contrast with sincere activist like John, new generation of Bono (or Justin Bieber, or Angelina Jolie) just borrowed the political activism as a means to achieve the ends of political power and social approval. Contemporary artists, such as tried to imitate John in writing songs with political message and protest for wars. However, in the eyes of critics, these imitating actions lacked the passion, determination, persistence, and sincerity that John symbolized. That being said that John Lennon had devoted a lot to political activism and he created a tradition and expectation for the artists to play a role in political activism, especially against wars.
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