True, we’d have lost some nice songs. But we might also be free of a great deal of today’s fatuous pop-star posturing
Had he been spared a madman’s bullet in December 1980, as he left his apartment in New York, John Lennon would have turned 70 last week, a hypothetical event that was celebrated at the weekend by balloons, concerts, congregations and homilies the world over. It was also marked by the unveiling of a ‘John Lennon Peace Monument’ in Liverpool and the presentation of the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace in Reykjavik.
Lennon’s was a tragic death, to be sure, and it is perfectly reasonable to mark this sad anniversary by recalling the gilded days of his youth. But let’s keep things in perspective. Lennon may have represented one half of a memorable partnership in English song, worthy successors to Gilbert (who was wittier) and Sullivan (who wrote better tunes). But he was also one of the supreme duffers of the late 20th century.
If his admirers restricted themselves to praising ‘It’s Only Love’, ‘Norwegian Wood’ or ‘Ticket to Ride’, there wouldn’t be an argument. Those songs scrub up well 45 years after Lennon, with a little help from Paul McCartney and George Martin, knocked them into shape. This is pop music at its best, fresh and zingy, making no bid for the higher ground.
The Beatles, particularly in the golden period from 1964 to 1966, were superb popular entertainers. There was a falling-off after Revolver, when they were encouraged to take themselves seriously, but an impish spirit prevailed. When people talk about the group’s roots in American rhythm and blues, they miss the mark. This was an English phenomenon, specifically a northern music-hall phenomenon, influenced by Billy ‘Almost a Gentleman’ Bennett, George Formby and Ken Dodd. ‘I Am The Walrus’ (not, admittedly, Lennon’s best song) is Lewis Carroll, sort of, with a Liverpool accent.
In contrast to their peers, most of whom had been brought up in London, neither Lennon nor McCartney needed to adopt a transatlantic manner — shortening the a, for instance. Their natural voices sounded authentic enough for their very English songs, unlike, say, Ray Davies, who is usually considered to be an ‘English’ songwriter but who nevertheless assumed the inflections of American speech. With the exception of Steve Winwood, another ‘provincial’, Lennon and McCartney in their prime were the finest home-grown performers, as well as writers, of the pop song.
Together they contributed significantly to a bracing chapter in the history of post-war English life. Coming after the success of films like A Taste of Honey, Room at the Top (to which Lennon referred in ‘Working Class Hero’), and This Sporting Life, the Beatles represented something that owed nothing to the Home Counties view of a rapidly changing kingdom. It is a bit of a cliché to say this, but it needs to be said anyway: the Sillitoes and Storeys, Finneys and Courtenays, Hockneys and Bennetts, changed our view of ourselves, and hurrah for that. The fact that there is too much inverted snobbery in our society today cannot alter the fact that there used to be far too much snobbery of the traditional kind, and, through his songs and his banter, Lennon helped to fix that.
Why then was he such a dunce? And why is his legacy one that cannot be celebrated without equivocation? Because he came to regard himself as an artist, and no mere artist at that. He came to save us all, sinners that we are, which isn’t easy to do in 12 bars.
The rot set in on Revolver, whose final song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, is full of gnomic utterances about turning off your mind and floating downstream. The drugs were working — except they weren’t. This was no liberation from the mundane world of duties and responsibilities, rather a form of enslavement to hippy-dippy absurdities that turned a gifted songwriter into a thundering bore. Soon we were entering the soppy world of ‘Across the Universe’.
What Lennon needed was a sympathetic housemaster to say: ‘For goodness’ sake, boy, pull your socks up.’ Instead he fell for a batty Japanese-American ‘artist’, Yoko Ono, whose talent was as invisible as her charm. He began to speak in capital letters: Give Peace A Chance, Power To The People, Woman Is The Nigger Of The World. He tried to pass himself off as a prole (he was solidly middle-class) and embraced causes from which any sane person would have run a million miles — Indian ‘holy men’, the Black Panthers, the Yippies, and the murderer Michael X. There were love-ins on two continents. With a huff and a puff (of marijuana), we could blow all the world’s problems away, and bathe in the waters of righteousness.
This descent into infantilism reached its lowest point in 1971, when he instructed Michael Parkinson to step into a bag before interviewing him. In the autumn of that year he recorded ‘Imagine’, and then fled to Manhattan, which provided richer soil for this idiocy than Weybridge. Some years ago I wrote that ‘Imagine’ was a Radetzky March for the Me Generation, and I do not disown that judgment. When all things are considered, it must be the worst, certainly the most dishonest, pop song of all.
‘There is nothing wrong with Mr Lennon,’ Bernard Levin wrote in 1974, ‘that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out.’ Sadly, none of his friends undertook the task. When he died, the ghastly Ono urged the world to pray for him, as he had prayed for the world. It was an odd choice of verb for somebody who had, in that revolting song, invited people to imagine a world without religion.
Since his death, the cult of Lennon the independent spirit has been taken up by pop stars, most of whom live in a world of perpetual adolescence and are therefore unable to distinguish between tolerance and indulgence. In this world all that matters is intensity of feeling, and purity of conviction. It is a world of bold gestures and emotional incontinence. Film stars are at it too. One can’t blame Lennon for every banality spewed by the likes of Bono and Richard Gere, but it began on his watch, this obsession with public virtue unleavened by private example. Like self-regarding liberals everywhere, Lennon professed to love humanity. He just didn’t care for people very much. There was little decency in his world, or gentleness.
By all means let us remember the man who helped to write some of the best popular songs of his day, even if they do not match the great popular songs of the era before rock ’n’ roll. Even Lennon’s best songs lack the melodic flavour of Kern and Rodgers, and as a writer of words he is not in the same league as Hart or Porter. He does not belong in the same stratosphere as Johnny Mercer. But fair’s fair: he did his bit. As a political figurehead, however, or symbol of rebellion, or one to follow, he was a poor joke.
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