“The blues are beautiful because it’s simpler and because it’s real. It’s not perverted or thought about: It’s not a concept, it is a chair; not a design for a chair but the first chair. The chair is for sitting on, not for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music.” (John Lennon to Jann Wenner, 21 January 1971)
When Jack Hutton quit Melody Maker in 1970, to set up what became Sounds, he told Richard Williams, who stayed behind, that it would be a “left-wing Melody Maker”. Hutton’s no longer with us, so I suppose if I get the chance I’ll have to ask Williams one day what exactly was meant by “left-wing” here. My guess — based on what Sounds actually turned out like — is that Hutton meant the new paper would be centred on rock. Even though both papers covered rock and pop and everything else, MM’s moral centre was arguably still jazz at that point. Even though the jazz fan-base always had a left-wing in the UK, with old-school communists solid among its supporters and chroniclers, it was a music (or so many seemed to feel) whose time was past. Rock was new and rock was now, the very voice of youth — but beyond this, rock had had, for a while by then, a tangled relationship with politics, radical left politics in particular.
This tangle reached to the very top of the charts. In 1968, as the tremors spread from the May insurrection in Paris — when everything turned upside down, and pop became art and vice versa — three versions of the Beatles song ‘Revolution’ were recorded. The first and last (the long musique concrète Bonzo-skit sound poem ‘Revolution #9’) were on the White Album, which came out in November. The re-recorded version of the first came out a little earlier, in August, as the B-side of ‘Hey Jude’. Perfect for exploring street politics as a fact and a possibility, and post-split the song was still being picked over three years on, in editor Jann Wenner’s gargantuan two-part interview with John Lennon for Rolling Stone (some 36,000 words long in toto) and in Tariq Ali’s Red Mole. The former was exactly what “the Stone” had been devised to do. The existence of the latter, a serious-minded conference with actual frontline radical activists (Robin Blackburn joining Ali for the occasion) is more surprising, an index at the very least of how wild and mixed up the times actually were.
Wenner always saw his role as chief courtier to the big new voices in music, less cautious investigator than loyal amplifier : which means Lennon is nowhere pushed or tested. It also means he’s comfortable: he unwinds deep into confessional mode, hinting at the worst of the group’s untold stories. Clean-cut to all the world, the real Beatles on the rise were “bastards”, he says — “you can’t be anything else in such a pressurised situation” — and the tours were “like the Fellini film Satyricon”, orgies and “junk and whores and who-the-fuck-knows-what…”
This is no longer virgin terrain, of course. Freighted with his huge authority for rock-readers at this complicated, confusing moment, swathes of this much-cited interview have simply entered pop history’s DNA. “The dream is over,” he sang on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his disenchantment with the counterculture at large growing as much anything out of his own personal exhaustion, and how we all feel when a relationship fails and a fellowship breaks. With Rolling Stone at the centre of how the music was started to understand itself critically and politically, Lennon’s many stances in this conversation were a deep permission as well a disenchanted retrenchment. Pre-Beatles rock and roll is the truest, best music, he now appeared to insist, and if we followed his charismatic lead, we’d be shunning McCartneyish Pepperish pop artifice on one side, proto-prog jazz-muso virtuosity on the other, ideally so as to re-enter a space of of undeluded unadorned therapeutic naturalism.
The most immediately startling thing about the Red Mole piece, from today’s perspective, is that it happened at all: startling that Lennon agreed to it, even more startling that the revolutionary organ of the International Marxist Group — a Trotskyist splinter maybe 1,000 strong at its peak — decided so publicly to engage with the thoughts of a colossally well off former frontman of a recently dissolved boyband-stroke-chartband. It’s a clue to how tiny and village-like the London scene still was, of course (despite Lennon’s recent relocation to New York) — but it’s also a clue to how much music and changes in the music mattered to the underground then, political or otherwise. Quotes from Beatles, Stones and Dylan songs routinely supplied headlines and speed-read slogans: this was a lingua franca and a badge of identity; not just a shared backdrop but a speed-read signal where you thought things were at, and the ways you belonged — or didn’t — to any relevant micro-constituency.
The Red Mole encounter began in late 1968 with anti-war activist John Hoyland’s disgruntled Beatles fan-letter (scroll down) to Black Dwarf (the paper Ali had helmed before Mole, which is to say before a micro-sectarian split in the relevant editorial). As a Beatles B-side. ‘Revolution’ was sour and suspicious and not at all in step with the movement: “if you’re talking about destruction/…/minds that hate/…/Chairman Mao/…/count me OUT!” Fanboy Hoyland was dismayed: a former idol was misperforming, the song closer to Mrs Dale’s Diary than to the Rolling Stones [Footnote 1]. Hitching from Keele to interview Lennon a few weeks later, students Maurice Hindle and Daniel Wiles show Lennon this letter, which clearly nettles him. He reads and rereads it more than once, shows it crossly to Ono, and in early 1969, he sends an angry reply (scroll down)…
That set the stage: in the wake of the final two-year Beatles meltdown and then the Wenner juggernaut — which is cited in the opening Red Mole question — the showdown. No fireworks, though: Lennon handwaves his way around current world politics unchallenged (Ali earnestly corrects him on Yugoslavia and Tito, but tolerates his apparent renewed enthusiasm for Mao’s Cultural Revolution). As for shifts and values in music in recent years, Blackburn in particular pads gamely through the critical nostra of the day, and – as the seasoned professional in this area — Lennon doesn’t challenge him. Much of it is commonplace stuff, but — in among all the busted myths, unmoored generalisations, snap judgments, settled scores and dick moves — these two conversations platform a wounded musician busy quilting a revised aesthetic from the rubble.
How to sum it up? Pop is bad and you should feel bad: let’s get naked and rock and roll! Naked emotionally, naked intellectually and politically, naked, well, yes, kit off for the LP sleeves lads, and fuck the squares if this bothers them… Rock and roll, especially black rock and roll, speaks urgently to the white working classes precisely because it comes from a soulful place of unrepressed, undiluted honesty and self-knowledge free of all possible bullshit. We have forgotten to know ourselves and act accordingly; this music is revolutionary for teaching us to turn once more to both — and this is happening and that’s the way forward.
(Narrator’s voice: it was not and it was not.)
And yes, it’s very easy to mock all this now! And to read it as early mass-cultural steps — disguised as urgent critical recalibration — down the long road to centrist dadrock and the present-day so-called authentocrat hegemony blah blah. Blackburn’s and Ali’s credulity seems a bit of a shocker, from our wised-up times — but Amiri Baraka had not yet published his rueful tales of the Black Arts Movement, and the contradictions within cultural nationalism were still confusedly working themselves out in 1971. Black Power was still a concept that amazed and enthused people, white and black — and of course “Black is beautiful” remains a counterstrike today against disabling self-hatreds and self-erasures.
The excitement of the encounter with rock and roll had begun with the shock of realisation that you can learn as much or more from people far outside your own neighbourhoods: that cultures not your own are not by dint of this lesser than your own — a valuable discovery — and that it’s good to choose to be encouraged to enjoy life more and to be a better deeper person in your understanding and actions. But the inspiration had gradually congealed into a habit and even a religion, of the projection of the desired angelic image (of pleasure and depth and goodness) onto these same cultural others. It’s no fun at all to be trapped at the other end of this projection— made a cultural-political saviour without being asked — and doubly grim when the projection insists that being your natural self is the only acceptable forward-looking politics. This was the high era of the method-acting delusion, in which — unless truth comes from deep within your own personal pain— everything is just lies and fantasy.
Some of the time, Lennon knew better. And so, as long-time operators in the flyspeck viper-pit of far left politics, did Ali and Blackburn now and then. They knew that performative ambiguities are essential to coalition-making and keeping different interest groups onside together. But 60s revolutionary socialism was still very much under the moral spell of Sartre’s existentialism, a philosophy never especially smart about the value of drama and of fiction beyond simple agit-prop. Besides, British class identification in the borderlands between lower and middle class is the murkiest of kaleidoscopes at the best of time, and neither Blackburn nor Ali was well placed to gauge this, let alone push back . When Lennon titles a song ‘Working Class Hero’ (and despite things he casually claims in both interviews), it’s as much angry disavowal as self-declaration, and in any case it’s ambiguous: is he a hero who’s working class himself, or a pop-star hero to the working class? (Ans acc.him = combination neither and both…)
Either way — despite his unimaginable wealth — it’s allowed to stand both times. And yet there’s so much here to ask hard questions about. As Wenner allows him to demonstrate, letting him talk on at such length without interruption, he’s anything but a natural soulful authentic angel undivided from himself and free of bullshit, but rather a torn and hurting mess of complexity, contradiction, evasive cunning, irony, play-acting and, well, self-misdirection. Free to explain himself, to present a self-portrait, he’s at once bolshy and timid, arrogant and bewildered, confident in his snap-summaries yet still beguiled by curiosity — and, like every bright pop-star, unendingly caught between the will to rile and the will to please (including pleasing revolutionaries who should be quicker to spot this).
And stripped of all this, he might have been happier — except he’d also be unknown, not to mention poor. In an era when more people of working class background were entering tertiary education than ever, the Beatles counter-narrative was by contrast one of ferocious self-education and mastered expertise, very much an alternative and anti-official model for intellectual self-mobilisation. His dismissal of almost the entire trajectory as myth — we were best on-stage, he says, before we ever came into the studio — is also a kind of a disavowal of any of this possibility. And — as upper middleclass college kids themselves —his interlocutors seem to embrace it, though it’s surely strangely antipathetic to the politics of possibility they want him to sign on to, to manifest and broadcast. Again — profoundly unsure of what they want from the exchange — they decline to challenge him, to follow through where he’s half-pointing.
The Lennon/Ono LP ends, or nearly ends  with a list of things he no longer believes in — Jesus, Buddha, Elvis, Beatles — and the plain declaration: “I believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.” It’s like coming home, he tells Wenner: “I’ll never change much from this.” The leisure of space and time to become uncomplicatedly yourself, to feel and and believe in and know home this way, is afforded very few people — and this, if you like, is how a mark of how far his stratospheric wealth has taken him from his birth-town, his roots, his class. Meeting Yoko as the breakthrough key to self-discovery in this best of matching companionships — of course it’s a tell that she’ was from the other side of the world, the other side of the arts, from a comfortable Japanese family, well travelled, well schooled. The many claims don’t add up — and neither interview presses him on any of this.
An LP a year until 1975, and his collection of rock and roll standards, then a five-year sabbatical — long aeons in 70s pop time — before Lennon returned to recording in 1980. By now the conversation that began when Sounds split off from Melody Maker in 1970 had changed deeply (not least as a consequence of these exchanges). There’d been wide revolt against the the leisured, over-wealthy aristocrat entertainers who’d shaped the recent past and seemed to clog up the present: punk rock, the revolt was called. Radical politics still had a toe-hold in the pop press — but the critical factions closest to it mostly took the line rock is now bad and you should feel bad. The lingua franca was now increasingly contested. Lennon was still welcome, unconfronted, in the pages of Rolling Stone, but his long absence from the UK conversation ensured few was overawed by his re-emergence. In the post-punk and new pop years, almost everything he had seemed in the early 70s to stand for would be questioned.
And then of course in December 1980 he was shot dead, by someone deep-lost in the labyrinth of a megastar’s unkeepable promises. Suddenly changeless in death and embalmed in grief-stricken nostalgia, he was removed from all useful reassessment, as everything round him went cold and congealed. Home, he’d said, but just as he set out once more, he was stopped. There are clues where he might have gone; how he might have evolved. His recording with Bowie, for instance — because he too was always a kind of proto-glam quick-change artist, forever negotiating the obstacle course his own throwaway comments had strewn before him. As for the blues, its potency was never of course a function of its unadorned primitive simplicity. Quite the opposite: it always involved reflection, and its energy and value came from the sheer layered density of all competing histories hurtling through it.
And of course there was the work Yoko had made with him in the late 60s, the be-ins and the bed-ins and the bag-ins, these high-visibility celebrity stunts whose purpose was to import go-slow bafflement and blockage into the flow of mass-media communication: the spectacle, but discursively on strike. The most heartening surprise twist in the Wenner conversation — in both conversations — is his belief in Yoko as artist-musician, his commitment to the idea that everyone should take proper note of her. Besides Warhol, that ineffable blank, he celebrates Fluxus and nods to Ornette Coleman as two unimpeachable stages in Yoko’s past, her rock and roll.
Warhol aside, the prankish avant garde before 1968 had seemed an individualised, out-of-reach luxury, supported by and therefore aimed at the wealthy and the over-educated. Pre-Beatles rock and roll is the truest, best music, he may have been arguing — but to say so and to foreground her, he has also to argue that she’s rock and roll — which complicates and expands the definition, to say the least. By refashioning the story to include her — even in a sense to re-begin with her — Lennon was quietly re-weaponising his art-school inventiveness and tossing it out into the wider world, the widest world thinkable, in topsyturvied form. He opened the doors of imagination and possibility even in the pop music trade press: no intellectual luxury is too good for the working class… this would after all be a pretty good motto for the toughest strands of post-punk…
1: It’s weird to recall how much of a free pass the Stones still had with the most rigorous 68-ers. Though of course they were carefully solicitous of this touchy part of the market: the song ‘Street Fighting Man’, about the May riots in Paris, was widely enough thought to refer to Tariq Ali himself that he brazenly named his memoirs for it.
2: Ali is from the higher-born Pakistani aristocracy, and extremely engaging and perceptive about it (subscription needed).
3: Actual closing song: 52 seconds of ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ sung down a telephone to a nursery-rhyme style tune (which isn’t ‘Three Blind Mice’ even though everyone for some reason says it is).