September 27, 2020
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The Lost Interview

Power To The People

It is twenty-five years ago that John Lennon was murdered. This 1971 interview that is said to have inspired him to write the anthem by the above name first appeared in The Red Mole.

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Power To The People
Power To The People
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53
Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties
By Tariq Ali
Verso; New Ed 403 pages; USD 17

Tariq Ali: Your latest record 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 Lennon: 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.

TA: What did you think was the reason for the success of your sort of music?

JL: 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'. 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.

JL: 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.

TA: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?

JL: 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. 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.

RB: Wasn't there a double charge to what you were doing right from the beginning?

Yoko Ono: You were always very direct.

JL: 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.

TA: In a way you were even thinking about politics when you seemed to be knocking revolution?

JL: 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.

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.

RB: This analyst you went to, what's his name. ..

JL: Janov ...

RB: 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?

JL: 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.

RB: Do you see the family in general as the source of these repressions?

JL: 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....

YO: 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.

JL: 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'.

TA: What relation to your music has all this got?

JL: 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.

RB: A lot of Beatle songs used to be about childhood...

JL: Yeah, that would mostly be me...

RB: Though they were very good there was always a missing element...

JL: 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'...

YO: ... and happy ...

JL: The only reason I went for that goal is that I wanted to say: 'Now, mummy-daddy, will you love me?'

TA: But then you had success beyond most people's wildest dreams...

JL: 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 ...

YO: It was depriving him of any real experience, you know...

JL: 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.

RB: Well, in any case, politics and culture are linked, aren't they? I mean, workers are repressed by culture not guns at the moment ...

JL: ... they're doped ...

RB: And the culture that's doping them is one the artist can make or break...

JL: 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.

RB: 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'.

JL: 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 ...

RB: 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?

JL: 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.

RB: 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?

JL: 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.

RB: 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?

YO: 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.

RB: I suppose workers' control is about that...

JL: 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.

TA: 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.

JL: 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.


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