John Lennon’s fourth single with the Plastic Ono Band, ‘Power To The People’ was his first explicit call for revolutionary action, inspired by the politics of the radical left in the early 1970s.
Lennon and Yoko Ono had intended to spend January 1971 in Japan, in part to avoid the reaction to his revelatory interview with Rolling Stone magazine. However, their plans were curtailed when his lawyers insisted he return to England to deal with the turmoil caused by Paul McCartney’s High Court action to dissolve The Beatles’ partnership.
The couple returned on 21 January, only to be told that they could have fulfilled their legal requirements by telephone. With some unexpected free time, the pair gave an interview to political writers and activists Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn of the Marxist newspaper Red Mole. It was published in an edition dated 8–22 March 1971.
Ali and Blackburn had previously criticised Lennon and Ono in print for their belief in passive, non-violent means to achieve peace, such as the Amsterdam and Montreal bed-ins, the War Is Over campaign and the Plastic Ono Band’s appearance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival. They felt such publicity stunts were less effective than direct action.
Lennon, for his part, was often quick to align himself with figures who purported to offer guidance, whether spiritual, philosophical or political, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Dr Arthur Janov. And so in early 1971 he became enchanted by the New Left’s belief in radical intervention and popular struggle.
We’d got a bit of a reputation for hanging out with the Cambridge Graduate School of Revolutionaries in the UK. 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
Despite his public commitment to these radical causes, Lennon knew his effectiveness as a public figure was greatest as a songwriter and spokesperson. As so often, he turned to songwriting to express his sentiments.
Well, that came from a talk with Tariq Ali, who was sort of a ‘revolutionary’ in England and edited a magazine called Red Mole. So I felt I ought to write a song about what he was saying. That’s why it didn’t really come off. I was not thinking clearly about it. It was written in the state of being asleep and wanting to be loved by Tariq Ali and his ilk, you see. I have to admit to that so I won’t call it hypocrisy. I wouldn’t write that today.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon recorded ‘Power To The People’ the day after his encounter with Ali and Blackburn. Its lyrics are largely non-specific, in contrast to his later songs written for Some Time In New York City, which dealt with a succession of militant issues.
One clue to the future did come in the song’s final verse, where Lennon asked: “I got to ask you comrades and brothers/How do you treat your own woman back home?” Although just one small salvo in a scattershot campaign, it did anticipate feminist themes explored more fully on the following year’s ‘Woman Is The N––––r Of The World’.
‘Power To The People’ marked a transition from the personal, on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, to the public. An all-purpose anthem for any cause that wished to pick up on it, the chorus was a singalong intended to do for revolutionary activism what ‘Give Peace A Chance’ did for the pacifism movement.
Lennon wore a Japanese riot police helmet on the single sleeve. The message was clear: the late 1960s believe that ‘love is all you need’ was out of favour, and it was time to fight for change. Whereas before Lennon had been noncommittal about revolution, the opening lines of ‘Power To The People’ were unequivocal: “Say we want a revolution/We’d better get it on right away”.
In the studio
John Lennon recorded ‘Power To The People’ at Ascot Sound Studios, Tittenhurst Park, on 22 January 1971, the day after the Red Mole interview took place. Eleven takes were recorded, the last of which became the master.
Jim Gordon’s drums were recorded onto tracks 2 and 3 of the eight-track tape, to allow them to be mixed in stereo. Klaus Voormann’s bass guitar was recorded to track 4.
On track 5 Lennon recorded acoustic guitar on take 1, but on takes 2-11 switched to piano. His vocals were recorded on track 6.
Bobby Keys’ saxophone was on track 7, and a vocal overdub by Lennon was on 8. Track 1 was left as an echo track.
That evening an overdub session took place at EMI Studios, Abbey Road. A reduction mix put the drums on tracks 1 and 2, and both of Lennon’s vocal tracks on track 6.
The main purpose of the evening session was the recording of additional vocalists, which were added to tracks 3 and 8. The session took place in Studio Two, where the majority of The Beatles music had been recorded.
Producer Phil Spector added swathes of echo and compression, encouraged Bobby Keys to deliver a forceful performance, and recruited enough singers to make a small choir. He also added the sound of marching feet during the introduction, as if there was a political rally taking place in the streets.
‘Power To The People’ was issued in the United Kingdom on 12 March 1971, as Apple R 5892. It spent nine weeks on the singles charts, peaking at number seven.
The lyrics for the b-side,Yoko Ono’s ‘Open Your Box’, were judged to be “distasteful” by Philip Brodie, the managing director of EMI. He delayed the original release date of 5 March by one week, and requested the lyrics be changed.
The offending lines included the words: “Open your box, open your legs, open your world, open, open, open”. Rather than re-record them, the song was remixed and echo applied to hide the meaning.
This song has been banned and I believe it is because I am a woman. One of the reasons is because the word ‘box’ has many different meanings, especially in America, where it refers to a certain part of a woman’s body. If a man makes a statement like that, he can easily get away with it. I think the fact that it was a woman supposedly making an obscene statement really shocked people.
Lennon put it more succinctly: “I don’t know what the hell ‘box’ means in America. Apparently it means crotch, or whatever.”
In the United States, ‘Power To The People’ was issued with a different b-side, Ono’s Touch Me. It was taken from the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album, and featured Lennon, Klaus Voormann, and Ringo Starr as the backing band.
The US single was issued on 22 March 1971, 10 days after its UK counterpart. It reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.