Working Class Hero

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album artworkWritten by: Lennon
Recorded: 26 September - 23 October 1970
Producers: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector

Released: 11 December 1970

John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar

Available on:
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon Anthology

Although much of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album was inspired by the Primal Therapy that John Lennon underwent in the summer of 1970, Working Class Hero was equally influenced by the left-wing political movement and thinkers of the time.

Working Class Hero - Plastic Ono Band (Remastered)

By reaching backing into his childhood and school days, Lennon realised that freedom from conformity was necessary at a personal as well as social level. In the song he denounced the rules of family and school that diminished the individual, and encouraged revolution in the head and the heart.

I think it's a revolutionary song - it's really just revolutionary. I just think its concept is revolutionary. I hope it's for workers and not for tarts and fags. I hope it's about what Give Peace A Chance was about. But I don't know - on the other hand, it might just be ignored. I think it's for the people like me who are working class, who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, or into the machinery. It's my experience, and I hope it's just a warning to people, Working Class Hero.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Working Class Hero was part of a line of political songs that began with 1968's Revolution and culminated with the 1972 album Some Time In New York City. The late 1960s and early 70s was a fertile time for political unrest, with anti-Vietnam war protests, worldwide protests in 1968, and the rise of the New Left.

Although it may have been widely misunderstood, it is likely that the title - and, indeed, much of the lyrics - of Working Class Hero was ironic. Lennon was brought up in a comfortably middle class Liverpool household, but, as in Imagine the following year, was merely asking his listeners to envisage an alternative situation rather than treat him as a leader preaching from an ivory tower. The closing line, "If you want to be a hero well just follow me", was clearly meant ironically rather than as self-aggrandisement; after all, in 1970 Lennon was in the midst of a long period of self-doubt and insecurity, and was barely inclined to put himself forward as a leader.

Seduced by elements of the New Left, Lennon was disenchanted with the way he felt workers were used by the upper classes to build wealth, and were "doped with religion and sex and TV" to remain as an underclass. In this context, the description of "fucking peasants" was a critique of his perception of the ruling class rather than those they dominated.

The two uses of the word 'fucking' in Working Class Hero gave some discomfort to Lennon's record label EMI. Initially they threatened to censor the recording, but eventually told him they wouldn't allow the word to be printed on the lyric sheet. Lennon agreed to substitute an asterisk, but inserted the words "Omitted at the insistence of EMI" beneath.

I put it in because it does fit. I didn't even realise there was two in till somebody pointed it out. And actually when I sang it, I missed a bloody verse. I had to edit it in. But you do say 'fucking crazy,' don't you? That's how I speak. I was very near to it many times in the past, but I would deliberately not put it in, which is the real hypocrisy, the real stupidity. I would deliberately not say things, because it might upset somebody, or whatever I was frightened of.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

The song was one of Lennon's simplest compositions, being based around three chords and played on an acoustic guitar. Despite the basic arrangement, Lennon later denied that Working Class Hero owed a significant dept to Bob Dylan, whom he subsequently disavowed in God.

Well, anybody that sings with a guitar and just sings about something heavy will tend to sound like Dylan. I'm bound to be influenced by [those] because that's the only kind of really folk music I ever listened to. I never liked the fruity Judy Collins and Baez and all that stuff. So the only folk music I know is those about miners up in Newcastle. Or Dylan. So in that way I've been influenced, but it doesn't sound like Dylan to me.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

In the studio

John Lennon recorded Working Class Hero at EMI Studios, Abbey Road. It took him more than a hundred attempts to get right, in sessions spread over several days.

Eventually he came up with a satisfactory version in Studio Three, only to find he had missed out the verse beginning 'When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years'. The verse was recorded during a different session in Studio Two and edited in afterwards, but with less treble applied to the guitar. The difference in sound, and a poorly-timed edit which drops a bar before the chorus, suggests Lennon was more motivated by getting his message heard than by the quality of the recording.

An alternative version of Working Class Hero opened both the John Lennon Anthology box set and the Acoustic collection. The version is an outtake from the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sessions, and was likewise recorded at EMI Studios, Abbey Road. As with the album version, it was released in mono.

7 responses on “Working Class Hero

  1. Chris

    Funny…John was the only member of The Beatles who WASN’T working class…his family was considered Middle Class, which is like Upper Middle Class here in the U.S.

    1. Steve

      It’s more complex than that in the UK. The North-South divide for a start. Accents are clear indications of your social class too. It’s unlikely you’ll hear an accent like Lennon’s in the institutions ‘at the top’ that Lennon sings of.

  2. Graham Paterson

    I would firstly like to compliment the Beatles Bible websites summary of this great song. He was commenting on what society does to people in order for the individual to supposedly make it. This song is also one that is misunderstood. This is one of Lennons greatest songs off his finest album. I love the line ” learn how to smile as you kill “. Even though these people aspire to be like the ” folks on the hill ” and may indeed reach that goal , they are still ” peasants” . This song is probably more applicable today as when it was recorded in 1970. Lennons great voice with finger picked rhythm guitar, simply brilliant.

  3. Patrick King

    His uncle’s dairy farm was the source of his aunt’s relative comfort. His father was a stevedore, his mother had no profession but a poor reputation. Unlike the U.S., England has a class system one does not get out of simply by making money. John Lennon was working-class and made to feel he was working-class. This song is one of his more heartfelt efforts.

    1. sertaneja

      I am not English, so I don’t know the system. But it is not possible com compare John’s situation with his mates. John studied in a private school, to start with. The house he used to live was huge and beautiful. Even his avenue was better. He never worked aside as a musician. I read some comments made by his mates in Quarrymen band and they said no way John was from the same class as George, Ringo and Paul. They were considered of a lower class than John. All of them had “proper” jobs. No, I don’t think he was an Working class hero. In “many years from now”, Paul says how he and George got surprised when they visited him for the first time. They thought he was…rich! They even had siamese cats in the garden. 🙂 Possibly John inspired in his friends whem wrote the song. He never says “I”. He says “you” all the time. If you see the video you will see a little boy looking at a private school from outside…John was inside it. By the way I don’t know if it’s called private school in British English. I mean schools you have to pay to study. Aunt Mimi was worried John had poor boys as friends. As for his accent, it was on purpose. It was sort of “in” to speak like that. He was raised to speak like that. They guys from the Quarrymen also informed they didn’t like Paul and George in the badn at first because they were not from the same class as they were.

      1. Billy Ateyo

        John didn’t go to a private school (known as Public Schools or Independent Schools in the UK), he went to Dovedale County Infants School and Quarry Bank High School, which was a comprehensive school (ie run by the state). Not the sort of schools that your average middle class family would send their children to. His Aunt and Uncle may have been a bit better off, but that doesn’t make you middle class!

  4. George T.

    Great song and a great website.
    Being from he UK I find it odd that so many are trying to find reasons to portray Lennon as being middle-class. He was born into a poor family, went to state-run schools, and spoke with a ‘common’ accent because – like kids everywhere – he preferred to copy the speech of his school friends rather than his guardians.
    I don’t believe the “if you want to be a hero, well just follow me” line is meant to be ironic; instead, it is Lennon saying “look what you can achieve if you look to the stars” in a country where poorer people were/are seen as mere subservient fodder for the factory. If you call them “fucking peasants” you had better be from them, not sneering down on them from your gilded country pile.
    The only reason people cite him as being middle-class is that he moved in with his married-well Aunt when young; but they were lower-middle-class and Lennon never fit in even with that unimpressive social strata, doggedly holding on to his w-class roots.
    To be truly-middle class in Britain you have to go to a private school (Quarry Bank was a comprehensive), be able to mix easily with the rugby and golf playing set (imagine Lennon playing golf, he’d have broken more clubs than Tommy Bolt…), and be from a solicitor/headmaster/doctor type background (his uncle was nowhere near that level).
    Their house was nice but nothing exceptional and his later admittance into an art school was extremely common for ‘lower-order’ boys with a talent back then (sadly not so much now, hence the lack of great modern British rock music).
    It’s also worth noting that Cynthia Powell’s parents were against her marrying John, due to his lowly background.
    Interesting to read of the alternate versions of this song – I will certainly check them out.

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