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.
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’.
‘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 profanities 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 words 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.
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.
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 beat 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 JJohn 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.