It’s funny how you can listen to a familiar song and suddenly get a new insight.
Case in point: I was listening to John Lennon’s Working Class Hero the other night and realized it wasn’t an angry song, it was sad.
If I had met John Lennon when the song first came out I would have said:
1. I get it. You need to put all the Beatle madness behind you, and Plastic Ono Band is your attempt to do that. Fine.
2. Is all the swearing necessary?
3. Great song!
In the past I would have said it’s a powerful song with Lennon at his best (except for the killer riffs, which are absent): straightforward music and forceful lyrics. It’s in your face; there’s nowhere to hide. Good candidate for the angriest song of all time.
Not so, according to my new insight. It’s desperately sad.
Listening now, I get the feeling that he wasn’t saying the middle class was an illusion. He was saying it was doomed. He was saying he was doomed. “I might have lifted myself up,” he seems to be saying, “but it will all come to nothing.”
OK, maybe he was just saying what he felt, and didn’t presage a future any more bleak than the present he was observing. But that’s what great art does, right? The passage of time, hindsight and more recent events only give new depth and meaning.
This song is indeed a rage against the machine, but it’s also a lament. As a working class hero, he knows the futility of resistance, and the cost that must be paid.
Tell the truth, give it a backbeat, put yourself out there, endure the madness – and get yourself shot.
“Just follow me,” he sings at the end. How many of us have the courage to do that?