For better and – mostly – for worse, John Lennon essentially invented the phenomena of the ‘Rock Star’ as social-political activist. Having broken free of the perceived restraints put upon him whilst in The Beatles, Lennon’s early solo works are marked by an earnest, and in many cases naïve, search for integrity and meaning. Or as he put it in 1970: “I remember what it’s all about now you f**kers! F**k you all!” It was a pursuit which took Lennon to musical, political and personal extremes: from musique concrete back to blues-infused rock ‘n’ roll; from the bed-ins for peace to flirtations with Maoism; from heroin to primal scream therapy.
Yet in spite of the drama and energy of his private and public life, Lennon’s solo-music spectacularly failed to recapture the emotional weight and expression of his work with The Beatles. Neither ‘Mother’ nor ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ from Plastic Ono Band come close to channeling Lennon’s pain and feelings of parental abandonment in the same way that ‘Julia’ from the White Album does. Similarly, the two and a half minutes of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ contains more imagination than all forty minutes of ‘Imagine’. Why was it that, in putting self- expression, politics and philosophical substance at the forefront of his artistic agenda, Lennon’s music ended up failing to express both himself and everyday concerns with the same force as his work from the sixties?
Part of the answer probably lies in Lennon’s willingness to adopt and take on political or spiritual movements at the drop of a hat. While certainly no fool – possessed with both one of the sharpest wits and most powerful imaginations in modern music – John, and for matter all of The Beatles, was always susceptible to taking artistic and political movements at face value. The same child-like naivety that led him to meditate in India also caused him to appear on American talk-shows dressed as Che Guevara, espousing the cause of Maoism, whilst living in a New York penthouse overlooking Central Park. Lennon took himself too seriously to permit himself to back down, and could not resist jumping up onto a soap box at any opportunity to espouse causes he (probably at heart) did not completely believe in.
In musical terms, this led Lennon to confuse throwing political slogans or topical issues into a chorus with giving his music ‘weight’. In ‘Power to the People’, unsure where to take his message or how to translate it into concrete action or feeling, Lennon resorts merely to repeating the title slogan over and over again.
In contrast, whilst a member of The Beatles, Lennon had the cynicism of his band-mates to reign in such earnest excesses and slogan chanting, giving his more political work for The Beatles a self-awareness that his solo songs painfully lack. The ‘in/out’ meditations of ‘Revolution 1’ – in which Lennon is at once sympathetic to the cause of revolution, but also pokes fun at the protesters of ’68 (‘You tell me it’s the institution, well you better free your mind instead’) – is not only a more entertaining listen than, say, ‘Working Class Hero’, but also captures Lennon’s paradoxical combination of idealism and cynicism far better than the provocative posturing of a celebrity raised in middle class suburbia.
Yet more importantly, once Lennon’s personal demons seeped from the subconscious background of his songs to take centre stage, his music lost its underlying tension. Unable to express himself explicitly, Lennon was forced to explore deeper parts of his imagination to convey his feelings. The narcotic opening of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, conveying Lennon’s yearnings for the sanctuary of an idealized childhood tree house, is a far more powerful image than the jaunting piano of ‘Remember’. Indeed, it is through playful, yet barbed, linguistic mischief and nonsense that ‘I Am the Walrus’ succeeds as a song of powerful self expression, articulating Lennon’s uncertainty as to whether he was a genius or a lunatic. In each of their respective ways, once released from the restraints of the group, the solo careers of each of The Beatles proved disappointing.
In Lennon’s case, the problem was that once his desire to express himself and produce music of ‘adult’ weight and subject matter was unshackled from the sensibilities of a pop group, he fell back on a mode of puritanical expressionism and self-obsession. Unfortunately, this robbed his work of its humorous cynicism, as well as the enchanting imagination which had led public opinion to label him as one of the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century.