Anybody who knows me well will know that I’m a big John Lennon fan. Indeed, Lennon, for me, is as good as anyone who’s ever committed to songwriting. A natural melodist with sharp lyrics (though his early-Beatles stuff may not have realised this as well as his later work with the fabs or his solo stuff), Lennon was the conscience of popular music in many ways.
Working Class Hero, perhaps Lennon’s greatest lyric, highlights exactly what I’m saying. Working with a simple harmonic movement (Am, G throughout), Lennon adds in the hammer-on on the d string for a melodic touch and the vocal melody to the track is very engaging. Besides this though, as has been said, the lyric is its most engaging feature. As a polemic which actually holds its audience (the working class) to account and tells them that they are their own worst enemy by allowing themselves to be “doped with religion, sex and TV” and thinking they’re “so clever and classless and free”, Lennon’s song tells them exactly why their plight is so.
Lennon never shied away from anything – war, love, hate, cold turkey – but by pointing out the problem instead of just venerating a lifestyle which keeps the working classes down he pulled something off which many do not: he gave his subjects a solution i.e. stop being doped by these identity forces and react.
Many other lyricists, whom when depicting the plight of the working class, miss out on this. For instance (and as much as I love his music and lyrics), Bruce Springsteen’s poor, polemicist posturing gives many working class Americans a hero and a champion, but he is often somebody who champions their way of life by just saying he is a blue collar guy. Springsteen, however, does “stick it to the man” in many ways and therefore is merely the tip of the iceberg and far less of a problem than others.
This one both contradicts and backs-up my point – just listen! It’s a great tune too.
The real problem comes from bands and artists such as Oasis, The Streets and The Enemy whom all promote a working class ideal and aesthetic in their song lyrics without ever pointing out that monetary hierarchy is succinctly unfair and that forces beyond them are keeping them down (like millionaire pop stars giving them identifiable working class heroes, for example). O.K. then, “day-by-day there’s a man in a suit who’s gonna’ make you pay” in Oasis could be argued to go some way, but it still misses the point really. The Streets and their “total result of a holiday” and The Enemy’s resignation that “we’ll live and die in these towns” absolutely vindicate my point. Through promoting the blue collar hardships as something to be proud of, these artists manage to, in fact, keep the working class down.
The Streets’ Mike Skinner
Maybe as good a place as any to look is Morrissey and, subsequently (given that Moz may be his biggest fan), some of the poetry of John Betjeman. Along with Lennon’s Working Class Hero, Morrissey’s scorn in the line ” a double bed and a stalwart lover for sure, these are the riches of the poor” and Betjeman’s downright indictment, particularly in Slough, one of his most famous poems, provide a chance for introspection within the working class. Sadly, the “jumped-up pantry boy, who never knew his place” may never realise this, because while it was being explained to him he merely said “shut up, Dry Your Eyes Mate‘s on”.