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Power to the People: The Lost John Lennon Interview 1971

Posted by Mike E on June 8, 2009

john-lennon-red-mole-ira-radical

photo credit: Rowland Scherman

Because of continuing interest in John Lennon’s politics, here is his interview with the RED MOLE (one of his most explicit and radical political statements). Thanks to Caleb for the pic.

By TARIQ ALI and ROBIN BLACKBURN

[Commentary on the interview by Counterpunch.org: Lennon recounts about how he and George Harrison bucked their handlers and went on record against the Vietnam War, discusses class politics in an engaging manner, defends country and western music and the blues, suggests Dylan’s best songs stem from revolutionary Irish and Scottish ballads and dissects his three versions of “Revolution”. The interview, which inspired Lennon to write “Power to the People”, ran in The Red Mole… As you’ll see, those were different days. The interview is included in Tariq Ali’s Streetfighting Years, recently published by Verso.]

John Lennon and Yoko Ono talk to Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali for the left-wing newspaper Red Mole (Thursday January 21, 1971)

TA: Your latest record and your recent public statements, especially the interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, suggest that your views are becoming increasingly radical and political. When did this start to happen?

JL: I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere. I mean, it’s just a basic working class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system.

In my case I’ve never not been political, though religion tended to overshadow it in my acid days; that would be around ‘65 or ‘66. And that religion was directly the result of all that superstar shit – religion was an outlet for my repression. I thought, ‘Well, there’s something else to life, isn’t there? This isn’t it, surely?’

But I was always political in a way, you know. In the two books I wrote, even though they were written in a sort of Joycean gobbledegook, there’s many knocks at religion and there is a play about a worker and a capitalist. I’ve been satirising the system since my childhood. I used to write magazines in school and hand them around.

I was very conscious of class, they would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about the class repression coming down on us – it was a fucking fact but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out, I got farther away from reality for a time.

TA: What did you think was the reason for the success of your sort of music?

JL: Well, at the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realise in retrospect that it’s the same phoney deal they gave the blacks, it was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That’s the choice they allow you – now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I’m saying on the album in ‘Working class hero’. As I told Rolling Stone, it’s the same people who have the power, the class system didn’t change one little bit.
Of course, there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes. But nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.

RB: Of course, class is something the American rock groups haven’t tackled yet.

JL: Because they’re all middle class and bourgeois and they don’t want to show it. They’re scared of the workers, actually, because the workers seem mainly right-wing in America, clinging on to their goods. But if these middle class groups realise what’s happening, and what the class system has done, it’s up to them to repatriate the people and to get out of all that bourgeois shit.

TA: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?

JL: Even during the Beatle heyday I tried to go against it, so did George. We went to America a few times and Epstein always tried to waffle on at us about saying nothing about Vietnam. So there came a time when George and I said ‘Listen, when they ask next time, we’re going to say we don’t like that war and we think they should get right out.’ That’s what we did. At that time this was a pretty radical thing to do, especially for the ‘Fab Four’. It was the first opportunity I personally took to wave the flag a bit.

But you’ve got to remember that I’d always felt repressed. We were all so pressurised that there was hardly any chance of expressing ourselves, especially working at that rate, touring continually and always kept in a cocoon of myths and dreams. It’s pretty hard when you are Caesar and everyone is saying how wonderful you are and they are giving you all the goodies and the girls, it’s pretty hard to break out of that, to say ‘Well, I don’t want to be king, I want to be real.’ So in its way the second political thing I did was to say ‘The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.’

That really broke the scene, I nearly got shot in America for that. It was a big trauma for all the kids that were following us. Up to then there was this unspoken policy of not answering delicate questions, though I always read the papers, you know, the political bits.

The continual awareness of what was going on made me feel ashamed I wasn’t saying anything. I burst out because I could no longer play that game any more, it was just too much for me. Of course, going to America increased the build up on me, especially as the war was going on there. In a way we’d turned out to be a Trojan horse. The ‘Fab Four’ moved right to the top and then sang about drugs and sex and then I got into more and more heavy stuff and that’s when they started dropping us.

RB: Wasn’t there a double charge to what you were doing right from the beginning?

YO: You were always very direct. ..

JL: Yes, well, the first thing we did was to proclaim our Liverpoolness to the world, and say ‘It’s all right to come from Liverpool and talk like this’. Before, anybody from Liverpool who made it, like Ted Ray, Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, had to lose their accent to get on the BBC. They were only comedians but that’s what came out of Liverpool before us. We refused to play that game. After The Beatles came on the scene everyone started putting on a Liverpudlian accent.

TA: In a way you were even thinking about politics when you seemed to be knocking revolution?

JL: Ah, sure, ‘Revolution’ .There were two versions of that song but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out’. The original version which ends up on the LP said ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure. There was a third version that was just abstract, musique concrete, kind of loops and that, people screaming. I thought I was painting in sound a picture of revolution – but I made a mistake, you know. The mistake was that it was anti-revolution.

On the version released as a single I said ‘when you talk about destruction you can count me out’. I didn’t want to get killed. I didn’t really know that much about the Maoists, but I just knew that they seemed to be so few and yet they painted themselves green and stood in front of the police waiting to get picked off. I just thought it was unsubtle, you know. I thought the original Communist revolutionaries coordinated themselves a bit better and didn’t go around shouting about it. That was how I felt – I was really asking a question. As someone from the working class I was always interested in Russia and China and everything that related to the working class, even though I was playing the capitalist game.

At one time I was so much involved in the religious bullshit that I used to go around calling myself a Christian Communist, but as Janov says, religion is legalised madness. It was therapy that stripped away all that and made me feel my own pain.

RB: This analyst you went to, what’s his name. ..

JL: Janov …

RB: His ideas seem to have something in common with Laing in that he doesn’t want to reconcile people to their misery, to adjust them to the world but rather to make them face up to its causes?

JL: Well, his thing is to feel the pain that’s accumulated inside you ever since your childhood. I had to do it to really kill off all the religious myths. In the therapy you really feel every painful moment of your life – it’s excruciating, you are forced to realise that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky. It’s the result of your parents and your environment.

As I realised this it all started to fall into place. This therapy forced me to have done with all the God shit. All of us growing up have come to terms with too much pain. Although we repress it, it’s still there. The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realising your parents do not need you in the way you need them.
When I was a child I experienced moments of not wanting to see the ugliness, not wanting to see not being wanted. This lack of love went into my eyes and into my mind. Janov doesn’t just talk to you about this but makes you feel it – once you’ve allowed yourself to feel again, you do most of the work yourself.

When you wake up and your heart is going like the clappers or your back feels strained, or you develop some other hang-up, you should let your mind go to the pain and the pain itself will regurgitate the memory which originally caused you to suppress it in your body. In this way the pain goes to the right channel instead of being repressed again, as it is if you take a pill or a bath, saying ‘Well, I’ll get over it’. Most people channel their pain into God or masturbation or some dream of making it.

The therapy is like a very slow acid trip which happens naturally in your body. It is hard to talk about, you know, because – you feel ‘I am pain’ and it sounds sort of arbitrary, but pain to me now has a different meaning because of having physically felt all these extraordinary repressions. It was like taking gloves off, and feeling your own skin for the first time.

It’s a bit of a drag to say so, but I don’t think you can understand this unless you’ve gone through it – though I try to put some of it over on the album. But for me at any rate it was all part of dissolving the God trip or father-figure trip. Facing up to reality instead of always looking for some kind of heaven.

RB: Do you see the family in general as the source of these repressions?

JL: Mine is an extreme case, you know. My father and mother split and I never saw my father until I was 20, nor did I see much more of my mother. But Yoko had her parents there and it was the same….

YO: Perhaps one feels more pain when parents are there. It’s like when you’re hungry, you know, it’s worse to get a symbol of a cheeseburger than no cheeseburger at all. It doesn’t do you any good, you know. I often wish my mother had died so that at least I could get some people’s sympathy. But there she was, a perfectly beautiful mother.

JL: And Yoko’s family were middle-class Japanese but it’s all the same repression. Though I think middle-class people have the biggest trauma if they have nice imagey parents, all smiling and dolled up. They are the ones who have the biggest struggle to say, ‘Goodbye mummy, goodbye daddy’.

TA: What relation to your music has all this got?

JL: Art is only a way of expressing pain. I mean the reason Yoko does such far out stuff is that it’s a far out kind of pain she went through.

RB: A lot of Beatle songs used to be about childhood…

JL: Yeah, that would mostly be me…

RB: Though they were very good there was always a missing element…

JL: That would be reality, that would be the missing element. Because I was never really wanted. The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing else would have driven me through all that if I was ‘normal‘…

YO: …and happy…

JL: The only reason I went for that goal is that I wanted to say: ‘Now, mummy-daddy, will you love me?’

TA: But then you had success beyond most people’s wildest dreams

JL: Oh, Jesus Christ, it was a complete oppression. I mean we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes and showbiz and Lord Mayors and all that. They were so condescending and stupid. Everybody trying to use us. It was a special humiliation for me because I could never keep my mouth shut and I’d always have to be drunk or pilled to counteract this pressure. It was really hell …

YO: It was depriving him of any real experience, you know…

JL: It was very miserable. I mean apart from the first flush of making it – the thrill of the first number one record, the first trip to America. At first we had some sort of objective like being as big as Elvis – moving forward was the great thing, but actually attaining it was the big let-down. I found I was having continually to please the sort of people I’d always hated when I was a child. This began to bring me back to reality.
I began to realise that we are all oppressed which is why I would like to do something about it, though I’m not sure where my place is.

RB: Well, in any case, politics and culture are linked, aren’t they? I mean, workers are repressed by culture not guns at the moment…

JL: …they’re doped…

RB: And the culture that’s doping them is one the artist can make or break…

JL: That’s what I’m trying to do on my albums and in these interviews. What I’m trying to do is to influence all the people I can influence. All those who are still under the dream and just put a big question mark in their mind. The acid dream is over, that is what I’m trying to tell them.

RB: Even in the past, you know, people would use Beatle songs and give them new words. ‘Yellow submarine’ , for instance, had a number of versions. One that strikers used to sing began ‘We all live on bread and margarine’ ; at LSE we had a version that began ‘We all live in a Red LSE’.

JL: I like that. And I enjoyed it when football crowds in the early days would sing ‘All together now’ – that was another one. I was also pleased when the movement in America took up ‘Give peace a chance’ because I had written it with that in mind really. I hoped that instead of singing ‘We shall overcome’ from 1800 or something, they would have something contemporary. I felt an obligation even then to write a song that people would sing in the pub or on a demonstration. That is why I would like to compose songs for the revolution now…

RB: We only have a few revolutionary songs and they were composed in the 19th century. Do you find anything in our musical traditions which could be used for revolutionary songs?

JL: When I started, rock and roll itself was the basic revolution to people of my age and situation. We needed something loud and clear to break through all the unfeeling and repression that had been coming down on us kids. We were a bit conscious to begin with of being imitation Americans. But we delved into the music and found that it was half white country and western and half black rhythm and blues.

Most of the songs came from Europe and Africa and now they were coming back to us. Many of Dylan’s best songs came from Scotland, Ireland or England. It was a sort of cultural exchange.

Though I must say the more interesting songs to me were the black ones because they were more simple. They sort of said shake your arse, or your prick, which was an innovation really. And then there were the field songs mainly expressing the pain they were in. They couldn’t express themselves intellectually so they had to say in a very few words what was happening to them. And then there was the city blues and a lot of that was about sex and fighting.

A lot of this was self-expression but only in the last few years have they expressed themselves completely with Black Power, like Edwin Starr making war records. Before that many black singers were still labouring under that problem of God; it was often ‘God will save us’. But right through the blacks were singing directly and immediately about their pain and also about sex, which is why I like it.

RB: You say country and western music derived from European folk songs. Aren’t these folk songs sometimes pretty dreadful stuff, all about losing and being defeated?

JL: As kids we were all opposed to folk songs because they were so middle-class. It was all college students with big scarfs and a pint of beer in their hands singing folk songs in what we call la-di-da voices-’I worked in a mine in New-cast-le’ and all that shit. There were very few real folk singers you know, though I liked Dominic Behan a bit and there was some good stuff to be heard in Liverpool. Just occasionally you hear very old records on the radio or TV of real workers in Ireland or somewhere singing these songs and the power of them is fantastic.

But mostly folk music is people with fruity voices trying to keep alive something old and dead. It’s all a bit boring, like ballet: a minority thing kept going by a minority group. Today’s folk song is rock and roll. Although it happened to emanate from America, that’s not really important in the end because we wrote our own music and that changed everything.

RB: Your album, Yoko, seems to fuse avant-garde modern music with rock. I’d like to put an idea to you I got from listening to it. You integrate everyday sounds, like that of a train, into a musical pattern. This seems to demand an aesthetic measure of everyday life, to insist that art should not be imprisoned in the museums and galleries, doesn’t it?

YO: Exactly. I want to incite people to loosen their oppression by giving them something to work with, to build on. They shouldn’t be frightened of creating themselves – that’s why I make things very open, with things for people to do, like in my book [Grapefruit].
Because basically there are two types of people in the world: people who are confident because they know they have the ability to create, and then people who have been demoralised, who have no confidence in themselves because they have been told they have no creative ability, but must just take orders. The Establishment likes people who take no responsibility and cannot respect themselves.

RB: I suppose workers’ control is about that…

JL: Haven’t they tried out something like that in Yugoslavia; they are free of the Russians. I’d like to go there and see how it works.

TA: Well, they have; they did try to break with the Stalinist pattern. But instead of allowing uninhibited workers’ control, they added a strong dose of political bureaucracy. It tended to smother the initiative of the workers and they also regulated the whole system by a market mechanism which bred new inequalities between one region and another.

JL: It seems that all revolutions end up with a personality cult – even the Chinese seem to need a father-figure. I expect this happens in Cuba too, with Che and Fidel. In Western-style Communism we would have to create an almost imaginary workers’ image of themselves as the father-figure.

RB: That’s a pretty cool idea – the Working Class becomes its own Hero. As long as it was not a new comforting illusion, as long as there was a real workers’ power. If a capitalist or bureaucrat is running your life then you need to compensate with illusions.

YO: The people have got to trust in themselves.

TA: That’s the vital point. The working class must be instilled with a feeling of confidence in itself. This can’t be done just by propaganda – the workers must move, take over their own factories and tell the capitalists to bugger off. This is what began to happen in May 1968 in France…the workers began to feel their own strength.

JL: But the Communist Party wasn’t up to that, was it?

RB: No, they weren’t. With 10 million workers on strike they could have led one of those huge demonstrations that occurred in the centre of Paris into a massive occupation of all government buildings and installations, replacing de Gaulle with a new institution of popular power like the Commune or the original Soviets – that would have begun a real revolution but the French C.P. was scared of it. They preferred to deal at the top instead of encouraging the workers to take the initiative themselves…

JL: Great, but there’s a problem about that here you know. All the revolutions have happened when a Fidel or Marx or Lenin or whatever, who were intellectuals, were able to get through to the workers. They got a good pocket of people together and the workers seemed to understand that they were in a repressed state. They haven’t woken up yet here, they still believe that cars and tellies are the answer. You should get these left-wing students out to talk with the workers, you should get the school-kids involved with The Red Mole.

TA: You’re quite right, we have been trying to do that and we should do more. This new Industrial Relations Bill the Government is trying to introduce is making more and more workers realise what is happening…

JL: I don’t think that Bill can work. I don’t think they can enforce it. I don’t think the workers will co-operate with it. I thought the Wilson Government was a big let-down but this Heath lot are worse. The underground is being harrassed, the black militants can’t even live in their own homes now, and they’re selling more arms to the South Africans. Like Richard Neville said, there may be only an inch of difference between Wilson and Heath but it’s in that inch that we live….

TA: I don’t know about that; Labour brought in racialist immigration policies, supported the Vietnam war and were hoping to bring in new legislation against the unions.

RB: It may be true that we live in the Inch of difference between Labour and Conservative but so long as we do we’ll be impotent and unable to change anything. If Heath is forcing us out of that inch maybe he’s doing us a good turn without meaning to…

JL: Yes, I’ve thought about that, too. This putting us in a corner so we have to find out what is coming down on other people. I keep on reading the Morning Star [the Communist newspaper] to see if there’s any hope, but it seems to be in the 19th century; it seems to be written for dropped-out, middle-aged liberals.
We should be trying to reach the young workers because that’s when you’re most idealistic and have least fear.

Somehow the revolutionaries must approach the workers because the workers won’t approach them. But it’s difficult to know where to start; we’ve all got a finger in the dam. The problem for me is that as I have become more real, I’ve grown away from most working-class people – you know what they like is Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s the students who are buying us now, and that’s the problem. Now The Beatles are four separate people, we don’t have the impact we had when we were together…

RB: Now you’re trying to swim against the stream of bourgeois society, which is much more difficult.

JL: Yes, they own all the newspapers and they control all distribution and promotion. When we came along there was only Decca, Philips and EMI who could really produce a record for you. You had to go through the whole bureaucracy to get into the recording studio. You were in such a humble position, you didn’t have more than 12 hours to make a whole album, which is what we did in the early days.

Even now it’s the same; if you’re an unknown artist you’re lucky to get an hour in a studio – it’s a hierarchy and if you don’t have hits, you don’t get recorded again. And they control distribution. We tried to change that with Apple but in the end we were defeated. They still control everything. EMI killed our album Two Virgins because they didn’t like it. With the last record they’ve censored the words of the songs printed on the record sleeve. Fucking ridiculous and hypocritical – they have to let me sing it but they don’t dare let you read it. Insanity.

RB: Though you reach fewer people now, perhaps the effect can be more concentrated.

JL: Yes, I think that could be true. To begin with, working class people reacted against our openness about sex. They are frightened of nudity, they’re repressed in that way as well as others. Perhaps they thought ‘Paul is a good lad, he doesn’t make trouble’.
Also when Yoko and I got married, we got terrible racialist letters – you know, warning me that she would slit my throat. Those mainly came from Army people living in Aldershot. Officers.

Now workers are more friendly to us, so perhaps it’s changing. It seems to me that the students are now half-awake enough to try and wake up their brother workers. If you don’t pass on your own awareness then it closes down again. That is why the basic need is for the students to get in with the workers and convince them that they are not talking gobbledegook. And of course it’s difficult to know what the workers are really thinking because the capitalist press always only quotes mouthpieces like Vic Feather* anyway.

*Vic Feather 1908-76 was General Secretary of the TUC from 1969-73.

So the only thing is to talk to them directly, especially the young workers. We’ve got to start with them because they know they’re up against it. That’s why I talk about school on the album. I’d like to incite people to break the framework, to be disobedient in school, to stick their tongues out, to keep insulting authority .

YO: We are very lucky really, because we can create our own reality, John and me, but we know the important thing is to communicate with other people.

JL: The more reality we face, the more we realise that unreality is the main programme of the day. The more real we become, the more abuse we take, so it does radicalise us in a way, like being put in a corner. But it would be better if there were more of us.

YO: We mustn’t be traditional in the way we communicate with people – especially with the Establishment. We should surprise people by saying new things in an entirely new way. Communication of that sort can have a fantastic power so long as you don’t do only what they expect you to do.

RB: Communication is vital for building a movement, but in the end it’s powerless unless you also develop popular force.

YO: I get very sad when I think about Vietnam where there seems to be no choice but violence. This violence goes on for centuries perpetuating itself. In the present age when communication is so rapid, we should create a different tradition, traditions are created everyday. Five years now is like 100 years before. We are living in a society that has no history .There’s no precedent for this kind of society so we can break the old patterns.

TA: No ruling class in the whole of history has given up power voluntarily and I don’t see that changing.

YO: But violence isn’t just a conceptual thing, you know. I saw a programme about this kid who had come back from Vietnam – he’d lost his body from the waist down. He was just a lump of meat, and he said, ‘Well, I guess it was a good experience.’

JL: He didn’t want to face the truth, he didn’t want to think it had all been a waste…

YO: But think of the violence, it could happen to your kids…

RB: But Yoko, people who struggle against oppression find themselves attacked by those who have a vested interest in nothing changing, those who want to protect their power and wealth. Look at the people in Bogside and Falls Road in Northern Ireland; they were mercilessly attacked by the special police because they began demonstrating for their rights. On one night in August 1969, seven people were shot and thousands driven from their homes. Didn’t they have a right to defend themselves?

YO: That’s why one should try to tackle these problems before a situation like that happens.

JL: Yes, but what do you do when it does happen, what do you do?

RB: Popular violence against their oppressors is always justified. It cannot be avoided.

YO: But in a way the new music showed things could be transformed by new channels of communication.

JL: Yes, but as I said, nothing really changed.

YO: Well, something changed and it was for the better. All I’m saying is that perhaps we can make a revolution without violence.

JL: But you can’t take power without a struggle…

TA: That’s the crucial thing.

JL: Because, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they won’t let the people have any power; they’ll give all the rights to perform and to dance for them, but no real power…

YO: The thing is, even after the revolution, if people don’t have any trust in themselves, they’ll get new problems.

JL: After the revolution you have the problem of keeping things going, of sorting out all the different views. It’s quite natural that revolutionaries should have different solutions, that they should split into different groups and then reform, that’s the dialectic, isn’t it – but at the same time they need to be united against the enemy, to solidify a new order. I don’t know what the answer is; obviously Mao is aware of this problem and keeps the ball moving.

RB: The danger is that once a revolutionary state has been created, a new conservative bureaucracy tends to form around it. This danger tends to increase if the revolution is isolated by imperialism and there is material scarcity.

JL: Once the new power has taken over they have to establish a new status quo just to keep the factories and trains running.

RB: Yes, but a repressive bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily run the factories or trains any better than the workers could under a system of revolutionary democracy.

JL: Yes, but we all have bourgeois instincts within us, we all get tired and feel the need to relax a bit. How do you keep everything going and keep up revolutionary fervour after you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve?
Of course Mao has kept them up to it in China, but what happens after Mao goes? Also he uses a personality cult. Perhaps that’s necessary; like I said, everybody seems to need a father figure.

But I’ve been reading Khrushchev Remembers. I know he’s a bit of a lad himself – but he seemed to think that making a religion out of an individual was bad; that doesn’t seem to be part of the basic Communist idea. Still people are people, that’s the difficulty.
If we took over Britain, then we’d have the job of cleaning up the bourgeoisie and keeping people in a revolutionary state of mind.

RB: …In Britain unless we can create a new popular power-and here that would basically mean workers’ power – really controlled by, and answerable to, the masses, then we couldn’t make the revolution in the first place. Only a really deep-rooted workers’ power could destroy the bourgeois state.

YO: That’s why it will be different when the younger generation takes over.

JL: I think it wouldn’t take much to get the youth here really going. You’d have to give them free rein to attack the local councils or to destroy the school authorities, like the students who break up the repression in the universities. It’s already happening, though people have got to get together more.
And the women are very important too, we can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority.
It took me quite a long time to realise that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She’s a red hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women.

RB: There’s always been at least as much male chauvinism on the left as anywhere else – though the rise of women’s liberation is helping to sort that out.

JL: It’s ridiculous. How can you talk about power to the people unless you realise the people is both sexes.

YO: You can’t love someone unless you are in an equal position with them. A lot of women have to cling to men out of fear or insecurity, and that’s not love – basically that’s why women hate men…

JL: …and vice versa…

YO: So if you have a slave around the house how can you expect to make a revolution outside it? The problem for women is that if we try to be free, then we naturally become lonely, because so many women are willing to become slaves, and men usually prefer that. So you always have to take the chance: ‘Am I going to lose my man?’ It’s very sad.

JL: Of course, Yoko was well into liberation before I met her. She’d had to fight her way through a man’s world – the art world is completely dominated by men – so she was full of revolutionary zeal when we met. There was never any question about it: we had to have a 50-50 relationship or there was no relationship, I was quick to learn. She did an article about women in Nova more than two years back in which she said, ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’ .

RB: Of course we all live in an imperialist country that is exploiting the Third World, and even our culture is involved in this. There was a time when Beatle music was plugged on Voice of America….

JL: The Russians put it out that we were capitalist robots, which we were I suppose…

RB: They were pretty stupid not to see it was something different.

YO: Let’ s face it, Beatles was 20th-century folksong in the framework of capitalism; they couldn’t do anything different if they wanted to communicate within that framework.

RB: I was working in Cuba when Sgt Pepper was released and that’s when they first started playing rock music on the radio.

JL: Well hope they see that rock and roll is not the same as Coca-Cola. As we get beyond the dream this should be easier: that’s why I’m putting out more heavy statements now and trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image.
I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct.

RB: Your latest album sounds very simple to begin with, but the lyrics, tempo and melody build up into a complexity one only gradually becomes aware of. Like the track ‘My mummy’s dead’ echoes the nursery song ‘Three blind mice’ and it’s about a childhood trauma.

JL: The tune does; it was that sort of feeling, almost like a Haiku poem. I recently got into Haiku in Japan and I just think it’s fantastic. Obviously, when you get rid of a whole section of illusion in your mind you’re left with great precision.

Yoko was showing me some of these Haiku in the original. The difference between them and Longfellow is immense. Instead of a long flowery poem the Haiku would say ‘Yellow flower in white bowl on wooden table’ which gives you the whole picture, really….

TA: How do you think we can destroy the capitalist system here in Britain, John?

JL: I think only by making the workers aware of the really unhappy position they are in, breaking the dream they are surrounded by. They think they are in a wonderful, free-speaking country. They’ve got cars and tellies and they don’t want to think there’s anything more to life. They are prepared to let the bosses run them, to see their children fucked up in school. They’re dreaming someone else’s dream, it’s not even their own. They should realise that the blacks and the Irish are being harassed and repressed and that they will be next.

As soon as they start being aware of all that, we can really begin to do something. The workers can start to take over. Like Marx said: ‘To each according to his need’. I think that would work well here. But we’d also have to infiltrate the army too, because they are well trained to kill us all.

We’ve got to start all this from where we ourselves are oppressed. I think it’s false, shallow, to be giving to others when your own need is great. The idea is not to comfort people, not to make them feel better but to make them feel worse, to constantly put before them the degradations and humiliations they go through to get what they call a living wage.

30 Responses to “Power to the People: The Lost John Lennon Interview 1971”

  1. Gary said

    above, “like Edwin Starr making war records.” looks kind of confusing.

    This must refer to Starr recording the soul song “War” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label in 1969. You know, the one that starts out, “War! What good is it for? Absolutely nothing!” I’ve heard Springsteen do it.

    That could be repunctuated or indicated in a note somehow.

  2. jay said

    Seriously; Mind blowing

    It never occurred to me (being young in my early 20’s), that the Beatles were anything but a tool for capitalism. it was always hard to believe the politics with the wishy washy capitalist games.

    Word JL, Word

  3. Adrienne said

    Very interesting interview — thanks so much for posting it.

    This particular exchange mades me smile as well as sigh:

    RB: Popular violence against their oppressors is always justified. It cannot be avoided.

    YO: But in a way the new music showed things could be transformed by new channels of communication.

    JL: Yes, but as I said, nothing really changed.

    YO: Well, something changed and it was for the better. All I’m saying is that perhaps we can make a revolution without violence.

    JL: But you can’t take power without a struggle…

    TA: That’s the crucial thing.

    I agree with Yoko on revolutionaries trying new things, searching for new ways to communicate, and of attempting to make a revolution that can be waged with a minimum of violence — or maybe even none at all. But the guys here disagree, just like all the guys who I know disagree, and somehow the non-violent view that has been and is shared by a great many women is over-ridden, or simply dismissed as though it is nothing. Reading this made me wonder how many times in the long history of leftist discussions these exact same kind of exchanges have taken place…

    Gary wrote:

    This must refer to Starr recording the soul song “War” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label in 1969. You know, the one that starts out, “War! What good is it for? Absolutely nothing!” I’ve heard Springsteen do it.

    While I really like Springsteen’s version, I honestly don’t think anyone will ever truly match the Soul perfection of the original.

  4. I think credit should go where it is due. This interview has been available from Marxsite in Britain from as long as that site has been online (at http://www.marxsite.com/Lennon%20interview.htm). I’m not sure what exactly made it “lost” before now and why it has now been “found”, other than somebody at CounterPunch Googled “John Lennon”.

  5. Try this link http://www.marxsite.com/Lennon%20interview.htm

  6. Otto said

    I’ve always liked John Lennon and I’ve always been a Beatle’s fan. As they matured, I never saw them as just capitolist tools. They seem to break too many boundries. It has always been John Lennon who seemed to buck the capitolist trend. Compare that with the mindless music of Paul McCartney.
    I’ve noticed that Yoko never got past the idea that peaceful methods don’t always work.

  7. Adrienne said

    Otto:

    I’ve noticed that Yoko never got past the idea that peaceful methods don’t always work.

    In other words, Yoko should shut off her brain, silence her thoughts, and learn to get past such ideas, simply because others insist that she should.

    Sometime I would be very interested to hear a really detailed description of exactly how non-peaceful methods are supposed to work to actual effect when it comes to making a real revolution in the USA.
    Maybe I’m just lacking in imagination here, but to me it has always seemed kind of impossible to imagine taking on the enormous power structures of the Pentagon, and the FBI, and the CIA and well, just the whole entire American military machine.
    And that’s leaving out the hordes of flag-wavin’ NRA gun-nuts, highly disturbed militia members, and all those other assorted tea-bagger types.

  8. BobH said

    In other words, Yoko should shut off her brain, silence her thoughts, and learn to get past such ideas, simply because others insist that she should.

    Or possibly open her mind and listen to a view other than her own. After all, she was the wealthy celebrity deigning to be interviewed.

    And what does tea-bagging have to do with anything? Or does contemptuous, sexualized dismissal only count when one gender does it to another?

  9. JBird said

    Yoko holds a pacifist view of social change. The others speak from a socialist perspective. None of them is advocating guerilla warfare or political assassination, or any type of violent plot against the government. They all prefer peace over violence.

    Yoko won’t concede any difference between the violence of the oppressor – the atrocity of the British in Ireland, for example – and the violence of the oppressed – the NLF’s guerilla war in Vietnam. Pacifists determine their strategy and tactics according to the principle that all violence is equally bad.

    In other words, they’re arguing over a fundamental disagreement in political ethics. It’s not as simple as who is being more open to new ideas.

  10. Miles Ahead said

    Coming off of something Jay wrote:

    “It never occurred to me (being young in my early 20’s), that the Beatles were anything but a tool for capitalism. it was always hard to believe the politics with the wishy washy capitalist games.”

    This is not a criticism of Jay, especially since he gave us a time-frame for his previous thinking. But the thought that The Beatles, or many other artists, musicians, etc. would only be a tool for capitalism, or the implication that groups or individuals who are not simply calling for revolutionary politics are complicit with the system, is just plain wrong in my opinion.

    There was a previous video/interview posted with John Lennon, in which he posed a real dilemma for many artists who are progressive / revolutionary-minded.: are you an artist “first” or a revolutionist (political) first and foremost. This divide seems to me to be one that is promoted by the capitalist system (art as a commodity)but does not necessarily reflect many rebellious artists’ work; and their body of work may be much more subtle than actually simply overtly lining up on one side or the other.

    Artists and art have definitely been co-opted throughout time (or used by one class or another), but to assume that a group like The Beatles are automatically a tool for the capitalists is blind-sided.

    And while I have always loved John Lennon’s art, I propose that much of his politics and art were shaped by what was happening in the world at the time. And in turn, The Beatles, even with their more benign-sounding songs and lyrics also impacted on a worldwide movement, and within the realm of music itself.

  11. zerohour said

    “But the guys here disagree, just like all the guys who I know disagree, and somehow the non-violent view that has been and is shared by a great many women is over-ridden, or simply dismissed as though it is nothing.”

    Yoko Ono has faced quite a bit of discrimination as a woman and as an Asian. She has not been taken as seriously as an artist as she may deserve to be. I believe this was also compounded by her association with pop icons like the Beatles. When she began her association with Lennon, while the Beatles were still around, she greatly influenced his music thematically and aesthetically, yet this is rarely acknowledged. I remember an interview with Lennon where he talked about how she was once handed a bouquet of yellow roses with the thorns still on the stem. There’s more to be said that I can’t recall right now, but I think the picture is pretty clear. Discrimination against her, and women in general, does lead to easy dismissals and we need to stay attentive to that.

    That said, I disagree with the way you’ve portrayed an equivalence between gender and political stance: women = non-violence. This is a bad generalization considering that many prominent pacifists have been male, and that many women have rejected non-violence. Criticism and disagreement are not necessarily dismissal. Many people have reasoned disagreements with non-violence as a primary strategy for social change [tactically, it’s a different story]. You, and others, are welcome to speak your mind here, but I don’t think it’s fair to characterize counter-arguments as dismissive, or to imply that they reflect some kind of male-oriented politics. Who’s being dismissive then?

  12. Miles Ahead said

    In terms of art and artists, and their politics, a sad but timely obituary in today’s NYT. Robert Colescott–the first African American to be admitted to the Venice Biennale in 1997.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/arts/design/10colescott.html?scp=7&sq=Obituaries&st=nyt

    In small part: “While Mr. Colescott’s work was overtly political and multicultural, it was often at odds with the academic earnestness of such approaches. In his disregard for simplistic dualities regarding race and sex , he helped set the stage for transgressive work by painters like Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall, Sue Williams…” etc.

  13. Adrienne said

    Zerohour:

    I disagree with the way you’ve portrayed an equivalence between gender and political stance: women = non-violence.

    Well, I disagree with the way you’ve put this. When I said a great many women that is just what I meant. I didn’t say all women — and wouldn’t.

    many prominent pacifists have been male,

    Very true. Of course, not too many prominent pacifists are also revolutionaries.

    and that many women have rejected non-violence.

    Also very true.

    I’m not really familiar with where Yoko has stood on the topic of violence — of whether she considers herself a pacifist or not. Personally, I don’t consider myself a pacifist, though I believe that violence should definitely be avoided whenever and wherever possible. I haven’t met too many socialist revolutionaries who share that view.
    And from a purely tactical perspective, when it comes to talking about making revolution in the US, I admit that violence doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

    Criticism and disagreement are not necessarily dismissal.

    When reading the interview, it seemed to me that what Yoko was saying was being totally dismissed in that particular exchange. And since I saw it that way when I read it, and because I felt as though I could directly relate to that experience, I decided to make a comment about it. In fact, it wasn’t even an angry comment, but more of a wry, knowing one — which is why I said it made me smile and sigh at the same time. But that comment really seems to have bothered several of you.
    I’m afraid can’t help that. I really was only speaking my own truth, strictly from my own viewpoint.
    I will however, apologize for not making that more clear.

    You, and others, are welcome to speak your mind here,

    Thanks, I appreciate that. Yet, perhaps it might be better not to do so speaking from personal experience? Maybe better to keep comments more generalized overall. I can do that.
    I realize I can be rather opinionated, but I also don’t enjoy offending people when I can easily avoid it. So, I can certainly refrain from offering comments that only come from a personal perspective.

  14. Adrienne said

    Wow, that got really messed up. Could someone fix whatever blockquote I forgot to close?

    TIA,
    Adrienne

  15. the cold lamper said

    Was Yoko Ono really the “wealthy celebrity deigning to be interviewed,” BobH?

    That seems to be the popular caricature among misogynistic elements of the Beatle fan base eager to uncover the corrupting feminine influence that purportedly caused the collapse of that symbol of sixties Euro-American masculinity we call the Fab Four. I mean, we all know any tightly-knit group of male friends, like a rock band for instance, would never have any reason to drift apart unless one of them was pussy-whipped into doing so by a conniving temptress, right? ::rolls eyes::

    I tend to doubt that. Without claiming to be an expert on the Beatles (I’m not — please, educate me if I’m getting this horribly wrong), it’s always seemed to me that Yoko, at worst, wasn’t any more of a diva than John, or the other three. That doesn’t mean they weren’t to be taken seriously as political figures. Who said genuine revolutionaries can’t also be egomaniacal jerks at times? I should know :P

    As for “tea bagging,” I assume Adrienne was alluding to the recent wave of quasi-grassroots protests organized by reactionary populist elements (“hordes of flag-wavin’ NRA gun-nuts” and “highly disturbed militia members” et. al.) on Tax Day, with their crude imitations of the Boston Tea Party (throwing teabags at the White House, etc.). You seem to have something else in mind, you filthy boy…LOL, seriously though, I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Are you accusing Adrienne of engaging in “contemptuous, sexualized dismissal” of male advocates of revolutionary violence?

  16. Adrienne said

    Cold Lamper:

    it’s always seemed to me that Yoko, at worst, wasn’t any more of a diva than John, or the other three. That doesn’t mean they weren’t to be taken seriously as political figures. Who said genuine revolutionaries can’t also be egomaniacal jerks at times?

    I’ve always been under the impression that the fact that Yoko hooked up with John showed that she probably wasn’t an egomaniac. Before he entered her world she’d been known as an avantgarde artist/performance artist who had been making quite a name for herself, but after they got together all anyone has ever known her as is John Lennon’s wife/appendage.

    As for “tea bagging,” I assume Adrienne was alluding to the recent wave of quasi-grassroots protests organized by reactionary populist elements (“hordes of flag-wavin’ NRA gun-nuts” and “highly disturbed militia members” et. al.) on Tax Day, with their crude imitations of the Boston Tea Party (throwing teabags at the White House, etc.).

    Your assumption was indeed correct. I wasn’t speaking of anything other than all those low info Fox News watchers who were recently whipped into a frenzy and who actually dragged their asses off the couch in order to attend all those astroturf protest events wearing teabags.

  17. zerohour said

    “Yet, perhaps it might be better not to do so speaking from personal experience?”

    It’s fine to speak from personal experience. How else can we understand the complexities of a given situation? However, it’s important to understand where there may be gaps between individual and general experience. In this particular case, you referred to “guys here” which I took to mean the kasama site, so it wasn’t just your experience, but mine and those of other posters as well. I simply thought it was and unfair characterization of: 1] the posters themselves [who are not all men, and of those, not all oppose non-violence], and 2] the nature of the discussions.

    Your contributions are welcome here whether personalized or not, but I wanted to address what I considered an unjustified assumption, just as I hope you call us out on ours.

    Following the cold lamper, I think it’s interesting that she was always blamed for breaking up the Beatles, despite denials from the Beatles themselves notably Paul MacCartney, but no one accuses Linda Eastman, later McCartney, of the same. Was it because Eastman played the “proper” role of a woman in a male-dominated situation, i.e., the background? Perhaps also because she was not the “Oriental dragon-lady” intent on undermining [Western] male prowess?

  18. Miles Ahead said

    I am going to be a snark-ette here. I think some of the commentary on this post about John Lennon has degenerated, now with speculation about Yoko Ono; diva? maybe, egomaniac, perhaps? An artist in her own right, or simply Mrs. John Lennon, and the (strong yet quiet woman) culprit for breaking up the Beatles. Etc. (And BTW, and following some of the lead here my own self, there is much speculation that Linda McCartney was the real “vampire” behind the break up of the Beatles…but is this all that important?)

    I thought mainly this post was addressing the power of some of John Lennon’s music/art, as well as the impact of the Beatles, and/or Yoko Ono. I must be missing something here.

    As far as Ms. Ono’s art—and from what I’ve seen, listened to, and read about—I don’t think Yoko Ono necessarily received her due because frankly her roots are in the East and much of her art reflects that. And I don’t think that many people in the West appreciate her style, or her message, be it militant or pacifist.

    About 10 years ago, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, loud speakers were placed throughout a very populated city in Mexico. And for the next hour those same speakers were not blaring Las Mañananitas or even Auld Lang Syne. Instead, John Lennon’s Imagine was ringing throughout the streets, and amongst the many hordes who had gathered to celebrate the new year, and even though most didn’t speak a word of English, the majority of those same people were singing along with John Lennon. “Imagine” remains an extremely popular song among much of the Mexican population, and I suspect that is because it captured something universal and reflects some of the deepest hopes and desires of the people.

  19. Eddy Laing said

    I get the distinct sense from reading the sub-thread here about Yoko Ono that perhaps some posters are not very aware of Yoko Ono’s biography as a visual and performance artist, active with Fluxus and certainly as a conceptual artist during the early and mid 1960s.

    From an art-crit perspective, one might argue ( I would) that Yoko Ono’s art was much more avant garde (‘out in front’) than the Beatles, and certainly her aesthetic influence emerges in various aspects of the White Album (even in the packaging with its serial number).

  20. onehundredflowers said

    Miles –

    The discussion about Yoko Ono isn’t about her per se, but about the ideological loads she has had to carry as an Asian woman who had constantly been vilified and whose work is often devalued.

    As for the Beatles, I think it’s important to realize that just as they had a role in shaping the culture of the 60s, politicization had reached such heights that even they were being affected by it. In Lennon’s case, it obviously connected with his working class roots. It’s not well known now, but Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” was written as a tribute to the Civil Rights movement, and he’s often not given enough credit for his aesthetic radicalism in the Beatles [some of the more experimental ideas were his] so it’s quite unfair to dismiss his work as “mindless music” as one poster did above.

    The interview was an eye-opener, and it’s good to be reminded that alongside the Beatles sometimes cheery utopianism, there was a more subversive edge.

  21. Adrienne said

    Many thanks to whoever fixed my messed up post.

    Zerohour:

    In this particular case, you referred to “guys here” which I took to mean the kasama site, so it wasn’t just your experience, but mine and those of other posters as well.

    When I wrote that I was referring to “the guys” I had just quoted from the interview — namely Robin Blackburn, John Lennon and Tariq Ali. All three were obviously in complete agreement with each other regarding that particular question, while Yoko attempted to assert another opinion, which seemed to me to have been dismissed as unimportant since it wasn’t followed up on at all.
    I wasn’t referring to anyone commenting here in Kasama. So again, it just comes back to the fact that I really wasn’t making myself very clear at all, and again sorry for the confusion.

    Miles:

    As far as Ms. Ono’s art—and from what I’ve seen, listened to, and read about—I don’t think Yoko Ono necessarily received her due because frankly her roots are in the East and much of her art reflects that. And I don’t think that many people in the West appreciate her style, or her message, be it militant or pacifist.

    Eddy:

    I get the distinct sense from reading the sub-thread here about Yoko Ono that perhaps some posters are not very aware of Yoko Ono’s biography as a visual and performance artist, active with Fluxus and certainly as a conceptual artist during the early and mid 1960s.

    It’s true, most people aren’t aware of Yoko’s art. Personally I think a lot of it is pretty amazing, even though it has nothing at all in common with my own art, or the kind of stuff I usually tend to prefer.

  22. Miles Ahead said

    Am segueing from snarky to nit-picking.

    100 Flowers said:

    As for the Beatles, I think it’s important to realize that just as they had a role in shaping the culture of the 60s, politicization had reached such heights that even they were being affected by it. In Lennon’s case, it obviously connected with his working class roots.

    That is precisely why I made a former comment, except I wouldn’t say that “even they” were being affected by it.

    Miles in comment 10:

    And while I have always loved John Lennon’s art, I propose that much of his politics and art were shaped by what was happening in the world at the time. And in turn, The Beatles, even with their more benign-sounding songs and lyrics also impacted on a worldwide movement, and within the realm of music itself.

    There was a development and interconnection between what was happening during the Beatles’ prolific career (and even after their breakup) – culturally, politically and ideologically – and the overall objective situation and political movements. And different cultural breakthroughs and strains impact on one another as well, even among those who more blatantly go against the tide or “even” those who appear more mainstream.

    The Beatles, while probably the most successful and famous, impacted greatly on other, even more overtly political (rock) musical groups such as The Buffalo Springfield, Country Joe & The Fish or Creedence Clearwater Revival.

    But I think it is a slight error to attribute John Lennon’s musical politics to his simply having working class roots. If you listen to just about any interview with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, or George Harrison for that matter, or view the many documentaries starting with their earlier days in Liverpool, they always credit their point of view and music-making roots to Black music—R&B, The Blues, Jazz, Gospel or artists such as Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, etc.

    I very much agree with 100 Flowers re Paul McCartney when he said:

    “he’s often not given enough credit for his aesthetic radicalism in the Beatles [some of the more experimental ideas were his] so it’s quite unfair to dismiss his work as “mindless music” as one poster did above.

    Fact is, aesthetically, The Beatles were pioneers musically and their creative endeavors broke lots of rules. And they weren’t static, or resting on their laurels. There is a line of development and risk taking, aesthetically, throughout their musical catalogue.

    As far as “Blackbird” goes…100 Flowers was correct, except even though it was written in 1968—and what a year that was!—the popular rumor for a long time was that Paul McCartney wrote it with the Black Panthers in mind.

    As far as the points 100 F’s made about Yoko Ono, I will have to think about that some more. But do think Eddy L. made a good point about Ono’s art. First of all, it has been contended that the “screaming” (form of music) on the “White Album”’s “Helter Skelter” was influenced by Ono—with both her and John L.’s infatuation with the “Primal Scream” form of therapy. And although Ono is undoubtedly one of the most famous avant-garde artists, she is not the only woman who has had to struggle, nor whose work has been devalued because she was part of the avant-garde genre. The following come to mind, even though they had relatively more success than others, but didn’t follow the status quo: Anna Deavere Smith, Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, etc. What the avant-garde movement is usually noted for is its rebellion against academia in the arts. And I think it safe to say that Yoko Ono was part of and contributed to that rebellion.

  23. Otto said

    Just because I disagree with Yoko on her pacifist view doesn’t mean I don’t like her. I appreciate her art work and her influence on Lennon. I still read her blogs at Myspace. She’s a very interesting person.
    I oppose pacifism because that label allows the violent right wing of this country to believe we are door mats who have given them a green light to inflict anything they want on us. We have a right to defend ourselves just as any one on the right does.

  24. Andrew said

    Is there any archival audio of this interesting interview? If so, it’d be great if someone could dig it up, digitize it and upload it for download.

  25. Red Chuck said

    Interesting that Lennon and Ono choose the RED MOLE– a trotskyist publication– for their most explicitly political and radical interview.

  26. Mike E said

    red chuck:

    how is it interesting? It is pretty clear that neither John nor Yoko leaned towards trotskyism in any ideological sense. In britain, those were relatively influential papers — so they spoke to them. right?

  27. John said

    Uh. See the “RB. Now your trying to swim against a bourgeois society, which is much more difficult”
    question, JL replies and mentions that they had a fight with apple?!?

    This interview apparently is in 1971, apple wasn’t even founded until 1976.

  28. PatrickSMcNally said

    > apple wasn’t even founded until 1976.

    Wrong. It was founded in 1968:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Records

    “Apple Records is a record label founded by The Beatles in 1968, as a division of Apple Corps Ltd. It was initially intended as a creative outlet for the Beatles, both as a group and individually, plus a selection of other artists including Mary Hopkin, James Taylor, Badfinger, and Billy Preston. In practice, by the mid-1970s, the roster had become dominated with releases from the former Beatles.”

  29. Jimmy T said

    If Yoko Ono had looked like Goldie Hawn, people would pretend her talent, wisdom, and humour was why she was universally adored. Didn’t she cosmically and vocally evoke grim reminders of Nagasaki, expose racism, and replace a beautiful dutiful bourgeois housewife-type? People feign that her talent, wisdom, and humour aren’t as totally cool as they have proven to be, because she blows their mind—and threatens their status quoness. But, now, the world over, women of all races and faces can be heard and seen as wise and beautiful. How about giving your favorite musician’s favorite girl some respect, starting now, forever, and extending it to all women too? She is correct about the non-violence ideal as a rule and has never traversed logic on the subject!

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