John Lennon’s and the Beatles’ music comes from a time when music seemed to actually matter. Their influence on music, art and youth culture is well documented. But what of the other angle, Lennon’s so-called ‘message’ about peace and love?
Some bores have criticised Lennon’s simplicity in his message. What did they want? A doctoral thesis? Essays on psychology? Those things exist, but who reads them, who remembers them and who acts on them? No-one.
Overplayed and overused, 1971’s Imagine is not quite what people think it is. The message isn’t a banal hollow hippy one. It doesn’t make empty promises. It doesn’t dictate a solution. It just asks the listener to imagine a different world. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing to criticise there. It’s just a simple a mind game that we should all be able to play unless we have become dangerous creatures that lack the imagination to wonder ‘what if?’. Imagine is a creativity workout song.
Two years earlier Lennon recorded the improvised Give Peace a Chance. Again it’s criticised for its simplicity. The message is in just one line, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance”‘. That’s all he was saying. Again, he wasn’t offering solutions to the world’s complex problems. He knew there were people better equipped to work those solutions out (“we’d all love to see the plan”). All he was saying was to give peace a chance, not to overlook it or rush in and miss the opportunity for it. “You may say I’m a dreamer” he sings in Imagine. But in fact he was an imaginative realist too who knew the limitations of our society and of himself, even when, for a brief time he was one of the most powerful cultural figures on Earth.
Lennon’s approach to revolution was different from many rebels. He wasn’t wanting to usurp the current leaders and take over. He wasn’t insular, speaking only to a select few. He was instead sending out messages to everyone, all the people and the leaders, to instil a sense of doing a better job of getting along with each other.
The Beatles All You Need is Love is another so-called ‘peace and love’ song that is criticised for its simplicity. It was performed and recorded live in the first global satellite broadcast in 1967 to 500 million viewers. Why not use the opportunity to send a simple message that almost everyone could understand? Again the critics have missed the point. Lennon wasn’t necessarily saying that all you need is love, that you don’t need anything else (like food and water for example). He was saying that you have everything you need and now, the one thing you are lacking, is love.
The fact that people are still talking abut Lennon’s ‘peace and love bed-in’ 41 years after the event (even if it’s to moan about how simple and rubbish the idea was) shows what a great publicity stunt it was. In fact, in terms of peace protest (or guerilla marketing awareness campaign as they are now called) you’d be hard pushed to top it. Lennon’s simple idea of staying in bed for the week and inviting the world’s press to come and chat is second only to Ghandi in memorability and cultural resonance (whether you agree with the methods or results or not).
We’re still talking about him 30 years after his death. We notice and mark his 70th birthday. Lennon isn’t going away anytime soon and possibly never will. In many ways the myth gets stronger as time passes. Lennon is the most recent god elected to the pantheon alongside Shakespeare and Mozart. It doesn’t even matter what you and I think.
It doesn’t matter whether you love the Beatles or not (although if you don’t you may be in the minority). As a cultural phenomenon they are here forever and as long as our civilisation endures, they will be listened to, referred to and talked about.
Making the complex appear simple is not easy, it is an art in itself. Taking complex psychology or a meaningful message to motivate, inspire or engage and packaging it up in a medium such as a song that can transcend barriers of time and space is the work of a creative genius. We should all aspire to being that simple.
This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.
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