Getting over brutal criticism – you won’t have it as bad as John Lennon

John Lennon 1968 pen and ink drawing white album

Drawing by Ayd Instone, aged 16

There’s no escaping criticism. No matter how good you are, there’s always someone who’ll have a pop. There’s a whole profession of people out there who describe themselves as ‘critics’ whose job is to criticise. And the more successful you get, the more open to brutal criticism you are.

When it comes to your own personal creativity and work you have done yourself, criticism is tough. It’s personal, or feels personal. Highly creative people often lack confidence in themselves and their work. We often believe that we’re only as good as out last piece of work (that’s never really true) so if we get a bad review or a finger is pointed at us and our errors, we take it so much to heart that it feels like the end of the world.

Can you imagine going from being universally loved and adored for your work to having pernicious personal criticism levelled at everything you do and then having one critic so hating you and your work that they set out to murder you.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to John Lennon.

In 1968 the Beatles released the John Lennon song Revolution as the b-side of Hey Jude. It had the line “But if you talk about destruction. Don’t you know that you can count me out.”

The revolutionary sub culture was split on whether their idol and spiritual leader had gone soft and had sold out. Was he saying they should all just be cool, peaceful and take it easy, or was he siding with the establishment?

But later that year, the Beatles eponymously titled White Album, was released with a different version of the song which contained the lyric ‘But if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in.”

It had appeared that Lennon had done a u-turn on the previous non-violent stance. The subculture was now incensed. Not because Lennon appeared now to sanction direct action but because it looked like he’d swayed and changed his tune just to keep in with the underground.

The truth was that the album version of the song, although released second, was recorded first. Lennon’s actual stance was initially to perhaps support destruction which he later changed to be wholeheartedly in favour of peaceful protests.

The criticism he faced hurt him deeply and possibly pushed him into more proactively declaring his position (which was perhaps a good outcome) and led to his signature bed-in-for-peace events. But it also caused him to attempt to forge closer links with the more undesirable members of the underground subculture where his naivety was unable to tell good from bad. This led him to donate money and effort to some very undeserving causes, all to fend off that feeling of failure from harsh personal criticism.

This new radicalism alienated him from many of his former fans who, in Lennon’s words, “loved the mop tops and A Hard Days Night, but I’ve grown up. Have you?”

Yet this radicalism was short lived. He gained critical acclaim for his first solo album (1970’s John Lennon Plastic Ono Band) but it had poor sales figures. The best selling Beatle after the split was George Harrison with his hit single My Sweet Lord and triple LP All Things Must Pass. Even Ringo was having more hits than John. Lennon’s second LP, Imagine, was more commercial, but the third, Sometime In New York City was a disaster.

Lennon had been the first Beatle to be singled out for criticism, back in 1966, when the US radio stations picked up on the infamous ‘bigger than Jesus comments’. He’d had to suffer the embarrassment of having to ‘apologise’ repeatedly for what was a simple and fairly accurate statement made to a UK reporter months earlier and taken out of context. This event was part of their decision to stop touring. They had violent threats on their security by all sorts of weirdos including the Klu Klux Clan who threatened to plant bombs at a Beatle concert. John was physically sick before going on stage during that last American tour.

Then, from 1968, he’d had to put up with being criticised for getting together with Yoko, later blamed for ‘splitting up the Beatles’ but even before that, he had to endure nasty and disgraceful racial abuse leveled at her. He’d been criticised for turning his back on the Fab Four and pop music and being far too nutty and far out and yet also criticised for being childish and not being or radical enough.

Then he was criticised for producing ‘mediocre’ albums in the mid seventies (Mind Games and Walls and Bridges) and his LP of rock ‘n’ roll standards. Then he was criticised for not producing any new material for five years while he became ‘househusband’, looking after his son Sean. And more often than not, he was blamed for the lack of a Beatle reunion. (When if fact they’d all agreed on a reunion, but never at the same time.)

Then, in 1980, he was hunted down and killed by a ‘deranged fan’ who decided Lennon had become a ‘phoney’.

It would be hard for any of us to imagine what it could be like to have such adoration as the Beatles enjoyed (and suffered) in the sixties. It would be equally hard for us to imagine the type of criticism that followed, especially after following on from such acclaim. It would likely be impossible for us to consider that our creative work would cause someone to want to murder us.

I think when we consider what happened to John Lennon, it makes any criticism we face, just that little bit less raw, a little bit less biting and a little bit less relevant.

So don’t let it stop you. Carry on with your great works and love what you do remembering that there are no statues or memorials for critics.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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6 comments on “Getting over brutal criticism – you won’t have it as bad as John Lennon

  1. I think the only ones I’d tend to criticize in that story are those who set John up as some kind of God and didn’t allow him to evolve and explore his own understanding of the world. Good grief, people! Let the man write about what he’s feeling now, and if he feels something later, he’ll write about that, too!


    • My favourite story about coping with criticism came to mind as I read your comment.

      In 1977, Doctor Who was getting record viewing figures plus a few complaints for it being to scary and too violent.

      The producer said to actor Tom Baker, “Tom we’ve had a few letters”
      “How many?”
      “Over 30”
      “How many people tuned in” asked Tom.
      “Nearly 20 million” was the answer.
      “Do you know what proportion 30 is of 20million?” said Tom, “tell them all to f*** off”


  2. Hello Ayd,

    You’re a man after my heart here, writing about my lifelong idol, inspiration and all ’round hero, Lennon.
    In 1969 (I think it was – the year could be wrong) I got “near” to John and Yoko at their Bed-In for Peace in Quebec City, Canada, at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I happened to be there as a French language exchange student from Ontario.

    The Queen Elizabeth was where they recorded “Give Peace A Chance.”

    Security for celebrities in those days was loosey-goosey: a persistent fan could get up close. The hotel that day was a crazy scene – people desperate to see them. Lots of pushing and shoving! I got as close as the half-open door to their suite in the QE, from which vantage point I was able to cop a view of the famous duo as they sat up in bed in their PJs, bantering with press people and other hangers-on celebrity types. I remember seeing Tim Leary there.

    There were a few big-shouldered security guys loitering around sort of aimlessly, and eventually one of them gave me the shove back down the hallway.

    Anyway, more to the point: having read every biography out there about Lennon, every magazine article, news stories, etc. etc. I’ve come to the conclusion that our man was of two minds about his creative integrity and his critics, but he eventually got that monkey off of his back.

    On the one hand, John was a typical showbiz type – he loved the attention, it fed his hungry ego. He loved for his music to be loved. And this guy was a total musical genius, who knew it, dammit! So Don’t Give Me No Crap!

    On the other hand, he chose to pioneer radical “underground” advocacy (like a dark version of Bono, with meaner street creds), which generally got him bad press and a longer FBI file.

    But I disagree with your devaluation of his underground activities as mixing it up with “undesirable members of the underground subculture where his naivety was unable to tell good from bad.” I feel certain that our man always knew exactly what was happening around him.

    The causes he took up were worthy. His song, “John Sinclair” actually got the real living John Sinclair sprung from prison! He and Yoko revelled in their newfound value-added political activist power.

    John and Yoko’s bandit reputation actually scored them some major legitimacy: While on the Canadian leg of the Bed-In tour, they cadged a private meeting with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, in his offices at the parliament buildings. They declared Trudeau one of the “beautiful people.” Trudeau was said to have shared the sentiment – not surprisingly, really, as Trudeau himself had always been a bit of a contrarian and Leftist rad, and he too was a fellow list-ee on Tricky Dick’s Official Enemies List! (After a state visit, Trudeau had referred to certain D.C. officials as “pip-squeaks ” to the press. Pissed Nixon right off!).

    Here’s a quote for you to chew on that proves Lennon was no naif. He knew what was what:

    “Listen, if anything happens to Yoko and me,
    it was not an accident.”
    Quote: John Lennon

    I don’t think he was just kidding when he said that.

    I think by this point in his career as a rock star – increasingly a rock star-with-Major-Activist-Chops – Lennon had tossed off his critics. He’d transcended rock-stardom (just like Harry, in a different way though!) Who could honestly, flat-out discredit “War Is Over,” and “Peace” without turning into a toad?

    Likewise, we all know he wasn’t kidding when he would say during their big American stadium tours that someday, someone was going to gun him down.

    That’s the rare and distinctive quality of Lennon that has always, will always, distinguish him from the crowd: He wasn’t just kidding around.


    Will Travis


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