While being in The Beatles was an exercise that John Lennon largely loved, it had downsides too. Being in a band is a democracy, and Lennon had to make certain creative compromises in the name of the greater good, but once the group split up, he took great privilege in being in complete control of his own artistic destiny.
His debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, allowed Lennon to express a different side of himself than he was allowed to with The Beatles. Lennon had become engrossed with left-wing ideology, and his newly adopted political stance was adopted on ‘Working Class Hero’, which was deemed controversial at the time of release.
Most notably, the track included swearing, with Lennon dropping the “f-bomb” on two occasions. The first on ‘Working Class Hero’ comes when he sings, “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school, They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool, ‘Til you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.” Later, he uses the phrase again and yells, “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV, And you think you’re so clever and classless and free, But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”
The Beatles never swore in their lyrics, bar the odd hidden negligence, and it was a strict rule they followed. It wasn’t as culturally acceptable to use profanities in music compared with today, and the inclusion of “fucking” was enough for many stations to ban the track across the United States.
Lennon claimed he only included the swear word because it fitted the song and added the emphasis he sought. He told Rolling Stone: “I put it in because it does fit. I didn’t even realise there was two in till somebody pointed it out. And actually, when I sang it, I missed a bloody verse. I had to edit it in. But you do say ‘fucking crazy,’ don’t you? That’s how I speak. I was very near to it many times in the past, but I would deliberately not put it in, which is the real hypocrisy, the real stupidity. I would deliberately not say things, because it might upset somebody, or whatever I was frightened of.”
If Lennon tried to pull a similar stunt with The Beatles, he’d have had to get it past his three bandmates, and it would have been a non-starter. Unsurprisingly, his label, EMI, did have reservations about the lyrics. Eventually, Lennon agreed to use an asterisk on the album’s liner notes rather than the profanity, but did insert the line, “Omitted at the insistence of EMI”.
Lennon saw ‘Working Class Hero’ as a “revolutionary song” and wasn’t prepared to dilute his creative vision to make his art more commercially friendly. “I think it’s a revolutionary song – it’s really just revolutionary. I just think its concept is revolutionary. I hope it’s for workers and not for tarts and fags,” he told Rolling Stone through blinkered eyes.
He continued: “I hope it’s about what ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was about. But I don’t know – on the other hand, it might just be ignored. I think it’s for the people like me who are working class, who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, or into the machinery. It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people, ‘Working Class Hero’.”
In 2022, the act of including profanities in lyrics doesn’t seem controversial in the slightest. However, that’s down to bold artists like Lennon, who broke down barriers, and on this occasion, he just needed to leave The Beatles to do so.