Working Class Hero

Working Class Hero (John Lennon, 1970).
Working Class Hero (Tin Machine).
Working Class Hero (live, 1989).

[John] was not the big working-class hero he liked to make out. He was the least working class of the Beatles actually. He was the poshest because his family almost owned Woolton at one time.

Paul McCartney, 1983.

Even by the standards of Bowie’s earlier misreadings (“I Can’t Explain,” “God Only Knows”), Tin Machine’s version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” seems oblivious, even hostile, to the original song’s ironies. Bowie covered “Working Class Hero” for admirable reasons. Sean Lennon, having become friends with his son, was around during the Tin Machine sessions in Nassau, so Tin Machine started playing the song as a tribute. Bowie decided to put it on the record, telling an interviewer he wanted to bring back into circulation a neglected Lennon masterpiece.

Timing was also part of it. Two months before Tin Machine recorded their cover, Albert Goldman had released a rancid biography, The Lives of John Lennon. Serialized over two weeks in August 1988 in People magazine, Goldman’s book used the formula of his earlier biographies (Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce): Goldman, having first posited himself as a “fan” of his subject, sadly discovers that the subject was in fact a vile, repellent human being with no redeeming qualities. Goldman was a decent researcher and a cynical biographer; he cherry-picked the most salacious anecdotes and the tawdriest stories that he found and strung them together.

Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney urged a boycott of the book (you can’t blame them, as Goldman portrayed each as being conniving and horrific), while Bono compared Goldman to Satan (“his kind are like a curse”) in a bad song rushed out on Rattle and Hum in October. In America, if the angry letters that People and Rolling Stone received about the book offered any consensus, there was dismay and bewilderment. Had Lennon, rather than the martyr he’d been considered since his murder, actually been a brute, a lecher, a goon, a reckless fraud? The “controversy” helped sell Goldman’s book, which was forgotten in a year, but it ultimately did little to sour Lennon’s posthumous reputation. The whole episode seemed an ugly, ridiculous epilogue to the Sixties, played out over the last months of Reagan’s second term.

Lennon, had he lived, may have been more sanguine about Goldman’s biography. After all, no one could rubbish his reputation as well as he could. In interviews he gave with Playboy soon before his death in 1980, Lennon went through the Beatles canon song-by-song and dispatched some classics with assessments like “that didn’t work,” “crap,” or “that was Paul completely—I would never even dream of writing something like that.” The post-Beatles-breakup, post-Primal-Scream-therapy Lennon of Plastic Ono Band had been even harsher, with Lennon as the vicious debunker of Beatles and Sixties myths, in his litany of denunciation “God” and in his more subtle “Working Class Hero.”

“Working Class Hero” is Lennon at his most unreadable. Its lyric seems a lament of working class life: the narrow paths left open for the masses, their exposure to fortune and exploitation, their continual gulling by the ruling class. But there’s a cold disdain for “working class life” as well: keep you doped with religion and sex and TV…you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see. The song’s title refrain mocks the traditional strengths of working class life, of finding dignity in being “real” and in the nobility of work. A working class hero is something to be, with Lennon stressing the latter words with a phrasing that’s both sympathetic and cutting, suggesting the goal is both unobtainable and not worth the struggle.

Its five verses are Life According To Lennon: birth, school, the Hobson’s choice of picking your “career,” and the scant narcotic comforts of adulthood. The final verse is the sanctioned way out of the trap, the few clauses which allow a handful of the working class to escape their lives, whether lottery tickets or “entrepreneurialism” or getting rich via sports or pop music, as Lennon had. This is the cruelest delusion of all (“there’s room at the top, they’re telling you still”), as by striving out of your working class world, you discard the noblest part of yourself, which may be in turn another delusion.

Throughout the song, Lennon plays a game of bluffs as to his own sympathies. He’d grown up middle-class in Liverpool, as his childhood, though chaotic, had been the most comfortable of all of his bandmates.’ During the early Beatles years, Lennon had been emblematic of the “classless” Britain of Swinging London: he was both provincial (keeping the Scouse accent) and worldly (writing sophisticated pop music and “avant garde” books). And in 1970, as he was becoming involved in radical leftist politics, Lennon talked as though he had come from the streets. “I’m working class and I use few words,” he said on the Dick Cavett Show. “I‘m not an intellectual, I’m not articulate.” The point of view of the song’s narrator is fluid: he moves between disdain, empathy, mockery and sadness on any given phrasing.

“Working Class Hero” is in Dorian A minor, a folk modal key that consists of two tonal centers, A minor and G major. So it deliberately sounds “old,” as though Lennon has revived some Leveller ballad (it’s the same scale as classic British folk songs like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor” or “Scarborough Fair”) and it has a cyclical feel, suggesting that the song has no escape, in both its construction—it just shuttles from A minor to G major and back again*—and Lennon’s acoustic guitar playing, which allows no freedom of movement, ushering verse through refrain through verse until the close (paced by regularly-sounded bass notes on an open fifth string)**. Yet “Hero” is also sharply modern in its subject matter—nothing like it would have been allowed on a record as recently as 1965—and in its language: it was the first time that “fucking” was heard on a British rock record.

In theory, taking on “Working Class Hero” had potential. Tin Machine could play the typical Sixties game of electrifying a folk song into a hard rock number, and Bowie was an inspired choice to sing the lyric. Like Lennon, he had been raised solidly middle-class, but unlike Lennon, he had never made a fetish out of pretending otherwise: his perspectives had been either surreal suburban or, as he grew in fame and wealth, that of a “classless” aspirational figure. Even his occasional “Mockney” accents had been obvious stage costumes. So a cutting Bowie take on Lennon’s own conflicted song could have added further nuances to the piece.

The problem was Tin Machine. Bowie had a vehicle incapable of subtlety; he could use them as a weapon, as a goad to get him out of his bad habits, but unchecked, they easily slumped into loud obliviousness and tastelessness. Bowie sounds drowned out in the recording, having to howl out lines just to be heard, and the band hustles him through the lyric, with Bowie discarding Lennon’s incisive phrasing in favor of a bellow or a sneer. Take how Lennon, in the third verse, precisely sounds each consonant of “pick a career,” and teases out the last vowels, making the phrase as piercing as a needle; he’s savoring the bureaucratic coldness of the words and also playing on the double meaning of “career”—as something spinning out of control. Bowie just blunders through: “PICK-uh C’REER.” He also flatly sings or mumbles the lyric’s two curses, which Lennon had deployed like land mines. And Bowie’s strangled, hoarse screaming at the end seems mere bluster compared with Lennon’s measured anger and pity.

The result seems a collaborative effort to worsen the song. Bowie and the Machine recast the song in standard A minor (so using the V chord of Am, E minor, instead of the G major of the original); they replaced the ominous, waltzing tempo of Lennon’s track with a fat, bluesy vamp; they shoehorned in a Gabrels guitar solo after the third verse, squandering whatever momentum had remained; and they book-ended the track with the usual Hunt Sales snare drubbing. It’s a dreadful, witless recording that should’ve been a B-side at best.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988.

* There are some slight variations: the last refrain line is Am-G-D-Am, suggesting a slight shift to G major (although the D major is barely there, it’s just used as a passing chord on the way back to A minor).

** The recording of “Hero” is a classic example of Lennon’s indifference to time (the song’s not quite in 3/4— it’s something like one bar of 9/8, 2 bars of 6/8) and studio perfection, as he’s often not intoning the bass notes “properly.”

Top: Alistair Berg, “Scottish fans make their way to Wembley for the Rous Cup game against England,” London, 1988; Helen Levitt, “New York, 1988.”

22 Responses to Working Class Hero

  1. MC says:

    Great piece; terrific insights into the original and cover versions. I have a distinct memory of hearing this for the first time when my local FM rock station previewed this album. After this track played, the DJ’s incredulousness mirrored my own: he said something to the effect of, “Er, that wasn’t quite what I expected.” It’s funny what a tin ear Bowie always had for Lennon’s songs when he covered them, given the artiste’s obvious affinities. The ’83 Imagine is probably DB’s best Lennon rendition; at least he doesn’t bluster his way through it.

  2. TW Duke says:

    “he’s savoring the bureaucratic coldness of the words and also playing on the double meaning of “career”—as something spinning out of control. Bowie just blunders through: “PICK-uh C’REER.”

    Speaking of careers, almost every time I read this blog, I’m hugely impressed by what a good writer/critic you are. Honestly, (I’m not being sarcastic) it’s a shame this isn’t the 60s/70s/golden era of print rock journalism — you’d be a hugely successful and widely read rock journalist. I’m serious.

    “Career.” I never thought about how much there was there was to interpret in the way that Lennon vs. Bowie sing one single word. But there is, and you did it brilliantly.

    Since it’s compliment-the-blogger day, could you give us an update on the book that’s apparently being published of your Bowie blog? Any news? I’m also curious and maybe you could answer if you don’t find doing so too immodest: from what I recall/think from some very old posts I saw here, a commenter who works in publishing posted here and mentioned he’d be interested in talking with you further re: publishing a book? Is that same commenter the one who arranged a book deal?

    If so, you should feel hugely complimented. Hard enough to get something published even if you have good connections and actively push things, but very rare that someone contacts you and says, “your stuff is great, we’d like to make a book of it…”

    Anyway, good luck with the book if it’s still in the works, and keep up the great work on this blog. (Feel free to, uh, breeze us through the disasterpieces “Tin Machine II” and “Oy Vey Baby” in the coming weeks if you like with lighter, shorter posts and save your real energies for Bowie’s much better 90s/00s stuff to come).

    • col1234 says:

      well thanks. I’ve written a couple updates on the book in the “About” comment section, but will do so again here:

      I have spent the past year radically revising much of the early material, which I thought wasn’t up to snuff and was inaccurate in places. I also had to incorporate new material—Kevin Cann’s revised chronology and a host of other things. That’s finally behind me now—I’m revising the Aladdin Sane material as I write this.

      The goal is to get the final draft of vol. 1 done by end of summer/September. So the book would come out at some point in ’13, I’m assuming, but don’t know any specifics, obviously.

      I likely will put the blog on “summer slowdown” at some point this summer, when readership tends to sag anyhow. Take a week off here and there, do only one post a week, etc., just to give me some undivided time revising.

      thanks for your interest. wish me luck.

  3. sigmata martyr says:

    “PICK-uh C’REER.”

    That always stuck out and seemed so odd. I thought he was trying to sound posh and disdainful, mocking the sort of do gooders who wave these options infront of the “yoof” who should surely strive for better even as they stay firmly in their social place.

    These are the stories we tell each other in order to live… I often tried to wrestle sense and order out of these later Bowie songs in ways that would probably make the man himself chuckle.

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    I actually thought this was a rather good rendition of the Lennon song. You’re right, Tin Machine doesn’t exactly have a subtle take on it. But you have to admit, there’s a certain resonance to be had in hearing Lennon’s words sung by the man who wrote “Heroes”. As for myself, I can’t help but imagine quotation marks around the word: “A working class ‘hero’ is something to be…”

    And I can’t help but be impressed by the “machine-gun fire” of Hunt’s drums as they open and close the song (indeed, “firing” through the fade. Subtle as a succession hammer blows to the head, sure, but still rather exhilarating for all that… :D

    • Diamond Duke says:

      “succession of hammer blows to the head…” Sorry about the grammatic lapse…

      Also, apropos of nothing, I must say that Lennon’s original strikes me as being very similar to Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War. They both have the same sort of British folk-ballad feel to them. (And there’s another song that one can quite easily imagine being given a TM-style rockout! I’m willing to bet it probably already has…)

      • col1234 says:

        Dylan did it himself–see his perf. on the 1991 Grammys during the First Gulf War.

      • Richard Lesses says:

        And Bob Dylan’s Masters of War was based on Jean Ritchie’s arrangement of the traditional ballad “Nottamun Town,” itself recorded and released by Fairport Convention on their What We Did On Our Holidays in January 1969 (POB was released in January 1970).

  5. diamond dog says:

    I should not like it and everything about it says I feel I should dismiss it as a bad cover but I think in this case tin machine are the hammer that knocks the nail in. The delivery is calculated by Bowie he is tested to the max by the over the top backing he is almost cracking the range but still has enough to deliver mannered lines so its no accident there is a method.
    Its an odd cover and I should loath it but I think in some perverse way I like it.

  6. humanizingthevacuum says:

    The allusion to Dylan’s infamous ’91 Grammys performance of “Masters of War” makes sense: another stranded artist attempting to start over by demolishing an integral part of his aesthetic canon.

    • Michael Avolio says:

      “Demolishing” isn’t quite the right word, and Dylan’s reinvented his songs ever since the ’60s. Listen to the excellent 1966 “bootleg” concert album for an example of electric performances of the previously-acoustic “One Too Many Mornings” and “I Don’t Believe You.” Nor was Dylan stranded by ’91; his Never Let Me Down was 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded, but he got back in the saddle with 1989’s Oh Mercy.

  7. Maj says:

    I’m a Beatles fan but I don’t subscribe to the Lennon hero worship and frankly don’t listen to his solo stuff much nowadays. I suppose the song is good (esp having read your analysis) but at the same time I’m not a fan of it and never have been (I listened to a Lennon best of I had on my cassette quite a lot in my early to mid-teens).
    Tin Machine’s version is dreadful. Sometimes it pops up on my player on shuffle & I have to rush to skip it (I really should delete it, finally). Green Day did a better job with it. Less imaginative but also less awful.
    Great write-up btw!

  8. PH says:

    Yes, I always found it a pretty flat reading of the original. Another bit that’s always irked me is how Bowie replaces the line “but first you must learn how to smile as you kill”,(a savage indictment of how the folks on the hill got the money to live there) with “but first you must smile as you learn how to kill”, which is obviously a fluffed line, and carries no meaning.
    I agree with you Col 1-2-3-4, when you say that it should have been relegated to a B-side at best. Interestingly, I’ve found an unreleased Tin Machine song on You Tube called “It’s Tough”, that would have made a far better replacement. It even comes with a pretty decent video, yet as far as I know has never been officially released in any form. Do you know anything about the origins of this song?

  9. Pierce says:

    Another superb review. Never liked this version, but boy do I love the original and the album it’s off.

  10. friendlyadvice says:

    “The result seems a collaborative effort to worsen the song”

    You got it! Worst cover song Bowie’s been involved in, but at least it’s not completely his own fault.

    Great about the book – keep up the hard work.

  11. princeasbo says:

    Lennon was a wildly contradictory character, for sure, but Plastic Ono Band is magnificent, arguably as good as any Lp by his old band and certainly the best solo album by a member of the group.

    This version of “WCH” is all mouth and no trousers, an ostensibly “edgy” take of a song which had already made its point. It’s what’s wrong with “alternative” music in a nutshell.

  12. swanstep says:

    Marianne Faithfull is often said to do the definitive versions of this song, both live and on her testament album, Broken English (1979). I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly streets ahead of the Bowie/Tin Machine version, which is just depressing!

  13. Frankie says:

    Well written, I enjoyed reading this and agree with everything you said. I always took the original song as a completely cynical autobiography and I never really liked Bowie’s coldly aggressive mash up.

  14. Michael Avolio says:

    Very late to the party, and in the minority.

    “he could use them as a weapon” – This is actually what I like about Tin Machine’s interpretation of the song. It’s loud and vicious. Bowie spitting venom and the rest of the band playing razorblades and shotguns. Someone called the drums “machine-gun fire” – perfect way to put it.

    Part of why I like this version is, I’m sure, the context. The Messiah-complexed Lennon singing, “If you want to be a hero… follow me” means something hollow to me compared to when the guy singing it also sang, “we could be heroes, forever and ever… what do you say?”

    Both versions of the song are cynical, given the lyrics, but Lennon’s comes across to me as condescending, while Bowie’s is more of a call to arms.

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