[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.”