John Lennon’s Revolution turned the ideals of 1960s on their head – challenging the outrage and fire and wilful chaos of the age.
All this coming from someone who had already become a figure head for the momentum of change. A distinct, revolutionary and individual voice was now confronting the egotistical destructiveness of the moment, and throwing it back in the generation’s own face.
I first fell in love with The Beatles through The Anthology series that was released around 1995. To this day my understanding of the band is through the prism of demos and outtakes – all their backstage humour and experimental creativity.
The Anthology’s great achievement was in giving listeners a sense of how completely tight these four creative giants really were. Even in the years that relationships broke down, the music was as intuitive and committed as it ever was and that standard never faltered.
It’s this that makes The Beatles unique. Not just their genius, but their ability to sustain that genius, and for it to survive and even be fuelled by, the clash of creative egos.
Revolution is a spiritual song – it’s yoga. The great revolution is in the human heart: “we all wanna change your head.” But it’s also a direct critique of the sloganeering and follow-my-leader activism that is still fetishised about the sixties.
It takes the baton from Dylan’s My Back Pages in satirising party politics and ideology, this time naming names. It goes even further in damning the ideal of destruction, something which was held up as a virtue in the sixties.
Today, we still hold destruction and disruption to be virtuous, albeit in the modified, baby-boomer bourgeoisie nostalgia of Silicon Valley and corporate branding. But the idea is the same – change is automatically good and the old world is the ancient regime – the oppressor from which we must wriggle free.
That Revolution is a balls-to-wall rock and roll song of the Sun Records variety is part of Lennon’s great artistic statement.
Yes, he is saying, rock and roll is revolutionary, but it’s not political. The great liberation is being able to decide for yourself, create your own identity free of cultural determinism. To replace the old repressive values with new party lines, defeats the whole message of hope that rock and roll once delivered.
The last verse is the most significant and tackles the dangers of revolution for the sake of it:
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
When I heard this song for the first time, finally getting a hold of a copy of the White Album, I felt deflated and confused. My 15-year-old self was already sold on The Wonder Years-style sixties nostalgia. A time of upheaval and revolution was far preferable to me than a John Major Britain, an age of yuppies, Lovejoy and Kylie Minogue.
Here was Lennon challenging my lust for rebellion and my hatred of authority. Yes, I did want to change the constitution. Yes, I did hate institution.s These things represented my teachers and arbitrary rules and the conformist expectations of my peers – the celebration of obedience and going along with the crowd.
Everything about these ideas meant the suppression of individuality. In a way, I felt betrayed by the lyrics of the song.
However, this was my first taste of the intellectual power of pop music, and indeed popular art. Lennon had a piercing ability to get under your skin, to get right in your face, just with a few lines. That very talent, as I was later to discover with Dylan, is far more powerful than some feel-good political anthem telling me what I want to hear.
Revolution is a song that challenges the euphoric, cultish conformism of the 1960s and which we are still suffering from today.
The time for revolutions is over.
We have become addicted to the memory of the sixties, to the narrative of revolution and the glory of change.
These things are making us blind to where we came from and how far we have come; they make us see bigotry where there is only discourse and reactionary forces where there are time-tested values.
Liberty does not come from permanent revolution. Freedom is not synonymous with discord and upheaval.
What we need now is a return to the root – “the roots that clutch”, as Eliot said.
That does not mean fascism, that does not mean nativism or nationalism. It does however, mean pride, identity and civic duty.
It does mean mean deference, obedience and honouring good office.
The time for hedonistic revolution is over. Drugs do not emancipate the mind. Indulgence and license are not the roads to freedom.
The road to liberty is narrow, and grown about with thorns and briars. It’s a road of struggle, and fumbling and slow progress.
Liberty, as opposed to liberation, requires patience, and putting faith in our past.
This is not the age of innovation, or disruption or of permanent change. What we need is now is to go back, reconnect with a pre-industrial ideal of community, citizenship and culture.
That’s not a Luddite argument. I am not talking about dialling back the clock. I am talking about cultural introspection, affirming what is good and worthwhile in our culture.
There’s a tendency to think that progress means a permanent year zero. We like this idea because we are obsessed with the romance of revolution, with the idea that we can break free from our personal demons through social activism.
We believe emancipation, liberation and revolution lead to greater agency and personal self-command.
In fact, revolution very often robs us of agency, just as drugs and intoxicants rob us of our sense of self.
We must return to the western canon, the through-line of history that binds us to our heritage, and we must do this of our own accord.
It’s not about government. It’s not about equality. It’s not about human rights.
All these things are just words on paper unless we understand their place in history.
Liberty is not something made up of good policy. It can’t be enforced. It’s a spiritual condition, a state of civilisation, consisting of individuals.
Liberty is the balance of the harmonious individual, and harmonious relationships.
All the emancipation of the sixties – all the good stuff, gay rights, civil rights, breaking class barriers and giving women the right be flourishing citizens – all of this is under threat, because we are addicted to revolutions, instead of honouring the ideas and ideals that inspire them.
It’s time to stop basking in the narcissism of innovation and change. It’s time to return to the roots of our culture, the “known laws of ancient liberty.”
All the vanity of politics and ideology and technology is irrelevant. What matters is man’s own relationship with himself, the moral recognition of his own value, and the value of life itself.
The good news is that we have the resources for that, and those resources have nothing to do with Google, Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix.
We need to lean on the tall oak of our culture, the oldest songs and poetry, the most lasting wisdom of our elders and our forefathers.
Cultures do not survive through revolutions, for revolutions are like wars – they destroy the old and fetishise the new.
Cultures survive on the resources handed down generation to generation, on the accumulative ideas and principles of human growth.
Don’t talk to me about Artificial Intelligence. Don’t bore with with the new genre of dance music. Don’t lecture me on the cool new drug.
Don’t talk to me of technology, change and innovation. It’s done. It’s over. It’s all a scam.
The real truth is in the past. The real truth is in our bones, in our blood, in our ancient mind.
Everything else is a distraction, a false promise.
Nothing can change our quest for love, our terror at death, our hunt for belonging. These are the ancient principles of life, and you can’t paper them over with plastic or polish them up into something new.
Modernity is compulsively utopian, always looking for the quick fix – from toothpaste and iPhones all the way up to government policy initiatives.
We need to let go of all that, and introspect, look within. We need to go back. Progress is just an excuse for the worst kind of smug conservatism. It’s over.