John Lennon wrote “Working Class Hero” in 1970, releasing it on his first post Beatles solo album. It got no air play, and, not being a huge Lennon fan, I might never have heard it were it not for a cover by Green Day, released on Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur in 2007.
As soon as your born, they make you feel small,
By giving you no time instead of it all,
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school,
They hate you if you’re clever and despise a fool,
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.
When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years,
Then they expect you to pick a career,
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear.
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,
A working class hero is something to be.
There’s room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill.
A working class hero is something to be,
If you want to be a hero well just follow me.
I was lucky enough to have a good childhood, avoid most of the horrors of the state school system, and pick a career that I’ve mostly loved. I certainly have been guilty of thinking I was clever and classless and free. But the most powerful verse for me is the last. I was given the choice to learn how to smile as I hurt people I had power over, and instead chose to leave the path to the top of the hill. I’m reminded of another lyric, by another great English writer, Roger Waters, though he isn’t talking about the “folks on the hill” (or is he?):
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.