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What John Lennon really thought about punk

In many ways, John Lennon espoused punk values before punk had even begun to really germinate. Before the purists get their knickers in a twist, we’re not saying that John Lennon or The Beatles invented punk music. It was many of their contemporaries such as The Who, The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground who embodied the rawer, darker side of music and are now duly deemed ‘proto-punk’. 

However, John Lennon made a statement in a 1966 interview that crystalised the anti-establishment ethos that would develop into a vital aspect of the punk spirit over the coming years. In this infamous Evening Standard interview, Lennon made a quip that would light the flames of stuffy indignation within the hearts and minds of the older generation and the establishment. 

Lennon told the interviewer: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.” A perceptive opinion for even back then as religion was in decline owing to the advent of science, technology and music. However, Liverpool’s favourite son did not stop there. He opined that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. This wasn’t all, either. He concluded that “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

This hyperbolic statement clearly had an element of jest inherent to it. However, the reaction it garnered from across the board was considerable. Some elements of society were so enraged that it lead to protests, death threats and to The Beatles being banned from apartheid-era South Africa. Lennon’s quip made such an impact that even after the Beatles called it quits in 1970, his solo work was also banned from the airwaves of South Africa. 

In the most sensational yet hilarious reaction to Lennon’s comment, the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan nailed Beatles records to a cross and set them on fire. Retrospectively, the furore that ensued in the wake of Lennon’s comments may seem ridiculous to the 21st-century reader, but it does hold some significance.

It shows that the world still had some way to develop into the modern, more tolerant society we know today. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, at least today’s western society can look back on these anecdotes and learn a thing or two. A lot of the shift in opinions and attitudes would come via the punk movement of the late ’70s, and it is clear now that Lennon turned the anti-establishment feeling up a couple of notches. 

So fast forward to 1980, and John Lennon would unsurprisingly show himself to be a fan of the ground-swallowing punk movement. In an interview with Playboy that year, the former Beatles frontman gave us some of his last recorded opinions. Given that at this point he had done the full U-turn from angry young man to enlightened “gentleman”, he revealed: “I love all this punky stuff. It’s pure. I’m not, however, crazy about the people who destroy themselves.”

He was then asked by the interviewer to share his thoughts on the iconic Neil Young lyric, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which was taken from ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’. Lennon was critical of the Canadian singer’s lyric: “I hate it,” he said. “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It’s the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison…it’s garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They’re saying John Wayne conquered cancer…he whipped it like a man. You know, I’m sorry that he died and all that.”

Lennon continued: “I’m sorry for his family, but he didn’t whip cancer. It whipped him. I don’t want Sean worshipping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it’s garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”

This statement is wickedly ironic given that later that year, Lennon was to be murdered by the religious fanatic Mark David Chapman, owing in part to his Evening Standard comments fourteen years prior. Although he was the world’s biggest rockstar, his legacy was really cemented by his tragic death, affording him a mythos that his bandmates did not have. His frank discussion of not making cult heroes out of the dead is something that society could learn a thing or two from, as we have a tendency to fetishise death, particularly within popular culture.

Regardless, the thought of John Lennon listening to a Sex Pistols record is brilliant, as one would never normally think of the two in the same way. However, when you dig a little deeper, the tacit similarities are uncanny.

Listen to John Lennon talking about punk, below.