The pop-punk band Green Day has covered John Lennon’s Working Class Hero as part of the Amnesty International album of Lennon covers entitled Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur. (See the emotive and powerful black and white video here. Or Lennon’s original here). Working Class Hero is a classic of Lennon’s and is considered his most caustic and political song, with its themes of class and alienation. [Read more below]
According to its Wikipedia entry, the song ‘explores themes of alienation and social status from childhood to adulthood. It was controversial in that it was one of the first popular songs to include the word "fucking" (twice). The song also demonstrates Lennon's dislike of the power of organized religion to sedate the masses’:
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.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong says, ‘We wanted to do 'Working Class Hero' because its themes of alienation, class, and social status really resonated with us. It's such a raw, aggressive song -- just that line: 'you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see' -- we felt we could really sink our teeth into it. I hope we've done him justice.’
The song is increasingly covered by those musicians wanting to express their - sometimes faux - rebellion or anti-capitalist leanings: Marianne Faithfull (see a live performance), David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Elbow, and Manic Street Preachers.
The release of Green Day’s cover version follows on from their highly regarded and high-selling American Idiot album, which ridicules the US government under George Bush, referring to such issues as gay rights, propaganda, media, and Bush's southern background. With songs like Holiday, Green Day also are strong critics of the occupation of Iraq. In general Green Day have become the most well known channellers of rebellion in America. As one reviewer states, ‘Billie Armstrong and company challenge the "working class" of America to break through the walls of society which box them in, to fight for something real.’ (BTW, Green Day’s American Idiot is suitably parodied by Weird Al" Yankovic ‘Canadian Idiot’ which purports to be a satirical commentary on American nationalism and the stereotypical American view of Canadians. See the video).
Unsurprisingly there are many ‘punk purists’ who see Green Day as punk sellouts or faux rebels. In answer to this, check out Alexander Billet’s defence, Are Green Day Kicking Ass for the Working Class? on dissidentvoice.org Billet argues that Green Day is having a significant affect on youth and music lovers of the US:
More importantly, how many of them will hear the issue of class talked about for perhaps the first time in their lives? In a country that is perpetually mis-labeled as middle class, the blackout on the growing ranks of the working poor is not an accident. We hear about a prosperous economy, rags to riches stories and the exploits of the rich and famous. We don’t hear about the millions without health care, the growing amount of McJobs and the biggest wealth gap in the industrialized world. For a young Green Day fan, angry and alienated at the world, this song may actually be something to identify with.
The only problem I have with Green Day’s politics is that the band end up climbing onto any old liberal political campaign that they think is anti-Establishment, regardless of it’s real merits. Therefore they buy into Amnesty International’s highly flawed and pro-interventionist view of Darfur and the Sudan. For a counterview, see Brendan O’Neill article Darfur: damned by pity on the anti-imperialist website Spiked-online.com
Of course Green Day’s political weakness isn’t unique, and in this regard, it’s quite appropriate that they are covering a song of another ‘political musician’. As I’ve blogged before, John Lennon was a contradictory revolutionary musician. Yet, there’s no doubt that Working Class Hero was indeed a highlight of Lennon’s ‘revolutionary period’, and its been a useful anthemic call to arms. Hopefully now, new generations will see Green Day’s video with clenched fists and restrained tears, and apply its message not just to the horror of Darfur, but to the universal struggle for liberation.