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September 19, 2010

The Iron Law of Institutions Meets the Beatles

Despite appearances, I'm still alive. There's lots of stuff going on over here that I hope you'll check out.

In other news, Slate just ran an article about the internal dynamics of the Beatles. And what's interesting about it to me is how, at the birth of the Beatles, John Lennon appears to have violated the Iron Law of Institutions—that is, unlike just about every leader in every society in history, he decided to allow competition to his power because it was better for the society overall. Here's how the article describes what happened when Lennon, 16, met Paul McCartney, then 15:

John Lennon saw the two sides of his attraction to Paul McCartney quickly and clearly. "I dug him," he said, and he wanted him in the band.

But he had his concerns. "I half thought to myself, 'He's as good as me,'" he told the journalist Hunter Davies in 1967. "I'd been kingpin up to then. Now, I thought, 'If I take him on, what will happen?' " (In one sense, Lennon obviously meant: "If I invite him to join the group." But the double meaning of "take him on" is worth noticing.) In a 1970 interview with Jann Wenner, Lennon described his dilemma even more plainly: "I had a group. I was the singer and the leader; then I met Paul, and I had to make a decision: Was it better to have a guy who was better than the guy I had in? To make the group stronger, or to let me be stronger?"

With hindsight, it's clear that it wasn't an either/or. Bringing Paul aboard made the group much stronger and it made John much stronger. It gave him part ownership of a priceless enterprise. That math adds up to infinite value.

But we're missing the point if we look at Lennon's thinking as a mistake. Actually, he put his finger right on the core emotional dynamic. What Paul represented to John—for good and for ill, for excitement and for fear—was a loss of control. All through his relationship with McCartney, the power between them would be fluid—a charged, creative exchange that fueled them and frustrated them, leading to creative peaks and valleys of recrimination and estrangement.

And it can all be traced to their first encounter. "The decision was made to make the group stronger," Lennon told Wenner. Had he decided to keep the power all to himself, he probably would have forsaken his power entirely.

So the Beatles are an extremely powerful example of what can happen when people in charge think first of the good of the group, rather than purely of maintaining their own position within the group. (And Lennon didn't even have to give up his power—he just had to share.) Imagine what human beings could accomplish if this were the norm rather than an incredibly rare exception.

"A Tiny Revolution: Trying to Understand People by Understanding Politics Since 2004."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at September 19, 2010 02:36 PM

And of course in 1968, when Lennon tried to reassert his primacy by introducing Yoko Ono into the group--that is, when he followed the Iron Law--the group suffered an injury from which it never really recovered.

Because every comment thread about this topic devolves into the merits of Yoko as a person or artist ("I hate her squalling" vs "You philistines don't understand"; "The Beatles were sacrosanct" vs "John loved Yoko and the other three were sexist bastards"; even "Yoko's behavior is objectionable" vs "fans have always irrationally hated Yoko"), I'd like to underline something. What makes the Iron Lawiness of this obvious isn't whether one likes Yoko or The Beatles--it's that she was a total not-fit.Bringing her into the sessions and expecting the other guys not to be confused/resentful/inhibited was a pure power move on Lennon's part, like Mick insisting Lawrence Welk replace Brian Jones in the Stones.

To quote Shenk:
The traditional story is that John withdrew from the band even further when he took up with Yoko. She is cast as usurper—provoking rifts that led to the band's demise. But on closer look, we have to ask whether John actually used her to assert his dominance—to claim his rightful, incontestable leadership.

Shenk's either/or choice is wrong--even a cursory knowledge of the White, Let It Be, and Abbey Road sessions show Yoko as incredibly provoking to Paul and George and sometimes even Ringo--which was exactly why Lennon did it. The more Yoko irritated the others--and the more they sat there and TOOK it--the more powerful Lennon felt within the group, even as the group weakened and died.

The Iron Law giveth, and the Iron Law taketh away!

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 19, 2010 04:14 PM

Hi Jon,

Very interesting post. However, Lennon wasn't a politician, he was an artist. Do artists follow the Iron Law of Institutions too?

Incidentally, is the Iron Law of Institutions your own invention? It sounds like something that should be a sociological truism, but probably isn't.

Also, there is a school of thought that holds that Lennon was assassinated since he was a threat to existing power structures as a successful populist. Don't know how much, if any, evidence there is for this. Anyway, thought that might be relevant somehow. Seeing as he wasn't a respecter of institutions in his personal life either, as per your posting.

Regards, Faheem
(3 am posting :-))

Posted by: Faheem Mitha at September 19, 2010 05:39 PM

Okay, I hate to be like this but I mentioned the Beatles and John Lennon in relation to The Iron Law of Institutions in a comment I posted here ages ago. I swear I did!

Posted by: cemmcs at September 19, 2010 06:51 PM

I really do hate to be like this but...

Posted by: cemmcs at September 19, 2010 06:57 PM

Say the word and you'll be free
Say the word and be like me
It's the word I'm thinking of
It's the word...cemmcs!

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 19, 2010 07:44 PM

Interesting theory. And it doesn't portray Lennon in a very good light, does it? But ultimately his power play didn't just destroy the group, it destroyed him. Losing his group ultimately sapped his confidence and crushed his creativity. He wrote one great song on his own, some good ones, and a whole lot of mediocre forgettable ones.

The whole thing -- foisting Yoko on the group -- reveals him as incredibly selfish and self-absorbed. But no one can go through what the 4 Beatles went through and come out it normal, and self-less.

P.S. "Lennon was assassinated because he was a threat to existing power structures"? Oh please. And Paul is dead.

Posted by: Elizat at September 19, 2010 08:55 PM

I think you missed this one completely, Schwarz. Elevating oneself by associating with other powerful people is standard. The politically powerful do this all the time, a President bringing in alpha dogs like Rove or Rahmbo, corporations merging, dynasties marrying their offspring (Nietzsche said the purpose of marriage is consolidation of power.) They make their group stronger. That group does not include all of us, just like idolating fans aren't members of The Beatles.

That's where you analogy fails horribly, "the people in charge" don't think of their "group" as society, their group is composed of a limited number of people in their class, and they cooperate well enough to take trillions from the rest of us, as the Beatles have made billions.

Posted by: marcus at September 19, 2010 09:26 PM

Ya had me up until the second line. For some reason this piece reminded me of our zombie populace drinking Nat Light and watching Dancing with the Stars.

Posted by: Yawn at September 19, 2010 09:38 PM

Hate to screw up your theories, but I think the Beatles did their best work during the time Yoko was on the scene. Most of the early albums had a few great songs, but they were mostly skittled up, country toss-offs.

I think the Beatles broke up because they simply grew up.

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 20, 2010 12:08 AM

Tomorrow Never Knows, A Day in the Life, She's Leaving Home, For No One, Taxman were all "skittled up, country toss-offs"? Huh?

Yoko didn't come on the scene until the White Album. Many people would argue that Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour rank as their best albums, and all of those were created well before John began mucking up the works.

Posted by: Lou at September 20, 2010 08:00 AM

Always good to see Mike's Beatle brilliance!

(The Iron Law of Institutions is a nice cynical rule of thumb, but it certainly isn't an iron law. Then again, I suppose calling it the The Rule of Thumb of Institutions would be pretty lame.)


See British barister Fenton Bresler's The Murder of John Lennon, especially the British edition, which Bresler researched for many years. That probably has the best evidence supporting an argument that Mark David Chapman was likely a Manchurian Candidate. It is of course not conclusive evidence, because Bresler's independent and necessarily limited investigation is the only one that happened, but there are some real oddities about Chapman's past. And if it is possible to create a mind-controlled assassin, Chapman sure behaved like one.

As to the 'why' issue, see John Lennon and the FBI files, as well as a great documentary whose name escapes me right now. To be nitpicky, I don't really think "populism" made Lennon dangerous, but you maybe meant that as shorthand. No one can name a bigger contributor to the anti-war movement and 60s radicalism, which was and is hated by the right. The wingnuts who control operations in the military and intel community were determined to undo that and make sure peace movements didn't cause problems like that again, and they have succeeded.

Maybe The Right just got lucky and Mark David Chapman solved a problem for them, but a substantial scientific literature and the existence of lots of weird assassinations of political figures supports the hypothesis that it is possible to turn SOME people into assassins, especially via drug-assisted hypnotic programming. So when I learn that somebody has killed a significant enemy of the National Security State at an opportune time because of The Catcher in the Rye, I have to presume that was actually not the real cause of the victim's death.

Of course, to KNOW that, much more evidence would be needed, and that never happens. So the hypothesis can really never leave the realm of speculation, where it can forever be dismissed as crazy. Because of this, such crimes are crimes of guaranteed impunity, and the temptation to commit crimes with impunity is too great for most human beings to resist, especially if they have fallen under the spell of the dark side of power.

What can be gotten away with will be gotten away with. That may really be an iron law.

Posted by: N E at September 20, 2010 11:02 AM


Thanks for the book suggestion. I don't know how seriously I am suggesting political assassination (probably not very seriously), but it is odd that charismatic figures who aren't part of the standard power structures have a way of turning up dead. Other examples that come to mind are ML King and Malcolm X.

What I meant by populist is some charismatic person who could conceivably be used as a focus point for a grass-roots movement. Someone not exactly a politician, but with political savvy.
Someone who isn't owned by big interests. Someone like in Gandhi in the Indian independence movement in the 20s - 40s. Good name recognition wouldn't hurt either in this scenario, and Lennon was and is very famous.

What I know about Lennon's anti-war activity is largely from the documentary

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon"

Bed-ins with Yoko etc.

Posted by: Faheem at September 20, 2010 01:02 PM

>. Many people would argue that Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour rank as their best albums, and all of those were created well before John began mucking up the works.>

Lennon's contributions on the White Album and Abbey Road is "mucking up the works," huh.

I think many people confused better recording techniques with better songs. Lennon himself said a lot of the earlier and middle albums were just "filler songs."

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 20, 2010 01:32 PM

How to Systematically Destroy Your Credibility in a Discussion of the Beatles' Music

Step 1: Assert that the Beatles' pre-Yoko (= "early"!) output consists mainly of "skittled up, country toss-offs."

Step 2: Suggest that the near-worldwide consensus about the merits of (e.g.) Rubber Soul and Revolver is the result of listeners' "confus[ing] better recording techniques with better songs."

Don't leave us hanging, Paul—what's step 3?

Posted by: the next Prescott Niles at September 20, 2010 02:15 PM

While I appreciate that evolution has not equipped us to function at our best online, I think we should make the effort to act with a generosity of spirit toward each other.


Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 20, 2010 02:46 PM
Posted by marcus at September 19, 2010 09:26 PM

I think you missed this one completely, Schwarz. Elevating oneself by associating with other powerful people is standard. The politically powerful do this all the time, a President bringing in alpha dogs like Rove or Rahmbo, corporations merging, dynasties marrying their offspring (Nietzsche said the purpose of marriage is consolidation of power.) They make their group stronger.

There is a mistake here, a missed, subtle distinction. In the cases where the politically powerful generally join together, they are not typically giving up power they already have for the sake of gaining new power -- instead, they are realigning or modifying their power (at worst, merely risking some of their power) for new power.

For example, if I am CEO and I elevate a buddy of mine (upper-middle-class, best schools, same ethnicity as me, etc.) to the board of directors, I am exercising power, but not losing it. Is there risk? Sure -- if the guy turns out to not be a “team player,” he’ll be an albatross if I don’t ditch him. But if it works out, we both win and feel mutually obligated to each other. And when you’re a bastard, you value loyalty above all else (see also: the Bush family). But that’s a far, far different deal from me instituting a power-sharing agreement. It’s not even close.

Two families, pre-marriage-between them, may be strong and then made stronger by marriage, but this doesn’t mean that they somehow are losing strength by becoming married. Again, at worse, they risk being shamed by the other family’s indiscretions maybe, depending on the society. Marriages are consistent with the Iron Law.

On the other hand, name the number of times you’ve heard of, in human history, powerful families agreeing to share the administration of a piece of land. Peers or no, sharing is not second-nature to an aristocracy in an agrarian (as opposed to hunter-gatherer) society.

That group does not include all of us, just like idolating fans aren't members of The Beatles.

Politicians aren’t magical. They can’t devour the hearts of their peers to absorb their strength. (Though it would be cool if they could be convinced otherwise.) Their powers are limited by a variety of factors and allies are essential. Sure, they need their class to be small, but really, there’s no risk of it getting too big. By acting in their own self-interests, human aristocracy has restricted their class for literally thousands of years. As such, there’s no reason not to elevate useful persons into their class, so long as they’re properly vetted. The only threat is, again, the non-team-player, which, politically speaking, would be the independently wealthy liberal populist. The solution there? Google Bobby Kennedy.*

(*Not trying to start an in-depth discussion of his populism; it suffices to note that his illiberal peers thought him populist.)

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 20, 2010 03:01 PM

You're absolutely right. Sorry, Paul*; genuinely pointless/dumb of me to have gone that route.

*And everyone else.

Posted by: the next Prescott Niles at September 20, 2010 03:04 PM

By "mucking up the works," I was not referring to Lennon's musical contributions on the White Album or Abbey Road. By mucking up the works, I meant thrusting Yoko into the middle of a group where she had no place being. John's decision to do that, without consideration for how it would affect Paul, George, or Ringo (and George especially despised her presence, as countless accounts have shown) qualifies as "mucking up the works."

Posted by: Louka at September 20, 2010 03:13 PM

No One - Lennon didn't give up power, he was 16, not yet rich or famous, and new that getting more talent in the band would make him more powerful by elevating his group. The power "sacrifice" is only relative to members of his tiny group, while the gain is against outsiders. And this analogy cannot be made as a microcosm, it has to include Beatles fans as well, who are outsiders. Which is where I have issued with the blooger's post, his analogy uses The Beatles as a whole society, but the politically powerful as only individuals in a society.

Will someone who is CEO of a 20 person company merge his firm with a larger, not just sharing rank, but accepting a subordinate role as VP? Of course, many will. Because there's more power as VP of Goldman Sachs than as CEO of Pyrite Stox. That's what I think you are missing, conflating relative rank within a class with real power on a broader scale. Choosing bandmates with talent is hardly egalitarian, it's just good business. Especially when coming from a point of insignificance, as these kids were.

But another analogy, if anyone follows pro basketball, is the Miami Heat. These are guys who are already rich and famous, but are going to share team rank so that they can be part of a group - a small group within the NBA, within society - that brings them EACH greater glory than they had trying to carry teams by themselves.

Basketball is a team sport, so is rock 'n roll, so is politics, so is big business.

Oh yeah, I wonder how many people who lionize the Beatles have actually listened to that cheesy childish tripe in the past 30 years.

Posted by: marcus at September 20, 2010 03:53 PM

Lennon, living in New York, AND a well known living artist, wealthy, should have AT LEAST had a 25 cal automatic OR several ARMED bodyguards. A richman has guards and gates, a middle class man has the police, while a poor man sleeps with a shotgun by the door. If he was guarded then I would suspect a co-oranaded effort of some sort against. If he was just alone and un armed then the crazies got him.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2010 05:10 PM

I was at the Corpus Christi Bus Station at about dusky dark when I heard the news Lennon had been shot. I remember thinking that as bad John Lennon hated guns he had to be basically unarmed and probably wouldn't shoot back anyway. So, surely he had a bodyguard? 6 hours later I was on a shrimper out of Aransis Pass.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2010 05:29 PM


The United States versus John Lennon is precisely the documentary whose name escaped me.

Yes, charismatic leaders who threaten power turn up dead a lot, and the vast majority of people, like Elizat, say "oh please" or nothing if it is suggested that maybe someone killed those leaders for that reason. All those "oh pleases" were one of the things that first got me interested in this phenomenon, based partly on my view that if people almost can't or won't consider a possibility like that, that presents quite an opportunity for the ruthless.

Posted by: N E at September 20, 2010 07:31 PM

Sometimes a murder by a nutjob is just a murder by a nutjob.

Posted by: Elizat at September 20, 2010 07:46 PM

Mike Meyer: I've never been able to figure out much about Lennon's security in the period of 1975-80. The book I just referred to mentioned a ex-FBI man, Doug MacDougall, watching his son Sean after February 1980. Lennon was extremely accessible as celebrities go, even in those less-paranoid days, and fans would occasionally sneak into his place. This either delighted or terrified him, depending upon which sources you credit. These kinds of intrusions happened regularly over a period of decades, not just to Lennon, but to all the Beatles. (As immortalized in "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," not to mention a snippet of the film Imagine.)

MacDougall quit in mid-1980, after discovering that Yoko's efforts to publicize the LP were exposing the couple to risk; he was summoned back in September for advice on protection, but his recommendations--which would've almost certainly foiled Mark David Chapman--were rejected.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 20, 2010 08:16 PM

BTW, N E: have you run across the theory that Lennon's doorman was a shooter, too? There's a guy on the internet who says he's found proof that Jose Perdomo, the doorman, was a Cuban exile with connections to the Bay of Pigs and Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. It's an interesting theory, especially given its similarity to the RFK template: use a hypnotized patsy to draw everybody's attention, while a pro does the deed.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 20, 2010 08:19 PM

"Obladi-Oblada" is cute but, come on, it's no "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day"!

"She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"... now, yes, that, I'll admit, is one of the peaks of Western art. But, honestly, is the peak quite as peaky as "I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Ham, I Do Not Like Them Sam I Am!" ?????

And, no, I do not mind all that pre-Yoko vs. post-Yoko vs. post-pre-post-post-pre-post-Yoko debate. But if you care about great art, shouldn't you focus, rather, on life post-post-"The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss" ?

Just saying.

Posted by: Vlad Lennon at September 20, 2010 08:22 PM
Posted by marcus at September 20, 2010 03:53 PM

The power "sacrifice" is only relative to members of his tiny group, while the gain is against outsiders. . . Will someone who is CEO of a 20 person company merge his firm with a larger, not just sharing rank, but accepting a subordinate role as VP? Of course, many will. Because there's more power as VP of Goldman Sachs than as CEO of Pyrite Stox. That's what I think you are missing, conflating relative rank within a class with real power on a broader scale.

. . . That's what I think you are missing, conflating relative rank within a class with real power on a broader scale.

I’m not missing it -- I’m working with Jonathan’s assumptions because I don’t give a rat’s about the Beatles, only political power dynamics. You’ll note that my original analogies assumed that the actor already had serious power and, as such, had a significant concern in maintaining said power.

If Lennon was cognizant of the fact that he had vastly more power to gain as a result of letting whatshisname join the group, then marcus would be correct. However, I have not been told that there was any reason for this child to believe that he’d one day be “bigger than Jesus” due to this decision (which isn’t even really that big -- one could argue that the last 1.8 millenia was filled with people way bigger than Jesus since all that peace crap got tossed out as soon as Constantine got his crucifiction shtick, but I digress). The problem is that Lennon definately gave up real, apprehendible power for the sake of potential power that could only be achieved through non-contemptuous cooperation. That’s violating the Law.

Now, if you can make the case that Lennon saw in his band the potential for legendary greatness, you’re right to say that this is a poor example for Jonathan to use. I’m kinda doubting that, but I don’t really have a dog in that fight or anything remotely resembling a willingness to research (or even remember the band members’ names -- wacky, I know).

Further, you have to eliminate another option: that Lennon knew he was going to win it superomgwtfhuge, but was aware that he could do it without whatshisname. In order for this analogy to be meaningful once the “awesome future” is part of young Lennon’s awareness, he’d have to be able to say, “well, I could do it without newguy, but it would be easier or safer or, most importantly, more equitible with newguy.” If newguy is simply necessary for greatness and there is no greatness without him, then Lennon didn’t make a moral or even clever choice. He just pushed a win button. As such, the Iron Law is irrelevant -- not contradicted. Jonathan’s example wouldn’t work.

So given Jonathan’s assumptions/facts (I’m not sure of the validity there), the analogy he made holds, from what I can tell.

If we’re disagreeing about politics and sociology -- by all means I’ll keep chatting because that stuff is nifty. If our disagreement is only about the facts of the Beatles, then, eh, whatever you say is right. I’m not being contemptuous of you, I’m just profoundly indifferent to the Beatles so I don’t care if my facts are straight. They influenced a lot of music that I like, I know, but so did centuries of other musicians, and I remain doggedly incurious about them as well.

To wit: I have no idea why McCartney getting shot is analogous to the assassination of a populist who would have literally and completely changed human history. If McCartney had serious political leverage that I, through some strange thaumaturgy, faerie glamour, or unwitting LSD abuse have been heretofore unaware of, by all means fill me in. If he was just a musician that entertained enough people such that many individuals now feel it necessary to lionize and kiss his now-decomposed ass, spare me the explanation. Thus, the N E/Elizat disagreement is bizarre to me.

But yeah, populists don’t get assassinated willy-nilly. Very few people worth a damn do.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 20, 2010 08:26 PM

"Once there was a way to get back homeward" is just the best for me. I always felt The Beatles affected me politically.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 20, 2010 09:47 PM


Sure, murder by a nutjob may be just murder by a nutjob some of the time, but all the time? I think that's an odd conclusion to reach, and people who have said that in my presence, virtual or real, almost uniformly have never seem to have seriously considered other alternatives involving motives better than lunacy.

Posted by: N E at September 21, 2010 12:27 AM

Hey Mike, I suspected you'be be showing up for this post. You're way ahead of me here, and I'm not surprised. No, I haven't read that theory about the doorman, but I'm not Bresler and willing to spend years investigating the murder. Just about everything I know about Lennon's murder I have now typed. So I can't tell you more than you know, or remotely close to as much.

I rarely even try to figure out operational questions, because the people who plan and carry out assassinations are professionals, so I probably couldn't figure out the operational details in less than a few years anyway, and if that isn't bad enough, there are legions of different professionals out there at NSA and Langley and in the private sector (contractors, contractors everywhere) creating confusion, lying, and discrediting various ideas and organizations in all kinds of sneaky ways. Not that it isn't a fine hobby, but it does get people awfully interested in the trees instead of the forest. So when I read somebody has a connection to Frank Sturgis or something like that, I pretty much ignore it unless it's from a source I trust a whole lot, and even then that's not my interest. I don't really even care who the shooters are; I care who probably had it done, and why.

I chuckled when I read that No One of Consequence thinks populists can "literally and completely" change world history but musicians can't. Well, she should watch The United States versus John Lennon and then maybe she'll reconsider that. I can't find a populist to even change a roll of toilet paper these days, and unless they can sing, nobody will pay much attention to them at all. And they can't just sing The Internationale or a Woody Guthrie song--it's got to have some sizze or funk or something.

Posted by: N E at September 21, 2010 12:57 AM

NE: By the time I got back to shore the news cycle had rolled away and something else was going on. Too bad, where ya gonna find another John Lennon?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 21, 2010 01:18 AM (1911)

Posted by: hapa at September 21, 2010 03:24 AM
I can't find a populist to even change a roll of toilet paper these days, and unless they can sing, nobody will pay much attention to them at all. And they can't just sing The Internationale or a Woody Guthrie song--it's got to have some sizze or funk or something.

The civil rights movement had one of the best soundtracks imaginable. The movement was indubitably helped by the musicians that helped articulate the struggle. And that music most certainly had “some sizze [sic] or funk or something.”

But the music was not the movement, and it is silly to think otherwise. The notion that the musicians and entertainers of today are the center of social movements merely because the former are famous is a banal delusion that is particular to our time; it was not a universal conceit 50 years ago.

I chuckled when I read that No One of Consequence thinks populists can "literally and completely" change world history but musicians can't. Well, she should watch The United States versus John Lennon and then maybe she'll reconsider that..

I never said musicians couldn’t change the world. I was implying that it is a matter of degree. That is, a significant politician has a greater effect on the world -- that I care about -- than a significant musician. This shouldn’t be a matter of debate, especially since the Beatles weren’t even as sensational when whatshisname got shot than they were in their heyday. MLK versus Aretha Franklin is similarly no contest, and who doesn’t love them some Aretha? This seems like the old-people version of fanboyism to me. That Bobby Kennedy would have undermined or destroyed the power of a lot of people fucking up Earth is inevitable; the world of today would simply be different, and vastly so, and it’s excellent odds it would be better. If whatshisname was still alive -- there’d be another record or two. But yeah, sure, in both cases it’s equally likely that politically powerful interests marked the person in question for death.

hapa: Interesting as all get-out, but it’s no quite the same thing as the Iron Law of Institutions --though I don’t know if you’re responding to the post upthread that was looking for an early invocation of the thing or not. It does complement the idea, however. People look to their own power and organizations become more oligarchical as they grow -- these things are most certainly interrelated. More should be said about it, but that would, alas, derail us from the Beatles, wouldn’t it?

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 21, 2010 04:09 AM

Christ you people sure know how to take an interesting question and make it boring as all heck. I especially love "No One of Consequence" who comes to an article written about the Beatles and whines about having to discuss the Beatles, when clearly there are power structures to be .... (zzzzz).

Perhaps the Lennon-was-assassinated folks and the Paul-is-Dead people could get together for a dinner party. And invite the John-Lennon-killed-Stuart Sutcliffe folks over for dessert.

Posted by: Bored now at September 21, 2010 06:45 AM

"Perhaps the Lennon-was-assassinated folks and the Paul-is-Dead people could get together for a dinner party. And invite the John-Lennon-killed-Stuart Sutcliffe folks over for dessert."

Don't forget the Ringo-was-a-great-drummer people. Or is that too far?

Posted by: BenSix at September 21, 2010 07:52 AM

McCartney has had far more of a populist effect than John Lennon. Lennon's politics appealed to a narrow slice of the left. And what actual long-term impact has he had on any specific populist policy issue? He gave some money to a few violent organizations. Ok. And he offered a lot of empty rhetoric about giving peace a chance. The last 5 years of his life he was a virtual nonentity on the political scene.

Whereas McCartney, through his lifelong devotion to animal rights and vegetarianism, has had a far greater -- actual, specific -- impact on a populist issue: namely, what people eat and how they treat animals. He's risked his popularity for decades by espousing an issue that's brought him plenty of ridicule. Yet he's also turned far more people on to vegetarianism and to animal rights just by using his fame for a cause he believed in.

Just thought I'd throw that out there, to counter the kneejerk assumptions that seem to pervade these vague debates about politics and power.

Posted by: AndyC at September 21, 2010 10:30 AM
. . . whines about having to discuss the Beatles, when clearly there are power structures to be .... (zzzzz).

Like I said: fanboyism.

Tell me Bored: why come to a blog about politics if you’re bored by politics? No, wait, don’t tell me.

Conspiracy theorists are far more entertaining than grammatically-challenged trolls, I’ll give them that.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 21, 2010 12:20 PM

Right on, AndyC. 1000% agree about Paul and Linda's impact on those two issues--especially in the UK--and the observation that the McC's impact has been specific, while Lennon and Ono's impact has been conceptual. I personally prefer the former approach.

I'm skeptical of artists as agents of genuine social change (and that goes for satirists, too), but each of us uses the gifts we have for good or ill, and I can't slag John Lennon much. The guy was conflicted, flighty, and prone to taking bad advice, but he was intelligent, extremely well-read, and (I think) genuinely looking for wisdom. That he couldn't live up to what we think we would do in his uniquely weird situation, says more about us than him. Just as there are some people who buy the St. Lennon myth, others are compelled to go the other way. Here's what I know for sure:
a) Lennon was shot a few days before flying (with his family) to San Francisco to march in support of some Japanese-American workers.
b) I spend my days typing comments on a blog.

As far as the "was Lennon assassinated" question, we'll never know. You give busy cops an open-and-shut case, and they shut it. Add to that Chapman's change of plea (which prevented a trial), and there simply isn't the mass of timely data that would be necessary to unravel anything. The NYPD's records would be interesting to look at, though.

But the "why shoot a rock star" rationale is foolish; there's no question that Lennon was considered to be a political actor by the US government since 1972 if not earlier--Operation CHAOS, anyone?--and once that happened, he stopped being treated as a musician and started being treated much more roughly. Why surveil a rock star? Why harass a rock star? Why spend millions trying to deport a rock star? You got me; I think it's all silly. But if somebody surveils/harasses/attempts to deport somebody, it's reasonable to entertain the possibility that, once back in power, they would go further.

Even from the outside, we can see that as the guys at the top changed—Johnson/Nixon/Ford/Carter--how Lennon was treated shifted markedly; therefore it's far from absurd to suggest that Lennon was the first casualty of the culture war. The election of Reagan/Bush was perceived as a profound shift, and ushered in the particularly muscular reptiles we're still battling today. I'm not saying that's what happened, just pointing out that we're not wondering if the Shriners murdered Bootsy Collins.

The other thing that I think is particularly important for us to remember--especially commenters on THIS blog--is that the power of leaders comes from the people who pay attention to them. A lor of people paid attention to John Lennon in 1980, including in a political sense; one personally may think they were idiots for doing so, but they did. Rightly or wrongly, The Beatles were perceived as a socio-political force almost from the beginning. This made the four of them uncomfortable--to J/P/G/R it was just a haircut--but that's what many people demanded from them, and eventually J/P/G became more comfortable giving politics, in diet, in religion. To think of them as empty-headed moptops crooning pop tunes may feel pleasingly hard-bitten, but it's not really accurate, either in who they were, how they acted, or how society reacted TO them. The Beatles always claimed they were simply riding a wave, and that is true; but to deny that they were part of that wave, and helped make that wave, is factually incorrect.

In interviews, Lennon always denied "The Beatles as leaders" meme, but he recognized that it was there, and used it, with varying degrees of comfort, until he was shot--in circumstances that hadn't ever happened before then (except in "Stardust Memories"!) and really haven't happened since. That could mean it was a random act. Or it could mean that it was the final move in a political game particular to that time and place--just as MLK's assassination was. To be scornful of that possibility seems a bit callow, but YMMV.

I guess what I'm trying to say is no matter what WE think of Lennon or The Beatles' politics, or activities in the political realm, it is simply factual that he/they were considered to be political actors, especially from 1965-80. Whether this is appropriate, a good idea, distracting, infantile or absurd is an individual opinion--but to deny it, in the face of all we know, is a fashion statement. It's no deeper an opinion than saying, "Who the fuck cares about Rosa Luxemburg, what a weirdo."

I personally don't need The Beatles or John Lennon to inform my politics--the music's plenty, thanks--but I know guts when I see 'em. John Lennon faced the possibility of death over his opinions (during the entire '66 US tour, for one thing), and yet kept saying what he believed. That's a genuine commitment to honesty and truth, and one needn't go along with the canonization crowd to admire the hell out of that.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 21, 2010 12:45 PM

we're not wondering if the Shriners murdered Bootsy Collins

According to Wikipedia, Bootsy's not dead yet.

A few years ago I heard that Sean Lennon thought John had been assassinated for political reasons, and I thought - "poor guy - his father shot by a psychotic, his mother Yoko - who can blame him if he's crazy."

Although I still feel sorry for Sean, I'm no longer so sure that's he's wrong about why his dad died.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 21, 2010 04:01 PM

I should think it would be very difficult to organize a Shriners Assasination Team what with the Fezes and the little funny clown cars. No camoflage value.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 21, 2010 04:35 PM

Mike, you said: "I'm skeptical of artists as agents of genuine social change"

I don't view Lennon as an actual (or once-aspiring) agent of change; rather, he was a volunteer representative of the change that was happening in society at the time. John as peacenik was, ultimately, more an artistic statement than a truly political one.

That doesn't mean he didn't possess a genuine desire to promote the values he shouted about. I'm just saying that he was immensely gifted in symbolic leadership, and he could evoke profound emotional reactions from people on a level the more earnest and hard-working McCartney never could or can.

I work daily with a lot of young people... kids as well as adults under 35. They all know that Lennon was associated with the peace movement, but they're invariably surprised when I tell them that Paul McCartney is a vegetarian. (Except for those dedicated fans of reruns of The Simpsons, of course.)

Lennon was a great ad-man. And he knew it.

Posted by: Cara at September 21, 2010 10:26 PM


Ringo IS a great drummer. Listen to the Anthology track "I am the Walrus" and convince me the drumming is mediocre.

Posted by: ODIrony at September 22, 2010 07:04 AM

I'm not so sure I've escaped the "[m]acro-level sociological wankery" that you wrote about in 2005. But I think I've at least started to rebel against it. The wanker I followed was George Lakoff and his "Whither Eurosclerosis?" was "Don't Think Of An Elephant."

The most I ever got out of him was that the right-wing talks about themselves as Strict Fathers in order to stay in power. It's a criticism you can level at Bush, Bill O'Reilly, and maybe even Dr. House and Simon Cowell, so LOOK OUT IT'S ALL AROUND YOU!

When I started to see his stooges cite his theories as gospel, I attributed it wrongly to the novelty of his ideas - because surely when the movement fleshes itself out it will be easier to explain these things. But the more I read of him, the less I liked. On top of his vagueness, he would magnify these tiny issues because they were supposed to represent these deep-seated psychological categories which we were supposed to access with the right repetition of phrases (and more think tanks). When he encountered criticism he would stretch his universal Freudian analogies to the point that it seemed they had become unconscious defense mechanisms that he could no longer control. He lashed out at Chomsky and others in his books like a child. He was caught up by his own rage in a tangled mess of his theories. His bold vision became corrupted by his own pettiness.

His story reminds me of the words of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu: "Sharpen your sword too much and it will blunt."

Posted by: Lewis at September 22, 2010 11:51 AM

Cara, I think that's exactly right about Lennon (boy, I think you will like Life After Death for Beginners). The problem was that Lennon's method of selling something was to embody it personally--so sooner or later he was going to try to sell something that angered a lot of powerful people, with predictable results. Ad men cultivate a distance from their products, which allows them to (sometimes) avoid being tarred with the flaws of those products. Lennon would've done well to cultivate that kind of distance--but of course he knew that the embodiment was where the power of his "sell" was. So he was in a bind--which is what led to all the contorted, defensive spiels about his own wealth.

ODIrony: I wasn't going to stick up for Ringo for fear of being considered a mindless honk, but apparently the guy's sense of time was so good that session tapes have the group making merciless fun of him when it happened; it was THAT rare. Which of course makes sense; it's ridiculous to suggest that the other Beatles would've tolerated a lousy drummer. I'm not a drummer, but apparently Ringo does what he does exceedingly well.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 22, 2010 12:45 PM

John's killer's latest parole hearing, from a couple of weeks ago:

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 22, 2010 02:06 PM

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Posted by: ciptvondito at September 24, 2010 09:01 AM

Yes, servicing your air conditioner was one of the things that brought John and Paul together; then John became interested in fans, and that was the beginning of the end.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 24, 2010 12:56 PM

I have a Goldstar from Wally World. If ANYTHING goes wrong I just take it back and get another one. (keep the receipts)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 24, 2010 03:06 PM