John Lennon – Instant Karma! (We All Shine On) (1970)
from the album “Plastic Ono Band”.
Oh, damn it.
I sort of promised myself to not try to analyse my three favourite songwriters of all time. I thought that would just build up a ton of pressure for me, personally, because these three men have proved to be three of the most important influences on me in my 28-year old life so far. I guess my self-confidence isn’t always on top, and I figured one of them, John Lydon, was too political, the other, David Bowie, was way too cultured and metaphysical for me, and thirdly.. John Lennon, well, you know, he’s just John Lennon.
Why would you even want to analyse his words?
Then I thought, hang on. There’s a reason why they scare me, there’s a reason why they’re so high up on my list, there’s a reason why they’re, to me, untouchables. Their music do speak to me, their words do make sense to me. It’s not just music. When it comes to these three songwriters, I listen. You know, it’s not that I just listen to their songs as a pastime, but I really listen to what they have to say.
Now, the reason why Lennon might be the most difficult for me to write about is because of my background. I literally grew up brainwashed on 60’s music, as both my parents are big fans, and my mother might just be the biggest Lennon-fan around. And when it’s not just your own “idol” (always a misused word that I don’t really want to use, but I’m using it now anyway, for lack of a better word) but also your parents idol, it’s hard to put into words just what they mean to you, and why, other than that they made up a big part of your childhood. To me, Lennon was the epitome of a rock’n’roll hero, not just about the music and the singing and the performing, but like I said, it’s also about the words, it’s about what he said and what he stood for.
He was being more than a musician, and with this early solo single, it’s easy to see why.
A lot can be said about his partner and wife Yoko Ono, but one thing, at least to me, is clear; she made him brave. After meeting Yoko, he dared to be political, he dared to be a feminist, and dared even more openly to use his musicianship and his fame to advocate peace. This song, the universal message, the snappy title and coupled with producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” makes this song a stand-out example of this.
The song’s title is referring to the eastern religious and philosophical belief that a person’s actions determine their destiny and their future, and that every action has a reaction; good karma brings you good fortune, and bad karma brings you equally future suffering. The idea of the subject of “instant karma” is that the result of a person’s actions and the following karma is exactly that, instant, instead of something that lies in the unknown future or in a future life. You are immediately affected by what you do and how you act.
I know there’s some criticism to this song, and to a lot of the things Lennon did as a solo artist. Who is he to talk about world peace, universal suffrage and the less fortunate? He’s rich and famous already. But yeah, come on, who is he not to talk about these things? At least he was using his position for something he thought was good, and not just.. sit there in his own pile of money and drugs and demand more of the same thing. Instead, he was demanding something from us, as listeners.
“Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin’ to do
It’s up to you, yeah you”
Is it the same optimistic and cheeky hippie catchphrase we’ve heard a million times over before? Well. Yeah. Maybe. That’s the point, really, I think Lennon felt that too, but also that it can never be repeated enough, and putting in a catchy, urgent song like this might even make the phrase stick a little more in people’s minds.
And he seems to be well aware of the criticism of the song before he even released it;
“How in the world you gonna see
Laughin’ at fools like me
Who in the hell d’you think you are
A super star
Well, right you are”
Apart from the lyrics and the thought behind the song, this also includes a great grand piano, fantastic drumming (I can never say enough great things about Alan White’s drumming in this song), and an echo chamber of choir sing-along from random people gathered from a nearby nightclub (!) directed by none other than ex-bandmate George Harrison (who also plays piano and electric guitar on the song) and I simply have to agree with the Village Voice critic Robert Christgau in concluding that it is “Lennon’s best political song”.
I even prefer this over “Imagine”.
Not to take anything away from the sweet sugary appeal of that particular song, but this song gets right to it without being nice about it. “Better get yourself together darlin’, join the human race”. Or else karma’s going to bite you in the ass, you know.
And here’s that famous “knitting performance” from Top of The Pops in 1970. Brilliant stuff.