The Beatles knew a thing or two about being banned. “A Day in the Life”, one of their finest songs, and the highlight of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was banned by the BBC in May 1967, and their last Number One, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, was banned by many radio stations in the United States two years later. Drugs and religion were taboo subjects. (1) “A Day in the Life” was banned because the BBC was all ears when it came to any references to drugs that might be getting sneaked onto the radio under the radar: “The BBC rationalized the ban in part on how they read the song’s verbal text: references to smoking, dreams, and turning on all sent warning signals to people who were not exactly sure what was being said.” (2) The BBC was tuning into subtext having reached the conclusion that references to drugs and sex were hiding in plain sight in contemporary music, and John Lennon might be turning on more than the radio as Paul McCartney went into his daydream: “At the BBC, a committee reached its own interpretations after […] listening to ‘A Day in the Life’. They concluded that they would not broadcast a recording that alluded to drug use, even if the reference proved relatively obscure to the vast majority of their listeners.” (3) The Beatles heard the news just as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was being launched. The best track on the latest album by the world’s greatest band was greeted with a ban: “That evening (Friday 19 May) at manager Brian Epstein’s flat in Belgravia, the Beatles learned of the ban at the album’s press release party.” (4) As Gordon Thompson remarks: “The banning of ‘A Day in the Life’ was a remarkable event, not only because it was the first Beatles recording to receive such treatment in Britain, but also because that decision came in the context of the social and political events of those momentous months of the summer of 1967, the so-called ‘Summer of Love’.” (5)
John and Yoko: Some Time in Derry City
Fifty years ago, John Lennon wrestled with his conscience as a pacifist and as a person of Irish descent distressed by the news from Ireland. He spoke at a rally in New York six days after Bloody Sunday, on Saturday 5th February 1972, where he gave his name and said “you know the rest”. His genealogy, his family history, was its own explanation of affiliation. Names can tell people who you are, and where you’re coming from. Clearly more comfortable with Civil Rights than armed struggle, speaking of nationalist and republican resistance, Lennon remarked: “I understand why they’re doing it, and if it’s a choice between the IRA and the British army, I’m with the IRA. But if it’s a choice between violence and nonviolence, I’m with nonviolence. So it’s a very delicate line […] Our backing of the Irish people is really done through the Irish Civil Rights, which is not the IRA. […] I’m always getting accused of hopping from subject to subject – ‘one minute he’s on meditation, the next he’s on peace’ … Well, the Irish thing isn’t new for me. I was always on the Irish thing’”. (6) In 1972, Lennon (with Yoko Ono) released his third post-Beatles album, Some Time in New York City (Apple/EMI). John Weiner calls both the Irish songs on that album, “Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “failures”, and says of Lennon’s brief involvement with Irish politics: “He should have done more.” (7)
Weiner quotes American feminist Kate Millett, a friend and supporter of John and Yoko – she wrote a letter opposing their proposed deportation – who said of Lennon’s Irish songs: “It takes being there a while – and with political people – before you can claim this cause which has been creeping up on you forever. He must have felt a certain foolishness: ‘Liverpool Irish, what’s that?’” (8) As well as sounding patronising – as if the “Liverpool Irish” weren’t as valid a diaspora as any other, especially given that many of them are in Liverpool because of the Famine and British imperialism – it implies that there are “political people” who matter more than politically-minded and motivated working-class songwriters. Ironically, one of John and Yoko’s statements after Bloody Sunday was: “We ask for the American Irish to wake up to their responsibility in the same way the Jewish people respond to the problems of Israel”. (9) Nobody said: “American Irish, what’s that?”, though they might have said, “Do you mean Irish American?”
Speaking of the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Lennon said: “Most other people express themselves by shouting or playing football at the weekend […] But me, here I am in New York and I hear about the thirteen people shot dead in Ireland, and I react immediately. And being what I am, I react in four-to-the-bar with a guitar break in the middle. I don’t say ‘My God what’s happening … we should do something’.” (10)
Lennon “reacted immediately”, as an activist and an artist with an Irish connection:
“Well it was Sunday Bloody Sunday
When they shot the people there
The cries of thirteen martyrs
Filled the Free Derry air
Is there any one amongst you
Dare to blame it on the kids?
Not a soldier boy was bleeding
When they nailed the coffin lids.”
John Lennon/Yoko Ono, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, Sometime in New York City, Apple/EMI, 1972.
Lennon never lived to see the tenth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, never mind the fiftieth. He never lived to see peace being given a chance in Ireland. He’d have been on the march and in the news.
McCartney and the New McCarthyism
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been together in New York the day before Bloody Sunday. As McCartney recalled: “It was a meeting at which we more or less agreed to stop sniping at each other”. If Lennon answered the call for action and solidarity, or at least for artistic reflection and understanding, then Paul McCartney, waiting in the wings, got in on the act too with the song “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”, co-written with Linda-McCartney. Released on 25 February 1972, it spent eight weeks in the British charts despite being banned by the BBC:
“Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today.”
Paul McCartney/Wings, ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, EMI, 1972.
McCartney appears to have enacted a self-censorship of sorts in 2001 when “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was not included in a double CD retrospective, Wingspan (2001), despite being a top twenty hit on its initial release.
Roger Friedman, reviewing the release of the double CD Wingspan in 2001, gloated over the omission of McCartney’s Irish song: “Also gone, obliterated now from Wings history, is McCartney’s one attempt at a protest song, ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish,’ from 1972. It was after John Lennon eviscerated McCartney on his Imagine album with the song “How Do You Sleep At Night?’ that McCartney hit back with this political number. ‘Give Ireland back to the Irish,’ he sang, ‘Don’t make them have to take it away/Give Ireland Back to the Irish/Make Ireland Irish today.’ Of course, in 2001, Paul McCartney is a prominent member of the British upper class. He’s been knighted and fêted. ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish,’ which actually charted all the way up to the top 20 in 1972, would not be so amusing now. Another verse goes: ‘Tell me how would you like it/If on your way to work/You were stopped by Irish soldiers/Would you lie down do nothing/Would you give in, or go berserk?’ The single is a collector’s item, although it was included on a rare import version of the Wings Wild Life album.” (11)
According to Marilyn Flood: “the BBC banned political songs, including ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ by Paul McCartney and Wings, because the mention of the title implied the station had a political position on Northern Ireland […] The banning meant that the name of the song, which occupied a high position on a weekly list of best-selling songs, had to be omitted by any disc jockey. He or she would merely state that position ‘x’ on the list was occupied by an unspecified Paul McCartney song”. (12) Occupied indeed. Martin Cloonan alludes to “the ban on the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ in the context of the drug scare of 1967”, and adds: “But while some bans seem inane years later, bans on such records as ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ […] can become more pertinent when seen in the light of moves such as the British government’s 1988 ban on the broadcast of statements by ‘terrorists’”. (13)
Recalling the controversy, McCartney remarked: “‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ was written after Bloody Sunday. British soldiers had fired at a crowd of demonstrators and there were deaths. From our point of view, looking at it on the TV news, it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland. It was so shocking. I wasn’t really into protest songs – John had done that – but this time I felt that I had to write something, to use my art to protest. I wrote ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it. He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and that they had to release it, and he said, ‘Well, it’ll be banned’. And of course it was – the BBC could not play it. But it was number one in Ireland, and in Spain for some reason. It was just one of those things you have to do in life because you believe in the cause. And protest was in the context of the times. I knew ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time. I had to say something. All of us in Wings felt the same about it. But Henry McCullough’s brother, who lived in Northern Ireland, was beaten up because of it. The thugs found out that Henry was in Wings.” (14)
Despite its initial reception, McCartney hasn’t disowned the song. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is in the news again, and The Beatles are back on the front page. Watching Peter Jackson’s monumental documentary about The Beatles makes you realise how recent and alive the past is a half-century on, and how memorable the dead can be, how vivid and vibrant they are when restored to brilliant colour. We saw “Get Back”, the title track, being plucked like magic from the air, starting out as a protest song about immigration and morphing into something else entirely.
The release of Peter Jackson’s documentary coincided with the publication of Paul McCartney’s two-volume magnum opus The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, produced in conversation with celebrated Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who has cast an arched eyebrow over Irish history and the poets who attempt to engage with it, often awkwardly. Like the Get Back documentary, The Lyrics is a hugely ambitious project, revisiting McCartney’s output over a 65-year period, a lifetime’s achievement in lyrics. The epigraph is from Shakespeare – “To thine own self be true”, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes in the tragedy of Hamlet shortly before they both die. Beyond the epigraph there are many Shakespearean echoes – “Let It Be” has the ring of “To be or not to be” about it – and McCartney’s claim to be a kind of modern Shakespeare is borne out by the sheer range and quality of the poetry on show here. If McCartney is Shakespeare maybe John Lennon was an early collaborator, like Christopher Marlowe. Six pages of McCartney’s The Lyrics are devoted to “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”, in striking text and images. (15) The song still stands as testimony to a moment in time when one of the world’s foremost songwriters and artists responded to an event that shook the world. McCartney speaks of his own Irish heritage: “My mother’s father, Owen Mohan, was from Tullynamalra in County Monaghan. At some point he moved to Liverpool, where he worked as a coalman. I’m not quite sure precisely where my paternal grandfather was born in Ireland but I do know his family were Protestants. My brother and I were baptised Roman Catholic at the insistence of my mother, but we were raised nondenominationally. So, our household represented in microcosm the Irish political and religious divide”. (16)
McCartney’s song was treated harshly on its release. The record company didn’t like it. The BBC banned it. The critics tried to bury it, and later claimed it was an embarrassment omitted from a back catalogue so vast it could let such a damp squib quietly drop. But songs have wings and since the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 there is arguably a more open and honest re-examination of the past. One of the most insidious aspects of censorship is not the harm it does at the time to an individual work or artist, or the deadening impact on public discourse and debate, but the cumulative effect it has on the tendency to self-censor. Artists and audiences internalise bans and it’s the censor in the head that proves to be the state’s most effective filter. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is back in the news again. Lennon’s on sale and onside again. The old story that claimed McCartney was just a copycat trying to compete with his former songwriting partner by writing a protest song doesn’t hold up. The art of the protest song has changed in the transition from folk to rock to pop to punk to rap. John Lennon was certainly steeped in movement politics before the Beatles broke up, drawn to causes, particularly peace movements. But Paul wasn’t hanging on to his old pal’s coattails by recording a protest song. Two Liverpool Irish lads with so much in common – like mothers lost at an early age – continued to find common cause after they separated as a team. They may have rushed their paces, but they picked up their guitars while others picked up guns, or carried the dead and wounded off the streets. The Beatles, in Peter Jackson’s mesmerising restoration of their January 1969 rehearsals, are almost psychedelic in their rejuvenated brilliance, brought back to life in loving detail, there in the room with you, lucid on the screen like diamonds as they craft the songs that would make their way onto Abbey Road and Let It Be. By contrast the black and white footage of Bloody Sunday shot three years later is otherworldly in a different way. A priest waving a white handkerchief. “Father McKenzie/Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave/No one was saved”.(17)
(1) See Martha Bari, ‘Taking It to the Streets: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 War Is Over! Campaign’, in Eric J. Schruers and Kristina Olson (eds.), Social Practice Art in Turbulent Times: The Revolution Will Be Live (New York: Routledge, 2019), 33-44. See also Nathan Timmons, ‘John, Paul, Jorge, and Ringo: Borges, Beatles, and the Metaphor of Celebrity Crucifixion’, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23, 3 (2011): 382-396.
(2) Gordon R. Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles: “A Day in the Life” at the BBC and the Creation of Radio 1’, Popular Music History 11, 2 (2016): 107-120, at 109. For an example of how a day’s news might impact on the world in different ways see Miguel De Larrinaga, ‘“A Day in the Life’: A Tomogram of Global Governmentality in Relation to the “War on Terror” on November 20th, 2003’, Geopolitics 16, 2 (2011): 306-328.
(3) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 113.
(4) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 114.
(5) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 118.
(6) Cited in Jon Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991; first published New York: Random House, 1984), 210. Weiner, Come Together, 210.
(7) Wiener, Come Together, 211.
(8) Kate Millett, cited in Weiner, Come Together, 211.
(9) Weiner, Come Together, 210.
(10) John Blaney, John Lennon: Listen To This Book (Guildford: Paper Jukebox, 2005), 114.
(11) Roger Friedman, ‘Sir Paul McCartney omits Ireland protest song from new CD’, https://www.foxnews.com/story/sir-paul-mccartney-omits-ireland-protest-song-from-new-cd.
(12) Marilyn J. Flood, ‘Lyrics and the Law: Censorship of Rock-and-Roll in the United States and Great Britain’, New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law 12, 3 (1991): 399-445, at 439, and note 428.
(13) Martin Cloonan, ‘Popular Music and Censorship in Britain: An Overview’, Popular Music & Society 19, 3 (1995): 75-104, at 100.
(14) Mark Lewisohn (ed.), Wingspan: Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run (London: Little Brown, 2002).
(15) Paul McCartney, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, edited by Paul Muldoon (London: Penguin, 2021), Volume 1, 216-221.
(16) McCartney, The Lyrics, 217.
(17) Just over a decade after the events of 30 January 1972, when U2 released “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on the album War (1983), it was easier to take a step back, even when your back was against the wall. Like Lennon in “Revolution 1”, and unlike the later Lennon of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Bono refused to be drawn into the conflict, taking stock rather than taking sides:
“Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall”.
U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, War, Island Records, 1983.
Writing shortly after the release of U2’s take on Bloody Sunday, Julian Vignoles compared Bono’s stadium rock anthem unfavourably with the honesty, urgency and immediacy of John and Yoko’s earlier protest song: “‘War’, the title and theme of their third album is vague, as is the only song that refers to a tangible event. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is always introduced by Bono as ‘not a rebel song’. In John Lennon’s angry song of the same title, there’s a line: ‘Not a soldier boy was bleeding when they nailed the coffin lids …’ But U2’s message, ten years later, is more like detached frustration: “I can’t believe the news today/I can’t close my eyes and make it go away/how long, how long must we sing this song.’ The sentiments in the U2 song are commercial, mainly because they’re simple and the fact that they mention something emotive, war and conflict, without having a very definite view about it.” (Julian Vignoles, ‘What Is Irish Popular Music?’, The Crane Bag 8, 2 (1984): 70-72, at 72.) U2’s song is subtle too, because ‘”I can’t believe the news today” contains an echo of the opening line of “A Day in the Life”: “I read the news today, oh boy.”
Other critics at the time were equally scathing about Bono’s revisionist response to the events of Bloody Sunday: “In fact, far from appearing as a slogan […] the words ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ are presented through the I of an individual who has disengaged himself in space (the distance from Derry to Dublin) and time (more than ten years) from the mass emotions aroused by the event named. When sung by Bono in 1983, these words are, of course, quotation of an Irish republican catchphrase. But U2 are not the first band to quote it. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote and recorded a song of the same title in New York in March 1972: it was released while the memory of the event itself was still vivid. It opens with an account of the shooting of ‘thirteen martyrs’, and asks, ‘Is there anyone amongst you, Dare to blame it on the kids?’ and concludes, ‘Repatriate to Britain, All of you who call it home, Leave Ireland to the Irish, Not for London or for Rome!’” (Barbara Bradby and Brian Torode, ‘To Whom Do U2 Appeal?’, The Crane Bag 8, 2 (1984): 73-78, at 75.) The conclusion these critics reach is that U2’s version of events replaces one pious discourse with another: “While the equation of Ireland with Christianity is hardly new […] U2 substitute for this feminine spirituality a militantly masculine image. Clearly their ‘ecumenical’ call is limited to the Christian population. The new meaning of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ turns out to be as exclusive as the old one, though now on a world, rather than a local, sectarian scale”. (Bradby and Brian Torode, ‘To Whom Do U2 Appeal?’, 77).