An acoustic demo of this song was recorded during the Get Back sessions in January 1969. McCartney chimes in on the chorus, and as can be heard on YouTube, the song is almost cheerful, miles away from the nauseous despair of the final version. No doubt all the scorn heaped upon Lennon and Ono between 1969 and 1971 turned the song darker.
Yet despite the rage, there’s vengeful joy in his performance, the catharsis of a brilliant wordsmith at the height of his powers unleashing a hilariously cynical barrage of bile. There’s spiteful glee in the perfectly phrased proto-raps of bitterness he spits out against a “short hair” establishment utterly beneath contempt. It’s as sharp as Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” though Lennon’s songs were almost always succinct whereas Dylan’s luxuriated in precedent-smashing length.
Unlike the political songs that would follow in 1972’s Some Time in New York City, this is one of his most timeless because it is unspecific—as relevant to today as it was in 1971. Most essentially, it’s witty. He can’t decide whether to spend his money on dope or rope, and we don’t know if the rope is to hang the politicians or to just give up and hang himself. With humor as black as could be, he spoke for every guy of draft age deciding whether it was time to run through the jungle or run for Canada.
In high school, the schoolmaster regularly caned Lennon. In his twenties, his records were burned in the South. Now, he called out “Tricky Dicky” by name and brought down the wrath of the US government, immersing himself in a quagmire of deportation court battles for the next four years.
The song carries the righteous indignation of “I Found Out,” but unlike that stark and primitive track, here Harrison perfectly compliments the vitriol with the desolate beauty of his distorted and chiming slide guitar. Harrison stopped by to play on half of Imagine, and Lennon later exclaimed it was the best Harrison had played in his life.