The song is a commentary/criticism on the difference between social classes. It tells the story of someone growing up in the working class. According to Lennon in an interview with Jann S. Wenner of Rolling Stone in December 1970, it is about working class individuals being processed into the middle classes, into the machine.
The song features only Lennon, singing and playing an acoustic guitar as his backing. The chord progression is very simple, and builds on A-minor and G-major, with a short detour to D-major in one of the lines in the chorus. Lennon's strumming technique includes a riff with a hammer-on pick of the E note on the D string and then an open A string. The tone and style of the song is similar to that of "Masters of War" and "North Country Blues" by Bob Dylan, a known influence of Lennon. Both are based on Jean Ritchie's arrangement of the traditional Englishfolk song, "Nottamun Town". The recording is the composite of two different takes: the sound of the guitar and vocal changes at 1:24 prior to the verse "When they've tortured and scared you."
In 1973, US Representative Harley Orrin Staggers heard the song — which includes the lines "'Til you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules" and "But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see" — on WGTB and lodged a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The manager of the station, Ken Sleeman, faced a year in prison and a $10,000 fine, but defended his decision to play the song saying, "The People of Washington DC are sophisticated enough to accept the occasional four-letter word in context, and not become sexually aroused, offended, or upset." The charges were dropped. Other US radio stations, like Boston's WBCN, banned the song for its use of the word "fucking". In Australia, the album was released with the expletive removed from the song and the lyrics censored on the inner sleeve.