Powerful, poignant, important and beautiful are all words that describe Imagine – both the title song and the LP that was John Lennon’s second solo album release, in the autumn of 1971. One song does not make a great album, even when it is as seminal and defining as Imagine… and make no mistake this is a great album, full of brilliant songs, with great hooks, but with John’s acerbic wit ever-present to avoid it from becoming the kind of music that John found irrelevant and meaningless.
“The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true.” – John Lennon
John began work on the album that was to become Imagine a little over three months after finishing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Recording his new album was done in three separate stages, the first between 11 and 16 February, followed by another from 24 to 28 May, before some final overdubs and mixing in New York over the 4th of July weekend. The earlier sessions were at Abbey Road and the May sessions were at the Lennon’s home studio at Tittenhurst Park, the New York sessions in July were at the Record Plant.
Imagine is a very different album from the one that went before it, as John told David Sheff in 1980, “The album Imagine was after Plastic Ono. I call it Plastic Ono with chocolate coating.” From the stark, but brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band this record is more instantly accessible, but let not that fool you into thinking John had gone soft. And like his previous album, Imagine has Yoko Ono’s influence all over it and no more so than in the brilliant title song.
Yoko’s poetry, included in her 1964 book Grapefruit, helped inspire John’s lyrics for ‘Imagine’, and also influenced the cover of the album. In Yoko’s poem, ‘Cloud Piece’ it includes “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” John later said ‘Imagine’, “Should be credited to Lennon/Ono. A lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit.”
“The World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” – John Lennon
Just what is it that makes ‘Imagine’ such a perfect recording? From the opening bars of John playing the piano the song stakes its claim on our senses. The clever way the track is produced, to move the seemingly distant piano from the centre to the full stereo pan helps to accentuate John’s plaintive, and vulnerable, vocal. The subtly beautiful strings, scored by Torrie Zito, play their part in making this song the very creative peak of John and Yoko’s working together.
The earlier sessions, at Abbey Road, took place during the recording of the single, ‘Power To The People’ and because Ringo was unavailable, Jim Gordon from Derek and the Dominos was drafted in to play drums, along with Klaus Voormann on bass. ‘It’s So Hard’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, were begun at the February sessions, with King Curtis adding his saxophone to the former in New York in July, while the latter song was substantially reworked at the May sessions. At Abbey Road, they also recorded Yoko’s, ‘Open Your Box’ that became the b-side of ‘Power To The People’.
‘It’s So Hard’ has more of the paired down Plastic Ono Band feel to it and as such it is the musical bridge to John’s solo debut. It’s a 12 bar blues and the addition of Zito’s string arrangement (overdubbed at the Record Plant) along with King Curtis’s saxophone make it a more “traditional” song than most of what appears on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ was reworked at the May, Tittenhurst sessions and aside from Lennon and Voormann it features a much larger band including George Harrison on slide guitar, the brilliant Nicky Hopkins on piano, Joey Molland and Tom Evans from Badfinger play acoustic guitars, drummer Jim Keltner and Alan White plays vibraphone; later in New York King Curtis added his saxophone flourishes. The song is one of Lennon’s simplest lyrical numbers but in simplicity there is power, and the power is made even more significant by the hypnotic music that is both relentless and persuasive; Zito’s strings are again a superb addition to the whole feel of the song.
In the five days at Tittenhurst, in addition to ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, John and the assembled musicians recorded, ‘Crippled Inside’, ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘How Do You Sleep?’, How?, ‘Oh Yoko!’ and the album’s title track. George plays some great dobro on ‘Crippled Inside’ and it is further enhanced by some trademark “diamond trills” from Nicky Hopkins on the piano. The spirit in which this record was made was helped by recording so much of it at John and Yoko’s home. It feels personal and with the Lennon’s again producing it, with help from Phil Spector, it heightens the sense of intimacy.
“It was good to have breakfast in our own home and walk right into the new studio next to it.” – Yoko Ono
‘Jealous Guy’ has become one of John’s best-known songs, helped in no small part by it having been covered by Roxy Music in early 1981 and taken to No.1 on the UK charts. But it is a song that is ‘so John’, and its one that had its beginnings in India in 1968 before its full flowering when John rewrote its original lyrics that capture the feelings of a man in a love relationship or possibly it gives another view as to how John felt over the break up of the Beatles. Whatever, it is about, this is consummate songwriting as John tackles a subject that most of us would prefer to keep under wraps.
Acerbic and political, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ highlights John’s way with words and succinctly sums up so much of what made John tick. John, always ahead of his time tackles the question of political leadership – just as relevant today as in 1971 – and this song acts as the bridge to what would follow in John’s songwriting over the coming years.
‘Oh My Love’ is a beautiful and tender song, enhanced by George’s delicate guitar playing and John and Yoko’s wonderful words. From tenderness to harsh reality with ‘How Do You Sleep?’, arguably the most notorious song on the album. Pigeonholed as John’s attack on Paul it is best explained by John himself.
“It’s not about Paul, it’s about me. I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association, well, what’s to regret? He lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about these things and not what the writer or commentator thinks about it. Him and me are okay.”
And then it’s immediately back to the soft side of John with, ‘How?’ and while it would be lyrically at home on his previous LP, its production is definitely of the “chocolate coating” variety. The album’s final song is the uplifting and beautiful, ‘Oh Yoko!’, a simple song, but one that is simply lovely. Phil Spector sings the harmony and at the time of the album’s release, EMI wanted to put it out as a single. John refused and if he hadn’t? It would have been a massive hit. It’s a song that just draws you in and makes you feel good.
And isn’t that what music should do? Of course, but it should also make you think, question and of course it should fill you with joy. Imagine does all these things and much more.
Imagine: The Ultimate Collection can be bought here.