In a short, dizzying career, The Beatles totally changed what pop music could do. They challenged preconceptions in every way, from writing their own material to bringing into the mainstream ideas and recording practices that had previously lurked in arty cul de sacs. After them, pop music was taken seriously. It actually changed things. Imagine this, though: would any of that have happened without the attitude John Lennon brought to the group?
Despite his bandmates’ myriad gifts, without Lennon’s artistically mischievous, rebellious challenge to the status quo, it’s possible to imagine that The Beatles may never have existed. And without an album the likes of Imagine, his second post-Beatles album – and by far his most iconic – generations of songwriters wouldn’t have found themselves stepping up to the challenge that Lennon laid down: to be completely honest; to question everything; to continually search for the truth.
Songs as public therapy
Lennon was adept at deploying songs like Trojan horses: direct, irresistible tunes the milkman could whistle but which also found their creator questioning things that riled him, or gave the listener an unfiltered glimpse into his psyche. 1971’s Imagine was, in this respect, the essence of Lennon: an album full of songs that had universal appeal while remaining utterly unique to its creator; the title track in particular, with Yoko Ono’s collaboration, has achieved the sort of ubiquity traditionally associated with hymns. Its parent album built upon the ground broken by 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, marking Lennon as a figurehead for the burgeoning numbers of singer-songwriters inspired by his stark, vulnerable confessionals. And it continues to influence to this day.
While John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band had looked inwards – continuing the songs-as-public-therapy thread that had informed previous Beatles outings from ‘There’s A Place’ to ‘Help!’ to ‘Julia’ – Imagine’s title track was both an aspirational prayer and challenge to authority that remains one of the most unashamedly plain-speaking songs to enter popular consciousness.
Lennon later recalled: “The first record was too real for people, so nobody bought it. Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” While systematically questioning the things that shaped our world (religion, nationhood, materialism), the sweetener is not only ‘Imagine’’s melody and production – all stately pianos and stirring strings – but the suggestion that every person listening, regardless of who they are, can imagine a better world. Together, Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote other songs that thrilled in the way they railed against the ills of mankind (‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ among them), but part of ‘Imagine’’s brilliance lies in suggesting how things could be better. Deep down, however, the listener knows that imagination isn’t enough – the song is as much as call to action as it is an invitation to reflect.
After its release as a single, on 11 October 1971, ‘Imagine’ had a huge impact, helping take the album to the top of the charts. Another telling indicator of its universal appeal came with the cover versions the song inspired: within a few years, artists as diverse as Diana Ross, Andy Williams and Joan Baez had released their own versions. Proving its enduring influence, ‘Imagine’ has gone on to be one of Lennon’s most covered songs, with those who have performed it reading like a Who’s Who in music, among them Ray Charles, Madonna, Elton John and Neil Young, for starters.
In 1999, Broadcast Media Inc named it one of the Top 100 Songs Of The Century in a list of the most played songs on American radio and television. ‘Imagine’ was also a centrepiece of the 2012 London Olympics. It was performed by Emeli Sandé during the opening ceremony, but a presentation at the closing ceremony took things to another level: with a full choir and an orchestra, arranged by David Arnold, joining Lennon’s original vocals, the performance culminated in a recreation of Lennon’s face in the centre of the stage, before white balloons were let into the sky. Broadcasts of ‘Imagine’ have also been a centrepiece of every new year’s celebration in Times Square, New York, while UNICEF, Amnesty International and WhyHunger have also adopted it to raise awareness of their respective causes. The song’s global reach was confirmed by ex-US president Jimmy Carter, who, in conversation with NPR, noted that, of the “about 125 countries” he and his wife had visited, “in many… you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems”.
It has long gone past the point of simply influencing other artists, it is sewn into the fabric of society.
“A real f__ing love song”
‘Imagine’ is just the opening track to an album that has so much more to offer. Songs such as ‘Oh My Love’, ‘Oh Yoko!’ and ‘Jealous Guy’ give an insight into the complicated, romantic side of Lennon, with the latter becoming one of his most-loved songs.
Apologising in song wasn’t anything new, but laying bare your failings in front of an audience as large as Lennon’s – that took guts. “I was a very jealous, possessive guy,” Lennon later admitted, explaining further: “Not just jealous towards Yoko, but towards everything male and female… A very insecure male who wants to put his woman in a little box and lock the key and just bring her out when he feels like playing with her and put her back in… When You are in love with somebody you tend to be jealous and want to own them and possess them 100 per cent, which I do. I love Yoko. I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her – that’s the danger – that you want to possess them to death.”
Songwriters to this day are attracted to the way that Lennon talks about love; Father John Misty, whose 2015 album, I Love You, Honeybear, contained moments of painfully honest self-criticism indebted to Lennon’s own, has said of ‘Jealous Guy’: “That’s a real f__king love song about someone’s vulnerabilities and insecurities.” James Skelly, singer of Liverpudlian psych brigade The Coral, notes, “I’m not sure anyone had written a love song from that angle before. It’s so simple but it’s genius.”
Unsurprisingly for such a deep, multi-faceted song, plenty of artists have lined up to cover it, among them expert interpreters such as Donny Hathaway, Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry; kindred spirits the likes of Lou Reed and Aimee Mann; and others that you might not expect. Alt.metal outfit Deftones, Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssour N’Dour and jazz singer Curtis Stigers have all responded to it thanks to something that Lennon excelled at putting into song: truth.
Lennon did it first
Opening Side Two of the original vinyl, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ is a feather-spitting feat of momentum that, along with the outspoken ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’, typifies Lennon’s ability to turn vitriol into thrilling music. Any groups who have singe cranked their amps up to 10 and railed against the world – Lennon did it first.
One of the earliest pop musicians to realise the scale of his influence, he never shied away from using it. Protest doesn’t come much more blunt than the simmering blues of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, and it tends to work especially well once it’s made its way into millions of homes. This Lennon – the firebrand with a wicked sense of humour, unconcerned with what the establishment made of his views – might be the most influential. He’s there in John Lydon’s sneer, in Liam Gallagher’s unblinking microphone etiquette, and can even be glimpsed in the uncompromising protest of the recipients of the 2012 LennonOno Grant For Peace award, Pussy Riot. Meanwhile, away from the recording studio, the Bed-Ins that John and Yoko staged in the early 70s found an unlikely tribute from R&B stars Childish Gambino and Jhené Aiko, who, in 2013, collaborated on the song ‘Bed Peace’, re-enacting a famous John and Yoko photo for its artwork.
Imagine was where Lennon balanced his utterly individual wit and worldview with his flair for populist, irresistible songwriting. In every generation that follows, there will be kids who are infatuated with music, hearing the album for the first time and finding that it speaks to them like nothing else.
Imagine a world without Imagine…? Impossible.
Imagine: The Ultimate Collection is out now. Exclusive bundles including an Imagine theatrical poster are available in the uDiscover store.
Further explore the release at imaginejohnyoko.com.