Of all John Lennon’s solo albums, Imagine was his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful. And while his debut was emotionally powerful, it didn’t quite have the appeal of this record, which Lennon himself described as “Working Class Hero with sugar on it”.
Not long after purchasing Tittenhurst estate in 1969, Lennon installed an 8-track recording studio. The huge grounds and stately Manor would serve as an idyllic location for John to begin work on his next project. But first he needed musicians. Phil Spector would produce, naturally, while old mate Klaus Voorman was invited to play bass. The ever reliable Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys were also brought in (on piano and horns respectively), along with Alan White and Jim Keltner (on drums), not to mention a one Mr. George Harrison, who contributed guitar on several tracks.
The LP begins, appropriately, with the title track, which is nothing more than an idealistically wishful statement made by a flawed individual hoping for a better society. Yet putting aside all the naivety and Utopian fantasies expressed throughout, “Imagine” is by far Lennon’s greatest proclamation, a song dedicated to world peace, human harmony and a gift to radio stations across the globe, a song that has become so entrenched in the collective psyche of millions of people that I shan’t even bother to describe its musical merits (which are few by the way).
Now the younger Lennon was famous for parodying people who suffered from disabilities, whether mental or otherwise, however on “Crippled Inside” he turns it around on himself, where the whole song sounds like some rag-time piss-take, and one which seems in complete contrast to the more serious message Lennon was attempting to communicate.
“Jealous Guy” went as far back as 1968, when the Beatles were in India meditating with the Maharishi. The original title was “Child of Nature”, however by 1971, who else but Lennon could take a song whose main subject matter was concerned with his disturbed relationship with women (i.e. wife beating) and transform it into a romantic love ballad. It takes some genius to pull off something like that I can tell you. No doubt the subtle string arrangements in the background probably didn’t hurt things either. Bryan Ferry would go on to record a superb version some years later, and honestly I’d have to flip a coin as to which is best.
Next is the hard-hitting blues of “It’s So Hard”, a song that was written soon after Lennon’s primal period, and on which none other than legendary saxophonist King Curtis made a guest appearance (tragically he was murdered only six weeks following the session). “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” was John’s stance against the Vietnam War, a conflict which although England had never been a part of, didn’t mean that many English men and women weren’t opposed to it.
Side two opens with “Gimme Some Truth”, which Lennon had first presented to the Beatles during the Get Back sessions, and reflected many of the issues both he and Yoko felt they were facing at the time. Here John decided to turn it into more of a polemical statement and tirade against the establishment. George Harrison contributes some uncharacteristically vicious guitar notes, adding just a little extra bite to John’s invective. In complete contrast is the romantic “Oh My Love”, co-written with Yoko, and a song Lennon originally demoed while the Beatles were recording The White Album.
John never truly got over Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and how it was more popular than anything he himself had ever written. It riled him for years, and on “How Do You Sleep?” Lennon lets rip at Paul with one of his most venomous outbursts ever (an answer to McCartney’s own cryptic criticism of Lennon in “Too Many People”), such as “The sound you make is muzak to my ears/You must have learned something in all those years”. Interestingly Harrison added slide guitar. I guess so much for love and forgiveness on the part of one of the more spiritual of Beatles.
The tender “How?” was composed soon after The Plastic Ono Band LP, and is another one of Lennon’s confessional numbers, where all John really wants to tell the listener is that although he’s been a bit of a bastard over the years, it’s not his fault, because he wasn’t given enough love as a child; something which is probably true by the way.
“Oh Yoko!” is an even-tempered pop tune, with some breezy piano by Hopkins. Clearly it’s another dedication to John’s undying devotion to his wife, and admittance to the man’s deep psychological dependency on her: “In the middle of a dream/In the middle of a dream I call your name… My love will turn you on”. So whether he was in the middle of a bath, in the middle of a shave, or in the middle of having a shit, Yoko was always on his mind. The playful harmonica at the end is a nice touch, and a fine way to end what is an extremely rewarding album.
A month before the release of the LP, in September 1971, John and Yoko would relocate to America, never to return to his native England. As far as Lennon being a “radical” or a “Prophet”, as some have described him, I’m not convinced. Still, Imagine is a remarkable testament to his talents as a songwriter, although never again would he release a record of this quality. Perhaps he should have remained at Tittenhurst.