In May 1971 John Lennon assembled some musician friends at his home studio in Ascot and began the main sessions for what would become the follow up album to Plastic Ono Band. As with his last album Phil Spector was invited to take on production duties and while Klaus Voormann did return, this is a grander affair than the three piece we heard in 1970. The band for the Imagine sessions at various times includes Nicky Hopkins on piano, members of Badfinger on acoustic guitars, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and Alan White on drums, and members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra on strings. George Harrison provides some quite beautiful moments on guitar, which is interesting as we remember that in 1970 the pair seemed, ideologically at least, quite far apart; Harrison was singing about his sweet lord while John was busy denouncing all false prophets in songs like I Found Out and God. Plastic Ono Band was recorded from September to October 1970 and the sessions for All Things Must Pass concluded in late October, so at times both men were in Abbey Road at the same time, a studio room away from each other but in very different places.
On his second album, John Lennon attempts to paint on a wider canvas and he gives himself many more colours to create with.
The title track, Imagine is his opening statement and it is arguably the song his solo career is most associated with. It is hard to not see this song with the weight of modern times, where it has almost transcended the status of nice opening song on an album and become a worldwide touch stone for Lennon’s principles of peace and love. The band worked through different presentations of it before arriving at the version we all know. The Lennon Anthology (1998) features Take 1 where a voice tells everyone in the kitchen to be quiet so they can record, that version features drums entering earlier and more intrusive electric piano, it feels a little more like a church hymn. The Imagine Ultimate Mixes released in 2018 show just how much they threw at this song to perfect it. At one point Nicky Hopkins and Lennon played different octaves on same piano for example. it seems nothing was off the table in terms of ideas. They insisted on perfect and you cannot argue that they achieved it.
Lyrically the song concerns anti-materialism. This is an interesting debate to want when the person starting it is a millionaire ex-Beatle in a mansion. Lennon himself is ready for the whiff of hypocrisy though, he is merely inviting the listener to imagine no possessions. Religion gets called out too, the song seems really anti faith, Lennon argued that the song is in fact spiritual but believed a strong case is made for an end to religious one upmanship; no more my God is the only God argument.
Imagine is trying to remind everyone that we are all humans beathing the same air on the same planet and that our differences do not have to lead to anything negative. John is not pretending to be perfect. Arguably the worst thing you can say about the song is that it is naive and that it appears to be very pro the pie in the sky he was against on Plastic Ono Band. John takes the flaws on and embraces them, as he did on Plastic Ono Band and as he will on the rest of this album too. On that first album’s opening track he gave us his own personal starting point, Mother, on the first track of his second album he is giving us the starting point for everyone.
With his plans for the universe out there, we hear Crippled Inside next and John has safely stashed his Kumba ya-ya’s in the overhead compartment for this one. Nicky Hopkins and John Tout play pianos and notably Steve Brendell and Klaus Voormann combine to make use of an upright bass; Brendell hits the side with drumsticks and Voormann playing the strings. There is also slide guitar from George Harrison. The song has a wonderful country vibe which distracts, probably intentionally, from the fact the lyrics are quite dark.
Wearing a mask, hiding your face behind a smile, a suit and shiny shoes do not hide a person’s true self, “one thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside” Lennon sings, being religious doesn’t save you if you’re a bit of a nasty person either according to the song. Not for the first time the listener must play a guessing game to figure out the target of this track. The collar and tie imagery suggests someone who has had a business dealing with John, which at that point in the timeline could be many people. Bill Harry, founder and editor of Mersey Beat says the song is about Paul McCartney, who John felt was “living a lie” but John himself said that the song is a social comment with a little riff.
As a whole album, Imagine has more blatant references to people, we don’t have to shoehorn the attacks into songs that are actually more general. We have specifics ready and waiting elsewhere.
In terms of recording, Take 3 is pretty similar to the master, if anything the music more upfront and the vocal lacks any effects. Take 6 has a different guitar solo but on any and all versions you can hear of this song the piano is unbelievably good. The Evolution track on the Ultimate Mixes is highly recommended if you want guitar and piano parts front and centre.
Jealous Guy is a bigger deal today than it was when it was track three on this album. This track is simply stunning. Lennon sings about a subject he has tackled in the past. One should look at A Hard Day’s Night on a song like You Can’t Do That or Rubber Soul and a song like Run For Your Life for example, that’s also a song about someone with a jealous mind, warning their partner that he’d rather see her dead than with another man. It should be noted that Lennon was quite dismissive of Run For Your Life (and numerous other Beatles songs in truth) in later life. Jealous Guy is arguably a less direct child of the prior Beatles track, no one’s existence is threatened, but we do get an apology for hurt caused and we get total contrition from the singer.
The “watch out” and “look out” parts as the song ends are key though because they are an admission that he will in all probability, have to make the apology many more times in their relationship.
The music is as beautiful as the narrator is flawed and the takes on the Ultimate Mixes are interesting, there’s a strings only take which is nice to listen to. Nicky Hopkins’ piano just drips dreamlike throughout and the ‘Flux Fiddlers’ (made up of members of the New York Philharmonic) are responsible for the strings.
The finished presentation on this album makes us thankful that it was left off the ‘the White Album’ where it was demoed as Child of Nature. The Beatles went with Mother Natures Son on that occasion, so John kept the tune and rewrote the lyrics, ditching the road to Rishikesh and focusing inwards instead.
Next the album features two songs which began life before the main summer sessions. It’s So Hard and I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier were both worked on at Ascot in February 1971 and both feature saxophone overdubs by King Curtis done in July.
It’s So Hard is a blues take from John, another from the Lennon catalogue where the sounds produced in the song are more important than the lyrical meaning of it. As with Well Well Well from the previous album, the lyrics appear to discuss everyday life on one level and possibly sex on another, proving that you can’t take your ears off John Lennon music for a second.
The song was mostly recorded at Lennon’s home studio on 11th February, although additional work was done in the main May sessions.
Sonically this song is a delight; driving guitars alongside plodding bass and drums suggest an almost simple three-piece approach like the Plastic Ono Band. Jim Gordon plays drums joining Klaus Voormann and John. Please note almost simple, lest we forget the strings and the sax but also because on top of the drums, bass and guitar John overdubs piano and a second guitar part while Jim Gordon overdubs a tambourine part.
I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier has a loose jam session feel. The master, which is from the May sessions features Voormann, Harrison and Hopkins joined by Tom Evans and Joey Molland of the band Badfinger on acoustic guitars and John Barnham on piano. Barnham also worked on All Things Must Pass for George Harrison. The February 16th session interestingly featured Bobby Keys on sax, Jim Gordon on drums and Jim Keltner percussion.
The evolution track on Ultimate Mixes is poignant, at the end of the sax overdub John tells Curtis he now realises why he is called King.
For both Soldier and It’s So Hard, the cherry on the icing of both cakes are the string parts overdubbed in New York City on the 4th of July and King Curtis sax parts recorded on the 5th of July. King Curtis, who played on many golden tunes, was sadly stabbed to death on August 13th 1971.
Gimme Some Truth sees John in demanding fashion once again, demanding truth from elected politicians and those in positions of power. The song dates back to the Beatles’ Get Back sessions in 1969 and audio of John and Paul working on the lyrics at this time is available online. The Imagine sessions version was worked on in May 1971. Lyrically it’s notable for mentioning “sons of Tricky Dicky”, which as a nod to Richard Nixon is prophetic as it is Nixon and his administration that will be so interested in John Lennon’s continued presence in America once he departs England to live there full time with Yoko Ono.
The Ultimate Mixes feature the evolution for the track, taking the listener on a beautiful journey from demo to completion. It is fascinating to hear John vocally “doing Eddie Cochran” and getting angry at Eddie Veale, who was both the engineer for the sessions and the designer of Lennon’s Ascot home studio itself. The soft, melodic acoustic guitars are more prominent in the earlier takes and they contrast John’s rough throaty vocal. George Harrison’s solo is also there for your listening pleasure.
Gimme Some Truth gives us everything essential about John Lennon in a relatively short sharp song. John’s direct message and raw delivery are combined with the sort of lyrical wordplay we haven’t really seen from him thus far as a solo artist. The marmalde skies (Lucy In The Sky) and semolina pilchard (I Am the Walrus) were the first things to get jettisoned from the aircraft when John flew off into his own career. He has brought back the element of wordplay and balanced it with the social message, sacrificing none of the impact. This song is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1971.
To balance the social comment and the anger of the previous track we have Oh My Love and all the beauty and vulnerability therein. With a running time of under three minutes this is John bearing his soul to us and ending it before the listener has caught on. George Harrison’s guitar work is exemplary, Lennon and Hopkins’ piano contributions fit perfectly, not one note is wasted.
The delicacy is soon smashed into a million pieces, however when we move on to the next track.
How Do You Sleep? allows us to observe observe a family squabble. We miss the point if we take sides.
For some this song ignored in the shadow cast by the title track. Others have suggested this song is not overlooked or ignored but does suffer for its content; the lyrical attack on Paul McCartney takes focus from what is a brilliant song. John Lennon himself later echoed this view.
It is possible to present another view of this song; the anger, and the John versus Paul context of the song do not in fact harm the song, such elements only add to the track. It is not possible to be peace and love, peace and love, peace and love the entire time, surely even Ringo Starr does not manage it. It can be argued that the song divided that Beatles fan base into Lennon and McCartney camps, but our job is to listen, not dig trenches.
In 2020 we get the benefit of knowing that both John and Paul came through this period and that is nice to know given what happened to John in 1980, but to disregard this song because it makes a listener uncomfortable is strange. Love the drama, love the anger, embrace the period where Lennon was sniping at everyone, because sometimes folks, families fight. Nothing is gained from pretending the Beatles just ended happily and without acrimony; the acrimony was clear, the acrimony was present, and it gave us great musical moments.
The master presented on the album has the eerie echo on Lennon’s vocal and the strings. The drums kick like silenced bullets and the guitars are muddy. For listeners who need a far more cutting and direct approach to this song, Ultimate Mixes brings us Take 1 and 2, slightly different vocal phrasing, no strings and more audible guitars, especially George Harrison’s solo. John Lennon wanted the band to bite, and fully commit to conveying the anger within the track. Take 6 and Take 11 encapsulates those feelings perfectly. Take 6 had been previously released on the Lennon Anthology and features Lennon adding “brother” to the question. Studio out takes of John Lennon on songs like this are a dream and should be cherished.
During the Gimme Some Truth documentary, Yoko reports to John that the band’s playing of this song is too loose and features too much improvisation. It is tempting, but unfair, to suggest that this snitching is almost gleeful. Because the subject and target of the song is McCartney, the studio footage we see might appear to be evidence that she does enjoy orchestrating and heightening the anger. Truthfully, Yoko acted as ‘the wind’ on Plastic Ono Band too and was encouraged to whisper to John when she felt it was necessary. This helped him get a perfect song on record and John considered it a form of album production. Audio from the documentary features in the evolution track.
With the sniping and the anger done, Imagine leaves us with John wearing his heart on his sleeve. How paints a portrait of a flawed man who wants to be better despite handicaps in his past. How is is the kind of self-analysis he performed during Plastic Ono Band; “How can I give love when love is something, I ain’t never had?” for example is, on paper, inward looking and similar to lyrics from Mother or Working Class Hero. This time he sings the feelings a bit more and adds strings (the same July 4th New York session as It’s So Hard and I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier). The How? (Elements Mix) track from Ultimate Mixes features the strings overdub in isolation and is beautiful.
Oh Yoko! completes the album and John is on record saying he was unsure about this track as it was a departure from the tough hard man rock image he had. In interviews he seemed surprised that people had reacted positively to this song. Out of context the song is a surprise but within the album it is not as he has already served up Jealous Guy and How? Listeners know Lennon has this in his locker.
A Work In Progress is something to be.
In fact the presence of Oh Yoko on an album that gives us Crippled Inside, It’s So Hard, Gimme Some Truth and How Do You Sleep just demonstrates the greatness of Imagine as an album because there is a dove for every hawk. It is never all anger, there is elegance there too because tracks are sequenced perfectly.
John would later say that Imagine was Plastic Ono Band with chocolate on, the messages were the same, but the overall presentation was nicer, so more people heard them. It is hard to argue with the man himself, but it does not take away from the album. Even when presented with a spoonful of sugar, the medicine has merit. Imagine shows us that Lennon can marry the two sides of impact and mass appeal.
Do not focus on what you want the album to be, deal with what it is.
Imagine reveals a man balancing everything, honesty, anger and love. If chocolate is involved, it is dark chocolate, adult and sometimes bitter. John Lennon is a work in progress, and the album is his mirror.
Further reading: Dave Robinson interviewed Eddie Veale for a feature published September 18th 2012; Imagine There’s A Studio, for Pro Sound News Europe.
This review specifically references the John Lennon Anthology (1998),Imagine Ultimate Mixes (2018) andthe book Imagine (2018). Also, The John Lennon Encyclopaedia (Virgin Publishing 2000) by Bill Harry.
Article © Simon A. Moult 2020. Lyrics are reproduced for review purposes only and remain property of the copyright owners.