October 9th, 2020, would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. 1 His too-brief solo career included several fine albums, but the one for which I believe he’ll be remembered was his second, Imagine.
Imagine followed on the heels of John’s best album, Plastic Ono Band, which was inspired by his Primal Scream therapy and which contained songs encapsulating his pain, bitterness, wistfulness and love for Yoko. Its music was raw and direct, which made for great art but not-so-great sales. Allen Klein, John’s manager at the time, hinted to Lennon that “we had to go more commercial if we wanted a big smash.” Lennon listened, and for Imagine brought in the best session musicians and let Phil Spector produce it in a radio-friendly sound.2 The result is a beautiful collection of some of John’s best work, as well as a few songs which are a startling contrast to the rest of the package.
Imagine, the title track, was co-written by Yoko, although she got no official credit until 2017 when the US National Music Publishers Association decided to recognize her lyrical contribution. Lennon based the song’s content on poems from Yoko’s collection, Grapefruit. Playing the piano part himself, he recorded it in just three takes, opting for musical simplicity as on his previous album. Spector orchestrated a subtle string arrangement which acted as a sweetener for listeners. The lyrics, decried by some as hypocritical and lauded by others as poetry, are more subtle than they seem at first listen. For me, the key is the word “Imagine”. John is not demanding that we abandon our possessions, or stating baldly that there’s no heaven or hell; he’s saying, “Look, let’s pretend these things didn’t rule us. How would we act if that were so?” The single was John’s first big hit, reaching number three on Billboard’s chart in 1971. It’s routinely described as one of the greatest songs of all time.
Crippled Inside is a rockabilly number with George Harrison guesting on dobro and Nicky Hopkins playing a rinky-tink piano. Perceived by some as a subtle dig at Paul McCartney, the song takes aim at phonies: “You can shine your shoes and wear a suit/You can comb your hair and look quite cute…One thing you can’t hide/Is when you’re crippled inside.” It’s a bright and sunny track with a touch of acid, like many of the songs on the album.
Jealous Guy, which was based on the melody John had written in 1968 for the unreleased Beatles tune Child of Nature3, is one of the most beautiful songs on the record. Hopkins’ delicate piano part and Spector’s orchestration combine over Lennon’s plaintive vocal to make a lovely apology for his past behavior. Of course, the song’s loveliness is tainted by the knowledge that all abusers are repentant after the fact; but I choose to believe that since he changed and Yoko forgave him, that the overall intent is sincere.
It’s So Hard, a bluesy tune with a stripped down arrangement a la Plastic Ono Band, is the first song which seems more or less disposable to me. It’s not bad, but it’s a rehash of themes Lennon explored on his first album, and it doesn’t seem necessary. That string arrangement is really badass, though. I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die is even weaker, a meandering number with repetitious lyrics which in its original mix was buried in a swamp of sound. Harrison does contribute some cool slide guitar, however.
Side Two opens with Gimme Some Truth, a sizzling piece of hard rock which stands out from the previous numbers in its intensity and drive. Again, George plays a fiery guitar solo, and John’s voice cuts as he sings about “pigheaded politicians”, “mommie’s little chauvinists” and “narrow-minded hypocritics”. It’s intense, but it makes me uncomfortable on the chorus. What is truth, John? Is your truth the only truth? And what if it differs from mine? This song pointed the direction to Lennon’s radical politicking, which never made for great songs. But this is a very good song.
Oh My Love, cowritten with Yoko and credited as such (unlike Imagine), is one of the most beautiful songs, a soft ballad with yearning vocals and gorgeous echoing guitar arpeggios from Harrison. Nicky Hopkins also plays lovely piano. Things take another dark turn with How Do You Sleep?, the infamous putdown of Paul McCartney, whom Lennon had taken umbrage with because of what he perceived as lyrical digs on Paul’s album Ram. (Initial pressings of Imagine included a picture of John holding a pig’s ears in a parody of the Ram album cover.) Over an arrangement of George’s vicious slide guitar and Spector’s menacing strings a la Psycho, John spits out all his anger in direct attacks: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead…You live with straights who tell you you was king/Jump when your mama tell you anything/The only thing you done was Yesterday/And since you’re gone, you’re just Another Day.” (Another Day being the previous single by Paul.) It’s musically and lyrically brilliant, but God, is it hard to listen to. Take a chill pill, John.
How?, a quiet ballad similar to Imagine, is perhaps the best example of what John meant when he said the album was “Plastic Ono Band with chocolate coating.” Over strings and piano, John expresses his doubts about where he’s going and what he’s doing. The album ends with Oh Yoko!, a soft but rocking love song propelled by Hopkins’ piano and John and Phil Spector’s harmonies on the chorus. Amazingly, in its direct personal nature, it becomes universal. Lennon’s last bit of harmonica work plays the listener out at the end.
I don’t think that Imagine is John’s greatest solo album—I would give that honor to Plastic Ono Band—but it is certainly one of his best and contains several classic songs. The Ultimate Imagine release from 2018 contains a remix of the album, which is sonically gorgeous. John’s vocals are brought out without destroying the beauty of the overall production.4 Also included are a plethora of alternate takes and “stripped” takes, isolated tracks such as the piano part on Jealous Guy, which is so beautiful it makes me almost cry, and singles from the era. It’s a marvelous, reasonably priced package. If you hear Imagine on Spotify or YouTube and want to invest in a deluxe edition, I highly recommend it.