45 years since its release in 1971, Vulture Hound’s very own walking Beatles encyclopaedia, Josh Langrish, revisits John Lennon’s Imagine.
The break-up of The Beatles in 1970 was a complete mess; mountains of paperwork, documents, and files, dealing with publishing rights, arguing about money, disputes with their new manager Allen Klein, in-fighting between McCartney and the other three, filing lawsuits against one another, etc. Not to mention their problems with their failed business venture of Apple Corps; a Beatles-made company that was severely hemorrhaging money – what with endless cocktail parties, employees ordering champagne and caviar, equipment and furniture being constantly stolen and replaced, drug paraphernalia scattered around the offices, etc (ironically, the whole purpose of starting Apple Corps was based on financial advice; that if they continued to earn the amount they were earning at the time without investing any of it, 85% of it would be taken by the taxman. Within just a year of the company existing, there were serious concerns that The Beatles would become bankrupt). By the time The Beatles started to make their final album Let it Be in 1968-69, they were drained to the point of delirium.
The reasons for the break-up are still discussed at length today. Was it Yoko? Was it the stresses and arguments around Apple? Was it the unexpected death of their spiritual leader and manager Brian Epstein in 1967? Was it McCartney’s obsession to “steer the band” and the others being fed up, as Lennon said in a Rolling Stone Interview in 1970, with being “side men for Paul”? Was it Harrison’s desire to release material he had been stock-piling – unable to get no more than two songs on one Beatles album at a time? Was it Lennon’s lack of interest in being, what he considered to be, a commercial performing monkey as a Beatle? To give my honest, boring opinion, it was a mixture of all of them.
If we ignore the avant grade (or as Harrison, despite making an avant garde album himself in the form of Electronic Sound, famously derided called it; “avant garde a clue”) contributions he did with Yoko in the form of Two Virgins, Life with the Lions, and the Wedding Album, the release of the raw, stripped down, emotionally charged John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970 was Lennon’s first solo outing in 1970. The follow up came a year later in the form of the softer, more commercial, publicly preferred album Imagine.
When I listened back to Imagine for its 45th anniversary this month, you notice how much Lennon began to utilise the piano during his solo years more than he ever did with The Beatles. This, combined with Phil Spector‘s “wall of sound” production, plus the use of the ever-present “Lennon echo” effect, gives Lennon’s solo work a completely distinctive sound that differs drastically with that of The Beatles – which was perhaps the whole point.
The first track of the album is the iconic ‘Imagine’. Arguably Lennon’s most famous work, this classic piano ballad was, in some respects, a fighting response to the claim that Lennon couldn’t rival McCartney in terms of memorable melodies (“Let’s face it,” Lennon confessed to producer George Martin in the late 60s, “I don’t expect to walk into a bar in Spain and hear someone whistling I Am The Walrus”). Although some may argue (like myself) that the song suffers from being overplayed, and is the 2nd song behind ‘Wonderwall’ that the perennial annoying guy with the guitar at a party nearly always plays, its reach, sonic structure, and message is completely undeniable.
Lennon’s foray into the world of the piano ballad continues throughout the album with the melancholic, regret-filled ‘Jealous Guy’. Perhaps his 2nd most popular post-Beatles song, it utilises gentle but rich orchestration that underpins the simplistic bass line (played by old Beatles friend Klaus Voorman) and plodding percussion. It demonstrates a maturity and form that, in my view, he never returned to in the remainder of his solo work up until his death in 1980.
The extremely elegant and wistful love song ‘Oh My Love’ continues that piano theme. The contemplative albeit melancholic way in which the song plays out (that isn’t too dissimilar to the overall sound of ‘Jealous Guy’) creates an interesting juxtaposing frisson when considering the heartfelt, life-affirming lyrics. ‘Oh My Love’ also involves the help of fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison who plays guitar on the track. Harrison’s subtle but effective playing gives the song a much needed complexity and nuance as his guitar works around – and in tandem with – Lennon’s piano.
The sorrowful reverie that is ‘How?’ extends the piano-based regret motif – with a sound and feeling so similar to ‘Jealous Guy’ that you would be forgiven for thinking that the two songs were once part of the same song. I also noticed for the first time how the orchestral segments that occur after each line beginning with the word “How” seem uncannily similar to those that can be heard within the Beatles/McCartney ballad ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – which is interesting considering that both songs, to differing extents, explore the notion of not being sure what direction in life one must take. The lush orchestration in the background lifts the song enough to prevent it from being miserable, and it also has the benefit of having the ‘underrated’ card with it being a lesser-known “Jealous Guy” if you will.
This is Lennon we’re talking about here though, right? Needless to say, there’s plenty of salt and grit to be found in Imagine. There’s the bluesy, Rolling Stones-esque head-bobber ‘It’s So Hard’ (one of the many thought experiments Beatles fans ponder is one where Lennon joins The Rolling Stones – since Lennon was always the bluesier, rougher, more “rock’n’roll” member of The Beatles. This thought experiment sort of became true in 1968 when Lennon formed a one-time-only super group called The Dirty Mac for the TV special ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ with Keith Richards (Stones), Eric Clapton (Cream), and drummer Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) where they did a rendition of the Lennon/Beatles song ‘Yer Blues’).
Another bit of caustic rock within Imagine, that runs in the same ‘socio-political revelation’ vein as protopunk tune ‘I Found Out’ off of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is the now weirdly relevant protest composition ‘Gimme Some Truth’; an angsty, bitter rant that barks at the conniving, populist, lying ways of politicians, with lyrics like: “I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians/All I want is the truth/Just gimme some truth” sung in exasperated groans, followed by the lyrics: “No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me with just a pocketful of hope” which is shouted in raspy, angry grunts.
It’s at this point that we need to mention the infamous blues track on Imagine called ‘How Do You Sleep?’. So much has been written about this song that its context is perhaps more famous than the tune itself. It’s safe to say that McCartney and Lennon in 1971 weren’t on the best terms. The media had a field day using snide remarks from interviews with both of them in order to stir up the feud even more. In the book ‘The John Lennon Letters’ by Hunter Davies, there are transcripts and photocopies of Lennon’s typed and handwritten rants and angry letters to Paul and his then-wife Linda during those tumultuous years; they are simply dripping with bile. As an example, when Linda wrote on Paul’s behalf to John, upset about John’s remarks regarding his MBE (which Lennon sent back to The Queen in protest of the Vietnam war), the split, and The Beatles in general, Lennon felt that Linda was somewhat “sticking her nose in” and talking about matters she didn’t fully understand – not to mention feeling further frustration at the cowardice of Paul for getting his wife to speak for him instead of saying what he thought himself. Lennon’s rather snarky response began thusly: “I was reading your letter and wondering what middle-aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it. I resisted looking at the last page to find out. What the hell – it’s Linda!”. Yikes.
McCartney didn’t help himself either, adding one or two digs at John & Yoko in songs ‘Too Many People’ and ‘Dear Boy’ from his 2nd solo album Ram with lyrics like: “Too many people preaching practices” (in reference to their infamous ‘Bed-in’ for peace) and “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”. John being John responded in kind with ‘How Do You Sleep?’; a funky, bluesy, scathing attack on McCartney, or rather what McCartney represented in Lennon’s eyes at the time: a superficial, goody two-shoes who only cared about his own “pristine” image. The vitriol within the song is plain to see (or hear rather), especially in the footage of Lennon recording the song in Imagine‘s accompanying film of the same name. Lyrics like: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” (a reference to the infamous ‘Paul is Dead’ hoax) and the especially nasty lyric: “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’re gone you’re just another day”. Despite the hateful context of its creation, it’s still a really funky tune and a great addition to the album.
Lennon and McCartney would frequently fall out and make up throughout the 70s – even going as far a reuniting for one coke-fuelled jam session during Lennon’s much-discussed ‘Lost Weekend‘ called A Toot and a Snore in ’74 starring Stevie Wonder and Harry Nilsson. McCartney has commented in the years after Lennon’s murder that he was glad that they were on “good terms” before he died – often chatting together over the phone “talking about cats, and bread”.
It’s not all doom, gloom and anger however. As the hope-inducing, peace-promoting anthem ‘Imagine’ opens the album, a similarly positive and happy song concludes it with the excessively joyous ‘Oh Yoko!’. The upbeat acoustic guitars and catchy piano, and the accompanying optimistic lyrics about love would induce a state of euphoria in even the most cold-hearted of individuals.
The fact that a bitter and angry song like ‘How Do You Sleep?’ was included on the same album as a song as unashamedly jubilant as ‘Oh Yoko!’ actually highlights two of the many sides of Lennon’s character; that whilst Lennon could occasionally be harsh and mean-spirited, he also had a propensity to be extremely kind, caring, and compassionate. There’s a section in the Imagine film where a confused man is brought to Lennon after finding out that he had been camping in the grounds of Lennon‘s home (Tittenhurst Park). The clearly disorientated man had come to talk to Lennon due to finding intense personal meaning in Lennon’s lyrics, assuming that they were aimed specifically at him. Instead of sending the man away, calling for security or fearing for his life, Lennon asked the man if he was hungry and invited him inside his home for tea and toast.
In conclusion, it’s somewhat ironic how the album that includes a song like ‘Imagine’ can also contain so many songs about regret, fear, and anger. However, I believe that is what makes the album so interesting and truthful, and still makes it resonate today – in the sense that love, life, and trying to find your place in the world isn’t pretty and wonderful; it’s grimy and dirty and painful. Nevertheless, Lennon’s over-arching message is that, despite these obstacles and hardships, love will always prevail.