Imagine – John Lennon
..I wonder if you can..
In the summer of 1971, after nine achingly long months apart, my family was finally offered a new-build Council House on the edge of Hailsham, an East Sussex market town between Eastbourne and Uckfield. I was 14. Paul 12. Andrew was 8. Mum was mid-30s. Paul and I shared a bedroom which overlooked fields and faraway trees, and in the distance, Herstmonceux Observatory. Andrew had the smaller single bedroom. Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew. That’s just how it was.
Mum’s ‘new’ husband, John Daignault, had not moved back in with us. We were secretly glad, because he was just an extra person in the house. He took our Mum’s attention and they usually ended up arguing, shouting and screaming or actually fighting. It was a drag. So we were pretty relieved when we found out that they’d fought again, and Mum had no intention of inviting him to stay in the new house. But then she changed her mind and one day, there he was. Short, dark-haired, slightly nervous. He was always nice to us, but he was only about ten years older than me and I was decidedly cool with him. I was a twatty teenage boy who was primarily concerned with increasingly important decisions about grooviness, my own burgeoning sex life and the expanding musical landscape, not whether my mum’s 2nd husband was worthy of consideration. He was just there. He tried though. Back in the village his record collection had included The White Album, The Beatles double-LP from 1968 which was a compendium of musical styles and grooves, from country to heavy rock, weird experimentia to 1930s pop. JD, as we called him, had a few cool points logged.
Lennon, Ono & Grapefruit at Cannes, May 1971
Christmas 1971. Beneath the tree an LP-shaped present for me. Intrigued, I had to wait for the entire ritual to unfold, starting with the stockings filled with brazil nuts, small plastic toys, a satsuma and other ephemera. Early morning thrills with mini-pinball tables and so on. Then breakfast. Then church – or had we abandoned church by then? I think we had not. Dragged there and back through the weather in our best. Then home. Then presents ? No – change your clothes. THEN Then?? NO A NICE CUP OF TEA FIRST. Christ in swaddling clothes can we now open our flipping presents ??? AFTER THE QUEEN’S SPEECH.
This may be a singular and important reason which explains why I am a republican. The speech was always fluff and was intoned in a flat aristocratic drone. I had no respect for The Royal Family in 1971 and even less today in 2015.
And finally. Someone was nominated as Santa – but not before we’d been further delayed by sausage rolls, slices of ham and bread and mustard, things that mum had been ‘slaving over a hot stove for months’ with, anything really to keep us from the fucking presents. There was a real tree with decorations, tinsel and a fairy on the top, the presents bulged beneath it. It would end up in the back garden and slowly die as winter progressed toward a long-promised distant spring.
And my LP-shaped present from Mum and John Daignault – a French-Canadian name by the way – was the new John Lennon LP “Imagine”. I knew it was from him really. And I was actually bowled over. I think it’s the most I ever liked him, and it remains one of the best Christmas presents I ever received. When I was 14, brand-new LPs were a rarity. They had to be saved for. Our LP collection – almost all Mum’s – was small, and included Wagner’s Tannhauser (see My Pop Life #94), Oliver! and The Seekers ‘Morningtown Ride”. The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats. Simon and Garfunkel. Dusty Springfield. Van Der Graaf Generator. Jimi Hendrix. ‘Imagine’ may well have been my 3rd-ever LP.
The Plastic Ono Band in 1969 :
Klaus Voorman, Alan White, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Eric Clapton
We were a singles family mainly. Loads of those. Big pop hits and obscure lower-chart singles. We had many Beatles singles. From She Loves You through We Can Work It Out to Let It Be. And the Beatles had finally split up officially on April 10th 1970 when Paul announced he was leaving the group. John Lennon had already told the rest of the band that he was finished during the previous September when The Plastic Ono Band played Toronto to an extremely warm reception but the decision was kept under wraps until the spring of 1970. We’d all been learning to live without the Beatles for over 18 months, and it was hard. Each and every former Beatle’s release was devoured hungrily, and although almost always not as satisfying a meal as a Beatles song, it was at least like one of the ingredients. A snack. They were the four most famous people in the world still. With Muhammed Ali. If you made an LP out of the first two years of solo releases it was an AMAZING Beatles LP, with Maybe I’m Amazed, My Sweet Lord, What Is Life, Imagine and Working Class Hero.
We would learn to nourish ourselves with these offerings, scoured for clues, hints, rifts, chords, harmonies, these musical conversations between former members now not on speaking terms. The family divorce was played out by my favourite band separating and going their own ways. Or rather, by Lennon and McCartney being actually divorced. The great song-writing team was over.
McCartney’s first solo offering, an acoustic collection which gets better with the passing years was entitled “McCartney”and released in 1970. Lennon had already explored a great deal of strange musical territory with Yoko Ono on the LPs Unfinished Music : Two Virgins and Life With The Lions (1968) and The Wedding Album (1969) all released while The Beatles were still together.
Unfinished Music : Two Virgins (1968)
Unfinished Music : Life With The Lions (1968)
The Wedding Album (1969)
All three albums dabbled unselfconsciously in avant-garde experimental sounds, tape-loops, heartbeats and their own voices. Not many people listened more than once or twice. It was the late 60s, everything to be abandoned, everything to play for. Then in 1970 they released 2 Plastic Ono Band LPs – one each.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
The JohnLennon/Plastic Ono Band LP is a masterpiece pure and simple. It emanated from the primal scream therapy Lennon and Ono were doing in Los Angeles with Arthur Janov. Songs about the death of The Beatles and howls of pain on subjects such as his mother and loneliness gave the album a huge depth and impact. I listened to it at Simon’s house, but not then I don’t think. A year or two later. It wasn’t played on the radio or TV at all, apart from on a few late-night shows.
But then music just wasn’t available in the same way as it is today. Most music wasn’t played on the radio. There was no internet, tapes, CDs, mp3s. You’d have to be round someone’s house to hear it. Vinyl. So the gaps were filled – as always – by the singles. Lennon’s first was an anguished snarl of pain about heroin addiction, Cold Turkey, which was rejected as a Beatles song and became his first solo single on the Beatles own record label Apple in October 1969. It was followed by Power To The People and Instant Karma, big thumping sounds, exciting anthems with casts of thousands.
Bed Peace, Room 902, Amsterdam Hilton, March 25th – 31st 1969
Since meeting Yoko Ono John had become an extremely active public person, from the mass-media wedding onwards, unafraid of making grandstanding statements and leading the pop culture into new political areas. It was thrilling. He was aware of his status and used it change the public discourse. The hippie dream was over, but Vietnam wasn’t. John Lennon positioned himself clearly on the battlements as a counter-cultural leader. As a result he was lampooned, vilified and undermined by political and cultural commentators, while becoming a hero to progressives and others. This high-profile campaign culminated in the Green Card harrassment of Lennon by President Nixon in 1972 who felt that Lennon’s high-profile activism could undermine his re-election campaign, and who issued deportation proceedings against Lennon that were only halted when Nixon himself was snared in the Watergate scandal. But all that was to come.
In the early part of December 1971 the Christmas single Merry Xmas (War Is Over) was played on the radio – political but less punchy as a production, still anthemic, but totally anti-Vietnam. Lennon was in his post-pop political pomp. Then came Imagine.
The title track was written in John’s house Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, Surrey one morning in early 1971 on a white Steinway piano. Inspiration was provided by a Yoko Ono poem from the collection called Grapefruit published in 1964. The poem was called Cloud Piece :
“Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”
Words that were later placed on the LP’s back cover. That summer at a jam in New York, John asked George Harrison if he wanted to play on the next record and George agreed.
Voorman, Harrison, Lennon, Ono 1971
Klaus Voorman, John’s old friend from Hamburg who’d designed the Revolver LP cover was drafted in on bass guitar (Paul’s instrument) and Nicky Hopkins from Apple label band Badfinger played piano. Alan White played drums. The first few tracks were recorded at Tittenhurst in June 1971 then the whole kit, caboodle and shebang was moved to the Record Plant in New York City in July and other session players joined such as King Curtis on saxophone (see my Pop Life #128).
Lennon & Spector at The Record Plant 1971
Phil Spector co-produced with John and Yoko, adding sugar in the shape of violins, cellos and violas as he had with The Long And Winding Road a year earlier on the Let It Be album, much to McCartney’s irritation. Lennon had no such problems with Spector’s strings and described the song Imagine on one occasion as a political statement sugar-coated “so that conservatives like Paul would swallow it“.
The McCartneys had issued the LP “Ram” in May 1971, billed as Paul and Linda McCartney. It is as good a record as Paul ever made. On the cover he wrestles with a bighorn sheep of some kind. A postcard inside the Imagine LP had picture of Lennon with a pig.
There was a song too, called “How Do You Sleep?” with lacerating lyrics :
“the only thing you did was Yesterday, now you’re gone you’re just Another Day”
referencing Paul’s brilliant single which didn’t appear on the Ram LP.
This McCartney/Lennon/Ram/Imagine dialectic dominated 1971 and the bad feeling set the stereotype of the two in the public mind forever : Paul the doe-eyed soppy balladeer and John the working class hero rocker. People took sides, as people do in divorces. Loyalty is expected from friends and balanced love for both is punished. The tragedy of separation. The archetypes are of course nonsense – Paul wrote and played Helter Skelter, the rockiest birth-of-metal-moment in the Beatles’catalogue, while Lennon soft side was never far away as evidenced by Love on the Plastic Ono Band LP or Jealous Guy on Imagine. But England in particular loved Lennon and spurned McCartney. I loved them both, always did, always will. I despise the anti-McCartney camp because musically they are simply wrong. But the anti-Lennon camp would have its day with this very song.
Imagine is ballad of protest. It is anti-religion, anti-nationalism, anti-war, anti-ownership and anti-greed. It sees everything that there is to see, and imagines how life could be without them. Simple, effective, powerful. It stands head and shoulders above most of John Lennon’s songwriting and remains his best-selling song. It seems incredible that serious writers could turn on a song like this – but popularity can be a critical curse, and Imagine is a huge song which went around the world and back again. It could have been written by Paul and people would have found it sappy. Eventually they did – after a wave of love for the song, the strange taste of the British groover found that, incredibly, Imagine was actually a stupid song, groaning under the weight of its own pretension. Elvis Costello wrote, in the lyrics to The Other Side Of Summer :
“Was it a millionaire who wrote ‘imagine no possessions’ ?”
Well, actually Declan, yes, it was. What do you want a millionaire to write? Imagine more possessions ? It’s a cheap shot, but one which was encouraged by the pop media in the years following its release and thus the sheer success and popularity of Lennon’s worldwide anthem was curdled, serially disrespected and sneered at by people who should have known better. The song became sacred, and sacred cows must be transgressed if you are a permanent teenager. People accuse Lennon of writing teenage lyrics – “5th form dirge” is a common-enough drop of disdain. But the misunderstanding is deep. What the song describes will never happen. The song knows this. It is a funeral march for a dream.
The rest of the album has its moments too – How is a beautiful delicate melody, It’s So Hard is classic rocker Lennon with echo vocals that would soon become ubiquitous, Oh Yoko a beautiful bouncing pop song, the classic Jealous Guy which dated from the Rishikesh era and nearly ended up on The White Album, the angry diatribes of Give Me Some Truth and How Do You Sleep, the simple beauty of McCartney-esque Oh My Love… John sounds relaxed and comfortable, playing his music with his friends, in love with Yoko, always present. It’s not my favourite Lennon LP, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s among his best moments for sure. And – It was a landmark moment in my young life, a piece of treasure which I treasured and played incessantly. We listened to it together downstairs late that Christmas afternoon in 1971, all present approved, then I took it up to the bedroom Dansette record player and heard it a couple more times – this was also the first Christmas when I spent some private time away from the family in my room and it was acceptable. It felt like John was speaking to me personally as I lay on my bed listening to his voice.
Dick Cavett Show 1971
Paul and John never did sing or write together again. Although apparently they jammed together in 1974 before further estrangement the tapes from that session have never been released, if indeed there are any. They had brought out the best in each other for an entire decade and changed the world together. The inspiration of those years carried them through the even longer time spent apart. Time heals, and brings closure to even the bitterest divorce camps, but tragically Lennon was gunned down outside his New York apartment on December 8th 1980 before any further healing could occur between the two of them. His unreleased guide vocals for ‘Real Love‘ and ‘Free As A Bird‘ were backed by Paul, George and Ringo and produced by Jeff Lynne as the last two Beatles’singles in 1995 when ‘Anthology’, the official Beatles bootleg collection finally came out.
The dream is over, what can I say ? The dream is over, yesterday
John Lennon ‘God’ 1970