Monday 7 April 2014

John Lennon "Imagine" (1971) (Album Review)

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John Lennon "Imagine" (1971)

Imagine/Crippled Inside/Jealous Guy/It's So Hard/I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier!//Gimme Some Truth!/Oh My Love/How Do You Sleep?/How?/Oh Yoko!

That John Lennon, honestly - no sooner does he tell us that 'the dream is over' (in the song 'God' from 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band') then he's back telling us to dream all over again. Talk about a contradiction! Or is it? Lennon seems to feel that the Beatles dream didn't work out so he'll have a go at creating one himself, a peaceful utopia  without boundaries or borders where the world can 'live as one' without all that silly fighting and that the Beatles no longer represent his best way of finding that world (not after all that bickering). Only the world had a go at Lennon for perhaps the album's most infamous line ''imagine no possessions" whilst being a multi-millionaire. What a contradiction! Or is it? You see 'Imagine' the song is a wish-fulfilment about what John wants the world to look like (and what most of us secretly or not so secretly want it to be like) - he never claims the dream is easy to turn into reality, only that perhaps one day it can (that line is followed by one that reads 'I wonder if we can' by the way). Anyway, 'Imagine' the album is a little like the primal honesty of first solo record 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' only with the honesty and screaming covered in syrupy strings, more universal lyrics and a production that even Lennon conceded as being 'sugar' or 'honey' in two different interviews in 1971. Contradiction? Well, yes. A bit. In a way it's a shame that as early as his second 'proper' LP (the avant garde 'Two Virgins' 'Life with the Lyons' and 'Wedding Album' don't really count although if anything they do an even better job at stripping superfluous additions to the heart of the 'songs' )Lennon is already watering down his product. There's only a couple of songs here that are anywhere close to the importance of any on that sterling album and after the thrilling chance to hear a no-frills Lennon pour out his heart and soul it's rather sad to hear him drowned out by a Phil Spector orchestra here and there. But there's a reason 'Imagine' proved to be the biggest seller of Lennon's career: it's the one that captures the man and all his contradictions better than any other. The angry Lennon, the scared Lennon, the guilty Lennon, the in-love Lennon, the playful Lennon, the fed-up Lennon: if 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' is the best Lennon album in terms of showing us his real inner self then 'Imagine' is the best Lennon album in terms of the faces he shares with the world. John, still nervous of not getting a 'hit' after releasing his first hard-going album and the media fallout from the end of the Beatle days, was intrigued by this album's huge sales. 'It's 'Plastic Ono Band' with a little bit of sugar on it for conservatives like yourself!' Lennon memorably snapped during one of John and Paul's music press exchanges. Fans are still split over whether 'Imagine' or 'Plastic Ono Band' is the best solo Lennon album; really they're the same product, it's just that like many products today ones comes with 'sweeteners' and the other is rough and raw.

The impact may have softened slightly, but Lennon was clearly still very much inspired by Professor Janov's 'Primal Scream' therapy when writing this record (for those who haven't read our review of 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' yet, the idea is that all our inhibitions and hang-ups date from unresolved emotions from childhood and can be released in one long guttural Yoko-esque scream). However there's a key difference between many of this album's songs and those from the earlier record: 'Lennon/Plastic Ono band' is about the self, to the exclusion of everyone else (except occasionally Yoko) and is arguably the most self-centred record ever made (in the sense that you have to 'know' and empathise with Lennon to 'understand' it; that's not a bad thing by the way, although you sense that it would be if a lesser talent like - say - The Spice Girls ever get hold of the idea). 'Imagine' is an album much more concerned with other people - 'Jealous Guy' finally realises that when Lennon suffers other people suffer with him; 'How?' asks sadly how the narrator can be asked to show signs of love when 'love is something I've never had'; both 'Oh My Love' and 'Oh Yoko!' are love songs that are about pleasing Yoko more than pleasing John for once; 'Gimme Some Truth' and 'Soldier' are about injustices around the world and finally 'How Do You Sleep?' treats Paul McCartney as Lennon's latest scapegoat and the root of all evil - arguably unfairly although we'll never know what really went on between the two at the end of the Beatles days (though see later for why Paul's 'mirror' of Lennon - everything he desires and can never be - might actually make the subject of this song Lennon himself). Could it be that the end of Janov's personalised lecture for John and Yoko involved the idea that you have to let go of pain to avoid passing it on to someone else, usually someone you love? (For Yoko's take on the subject see 'Yoko/Plastic Ono Band', by the way, an equally harrowing album with even more screams - some of the ideas behind primal scream therapy end up in her masterpiece 'Approximately Infinite Universe' too; her companion album this time around is 'Fly' which is like 'Imagine' is a slightly up market and more playful version of 'Yoko/Plastic Ono Band' clearly made for a wider audience but featuring sound effects instead of an orchestra. Fans will have an equal feeling of relief mixed with sadness that Yoko has dropped her intensity levels as Lennon fans will). Yes there are less screams on 'Imagine', less noisy extended jams and happier sounding arrangements than on 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band', but John is still quite clearly hurting and still overwhelmed by how the therapy sessions have changed his world view. Interestingly, too, 'Imagine' makes for a neat stepping stone between 'Plastic Ono Band' and Lennon's next album 'Some Time In New York City', a 'newspaper' album of political rogues whose only mention of John or Yoko comes from paraphrasing a song by protestor David Peel  surely one of the greatest changes in scope across three albums of any band or artist.

Musically, too, this album is the stepping stone between the raw no-frills 'Plastic Ono band' and the slick Elephant's Memory 'NYC' album to come, with the dominant sound being Lennon's slightly lush piano (played with the 'soft' ie echo pedal in stark contrast to the brittle bones of the debut album) and Phil Spector's often ridiculously lush orchestra. Strangely impressed with the botch job the legendary producer had made on the Beatles album 'Let It Be', Lennon sent him an invitation to work together and after the success with the Spector-produced single 'Instant Karma' (which really deserved to be on this album) the pair worked on the whole of 'Imagine' together. Most fans like the sound but for me, dare I say it, Spector's production is just a little bit boring and 'square' - certainly it's not within the same league as what Phil had done with George Harrison the year before on 'All Things Must Pass', an album of small inward looking songs dressed up to sound huge. Here even the songs that might have been better sounding small and fragile and a little bit throwaway ('I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' and 'It's So Hard', a song absolutely about how empty and pointless life can be) start sounding like they're some grand statement they're not. Surprisingly though given that the album unites two of the biggest promoters of the echo chamber in musical history  (Lennon hated the sound of his voice so much that he drenched it with echo every time he got the chance) 'Imagine' has quite a dry, brittle sound with even the instruments that would normally sound treacly sounding jagged and raw, thus making it a neat 'middle' soundwise in this trio of albums. In a nutshell the joke about small songs sounding big is played too many times, which somehow wasn't a problem on 'Pass' despite that record lasting twice as long (with a 'jam session' disc to boot). In fact, going back to our talk about contradictions - which was a subject we raised on 'All Things Must Pass' too - 'Imagine' is a classic case of subversion, of the surface telling us something 'different' from the original song. It happens time and again across this album: 'Imagine' is a hymnal commune anthem dressed up to sound small, 'Crippled Inside' is every bit as nasty and self-loathing as any song on 'Plastic Ono Band' but it comes across as a funny lopsided country waltz; 'Jealous Guy' and 'How?' are two songs that find Lennon at his weakest and most vulnerable, full of the doubts and regrets of the first raw album but here dressed up to sound like Mantovani; similarly 'Oh My Love' is 'Love' part two and every bit as fragile and feathery but even Paul McCartney would have had second thoughts about making such a delicate song sound this heavy. Ironically the one song that benefits from sounding like a powerhouse - the venomous 'How Do You Sleep?', the most Spector-like song of the ten here - is one that Lennon later admitted regretting making such a 'big' thing of when it was meant to be just an 'angry letter' that made it onto the album instead of the album's epic-sounding talking point. 

Another huge difference is the sheer amount of 'guest stars' on this record. Most of 'Plastic Ono Band' featured Lennon on guitar or piano, Ringo on drums and Klaus Voormann on bass without any overdubs whatsoever; by contrast the session credits for 'Imagine' go on and on, with anyone who was anyone in 1971 dropping by to lend a hand. As well as anyone who was anyone in the English and American session musician scenes (including Nicky Hopkins, appearing on about the 30th AAA album we've reviewed by now) the album features appearances by George Harrison (the last time another Beatle plays on a Lennon album), Badfinger members Joey Molland and Tom Evans (the 'Lennon' of Badfinger according to music writers desperate to make the band the 'new' Beatles) and most curiously of all 1950s jazz legend King Curtis (the 'Yakkety Yak' saxophonist appearing in his last ever recorded performance; tragically and in an eerie precursor of Lennon's own death Curtis was killed on his own front steps after an argument with either a beggar or a drug dealer turned sour - without any witnesses to this day no one's 100% clear on what happened). Notably, too, Lennon never uses either way of making a record again after this and from now on will 'trust' his various producers to pick players for him: the only raw and no-frills recordings from now on will be on the demos or early takes and the only 'guest stars' are people who'll find fame later (Cheap Trick) or the one-off appearance by Elton John. Other notable appearances include the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the outstanding and certainly longest established American companies whose work overdubbing their parts for this album was pretty much the first music that Lennon made in his 'new' homeland. The orchestra must have been less than pleased to dins themselves christened the 'Flu Flux Fiddlers' on the album sleeve though - the start of a whole run of Lennon packaging 'in-joke' that will end up with the names 'Mel Torment' and 'the Reverend Fred Gherkin' in three album's time!

All that surface noise means that reviewers often miss what an uncompromisingly honest and controversial album 'Imagine' is for such a heavy selling record . 'I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' is far from the best anti-war song ever written, but given how many copies 'Imagine' shifted it may well be the best selling and most commonly heard blatantly anti-war song ever, released at a time when Richard Nixon's response to peaceful anti-Vietnam protestors was way out of proportion (is it this song more than any other that got Lennon so nearly kicked out of America by the FBI and CIA?; the other candidate of course is another Lennon song, 'Revolution', which sold millions more on the back of 'Hey Jude' - but would the general public have bothered playing a flip-side?) 'Gimme Some Truth' may well be the most uncompromising song Lennon ever wrote, spitting feathers at politicians and world leaders who pretend everything is alright when it clearly isn't - so much so it's odd that it doesn't appear on 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' (before you point out it might not have been written yet the Beatles attempted a rough first draft during 'Let It Be' in January 1969; it would have made a better addition to theat album than most of Lennon's other songs actually). The tune of 'Crippled Inside' might be leading us a merry dance but those lyrics about how every adult is a mess and if they aren't they're merely lying to themselves is heavy stuff for 1971, passed off almost self-consciously as a 'joke'. Even 'Imagine' itself is pretty hard hitting as world anthems go: 'Imagine there's no countries' 'Imagine there's no possessions' 'No religion too': hit songs don't come any more 'communist' than this and releasing songs like this in 1971's middle America at the time you're trying to enter the country to live there was both brave and stupid (1971 was when the FBI started their file on Lennon). And as for the vitriolic 'How Do You Sleep?' Even I find Lennon too far gone on his anger on this one, not least because his (apparent) target (Paul McCartney, no less) seems so unfair (see our review of the song later for what we believe is really going on in the lyrics). Even with the sugar and honey laid on top there's more than enough bile here to choke and arguably more anger and controversy per line of this record than any other entry in the top 100 selling albums of all time, a list where 'Imagine' features somewhere 4/5ths down depending who you ask (note: we'll never know if the original version of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' with the intended Paul Simon song 'Cuba Si Nixon No' would have done as well, though I'd like to think that it would have done; the other candidate is of course The Beatles' 'The White Album' with 'Revolution' 'Sexy Sadie' 'Helter Skelter' 'Piggies' 'Cry Baby Cry' et al). 

Talking of the fab four, another contradiction across this album is how much effort Lennon seems to have made distancing himself from them after using the punchline 'I don't believe in Beatles!' (not working with Ringo, using a piano-with-orchestra blend the band hardly ever touched, releasing songs the Beatles would never have allowed on an album however enthusiastic Macca sounds about 'Gimme Some Truth' in 'Let It Be' bootlegs) and then deliberately sounding like them (George's guitar licks sound more 'Beatlely' than anything Harrison did on his own solo albums, first drafts of both 'Gimme Some Truth' and 'Jealous Guy' started off as potential Beatles songs - the latter as 'Child Of Nature', written during the band's trip to Rishikesh, India - and countless lyrical references such as 'love to turn you on' in 'Oh! Yoko', Lennon's favourite line of McCartney's across their career included in their collaborative song 'A Day In The Life'). Truly, though, if the Beatles mean nothing to Lennon why does he spend so much time on this album digging his heels into Macca. It's not just 'How Do You Sleep?' (which references a whole host of Beatles songs) but the packaging too. 'Imagine' followed McCartney's 'Ram' into the shops five months later and features a merciless parody of that album's cover (only instead of Paul proudly holding a sheep it features John mockingly cuddling a pig). In Lennon's head this and the song 'How Do You Sleep?' was simply answering some of the digs his partner had made about him on 'Ram' (don't worry if you missed them - Paul is unsurprisingly a lot subtler and keeps his in-jokes down to the line 'too many people preaching practices' and a shot of two beetles attacking each other on the inside cover). As a result he was shocked when so many people responded badly to the song, later admitting that it was inspired by Bob Dylan's songs that ranted about life in general by focussing on one unfortunate target (presumably 'Maggie's Farm', although Dylan still won't let on who 'Maggie' was) and later still that he was goaded into it by Allen Klein, the legally dubious Beatles manager Lennon had hired against McCartney's wishes (some reports have George and Yoko goading him on too; others have Ringo walking sadly out of the sessions after telling his friend he was 'going too far'). Puzzlingly the backward-looking 'How Do You Sleep?' is the one song on 'Imagine' that doesn't sound at all like a Beatles song (the others all do to a bigger or lesser extent, 'Jealous Guy' especially). 

Weirdly perhaps given how much Lennon liked singing about himself there are no mentions of 1971's big event for him: the move from John and Yoko's gorgeous Tittenhurst estate (the one with the 'white piano' and white shutters seen in arguably Lennon's most famous solo piece of video for the title track) to America. Lennon no doubt thought he'd be back in England for a holiday in no time and wasn't to know that the FBI and CIA would conspire to kick him out of the country and make John afraid he's never get back in he left, but even so people around Lennon at the time remember what a huge life-change it was for John to leave his friends and most of his family behind. While 'Sometime In New York City' is full of John's exciting new life in America it's odd given Lennon's naturally backward-looking character that there isn't some real English 'goodbye' on this record. Indeed, thanks mainly to Spector's production (a part of so many American records) Lennon also sounds half-Americanised here, namechecking 'tricky Dicky' (aka Richard Nixon) and mentioning a 'war' that's universally recognised by reviewers as referring to Vietnam. Let me stress: every song on 'Imagine' was written during the Tittenhurst days (two songs date back to 1968 and 1969 as we've seen), all the backing tracks were done there (as can be seen in the 'Imagine' film, most of which was taken from this period when Lennon filmed seemingly every moment of his life for a week before getting bored) and only the orchestra and overdubs for three songs were done in New York City's Record Plant. Over the years Lennon insists on telling us every big upheaval of his life good and bad, but this move doesn't get a mention once in song, which seems odd.

The real contradiction, though, is that 'Imagine' the album is both more and less important than 'Plastic Ono Band'. On the one hand, the 1970 album felt so much like the last word on Lennon's pain and feelings (what else can you say after the lyrics to 'God'?) that everything that came after in Lennon's solo career, however good, seems like a diluted afterthought. How can any song post-1970 ever be as 'real' as the howls of pain on 'Mother' or the painful honesty of 'Working Class Hero' and how can we ever trust again a singer who just a few months ago was telling us not to listen to him because 'the dream is over' and he has no idea how to make the world a better place? Musically there's only perhaps 'Jealous Guy' and 'Oh My Love' that can match anything from that album and lyrically only 'Gimme Some Truth!' and 'How?' have the same brave but contradictory mixture of arrogance and timidity. However 'Imagine' is more important simply because it's here that most fans start paying attention to Lennon and he slowly works out what his 'solo' sound will be like ('Plastic Ono Band' was a one-off in the same way that no other McCartney album sounds quite like 'McCartney'). The answer is, sadly, a diluted version of that earlier, important LP and true fans like me will forever see 'Imagine' as a somehow lesser version of that record - less radical, less intense, less powerful. However Lennon absolutely had to dilute his music if he ever wanted to sell any records post-Beatles and 'Imagine' is as good a solution as any to how to sell a million copies with something that's intended to slap your listeners in the face at the same time. Worthy as Lennon's attempts at avant garde albums and 'bagism'/'bed-in' events were, his real skills came from wording such anti-establishment feelings in such a way that even casual record collectors gained access to his music and his opinions; perhaps even more than the Beatles records 'Imagine' is the point where Lennon finally puts his mega-star name to good use and uses the 'courage' of his last album in a more polished musical setting where people will be forced to take his ideas seriously. Sadly from here on in it will be down-hill, Lennon first 'preaching' his new ideas now he has an audience ('Some Time In New York City') and then abandoning them in order to sell more units (the very McCartney-esque and under-appreciated album 'Mind Games'). 

So is this album any good? Well, the glib answer is to say that somebody must have loved it because 'Imagine' sold more copies than any other Lennon non-compilation album, but as we've seen so often on this site records tends to sell more when an artist is in fashion, hits a particular era head on or has a particularly good angle to market. 'Imagine' has none of the things 1960s and 1970s heavy sellers usually have, although the fact that Lennon had finally delivered an album that wasn't full of primal screaming autobiography, burbling radios or half an hour of shouting 'John' and 'Yoko's names undoubtedly helped. Yet by the same token 'Mind Games' is the most mainstream Lennon album of the lot - and that album has the unfortunate record of being the first Beatles-related record relegated to a cheaper Music For Pleasure' re-pressing (given over to records thought to have 'peaked'). In truth ('Gimme some truth, reviewer!') 'Imagine isn't the best Lennon solo album by some margin: it's often lazy, occasionally poorly thought out and the static production is the weakest until 'Double Fantasy', with only perhaps three songs that are anywhere close to his best and a good four songs that should never ever have been released - but it is the album that's set squarely in the middle of Lennon the rebel and Lennon the establishment figure and it's that fact (and the lack of contemporary Beatles products out at the time) that made this album so important in an immediately post-Beatles world (one that Lennon himself has only recently taken gleeful joy in extinguishing). In short, the fact that Lennon began thinking of the listener as much as himself for the first time in his solo career made it such a strong seller in 1971 and the fact that Lennon's contradictions are laid out better here than anywhere else in Lennon's tragically short six album original composition-filled catalogue has made it such a strong seller today. In truth, it's a little way behind even 'Walls and Bridges' and a long way behind 'Plastic Ono Band' if perhaps a little further up the tree than Lennon's other solo work.
 I don't know whether it's the lack of consistency ('Soldier' and 'It's So Hard' are candidates for two of Lennon's worst solo songs), the odd unsettling Phil Spector production or the fact that this album is so similar-but-not-quite-as-good as 'Plastic Ono Band', but I personally have never rated as it one of Lennon's best no matter how many copies it sold. Then again when this record does get everything right as it does three or four times across the album Lennon is at his best: engaging, sympathetic and every bit as melodic as McCartney, without sacrificing the honesty that's a Lennon trademark. The 'sugar' on the record is indeed beautiful at times (notably on 'How?' and 'Jealous Guy') even if it seems artificial at others and it's easy to see why fans fell in love with such deep but warm sounding recordings. But by the same token I wouldn't want to put 'sugar' on everything: the trouble is Spector and Lennon - lost in a new land where they have to create a solo sound properly for the first time - coat everything on 'Imagine' with honey, including the first two courses as well as the pudding. Inspired by Lennon's own 'sugar' analogy, perhaps we would be better off  by saying that Lennon's teeth are every bit as bared as they are on 'Plastic Ono Band', but this time around he's decided to clean them! (The gums, however, are still bleeding if you look closely). 

Imagine there's no imagine in Lennon's back catalogue - it's easy if you try. What song would people have clung to after his death and would they have had the same impact? ('Give Peace A Chance' and 'sadly, no' is our bet). 'Imagine' covers so much of Lennon's usual ground so succinctly and yet so accessibly that you didn't need a fortune teller to see that it was going to become Lennon's biggest selling solo single at some point in his life, staying at #1 for weeks after his death. However, imagine if Lennon was still with us now - 'Imagine' would be at best a fan favourite; no one at Apple/EMI considered 'Imagine' commercial enough to release as a single until 1975 (to promote the 'Shaved Fish' best-of) when it made only #6; even in America, where it was a single in 1971, the song peaked at #3 - the same as 'Instant Karma'. The song has come to mean so much that wasn't there at the time, when 'Imagine' was simply the latest Lennon lyric to talk about dreams and utopia. Since his death 'Imagine' has come to rival Martin Luther King's 'I have A dream' as the only peace 'speech' made by Lennon in most people's eyes, even though are dozens more, a few of them better. More thoughtful than close cousin 'Give Peace A Chance' but lacking that song's only slightly hidden rage and excitement, 'Imagine' is melodically exactly the sort of rounded and complete but detached song McCartney had made his own down the Beatle years and Lennon usually hated (the two Beatles always aspired to be more like each other than people supposed - 'Imagine' has always sounded like it was loosely based on Macca's 'Let It Be' to me which is interesting given how merciless Lennon was in damning what he saw as that song's 'fake' attempt to re-create 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' - inspired by a dream that featured Paul's own mother it's arguably more personal than 'Imagine' was to Lennon). 

Lyrically, however, the song is terribly Lennon-like though with the confrontation levels taken down a few pegs: optimistic, some would say naive dreams of a world without borders (a neat foreshadowing of Lennon's difficulty trying to become an American citizen) and where people of all races and creeds can get along without being divided up into religions or nationalities, there's something very likeable and universal in 'Imagine's appeal. Lennon admitted years later that Yoko deserved a co-credit on the song, with John inspired by a line from her book of 'sayings' 'Grapefruit': 'Imagine the clouds are dripping' (many of Yoko's messages had the reader looking down on the world from 'space', seeing the world as 'one' without barriers - many of her songs are about the power of imagination to overcome problems mentally before overcoming them physically). However Lennon comes up with a song more practical than anything Ono would have written: realising that, for once, his 'dreams' for peace could be easily understood by everyone and acted on by everyone (if only in their heads) he forsakes his recent need to demand other people do things ('Power To The People', a rallying call to the working classes, his request that world leaders plant acorns for peace or John and Yoko's media 'bed-in' for peace that went wrong when most reporters accidentally or deliberately misunderstood the message). Lennon has never been so active in talking to the listener and in 'bending' the third wall between us. 

But, then, why is 'Imagine' so uninvolving? Those famous simple piano chords are catchy the first few times but too simple for repeated playings and Spector's recklessly lush orchestration (though a lovely piece in its own right when heard on its own - see Youtube and various bootlegs) is 'wrong' for this song, tipping it over that thin line into saccharine (McCartney would never be so reckless - even 'My Love' doesn't sound quite this twee). The recording, too, is far from Lennon's best: Lennon was clearly trying to go for a dream like 'haze' in his vocal, but together with Spector's strings he merely sounds uninvolved and half-awake; personally I much prefer the 'rehearsal' take (first released as part of the 'Imagine' film soundtrack') where Lennon isn't trying as hard and doesn't have to cut through all those soppy strings (it's just a shame he self-mockingly 'narrates' the last verse!) Ultimately 'Imagine' doesn't stir my heart the way 'Give Peace A Chance' does or make me believe that peace will be inevitable eventually for some generation the way 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' does. Here's another contradiction for you: ultimately 'Imagine's greatest strength is that it's a song even non-Lennon fans can enjoy and by promoting Lennon's viewpoint to so many 'extra' people it's undoubtedly one of John's most important songs; sadly it's weakness is that it's so un-Lennon like in many ways without his usual energy, excitement or ability to keep things interesting; no wonder so many X Idols and Pop Factor contestants sing it. I remember one of my primary school teachers proudly playing this song in an assembly and, knowing that I was a monkeynuts Beatle fan even then, all my friends assumed I would love it (who doesn't love 'Imagine'?!) To be truthful I would have preferred 'Morning Has Broken', (even though my Cat Stevens fixation hadn't quite arrived back then). Even seemingly sensible organisations like the NME and the Candian Radio Broadcasting Company voted the song either #2 or #3 on their 'greatest songs poll' - in truth I'm not sure it should be in a top 50 of Lennon songs (I can't stand both poll's #1 'Bohemian Rhapsody' either incidentally, which wasn't even funny when The Muppets did it). The trouble is 'Imagine' isn't a song written for Beatle fans, it's a song written for the 'outside world' and however noble the reason (to promote peace to as many people as possible) I've found over the years that many (though admittedly by no means all) passionate Lennon fans would prefer to hear 'Give Peace A Chance' or even 'Cold Turkey'.
Moving swiftly on (and if any of you are still bothering to read after that attack on the title track), 'Crippled Inside' sounds to me like Lennon's knee-jerk re-action to 'selling out'. The melody is by far the most playful of all Lennon's solo songs up to this point and is arguably his 'silliest' since 'Bungalow Bill' in 1968 (Macca wasn't the only one capable of writing novelty songs you know!) A country hoe-down, sung with just the right choke in the voice, John sounds not unlike Ringo on this song (did this song start out as a happier spoof of his old colleague's recent depressing Nashville album 'Beaucoups of Blues'?) Lyrically, though, the song is all about the fact that, no matter how you dress up an artistic creation, if the person writing it is messed up then they will never be able to hide the fact. 'Crippled Inside', then, is a second straight song in a row inspired by Yoko (her concept that all art is self-referential simply because of the people writing it had been inspiring Lennon ever since 'I Am The Walrus' in 1967 and particularly Lennon's songs for 'The White Album' - the reason why, post 1967, Lennon hates McCartney's 'character' songs which are so much a part of his oeuvre more than ever). Some of the song's lyrics are very clever, Lennon following on from the 'Plastic Ono Band' album by having a laugh at the Beatles' expense ('You can shine your shoes and wear a suit, you can comb your hair and look quite cute') before building on the raft of songs pleading 'Help Me!' that John had been writing ever since 'Help!' Sadly Lennon seems to have run out of inspiration for this clever idea quickly, adding in an ineffectual middle eight ('Well a cat only got nine lives...') and even repeating the second verse instead of writing a third one to finish the song off. The contrast between the happy-go-lucky melody and the dark brooding lyrics also wears similarly after the first verse, once the listener has caught on to the joke, something that prevents 'Crippled Inside' from making the top level entry of Lennon songs. Still, though, it's a clever song and Lennon's ideas post primal-scream that every human being is a raging pulsating raw collection of nerves trying to act civilised and part of the human race every day is one of his better ideas.

'Jealous Guy' is another much loved song from this album - and you'll be pleased to know that, unlike the title track, I agree wholeheartedly. Written by Lennon as an apology to his wife after some misdemeanour (presumably the 1971 party where Yoko was abandoned with a load of strangers while Lennon made off to the bedroom to have sex with an old flame, the drunken betrayal inspiring many of her greatest songs on 'Approximately Infinite Universe'), this is the 'real' Lennon at last, admitting his jealousy and his weaknesses in one gorgeous outpouring of betrayal. Whatever your feelings for Lennon as a human being, it's hard not to warm to Lennon as he admits to being 'insecure, that you might not love me any more' In contrast to 'Imagine' Spector's production is spot-on, wrapping a soothing warm blanket around the song without diluting the very real and onomatopoeic lyrics ('I was shiv-vering inside!') that makes the song sound as if it's happening right before our eyes. Best of all comes when Lennon starts whistling in the solo complete with the cracks in his voice, his fragile weaker human side to the fore even when the orchestra are trying to sound lush and perfect. Another song surely inspired by primal scream therapy (and Lennon's realisation that the hurt he's suffered from other people has been passed on by him to others), it's notable that Lennon starts off the song by 'dreaming of the past' like an unhappy re-write of 'In My Life' and may well have been remembering such songs as his last song to mention jealousy, 'Run For Your Life' ('I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man!') The repetition of key lines ('I was swallowing my pain!') is another trick learnt from 'Plastic Ono Band', only this time it's Lennon emphasising how sorry he is rather than bad-mouthing all the people and institutions he feels has let him down. One of 'Imagine's undoubted highlights, 'Jealous Guy' was a worthy choice for a single after the musician's death (in 1985 to be exact) and deserved to have been one during Lennon's lifetime (Roxy Music's sensitive cover - very like Lennon's but sans strings - was also a deserved #1 in the weeks after his death). As universal as 'Imagine' but a hundred times more involving, 'Jealous Guy' really is Lennon at his finest. 

'It's So Hard', however, is a bit of a struggle to sit through. The real triumph of 'Plastic Ono Band' is that Lennon managed to off-load so many troubles without ever sounding like he was moaning - he was simply recording what happened to him and how it affected him and was too busy screaming to moan about how life had turned out for him. But 'It's So Hard' is one long self-indulgent moan from the title on down, albeit one most of us can 'share' in this time. Life for Lennon's latest narrator is one long boring list of things he has to that he's already done his whole life through: he has to eat, drink, sleep, worry, satisfy his boss, satisfy his woman, satisfy himself... life is no fun anymore and any excitement has gone (is this Lennon, post primal scream therapy, wondering what on earth like can possibly hold for him now his lifelong demons are if not at peace then at least at rest?) Like 'Crippled Inside' Lennon tries to soften the blow by turning the song into something of a parody of itself and treating it as the kind of lazy blues bands like Cream and Blind Faith had made their own, but the song feels too 'real' to be the kind of comedy song 'Crippled Inside' aimed to be. The arrangement tries hard to brighten the song up, with an ear-catching multi-part electric guitar part and the presence of legendary saxophonist King Curtis (the only player Lennon was ever in awe of, according to eye-witnesses), but with just a simple 12 bar blues part to stick to none of the musicians ever really get the chance to shine. Even Lennon's echoey double-tracked vocal - which is clearly there to make this song sound retro and 1950sy - seems false, as if he's living a song he no longer agrees with (the fact he sounds as if he's singing down the end of a wind tunnel distances this narrator to the listener even further too). Alternatively some listeners have heard a few cheeky double entendres in the song, from the title to the line 'sometimes I feel like going down'; however, unlike the similarly themed 'Going Down On Love' Lennon doesn't sound in the mood for jokes of that sort. The song should have stayed a B-side rather than an album track: in fact it was released as the American B-side to 'Imagine' where it makes for a rather a good accompaniment, the song's boredom with daily drudgery making a good contrast to 'Imagine's dreams of utopia. On the album, though, this is easily one of the album's weakest songs. 

Not much time was spent on 'I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' either, a noisy unfocussed jam that sounds as if Lennon was trying to ape the cavernous echo and big star jam session names heard on George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass' album. However while that album's 'jams' were genuine (and never intended for release until an engineer persuaded George to hear them back and he realised how good they were), Lennon seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to get this song's spontaneity just right. The version of the song heard here is actually remake of one made a month earlier and there are countless variations doing the rounds on bootlegs and official releases (the no-frills arrangement on 'Lennon Anthology' is particularly good, with Lennon sounding so committed in his vocal you wonder why he ever bothered to re-record it). The song is a brave statement for that day and age too, Lennon playing around with the 'tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor' nursery rhyme and deciding that (post primal scream therapy) he doesn't want to be any of these things (although he never does work out what he actually wants to be). The song's big talking point is it's oft-repeated phrase 'I don't wanna be a soldier, I won't wanna die' which must surely be Lennon's reference to the bits of his intended/new home of America he wanted to change (Vietnam was still raging and so was the draft when this song was written). The song's turbulent riff - a kind of heavy metal reinvention of Chuck Berry - is a strong one too, simple enough to catch the ear but difficult enough for the band to have to bring out the best in themselves to actually play. Unfortunately that's all this song is: one daring line and a riff. There's nothing in this song to make it worthy of the 6:05 playing time (Lennon's longest solo song barring his avant garde works and the 'Zappa Jam' on 'Sometime in New York City') and by the end Lennon is down to such banal lines as 'I don't wanna be a poor man mama, I don't wanna fly' (we could make a crack here about RyanAir touching down at John Lennon Liverpool Airport - whose tagline 'above us only sky' is in fact a line from 'Imagine' - but we won't). More interesting is Lennon's choice for his improvised cries, singing once again to his 'mama' (see 'Julia' on 'The White Album' for Lennon's complex relationship with the mother who gave him away and then died not long after making contact when her son was 16 and his belief that Yoko was her 'successor', even calling her 'mother' as a pet nickname) and improvising a great rant on Yoko's surname ('Oh no! Ono!') in the dying minutes. Still, though, despite the lyrics this song manages to be more pointless than the 'Apple Jams' on 'All Things Must Pass' because the recording is not as spontaneous (even in the superior 'Anthology' version) and equally it's nothing like as well written as Lennon's best songs of the period. I don't wanna be a reviewer, mama, I don't wanna buy...

Thankfully 'Gimme Some Truth' is the album's second song worthy of this album's great reputation. As angry and honest as any song on 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band', this is a call to arms for anyone whose ever felt that their leaders are lying to them, going for a comfortable life instead of one that fully benefits their citizens. Before Nixon this was unthinkable and unpatriotic whatever your country but Lennon is spot on the money here, denouncing Nixon as 'tricky Dicky' a full year before the Watergate scandal. As we've seen the song - or at least the first verse - started out life as a 'Let It Be' outtake and it would have been fascinating to hear that song on a Beatles LP (Macca, usually the one who nixes Lennon's more outrageous ideas, sounds genuinely enthusiastic and on one day of the sessions can be heard suggesting ideas for the song's 'chorus' - actually one mammoth sentence of bile; only George sounds unsure, which is odd given that he provides this recording's gloriously angry yet offhand guitar solo). Lennon's having great fun with the lines, especially the alliteration of 'neurotic psychotic, pig-headed politicians', although his line 'gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me' is less clear (Mother Hubbard famously had empty cupboards - is it a reference to Nixon's stinginess?)Or another attack on the Beatle's poor finances a la 'Taxman', currently being 'solved' by Lennon's new saviour Allen Klein?!)  I've often wondered whether this song 'turned into' 'Give Peace A Chance' (another song based on a long list of words and with a similar wise-cracking gunshot staccato pattern and written very soon after this song's first draft); in many ways it's this song's yin to that song's yang: the 'lists' on that song was deliberately vague and all-encompassing, Lennon admitting that any old nonsense would do so long as the chorus of 'all we are saying is give peace a chance' stuck in people's heads; this time around it doesn't matter what Lennon says because whatever answer he gets won't be the 'truth' . The closest 'Imagine' has to a track showing the real Lennon, 'Gimme Some Truth' is a delight for anyone whose ever revelled in Lennon's more brutal and honest edge and another album highlight; what a shame that this side of his character gets pretty much it's last showing here: of all his later songs only 'Bring On Da Lucie' (another Nixon bashing track from 'Mind Games') comes close to this song's vitriolic uncompromising demands. 

'Oh My Love' is another album highlight, an update of 'Plastic Ono Band's 'Love' in it's quiet intensity, overdubbed echoey pianos and Lennon's not-quite-there vocal (a trick he'd been using on his most 'epic' songs since 'Because' on 'Abbey Road'). 'Love' is a marvellous song, debating what it means to be loved, but 'Oh my love' is greater still, Lennon making the subject personal. Another song clearly inspired by primal screams, Lennon has finally learnt what 'love' is and why most of the people in his life were unable to give it to him: as a result 'for the first time in my life my eyes are wide open'. Throughout his entire career, Lennon never sounded as 'in love' as he does here and his double-tracked vocal is a delight, making full use of the song's gorgeous rounded melody (if McCartney wasn't jealous of this song, he should have been as it's sounds like so many of his own gorgeous love songs). The co-credit to Yoko is interesting (the song's not that far removed from her own 'Mrs Lennon' , released on 'Fly' the 'companion' album to 'Imagine' and a similar song of solidarity that its 'the world' that's wrong not her partner), because at first it sounds so un-Yoko like (her reserve prevents her from ever quite writing a song like this - even when she does let down her hair on the similar 'Looking From My Hotel Window' her emotions sound as if they bring her pain, not beauty as here). Another parallel is with 'Look At Me' from 'Plastic Ono Band' - the two songs have the same delicate feel, similar chords and even the same 'oh my love' chorus; that song had Lennon putting an encouraging musical arm around his partner (undoubtedly Yoko) and the line 'oh my love' came from 'shock' in a bad way- this time around the 'shock' is good: all these years Lennon has blind to how wonderful Yoko is (in retrospect, maybe it's not surprising she gets a co-write on this song about her!) Like 'Love' the song is repetitive to the point of being irritating by the end, but that's the whole point of the song: Lennon is so overcome by how his eyes have been 'opened' that he crams this song full of the same lines as often as he can, to remind himself of what he's been missing all these years. So unusual for Lennon (he doesn't sound this happy again until 'Double Fantasy' and even then not quite so secure), I'd love to know what 'primal scream' session inspired this: it must have been an amazing talk from Dr Janov that week. Another clear album highlight. 

'How Do You Sleep?' has Lennon's eyes firmly shut however. The biggest example of Lennon's 'nasty' side across his discography 'How Do You Sleep?' is a biting satire apparently against Paul McCartney, who in Lennon's eyes is the latest figure he really trusted and who let him down (the court case Paul took against the other Beatles in order to avoid working with Lennon's favoured manager Allen Klein was still going on; John wasn't the only one feeling 'hurt' as you'll know if you've read our review for 'McCartney' and 'Ram'). This song is surely another result of a Janov primal scream lecture (focusing on recent losses rather than childhood ones perhaps?) and seems to have been regretted by Lennon more or less instantly, at first talking about it as if it was a 'joke' and later admitting he'd been 'egged on' to make it. Either way, both John and Yoko cancelled the therapy sessions before they should have ended (officially so that they could move to America) - did Lennon not like the person he'd become on this song? Certainly it's a harrowing song or anyone who loves both Beatles equally and far more of a final comment on the group than 'the dream is over' on 'God' had been - it's as if, beaten to the 'official' announcement of the split by Macca, John is determined to have the last word on the band, by hook or by crook (as we've seen, Lennon also thought he had to do 'something' to reply to Macca's tiny digs against him on 'Ram' only Lennon lacks his partner's subtlety in keeping such messages private).  

What upsets most fans about this song is that it's so unfair against McCartney - so much so that I've often wondered if this song is actually one of those occasional songs of self-loathing Lennon used to write (you know the ones: 'I'm A Loser' 'Look At Me' even 'I Am The Walrus' depending how you look at it). All the 'charges' brought in this song make much more sense if they're about John not Paul. For example 'so Sgt Peppers took you by surprise' (the album took John by surprise, lost in a  haze of LSD - it's the first Beatles album with Paul forcibly in command), 'you live with straights who tell you you was king' (actually Paul and Linda are living on a remote Scottish farm in the middle of nowhere - it was Lennon who had the hangers-on) and 'jump when your mama tell you anything' (though Yoko and Linda were similar in many ways it's John, surely, who was the more henpecked of the two - and 'mama' was his nickname for Yoko). Admittedly the one genuinely clever couplet here ('The only thing you wrote was 'Yesterday' and since you're gone you're just 'Another Day') can only be about McCartney; the reference to Macca's first single 'Another Day' which John hated (a very McCartney-esque character song about a working woman he'd invented, released right in the middle of John's self-fixated primal scream therapy) was a last minute replacement for the line 'you probably stole it anyway', a reference to the fact 'Yesterday' came to Paul in a dream and he'd been convinced it must have been written by somebody else, asking every visitor to Beatles activities for the next year if they knew it (Allen Klein, unusually the voice of reason here, told John to drop it and came up with the better line). Interestingly it was this line that seems to have 'got' to Paul the most ('he knows and I know that's not true'), as well as a dig at Paul living with 'straights' (with the unusual reply 'So What if I do? I like 'straights'. I have 'straight' babies!') The line 'those freaks were right when they said you was dead', meanwhile, refers to the bizarre rumour started in 1969 than Paul was 'dead' and had been replaced by a lookalike named 'Billy Shears' while the other Beatles had desperately been leaving 'clues' for fans to find - the joke naturally tickled Lennon's sense of humour coming just at the point when he began to feel his best mate was turning into a 'stranger' (see for more on this bizarre tale). 

My guess is that John and Paul always considered themselves to be 'closer' than people always thought, a literal 'mirror' of each other (Paul being left-handed) with such similar ambitions and background experiences that it made their tiny differences in character seem all the bigger. Here John is ranting against the 'side' of himself that he's just lost and knows he won't find again and that he probably needs the relationship more than McCartney does. After all Lennon's just been through primal scream therapy to find out what makes him tick and re-discovered just how lonely and helpless he feels and there's his partner (who suffered such similar horror stories, with his mum dying when Paul was 14 and even younger and more vulnerable than Lennon) 'apparently' so cool and calm about the end of the Beatles than he can 'announce' it during promotion for his solo album (it wasn't actually that way at all of course - not wanting to do any interviews Paul answered any questions the Beatles' press officer Derek Taylor sent him and included them with the record; naturally he was asked whether there would be a new Beatles album and honestly answered 'no'). The dig at 'Another Day' is especially telling here, Paul apparently getting on with his solo work as if the Beatles had never existed (it would have fitted nicely onto 'Abbey Road') whereas the upheaval for Lennon is colossal and he can only cope by finding his 'true' self in primal scream. 'How do you sleep at night?' Lennon asks 'Because I can't'. In this light 'How Do You Sleep?' makes more sense to me than 'other' explanations (the lyrics are too self-accusing for a rant about a best friend - why not sing 'A Hard Day's Night' took you by surprise',  a project McCartney barely features on; they're also too wild for a joke that 'got out of hand' and was recorded several months before they could have been pulled from the album - it would have been perfectly in keeping with Lennon's humour to 'accidentally' release this track on bootleg himself  as he did so often in the 1970s and then deny all knowledge). 

Musically, too, the song is less rant than turbulent nightmare, Lennon almost breaking down into his 'cold turkey' groans as he strains and strives to huff and puff his way through the long notes that come so naturally to McCartney's voice (take the darker energy of this song away and the melody is pure McCartney, with an octave span that's unusual for Lennon and suggests John was trying to ape his partner's work). The song would be nothing without the instrumentation though, with George Harrison's searing guitar suggesting he at least took this song at face value (musically this song is similar to George's own song about Paul 'Wah-Wah'), Andy White's very Ringo-like plodding drums (the same drummer who'd 'replaced' Ringo on 'Love Me Do' all those years ago - Ringo was invited to play but felt Lennon had gone 'too far' and refused, one of his most noble deeds given that McCartney had physically attacked him only a year before after a misunderstanding about record release dates) and Phil Spector's eerie strings invoking 'I Am The Walrus' and the future Lennon song 'Steel and Glass'. Whatever the reasons behind it, 'How Do You Sleep?' is a very striking song and a highly important one in the Beatles story (hence the fact we've just spent three paragraphs on it). But is it a great one? Not quite - Lennon's vocal performance is a tad too demented, the tune is a little too harsh, the production too sterile and the sentiments in the lyrics either unworthy or too hidden for the song to truly work, depending what you make of them. For all that, though, 'How Do You Sleep?' is the song that pulsates through your head long after the 'Imagine' album has finished playing, seemingly the antithesis of every calm thought the title track tried to dispel.

Moving on 'How?' sounds like a 'Plastic Ono Band' refugee, with Lennon lost and helpless in a maze of his own making, unsure of where the end of the primal scream therapy sessions leave him. Another of the album highlights, this one sounds melodically like 'Imagine' upside down, all that certainty and poise replaced by confusion and fear. Cleverly, the melody goes round in circles, with even a pretty middle eight naturally falling right back into the verses which is a neat parallel for what's going on in the lyrics. The lyrics suggest that Lennon (this surely isn't a 'narrator' but John himself talking to us) is so lost he has no sense of direction (the clever line 'How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing?') and repeats the refrain of 'I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' by playing with his missus' maiden name ('Oh no Ono!') The key line though is surely another result of primal therapy: 'How can I give love when love is something I ain't never had?' White's heavy drums also does a great job mimicking a 'heartbeat' (the use of John and Yoko's still-born baby's heartbeat on their 'Life with the Lyons' avant garde record paying off handsomely here), as if Lennon' is so scared we can ever hear his heart beating loudly. However for once it's Spector's lush strings that really make this song, for once perfectly cast here in a song that - like much of the producer's work on 'All Things Must Pass' - successfully turns what should be a very private and personal moment into something much bigger and more universal. Lennon tops even this, though, with his best vocal performance on the record, switching gears effortlessly from small and sad to big and vibrant. A clever song, much under-rated in Lennon's catalogue, 'How?' and it's follow u[p question 'where?' had already been answered by the time 'Imagine' came out - New York City. 

'Imagine' then closes on 'Oh! Yoko!' a pretty little throwaway song that amazingly was seriously considered as the album's single over 'Jealous Guy' and the title track (in fact there were no singles from 'Imagine' at the time - not in the UK anyway). The song is cute and it's nice to hear John writing both without angst and back in the 50s/early 60s Merseybeat sound he hadn't used in many a long year (he even dusts his old harmonica, once such a part of the Beatles sound, off for the first time since 'The White Album' - sadly it's the last time he'll ever play it on record). There's even a reference to the 'love to turn you on' refrain Mccartney wrote for 'A Day In The Life', only this time it's love not drugs Lennon is turning the world on to. However 'Oh Yoko' is easily the flimsiest song on what's actually quite a tough and heavy-going album, here to give the album a nice positive message of reassurance to end on rather than a song in its own right. Interestingly, those who've heard the entire album sessions claim that this song started off with a much darker, 'Plastic Ono Band' style arrangement and that Lennon cried out 'Oh Yoko' in fear more than hope. However the song wasn't working and got 'dressed up' with the delightful Nicky Hopkins piano lick you can hear on this recording. Phil Spector also makes a rare guest appearance on backing vocals on this song, something you can see him doing uncomfortably in the 'Imagine' film. 

Overall, then, 'Imagine' is a real album of contradictions. One minute love is all you need, the next Lennon is gnashing his teeth at the world; one minute he's talking about how badly he's suffered at the hands of others throughout his life - the next he's passing that hatred down in a 'kick the bass player' kind of way. Throughout though and however lost, confused, dazed, unsure and frustrated he is, Lennon is obviously Lennon across this whole album and never again in his solo career will he reveal quite so much about himself on record (a clear impact of his 'primal scream therapy', which arguably meant we learnt more about Lennon than we needed to know already on 'Plastic Ono Band'). The 'sugar' gets in the way at least as often as it helps this diverse set of songs and Lennon comes across nowhere near as likeable across this LP but it's easy to see why 'Imagine' was such a big seller: it's bookended by two of the greatest singalong songs in his catalogue, features the hit single that should have been 'Jealous Guy' and in 'How?' 'Oh My Love' and 'Gimme Some Truth' contains at least three songs you might not necessarily know that are everything like as great as anything John wrote as a Beatle. 'Imagine' is clearly an important record - we've spent more time talking about it here than is normal even for an Alan's Album Archives album review - but it's not necessarily Lennon's best, being a little too inconsistent and the staid production robs even some of the brighter moments of much of their sunshine. For all that, though, 'Imagine' is still a good LP for me and I'm not the only one - I hope some day you'll join us and the world will be with John. 


'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey' (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special

Landmark concerts and key cover versions