John Lennon’s Imagine, which just saw the release of an Ultimate Collection spread across four CDs and two Blu-ray discs, is best known for its title song. “Imagine” envisioned an anti-authoritarian nutopia, without the need of heaven, hell, countries or border walls. Critics blasted Lennon’s soft anthem as soft politics and the singer an armchair liberal who sent his protests via limousine. Elvis Costello chided “was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?” on his song “The Other Side of Summer.”
Most of this is true. Lennon practically invented armchair liberalism, possibly inspired by Elvis Presley’s Pink Cadillac tour of England, where the rock and roll legend sent only his prized automobile in lieu of personal appearances. The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger went to the student protests. Lennon sent his MBE, the coveted piece of leather with a cardboard string given to The Beatles for their million dollar exports, back to Buckingham Palace via limo in protest of Britain’s support of Vietnam, involvement in Biafra and his heroin withdrawal pang “Cold Turkey” slipping down the charts. Ineffective, in the long run, but funny, in that patented “witty Beatle” way. Sometimes Lennon wasn’t even an armchair protester, he and Yoko Ono barely got out of bed for their wedding anniversary hotel peace tour.
Lennon himself called “Imagine” “‘Working Class Hero’ for conservatives,” referencing his autobiographically acoustic take on the social divide that included the word “fuck” twice for working class emphasis. But the Imagine album itself cuts much deeper than the peaceful dreams of an artist wanting to make a difference. Lennon takes aim at government in “Gimme Some Truth,” with blaring, sneering slide guitars by George Harrison, who also aims his strings at Paul McCartney in the bitter rant “How Do You Sleep.” He mocks the conscience-afflicted wealthy class in “Crippled Inside,” and fuels the fear and anger behind righteous rage with propulsive and massive drums in “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama I don’t Want to Die.” He also goes out on a limb in some of his most personal love songs and revealing snatches of self-consciousness. Lennon is as hard on himself as he is on the body politic in songs like “Jealous Guy.”
Imagine was released in September 1971. Lennon recorded three solo experimental noise and spoken word albums with Yoko Ono while Beatle were still together: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Wedding Album and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, which all came out in 1969. None of them reached the artistic heights of “Revolution 9” off The Beatles album, better known as The White Album. The biggest controversy coming from a nude cover that record stores had to hide under a brown paper bag. John Lennon and the original Plastic Ono Band, which included Klaus Voorman, who drew the cover of The Beatles’ Revolver album, on bass, Alan White on drums, and slow hand guitar master Eric Clapton on guitar, also released the moldy oldie set they performed live at the Toronto Peace Festival. Lennon recorded his Plastic Ono Band album in its purest form, which must have driven producer Phil Spector, renowned for his Wall of Sound, to distraction. But Lennon was in the throes of Primal Therapy and was undeterred in letting it all hang out.
Spector put strings on the Plastic Ono Band sentiment to make Imagine Lennon’s first solo record to hit number one. The album is seen as the rhythm guitar and mouth organ player’s return to conventional pop. To fans of the Fab Four, Imagine almost sounded like a Beatles album.
Phil Spector was known for his reverberating over-saturation which he also employed for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. The live studio performances are stripped as raw as most of Lennon’s vocals. The raw takes show a band with a purpose, the studio chatter, caught in the fourth CD, finds playful ways to inspire serious playing. The Raw Studio mixes are presented in 5.1 surround sound with Lennon in front and the band playing all around and behind. Highlights are the extended renditions of “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die,” “How Do You Sleep?” and “Oh Yoko!” “It’s So Hard” features a beautiful sax track by the legendary King Curtis, who also blasts “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” into another dimension.
The new expanded edition of the album brings the intimacy to the forefront, especially in the Raw Studio Mixes disk that captures Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band bashing through their performances live without overdub, echo or other studio affects. The album proper has been cleaned up for the Ultimate Mixes to allow for deeper definition and clarity, and the Quadrasonic Album Mix gives four speakers equal time for the first time in nearly fifty years.
Imagine – The Ultimate Collection also collects the singles which propelled the album to the top slot. They include “Power to the People,” which opens with the line “You say you want a revolution,” harking back to The Beatles’ non-committal protest song “Revolution,” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The now-holiday staple began as an anti-war song, recorded at the Record Plant in New York with session musicians and the Harlem Community Choir.
Also putting in an official appearance is the little-known single “Do the Oz,” which was written to support the underground Oz magazine which had been hit with an obscenity charge, and the hitherto unknown “God Save us,” two versions, one with a guest vocalist. The accompanying book is informative, and nicely packaged. It almost makes up for the missing postcard and poster which came with the original release.
The disc In The Studio and Deeper Listening features both surround sound and stereo mixes, along with Elliot Mintz’s 29-minute compilation os interviews with John and Yoko. The Elements Mixes includes strings-only versions of “Imagine” and “How?,” “Oh My Love” stripped of everything but the voice, and the piano, bass, and drums instrumentation for “Jealous Guy.” The Evolution Documentary tells the full story of each song, presenting a fly-on-the wall take from the first writing and demo sessions to the final co-production with Spector. We hear tidbits like how Spector experimented with having Hopkins play the same lines on the same piano as Lennon, but on a higher octave.
Lennon began work on Imagine in February 1971, gathering Voormann, White, George Harrison and pianist Nicky Hopkins to house with him and Spector at Lennon’s Georgian country home, Tittenhurst Park, in Berkshire, England, long enough to create a unified audio experience. The songs are diverse, as are the instrumentations. “Crippled Inside,” which has a wonderful dobro performance by Harrison, is a mocking retro-country stomp that could almost be a Skiffle song.
“Oh My Love” is such a straightforward romantic outpouring of devotional love, it is a wonder it isn’t played at more weddings. Lennon is at his naturalistic best, lyrically appreciating the trees and skies for the first time through his lover’s eyes. He is so lost in the newness of love, several years after meeting Yoko, he also includes the monogamously celebratory “Oh Yoko!” which closes on a positively giddly Bob Dylan style harmonica. But Lennon gives in to existential doubts for the song “How,” where he asks “How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?”
Lennon’s personal blues usually start with a shade of green. “Jealous Guy” is a somber wake up call to the guy who sang “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” on the Rubber Soul album song “Run for Your Life.” “Jealous Guy” began life as the song “Child of Nature,” which he wrote when the Beatles went to India in 1968. For such an emotional confession Lennon brought in extra support from friendly musicians, like Mike Pinder from The Moody Blues who he’d known since the Hamburg days. Pinder came in to do a Mellotron part, but the instrument acted up and he banged on a tambourine instead. Lennon also called on Joey Molland and Tom Evans of the Apple band Badfinger. They would also provide soft acoustic backing for Harrison, both on records and in the Concert for Banga Desh. The strings were done by members of the New York Philharmonic, who Lennon dubbed “the Flux Fiddlers.” The song was famously, or infamously, covered by Roxy Music, but it doesn’t touch Lennon’s tortured vocals or baleful, though tuneful, whistling.
The term rock and roll began as a euphemism for sex and “It’s So Hard” is pure rock and roll. It’s got the I-IV-V twelve bar blues structure of the classics that drew Lennon to the genre, and it’s got the sweaty beats to drive it against the wall. Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine that the Beatles first number one hit in England, “Please, Please Me,” was about oral sex. The BBC banned the song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” from airplay in the United Kingdom because the singer was “going down.” Lennon would at one point be busted for displaying erotic artwork of his lingual enjoyment of Yoko. Here he proclaims whether it’s good, whether he’s worried, or when things get really hard, sometimes he just feels like going down. He doesn’t mince words.
Lennon’s wordplay comes to the forefront when he takes on the hypocrisy of the Nixon administration in “Gimme Some Truth.” Tricky Dick hated the song so much he had his people try to deport Lennon and Ono in 1972. Lennon takes down everyone from tight-lipped, condescending, mama’s little chauvinists to schizophrenic-egocentric-paranoic-prima donnas in a proto-punk protest classic backed by the band at full-throttle and Harrison’s slide set on incisive insinuation. The two guitarists paired again to pile on another inside threat.
McCartney’s second solo album Ram, which came out earlier in 1971, opened with the song “Too Many People” which included the line “Too many people preaching practices.” Lennon caught the subtle dig and responded by posing while holding a pig by the ears in the postcard insert, and a blistering moment of classic rock for the needle. “How Do You Sleep” begins with an orchestra tuning up like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band before Lennon, the dreamer of the song “Imagine” shatters that illusion with how the album took the melodic bassist by surprise. Lennon sets his lyrics on pun for lines like “the only thing you done was yesterday.” He references McCartney’s more recent single “Another Day,” by alluding to Harrison’s charge that McCartney overplayed the bass part on “Something” and mocks the cute Beatle for his pretty face. “How Do You Sleep” is supposedly a character assassination of Paul McCartney, but Lennon also admits he was writing about himself. He knows he would also “jump when your mama tell you anything.”
This brings us to the title song. John Lennon composed the song in one session, sitting at the iconic white grand piano featured in a poster that came with the original album. The new collection includes a sparse home recording of Lennon on piano and vocal. Lennon revels in the naiveté of the dreamer as he imagined something that seemed unimaginable in a world made bitter after incidents like the Ohio National Guard troops killing four protesting students at Kent State University. The lyrics were inspired by Ono’s “event scores” in her 1964 book Grapefruit. Lennon later admitted to writer David Sheff the song should have been credited to Lennon-Ono. “Imagine” has been labeled communist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-establishment and atheistic. But Lennon also cited a Christian prayer book given to him by comedian and activist Dick Gregory as inspiration.
The song has gone on to be a universal anthem that touches all generations and has been transcribed to all genres. David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, Elton John, Ray Charles, Madonna, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock, Joan Baez, Avril Lavigne and Chris Cornell have performed it.
The John Lennon/Plastic One Band album is considered Lennon’s most naked and raw. His lyrics are direct, without the psychedelic wordplay of his Beatles works. His solutions as primal as the therapy he was shouting. Imagine isn’t as spontaneous as Plastic Ono Band, but it is equally revealing. The new discs reveal even more. Imagine – The Ultimate Collection is available now.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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