Imagine all the Beatles living life in peace. Except Paul McCartney, of course, who spent quite a few restless nights after using his McCartney album to announce the breakup of the band before its leader and founder John Lennon got the chance to break the news. Oh boy. Universal Music is releasing the Imagine: The Ultimate Collection reissue on October 5. As a teaser, they dropped a never-before-seen footage from the Raw Studio Mixes disk Lennon and George Harrison recording “How Do You Sleep?”
“Imagine you are at the Lennon’s home, Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, England,” reads the official description on YouTube. “It’s night. It’s the last week in May in 1971 and you are their special guest, sat in a chair in the very center of the their recording studio, Ascot Sound Studios.
“John Lennon is sat in front of you, teaching the musicians one of his latest compositions. He is talking and singing and playing the same wood-finish Epiphone Casino electric guitar he played on ‘Revolution’. A bearded George Harrison is in front of you, to the right, playing electric slide on John’s pale blue Fender Strat.”
The song was written shortly after McCartney legally dissolved the Beatles as a legal partnership in the London High Court. Lennon had already attacked his former songwritig partner in what would come to be known as the Lennon Remembers interview with Rolling Stone in December 1970. Paul and his wife Linda responded by taunting John and Yoko in full-page ads in the music press. Lennon also found a few zingers on McCartney’s Ram album which dropped in May 1971. Some were lines in songs such as “Too Many People,” another was an image of one beetle fucking another on the inside flap of the album cover.
According to the lyrics, “those freaks was right when they said” Paul was dead, but not in the conspiratorial Tavistock Institute of Human Relations sense. Lennon thought McCartney was running out of ideas, having been shell-shocked by the reception of the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and his solo performance debut on “Yesterday.” Since then, he’s just “Another Day,” a single McCartney released in February 1971. Lennon even began the song with the sounds of the string players tuning up, a subliminal reference to the opening of Sgt. Pepper’s.
Lennon recorded “How Do You Sleep?” at Ascot Sound Studios on May 26, 1971. Harrison hasn’t quite captured the insinuating electric slide guitar sound that cuts through the finished song as deeply as Lennon’s voice. The final version’s solo runs are as recognizable as the melody and the bile is turned up to 10. Here it’s fluid, but restrained. The rhythm section is Lennon on rhythm guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, Alan White on drums. Ringo Starr had played on Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album, but wasn’t keen to be part of a three-way pile-on of former Beatles. Nicky Hopkins and John Tout duel on pianos. Acoustic guitars were overdubbed by Ted Turner, Rod Linton and Andy Davis.
Critics sided with Paul, saying “How Do You Sleep?” was a character assassination, even as they hailed it as a tremendously powerful song. They also admitted they like the line “The sound you make is muzak to my ears.” The coupling partner to that rhyme, “you must’ve learned something in all those years,” refers to Harrison’s charge that McCartney overplayed on the song “Something.” It must have stuck in his head, subliminally like the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” because he later titled his Lennon epitaph “All Those Years Ago.”
Lennon later said the song was “all good, clean fun,” and he welcomed McCartney’s response. The Imagine album giveaways also included a photo of Lennon wrestling a pig, miming McCartney’s pose with the ram on his album.
“Somebody said the other day ‘It’s about me,’” Lennon admits in an excerpt from the 120 page book that comes with the Imagine Ultimate Collection Box Set. “You know, there’s two things I regret. One is that there was so much talk about Paul on it, they missed the song. It was a good track. And I should’ve kept me mouth shut – not on the song, it could’ve been about anybody, you know? And when you look at them back, Dylan said it about his stuff, you know, most of it’s about him. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about those things and not what the writer or the commentator thinks about it, you know? Him and me are OK. So I don’t care what they say about that, you know? I’ve always been a little, you know, loose. And I hope it’ll change because I’m fed up of waking up in the papers. But if it doesn’t, my friends are my friends whatever way.”
A run through of the song was captured in the 2000 film Gimme Some Truth. The Imagine box-set features a never-before-heard demo of the title song, along 140 remixed and remastered tracks from the album across six disks. The Imagine and Gimme Some Truth films will be released separately on DVD and Blu-ray. The Imagine: The Ultimate Collection project was overseen at Abbey Road by Ono.
You can watch the video here:
The Imagine: The Ultimate Collection reissue is due out October 5.
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.