“Imagine there’s no heaven,” John Lennon sings in his stately signature song. He goes on to take away the fears of hell, allegiance to countries and attachments to possessions. Although possession would become 9/10ths of the former Beatle’s problem when facing deportation for espousing such frightening concepts as dreams. An early demo recently surfaced which will highlight the new six-disk box set Imagine – The Ultimate Collection, coming from Universal Music on October 5, according to Rolling Stone, which features the sparse and simple message in its infancy.
The version is not that different from the final release. Lennon’s voice is a bit ragged, but his delivery is sure. The final mixed and ready version of “Imagine” only featured Lennon at the microphone and on a piano, backed only by long-time friend Klaus Voormann on bass, and future Yes beatkeeper Alan White on drums. White’s fills are as much a part of the song as the melody, as they are in Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” creating hooks as strong as any guitar or backing vocal. But we don’t miss them in this version.
You can hear the version here:
Lennon got the idea for the song from one of the poems in Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit. “Cloud Piece,” instructed readers to “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Lennon’s imagining was no less fertile. Because of the poem’s influence, Lennon later said the song should have been “credited as a Lennon/Ono song.” Lennon was also inspired by a gift of a Christian prayer book socially progressive comedian Dick Gregory gave him and Ono. Along with “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People,” “Imagine” became a rallying cry for the revolutionary left that centrists could understand and embrace.
At first glance, it appears Lennon is espousing the dreaded socioeconomic philosophy of Communism, which keeps profit ledgers in the Red. But this isn’t true. At the time of the album’s release, Lennon told New Musical Express he did do not belong to any movement. He wasn’t interested in how “some daft Russian might do it, or the Chinese might do it.” Lennon was a rock star and had no intention of giving up his possessions. Nor did Lennon, as the kind of working class hero who remembered what it was like to get prized items, expect his fans to give up what they had. He just wanted them to imagine it. Lennon certainly didn’t want them to get rid of their old Beatles albums. Enough of those had been burned by the religious right after Lennon imagined a world where the Beatles’ message might be louder than a rabbi from Nazareth.
The song was bashed for what people saw as an anti-religious message. No religions? Nothing to kill or die for? That may be the kind of nihilism the citizens of Nutopia, a fictitious republic Lennon would make up for Mind Games, but not for people have to see a promise of tomorrow to justify today. Some take the song as an atheist anthem. Some wanted to change the lyrics from no religion to one religion. Lennon wouldn’t hear of it.
Lennon wrote “Imagine” on a Steinway piano in a bedroom at his Tittenhurst Park estate in Ascot, Berkshire, England one morning in early 1971. John Lennon recorded the solo studio album Imagine in 1971, with Yoko Ono and Phil Spector both at his side and behind the glass in the engineering booth. Lennon, the ultimate rock star, poured out his soul on the Primal Scream album Plastic Ono band, also produced by Specter, and threw up his guts along with Eric Clapton at the Toronto Peace Festival. He wanted “Imagine” to tell the same story his earlier revolutionary songs told, but with a little honey on it. Some of this was provided by the Flux Fiddlers which recorded the strings. But the bulk of it was the simple melody with piano accompaniment. Oh, and Lennon’s voice. He sells the song in an understated way, but his pleas get through.
Lennon wasn’t perfect. In the Beatles Anthology, Harrison admits he didn’t know how screwed up his older friend was left by the abandonment of his father and death of his mother. Lennon’s music is nothing if not confessional, love songs like “Oh My Love,” “Jealous Guy,” and “How” take on the raw internal pains he felt he inflicted, and the wounds inflicted on him. He finds he comes up short, nakedly admitting wrong and taking all blame, deserved or not.
The former Teddy Boy-wannabe was still confrontational. He takes on his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney in the searing, sneering sonic attack “How Do You Sleep?” Paul McCartney ended the Beatles with a press announcement in April 1970. Lennon had already divorced his old mate, who had helped him birth some of the most recognizable music of the 20th Century.
The album includes the rousing, biting “Gimme Some Truth,” “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” and “Crippled Inside.” But at heart he was a man of peace and “Imagine” brought the message of love to the top of Billboard’s national album sales chart in October 1971. To make matters simpler, Lennon wrote the song in the key of C major and in 4/4 time. Imagine spent 45 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart in 1971 and 1972.
The upcoming box set includes 140 remixed and remastered tracks across six disks. The project was overseen at Abbey Road by the late Beatles’ wife, Yoko Ono. The collection will include new “Ultimate Mixes” of the album alongside “Raw Studio Mixes,” which is pure unadulterated John Lennon and the Plastic Ono’s Band. The collection will also feature previously unheard demos, rare outtakes, isolated track elements, and track-by-track documentary taking songs from demo to master recording.
The treasure chest includes demo recordings and alternate takes, which were organized by Yoko. The remix is done with a 5.1 surround sound mix to showcase Lennon’s vocals and provide what Paul Hicks, Abbey Road Studios’ lead mixing engineer on this project, calls “a more modern listening experience.” The set will also come with a 120-page book. 320-page and 496-page expanded editions of the Imagine” book will be published in October.
Restored versions of two related films Lennon and Ono made at the time, Imagine and Gimme Some Truth, are set for release on the same day the album is reissued. They will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and in digital form. There is also a possibility the films sell see a limited theatrical release.
Lennon did want to give up his country. Born in Liverpool, England, he wanted to become an American citizen. He wasn’t fully naturalized by the time of his death outside the Dakota apartment building across from Central Park in New York City in 1980. But he will appear on a new United States Postal Service stamp, according to Asbury Park Press, which will be available in early September.
Imagine — The Ultimate Collection is scheduled for release on Oct. 5, The same week as the 78th anniversary of Lennon’s birth on Oct. 9, 1940. You can pre-order it here.
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.