|From the standpoint of the nineties, what's most remarkable about the Imagine
album is the fact that it was all but recorded in a week at the Lennons' home studio.
John and Yoko then flew to the States for Phil Spector to supervise the overdubbing
of strings, and the final vocal takes; then they returned home to shoot the material for
their "Imagine" feature film, immediately began editing work, and then knocked
off a double album for Yoko as an aside.
But Imagine was not the product of a
single burst of energy and need which created Plastic Ono Band songs. Its
earliest composition, the delicate ballad "Oh My Love," dated back to late 1968.
Piano-based on the album, it was nonetheless firmly in the mould of Lennon's
1968/69 guitar picking songs, constructed around familiar ebb-and-flow melodic patterns.
Early takes of the song, heard before Spector added his New York sweetening,
highlighted the delicate balance of the recording, with finger bells and a triangle
supporting the fragile piano chords.
"Gimme Some Truth" had been premiered during the January 1969 Beatles
sessions. Since then, Lennon had heightened the song's biting invective, throwing in
contemporary references to "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, provided a memorable three-note
guitar riff to hold it together, snarled a tough, sneering lead vocal, and finally forced
George Harrison to sum up the whole song with a precise and cutting guitar solo. On
the final take, Lennon howled out his final message - "All I want is the truth"
- until the band ran out of steam, and he pronounced: "This is the truth."
In New York, Spector persuaded him to fade the track long before then, and so it
didn't appear on the record.
"Jealous Guy" was the other vintage song on the Imagine album.
In this case, though, only the tune was familiar: Lennon had originally written it
in India as "Child Of Nature," in which form it was still being vaguely
considered by The Beatles as late as January 1969. Its new words were another
confession of guilt to Yoko which opened, suitably enough, "I was dreaming of the
past." The lyrics were as sincere and honest as anything on Lennon's previous
album, and they offered a disarming glimpse of the macho ex-Beatle discovering feminism
through an examination of his own faults. Even before Spector added his New York
strings, Lennon had duplicated their part with an organ; "Jealous Guy" was
always meant to be lush. Also added in New York was Lennon's delicate whistle over
the final verse, which added another layer of vulnerability to his admission of wrong
The shift in mood from "Jealous Guy" to "How Do You Sleep?" on the
same record is the final proof of John's mercurial nature. "Sleep?" was a
vicious assault on his ex-songwriting partner, which accused, judged and convicted him on
counts of dishonesty, lack of talent, hypocrisy and - most heinous of all, it seemed -
living with "straights" (unlike the ultra-avant garde Lennons, of course).
When the album came out, Lennon was unusually coy about the song - "I could
have been writing about myself," he offered in his defense - but the lyrics pulled no
punches. Allen Klein, who had his own good reasons for disliking McCartney, added
the sly couplet that rhymed "yesterday" with "another day," but the
rest was Lennon's entirely unbalanced swipe at an old, dear friend - which is how (on
"Dear Friend") McCartney chose to reply when he cut his next album at the end of
Once again, it was Spector who gave the piece a lasting artistic life. Early
takes of the song had lasted eight minutes or more, with Nicky Hopkins vamping away on
electric piano, and George Harrison throwing in a delicious slide solo, apparently
unperturbed by Lennon's address to their mutual ex-colleague, "How do you sleep, you
cunt." With Spector in command, the repeat of the first verse was chopped out,
and Phil underscored the attack of the lyrics with the most vicious string sound every
caught on record, which soared over the guitar boogie riffs before screeching to a halt at
the end of each chorus.
Spector performed similar magic on "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier," a long,
doomy rage against military madness and social expectations. In its original form,
"Soldier" sounded like a hybrid of "Cold Turkey" and "Well Well
Well" - a raw funk riff churning beneath a muddy mesh of rhythm sound, before Lennon
built up towards a catharsis that was only fulfilled when the say solo came roaring in.
Little of that drama survived on the record: in its place, Spector substituted a
volcanic echo which makes Lennon sound as if he's performing from beyond the grave.
"It's So Hard" was an equally powerful performance, a conventional blues
where the grittiness of the guitar riff which electrified the song was matched by the
oriental-flavoured strings. The lyrics took the burden of life-after-primal-therapy
and stripped it down to the message of the title line, with Lennon growling out lines like
"you gotta be somebody / you gotta worry" like a native New Yorker. And
like Buddy Holly on "Peggy Sue," Lennon played a guitar part that acted as both
rhythm and lead, while the band laid down a minimalist backing.
Throughout the album sessions, Lennon recorded his initial guide vocals while the
instrumental tracks were being taped, giving the music a live feel missing from most
superstar sessions. Nowhere does that vibe survive in better shape than on
"Crippled Inside," a jaunty piece of rockabilly that gently took the rise out of
Lennon's psychodramas on his previous album. With honky-tonk piano and some
startling dobro work (the latter from George Harrison), "Crippled Inside" was
Lennon's most relaxed piece of music in years, an effective tribute to the country-blues
rock 'n' roll which had inspired him in the fifties.
"Oh Yoko!" caught much of the same spirit, with Spector's production giving
an unexpected richness to what was essentially a small band recording. Spector also
joined Lennon for the falsetto harmony vocals, having performed much the same function a
few months earlier on George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." The basic mix of
the song was much longer than the final cut, lacking the first harmonica solo and the
backing vocals, though Lennon's final play-in-a-day excursion round his harmonica was
there from take one.
"How?" was the Imagine song which came closest to the purity of the Plastic
Ono Band album. Having set the mood on his December 1970 demo, Lennon merely
extended the song during the sessions, added the delicious middle section (which harked
back to the self-encouragement of "Hold On") and letting the lyrics, with their
series of unanswered questions, speak for themselves. Spector added some tasteful
strings, and some echo on the piano, while Lennon took the opportunity in New York to
re-cut his rather hoarse lead vocal.
In terms of sound, "How?" was also a dry run for the Imagine title
track itself. On the first day of sessions at the Lennons' Tittenhurst Park Studios,
John had taken the band aside and played brief piano renditions of the songs they were
going to record. As participants Jim Keltner and Nicky Hopkins both recall,
"Imagine" stood out from the first, both for the power of its lyricism, and the
haunting simplicity of its melody.
At this distance, it's hard to separate the song from the myth, which would have us
believe that "Imagine" is Lennon's finest song, his ultimate statement of hope
for the world. The song's lyrical structure - a series of ideas each calling for
imagination - is directly based on Yoko's book Grapefruit, which is why in later
years Lennon admitted that he should have given Yoko a co-credit on the song, as he did on
"Oh My Love." In Yoko's art, the concept - the dream, if you like - is as
important as the result. Lennon wanted results as well, but he followed Yoko in
believing that dreaming of a desired event made the event itself more likely. The
wider the dream, the more likely a change in the world: hence "I hope someday you'll
join us / and the world will be as one."
There are countless alternate versions of "Imagine" in existence, but all of
them simply capture the path to the finished arrangement, without shedding any fresh light
on the song. Before the strings were added in New York, however, and Spector pumped
up the piano echo, "Imagine" sounded stark and strangely sinister, with the
piano, bass and drums left dry on the tape, casting no shadow. Like
"How?," this halfway mix would have fitted onto a soundalike successor to the Plastic
Ono Band album; but to increase the audience for his message, Lennon chose to allow
Spector his head, coating the basic tracks with a thin veneer of sweetness which bridged
the gap between cult acceptance and mass commercial appeal.
Though Lennon never intended to include non-original material on the finished album, he
did use the Imagine sessions to record a studio take of "Well (Baby Please
Don't Go);" the Walter Ward song which he'd performed a few weeks earlier with Frank
Zappa and the Mothers in New York. Freed from the need to convey a message, Lennon
turned in a tight, intense piece of R&B, fuelled by a chugging sax riff, some
"Cold Turkey" style guitar, and Plastic Ono Band rhythm section. In
between the repeated verses, he took control for a free-form guitar solo, its feel more
important than the actual notes, before Bobby Keyes rekindled the spirit of The Coasters'
records of the fifties with a King Curtis-like sax break. "Well" was
presumably cut as a potential B-side, but it remained unissued.
The only other outtake to have surfaced from the Imagine sessions was a much
more spontaneous affair. While the engineers set up for a new song, Lennon broke
into an impromptu rendition of Jesse Fuller's vintage "San Francisco Bay Blues;"
complete with authentic acoustic blues picking.