John Lennon's "Imagine" Album

An appreciation of a Lennon Classic

Imagine - John Lennon (1971)
The ethereal "Imagine" album cover art which perfectly captured the mood. Universal Music Group

Released in 1971, Imagine was the follow-up to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first real solo album since leaving The Beatles.

While Plastic Ono Band remains one of the most stark and harrowingly personal records ever made, Imagine combined the introspection of that album with John Lennon’s ability to produce outstanding commercial records with great melodic flair. Imagine was a much more radio-friendly record, intentionally so, and it was aimed directly at the pop music buying public. Lennon himself called the album “uncompromisingly commercial”. And so it proved to be – moving into the Number One spot on charts around the world.

The Imagine album was recorded in Lennon’s home studio at Tittenhurst Park, his 72 acre estate in Ascot about 30 miles outside of London. It is produced by him, Phil Spector and Yoko Ono, and features one other Beatle helping out – namely George Harrison. Long-time Beatle collaborator Klaus Voormann is on bass, Alan White plays drums for some tracks (including the song “Imagine” itself), Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon (also on drums), and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. There’s even two alto sax solos from the legendary King Curtis on “It’s So Hard” and “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die”.

What can be said about the title track, probably the most famous and commercially successful solo John Lennon song of all time?

It's certainly a love/hate song for many fans and critics alike. For some it’s a radical message of hope, an anthem for world peace. For others it is simplistic, naïve and even hypocritical. “Imagine the rich and successful ex-Beatle with no possessions!” came the cry. At the time, some religious groups were also deeply offended by the opening line: “Imagine there’s no heaven”.

Over the course of the years though attitudes to have softened, and the song is now part of the lexicon of thinking big about love and peace. It has been played at all sorts of events, from the Olympics, to concerts for peace, fundraisers for world hunger, and recently by a pianist outside the Bataclan Theatre in Paris where so many died at the hands of terrorists. That video immediately went viral. And the song has been covered by such a myriad of artists ranging from Neil Young, Queen, Lisa Minelli, even Lady Gaga.

Yoko Ono says: “When I think of “Imagine”, I think that maybe just for that it was good that [John and I] met – with all the difficulties and trouble that we went through, all the crying I had to do because of the fact that I met John Lennon. That’s how I feel about the song.”

The album embraces a wealth of other sounds and styles. Imagine is much more than just one, hugely famous song. The track “Crippled Inside” is pointed in its message but light-hearted in approach musically with its honky-tonk style piano. It's been likened to Lennon parodying Bob Dylan. “Jealous Guy” is beautiful, mature songwriting and a musically inventive song – a self-referential Lennon revealing his darker feelings and insecurities.  

In contrast to “Jealous Guy”, Lennon demonstrates his undoubted rock prowess with “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die” and “Gimme Some Truth”, an angry, passionate rant aimed primarily at one Richard Nixon, POTUS at the time, for his role in continuing to prosecute the war in Vietnam. It did nothing to help Lennon when he later sought a Green Card to allow him to live and work in the United States, something which took him years.

“Oh My Love”, “How?”, and “Oh Yoko” are each in their way tender, delicate and lovely songs.

The one standout among them though is “How Do You Sleep?”, a pointed tirade of vitriol aimed squarely at Paul McCartney for supposed slights directed at Lennon on his Ram album, released a month before the sessions for Imagine began. Lennon had taken exception to some perceived mild criticism and let Paul have it with both barrels. Thankfully the officially released version of the song is toned down from what it could have been. The lyrics were even stronger as Lennon, seen working in the studio on the song in the documentary Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine Album, was even more scathing - including some words which cannot be printed here.

McCartney has since been able to move on saying, “It’s tough when you have someone like John slagging you off in public, cos he’s a tough slagger-offer.” He wrote a song called “Dear Friend” (a direct attempt to patch things up at the time), and again the touching “Here Today”, which he now often performs live, paying public tribute to Lennon. “....he was great. He was a major influence on my life, as I suppose I was on him.” No hard feelings.

Apart from “How Do You Sleep?”, which is powerful in its production and performance but now seems rather petty, Imagine is a very strong album, one of Lennon’s best. It has stood the test of time and remains a truly great listen.

There's a terrific documentary film about the making of the album. Produced with the cooperation of the Lennon’s themselves and directed by Andrew Solt, Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine Album, is well worth seeking out for it’s fly-on-the-wall insights into how a classic came about.