Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “Imagine”

FT + Popular135 comments • 10,475 views

#473, 10th January 1981

“John Lennon’s life was no longer a debate” – in a song which has a good claim to be the stupidest lyric ever recorded, this is a glimpse of insight. Lennon’s murder didn’t turn him into an icon – he was one anyway – but it froze his iconicity into a certain pattern: troubled genius, artist, lover and man of peace. The perfect demonstration of this was the release of Albert Goldman’s Lennon biography, which aroused raving outrage simply by detailing the numerous ways in which Lennon was a perfectly typical 60s and 70s rock star. There was more to him than that, but there’s more to him than “Imagine” too.

Not that you’d know it sometimes. In yesterday’s Guardian Yoko Ono delighted us with some ‘celebrity wrapping paper’ – a sheet of newspaper on which she’d had printed the words “IMAGINE PEACE”, translated into the languages of many nations. What it instantly reminded me of were the ads produced by big global companies – like BA and McDonalds – in which their taglines appear in a similar polyglot style. It helped make concrete what Lennon has become, if not the walking foaming debate he’d sometimes been when alive: a brand. Ono’s directive Fluxus pieces still seem sharp and ahead of their time because they’ve come to look like a prior response to the aphoristic emptiness of the business advice and self-help industries: most of the stuff in Grapefruit would fit nicely on Twitter. But as the wrap demonstrates, she’s since met those trends more than halfway. And what are the Lennon Brand’s values, its products, its mission statement? “Imagine Peace”. “Imagine”. Peace. (The former has generally been a bigger seller than the latter).

Lennon hasn’t had it all his own way critically: I am hardly the first writer to dislike “Imagine”. In fact the laurels on the comment thread are likely to go to anyone who can make a really good case for its beauty, wisdom or excellence. But in general – to Sir Macca’s increasingly public dudgeon – he’s been ensconced as the Beatle Who Mattered; the artist, the poet, the rocker, the experimenter. And the public popularity of this song at least is truly unshakable – in any poll of the top number ones, or the top songs ever, there it is.

“Imagine” is a Fluxus piece for primary schools – “it’s easy if you try” says Teacher John, as if he’s telling us how to make a potato print. Presumably its profundity and simplicity are a big reason for its popularity, but there’s a My First Koan feel to the lyrics and performance which turns these qualities into dodges: if you think too hard about the words you’re not doing it right. And in a way it does feel cheap to pick “Imagine” apart, as despite all appearances I’m not sure it’s meant as a philosophical statement – though again, since December 1980, that’s what it’s become.

So what is good about it? It’s instantly memorable and sincerely performed, and if you’re charitable you can see slyness in a song that begins “Imagine there’s no heaven” but is so obviously trying for hymnal qualities. But that doesn’t get past how grimly tedious it is to listen to, or excuse the infuriating sanctimony in Lennon’s voice when he sings “I wonder if you can”. That line’s a tell if ever I heard one: Lennon can’t quite shake off his competitive streak, his acerbic edge. The song isn’t a program, it’s a fantasy of all Lennon’s personal sources of conflict – religion, money, national borders – being magically removed. It is – and sounds – a really supine, passive song: peace is a function of obstacles being waved away, making the singer a better person.

In 1971 it shared album space with the vastly more entertaining intra-Beatle bitchfest “How Do You Sleep?”, a sign that Lennon was either a colossal hypocrite or that he was well aware that “Imagine” was one dream-version of his cantankerous self. On that record it’s still not good, but it is what it is – another facet or mood of its writer. Taken to represent the whole of him, it’s a fraud. Taken to represent the whole of Pop – well, you might as well list the Top 100 Jokes Of All Time and put “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” at the summit.



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  1. 121
    swanstep on 5 Dec 2012 #

    @116. Definitely not the Clapton sense. Judging by youtube comments, lots of people read the immig. remark as specifically and only referring to Lennon’s exact visa problems. I read it as the wider point that immigrants as such are artifacts of nations that police their borders. Beyond that, I think of Lennon here as being a good craftsman: I imagine he was never entirely happy with the mention of religion again in the countries verse, and I wouldn’t mind betting that somebody had tweaked him about that as a lyrical blemish. I’m not sure that ‘immigration’ is the right modification – it’s a slightly ugly, latinate mouthful after all – but I appreciate the direction in which Lennon was headed.

    ‘Never switch simplicities in mid-stream.’
    Lots of broadly political singers tailor their lyrics in live settings or as their ideas evolve (or in response to snarky objectors). And Lennon is obviously right up for that at this point (departing slightly from the more serene vibe of the original song). I don’t see the problem with that.

  2. 122
    old man sukrat grrr on 6 Dec 2012 #

    oh I didn’t mean changing the words for a performance — i have no problem with that at all, in fact I like it — I just meant Lennon can’t really do Ono-esque simplicity, he has own mode of simplicity and they’re surprisingly distinct (which is no doubt what he fell for in her)

  3. 123
    Paulito on 9 Dec 2012 #

    @ 114: If it’s any consolation, I had laboured under the same misapprehension – and interpreted the misheard lyric in the same way – for my entire life until reading this thread. And the difference of one tiny word transforms what I had thought was the song’s most interesting lyric into its most trite. Oh well.

  4. 124
    Ed on 16 Dec 2012 #

    @123 Thanks! I am glad to know I am not the only one, anyway.

    I am inclined to be charitable, personally, and think that Lennon half meant our version, or at least at some level wanted the lyric to be open to that interpretation. He has form with that kind of ambiguity, as in “You can count me out / in” in ‘Revolution’. Allowing myself to think that preserves some threadbare scraps of interest in ‘Imagine’, anyway.

    @116 “Never switch simplicities in mid-stream.” You can actually hear it happening in the song, can’t you? The verses start off quite Ono-ish, with the deadpan delivery and the transcendental Satie-esque piano figure. Then as he gets towards the chorus, he can’t hold himself back any longer and you get a gush of quintessentially Lennon melody and emotion, with the leap into his falsetto.

    And you’re right: the juxtaposition is horrible.

    Mind you, now I’ve started thinking of it as a mash-up in that way, perhaps it is a bit more interesting than I thought….

  5. 125
    richard thompson on 5 Jan 2013 #

    Bob Wooler loathed this song, the man who Lennon famously beat up

  6. 126

    This is a bit startling:

    (of course secretly i hope that every solo lennon and solo mccartney song pair off this way, if only you know the code)

  7. 127
    Pete Baran on 15 May 2013 #

    It plays very fast (ahem) and loose around the second chorus, but yes, well done!

  8. 128
    Philip Arlington on 24 Aug 2014 #

    Intellectually, Imagine is one of the most balefully, poisonously wrong-headed artefacts in modern Western culture. Its disdain for rigorous engagement with the unwelcome complexity of reality has made the world a worse place and continues to do so.

    Enough has already been said about the peace nonsense, which was my main gripe for twenty five years. What annoys me more nowadays is the connection I draw between a man in a mansion (and a tax exile to boot) singing about no possessions and our current era in which new (but rapidly ossifying) elites feel entitled to exploit everyone else “because they earned it themselves” and/or they claim to have good intentions.

    Musically Imagine is a 10/10, which is what makes it dangerous. I just wish it was in Estonian.

  9. 129
    Kinitawowi on 24 Aug 2014 #

    “John Lennon did sing ‘imagine no possessions’, but he sang it playing a white Steinway in the drawing room of his 72-acre estate in Berkshire.” – Mitch Benn

  10. 130
    hectorthebat on 1 Sep 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 22
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 70’s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Popdose (USA) – 100 (+21) Favorite Singles of the Last 50 Years (2008) 5
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 30
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 15
    Rolling Stone (USA) – 40 Songs That Changed the World (2007)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 44
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 3
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 3
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 101-200
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 1970s (2012) 42
    Ultimate Classic Rock (USA) – Top 100 Classic Rock Songs (2013) 23
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 10
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 86
    BBC Radio2 (UK) – Sold on Song, a Celebration of Great Songs and Songwriting
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 88
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 36
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1970s (2012) 12
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 476
    Neil McCormick, The Telegraph (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2009) 32
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 31
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 127
    The Observer (UK) – 31 Songs That Changed 31 Music Fans’ Lives (2003)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 2
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 1
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 2
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 19
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 30
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 4
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 23
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  11. 131
    Adam on 22 Mar 2015 #

    Though Tom is the best Pop Music Theorist I’ve come across, I think this smash-the-idols piece just repeats what’s been considered countless times before… that it’s sanctimonious, glib, and hypocritical. A good topic is why — apart from his most diehard fans and those who don’t care to look past the surface — this piece remains at the pinnacle of “the canon” (the Rolling Stone editors are surely aware of the criticism, for example). If rock — as xgau theorizes — is about the personal relationship between star and fan, as opposed to musician and listener, this might be the archetypical example of fans overlooking obvious shortcomings and accepting a decades-long distant friend’s drunken rant about “why things didn’t work out” and being touched by it, even if it’s misguided. And by “fans” I mean most of us… though only a minority would name the Beatles as The Greatest(tm), they’ve been widely settled upon in the same manner as Citizen Kane… hard to think of another act that everyone could acknowledge as “good enough” for that position. I give it a 7. I think John’s being sincere when he speaks to me, and though his personality causes the message’s poignancy to fall flat, the honesty behind his intention strikes a nerve.

  12. 132
    Cumbrian on 19 Mar 2020 #

    Oh dear. Time for our semi-occasional reminder that Imagine is a terrible song. Gal Gadot and her mates singing it might be even worse than the original.

  13. 133
    Steven Copper on 9 Apr 2021 #

    Hard to think of many more beautiful songs than Imagine. The full whack from me, a resounding 10/10.

  14. 134
    Gareth Parker on 3 May 2021 #

    I’m certainly more favourable to Imagine than Tom, but it’s not an all time favourite of mine. I’ll be generous and go for a 7/10.

  15. 135
    David on 14 Jan 2022 #

    I’ve never cared for this song. Nobody would even play it anymore if he hadn’t have been shot.

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