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Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “Imagine”

FT + Popular131 comments • 7,784 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.

2

Comments

  1. 1

    way better lennon-ono ideas to ensure world peace: the BED-IN

    i: all of us stay in bed, then we can’t make war!
    ii: all of john and yoko and the cranberries and [insert names here] stay in bed and then they can’t ANNOY THE REST OF US TO THE POINT OF MASS HOMICIDE*

    *assuming the bed-in is not televised, which lennon-ono’s of course was >:(

  2. 2

    also: cranberries lyric (minimally) improved if you change “ah ah ah” to “ha ha ha” as i originally read it

  3. 3
    Mark G on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Right, this lyric:

    Imagine there’s no heaven/countries.

    This bit isn’t hard to do, easy if you try. A suggeestion of an idea, not a reality you have to make.

    Imagine no posessions. I wonder if you can. It’s not even saying Lennon can do it either. It’s an idea.

    I find it amusing that a song that wasn’t released as a single in the UK at the time, possibly for being too controvertial (Lennon thought that was why), is now being sung by every ‘religious choir’ CD this christmas without irony.

  4. 4

    shd be “i wonder if one can”

  5. 5
    wichita lineman on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I don’t find it hard to make a case for Phil Spector’s soft-heavy production, especially the disorientating 3D piano sound, with the main motif ending on such an uneasy final note (errm, any musicians care to help me out here?). I’d say Imagine has a dark ’71 atmosphere, the creepier end of the cocaine sound (see also David Bowie’s Bewlay Brothers, and a little later Gene Clark’s Some Misunderstanding), though the tension is certainly dissipated by the mimsy chorus and luxurious, if spindly-thin, string sound, which turn the song into a vast coke-dusted marshmallow.

    As such, when I first encountered it as a no.6 hit in ’75, I found it quite unsettling. Spector’s aim, possibly with Lennon’s support, was conceivably to recreate the heaven/womb ambience of The Teddy Bears’ To Know Him Is To Love Him, which also had a religious atmosphere, though it was more about sex and death and much more affecting than Imagine. Same trick was used by Spector to even greater effect on the Paris Sisters’ I Love How You Love Me, but that’s one of the most sensuous songs in all pop and I feel wrong to even be comparing it to this iconic, hollow glob of sound.

    “Imagine there’s no heaven” is sly, and works, but beyond that, yes, it’s as substantial as Christmas wrapping paper. A 4 or 5 from me.

  6. 6
    Tom on 9 Dec 2008 #

    #3 – thanks Mark, this nails why I think it’s silly pulling the lyric apart. But it’s still a rubbish song, and the “I wonder if you can” is about how he sings it – I don’t buy for a second that there’s no sneer in there.

    The other thing I will say about this song is that half the time I hear the lyrics to a parody, supposedly by Julian Lennon, from The Spitting Image Book: aged 12 (or so) I thought this was the very pinnacle of pop satire. I leave it to you to judge if I was right.

    Imagine I’m John Lennon
    It isn’t hard to do
    Because I sing just like him
    And look just like him too

    Imagine all my records
    Selling by the ton
    For the simple reason
    I’m John Lennon’s son

  7. 7

    “i wonder, could one?”

  8. 8

    the spector sound works v.well on other songs on the imagine LP — “oh my love” is one of my favourite songs anywhere ever, complete with actual subtle melody (something lennon often didn’t bother with)

  9. 9
    wichita lineman on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Definite sneer. In which case, maybe “I wonder if you can” renders the whole thing a Glass Onion-like gag.

    I’d like to think so, but I know that’s stretching things…

    Pardon me if someone’s already posted this, but here’s the kindly peacenik being sent up by National Lampoon – all the lines are from Lennon quotes.

    http://blogfiles.wfmu.org/KF/0512/Magical_Misery_Tour.mp3

  10. 10
    Conrad on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I don’t have any particular beef with the lyric – it’s the music that causes me a problem. Rhythmically and melodically it’s dull. God, it’s dull.

    It’s also unfortunately, more than any song I can think of, the template for the grimmest strand of oafish, lad culture plodding 90s Britpop. The ‘soulful’ piano ballad (usually complete with some form of orchestral arrangement for extra profundity/to disguise the thinness of harmonic and melodic invention going on).
    Cue visionless wankers like Richard Ashcroft and Liam Gallagher battering the same fucking piano chords over and over again in that patented “Imagine” on the beat fashion. They think by doing this they are soaking up Lennon, producing some masterpiece that means something. No, no, no. So wrong. Lennon may have been a genius, I’m not sure. He certainly wrote some fantastic songs. But “Imagine” wasn’t one of them.

    McCartney was always the most innovative and talented of the Beatles. Had he died at 40 perhaps he might have been recognised as such by now. Perhaps he will one day. It will be interesting to see what kind of reappraisal takes place when that day arrives. I’d certainly take the Frog Chorus over this borefest any day of the week.
    1.

  11. 11
    Tom on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I’d hold “Hey Jude” more to blame for That Kind Of Thing.

  12. 12
    LondonLee on 9 Dec 2008 #

    The piano is by far the best thing about this, sounds like it’s wrapped in cotton wool or is being played in another room which gives it that simultaneously warm/eerie feel. Can’t think of anything else to say about it which hasn’t been said a million times. Great review Tom, I wondered how you’d find a way to write about this song, it must have been like trying to look at the Mona Lisa with fresh eyes.

    I think of all the things that get my goat about Official Rock History is the deification of Lennon and this song. If I was Paul I’d be angry too.

  13. 13
    Conrad on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Re 11, Yeah, but that was McCartney’s so it doesn’t fit with my argument!

    Actually, because it was a McCartney composition, yr average 90s britrocker wouldn’t have given it time of day.

    “Hey Jude” certainly played its part in giving rise to the tedious coda syndrome – the notion that repeating a standard descending 3 chord pattern ad infinitim while adding an extra layer of noise every 4/8 bars = lo and behold, we have a transcendent epic on our hands.

    Very few songs justify that kind of treatment. Even fewer pull it of.

  14. 14
    Erithian on 9 Dec 2008 #

    “Imagine” isn’t as good as some people say it is, but is by no means as bad as some people say it is. And I suspect that it’s the frequent placing of this song towards the top of “best song evah” polls that earns it the good kicking it gets from dissenters.

    It’s certainly not the greatest thing ever made – it’s too slight for that – but its lyrical theme is worth considering. Often when you see it being slagged off, it’s on the basis of the “Imagine no possessions” line being sung by a very wealthy man. Yet you’re not disqualified by wealth from having egalitarian ideas – from Clement Attlee to Barack Obama there have been politicians of comparatively comfortable backgrounds supporting the less fortunate and being no less credible for it.

    Christopher Booker wrote once that when your main raison d’être is your membership of a particular unit, be it a football team, a political party, a race or a country, it can be a short step to seeing those who don’t belong to that unit as “dehumanised objects of aggression”. That would account for fundamentalist terrorism, wars, racism and hooliganism – not a bad set of things for Lennon to imagine out of existence in the name of peace. You might well say he’s a dreamer – if we got rid of all of those there’d still be something for human nature to become tribal about – but in the climate of the era in which the song was written, it was worth trying to do. He was no saint, and that’s easy to prove, but cut him some slack.

    And as for the music – sorry I don’t see it as dull. Just warm, enveloping, inclusive and, well, peaceful. Just take it on its own terms.

  15. 15

    what is the gallagher line on mccartney? (i should look this up myself but i am lazy)

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Was this one of the first Number 1s that embodied the idea that buying THIS RECORD was a pious act? Numerous charidee singles followed in it’s wake.

    It’s ironic that Lennon didn’t release it earlier for fear of controversy when McCartney had released ‘Give Ireland back to the Irish’.

    One of the annoying qualities of the song for me is that it is quite beguiling – it suckers me in and then I start quibbling with its lazy utopianism so that rather than feeling uplifted I feel more cynical as a result

  17. 17
    Erithian on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Just down the road from Royal Holloway College is Tittenhurst Park in Sunninghill, near Ascot: it was once owned by Thomas Holloway, the founder of Royal Holloway, and was Lennon’s home from 1969-71 – the Lennons built a studio in the grounds and that was where “Imagine” was recorded. On a cold Sunday afternoon in January 1981 I went for a walk in the vicinity of RHC and found to my surprise that the gates of Tittenhurst (then owned by Ringo) were open and I could take a sneaky walk around the grounds. Strange that the place which was being featured in that video on TOTP every week was so accessible.

    Billy – wasn’t there a clip of this shown on TOTP where Lennon’s performing the song to a studio audience in 1975, and there in the front row is a bloke who’s the spitting image of Mark Chapman?

    Number 2 Watch – in its first and fourth week at number one Lennon had a 1-2 with “Happy Xmas” and then “Woman” (twice occupying three of the top five places) but in between times we had “Antmusic” at number two. We’d hear more from Adam before long.

  18. 18
    Tom on 9 Dec 2008 #

    So far on this thread Erithian has shown himself able to IMAGINE PEACE.

    Conrad, lonepilgrim, P^nk S, Londonlee and your humble author have failed to IMAGINE PEACE.

    Wichita Lineman and Mark G have IMAGINED A BIT OF PEACE but maybe not enough for the world to actually live as one.

  19. 19

    taking sides:
    a bit of peace vs a little peace

  20. 20
    rosie on 9 Dec 2008 #

    What always gets to me about this is the sheer hypocrisy of it. John, mad genius that he was, was the bully of the four and the fuzzy call for world peace just didn’t ring true.

    This actually reeks of teenage parties with Scotsmac and Party Four and grabbing off the turntable to put Tapestry on instead.

    Ask anybody in Liverpool who they think of as Top Beatle. They named the airport after John but John, George and Ringo turned their backs on the city and said rude things about it. It’s Paul who, even if he does live in Sussex, visits the city and puts a lot into it.

  21. 21

    plus side: puts a lot into it
    minus side: liverpool oratorio

  22. 22
    Erithian on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Tom, I just found those Dolores O’Riordan lyrics you were alluding to. Wow – maybe they could make that Diana Vickers’ first single now she’s off the X Factor?

  23. 23
    fivelongdays on 9 Dec 2008 #

    So, this is it. The most loathsome, smug, pious and all-round vile record to have ever made number one.

    It’s hard where to start when it comes to talking about it. Whether it’s the deification of Lennon, the way in which everything he did or said was turned into an amazing statement, the meaninglessness of the lyrics, which have become a shorthand for the most woolly headed Grauniadista way of thinking, or the dire tune, it’s utterly awful.

    Really, though, it’s the smugness that gets me. Lennon singing tedious platitudes as if he, and he alone, has the answer to the world’s problems. It represents a certain strand of musical wrongness, the idea that if you look so far back you’ll see a golden age that never was, and that times anthem is this tripe.

    Growing up in the mid-’90s (and, yes, being a fan of early Oasis – sorry!), hearing how Lennon was the Alpha and Omega of music was enough to make me vomit. Having his works rammed up my arse at every available opportunity meant I sought solace in Metal, Punk and Alternative Music. People say Weller’s bad, but this is far, far worse.

    Suffice to say, I’d give it 1, but that’s only because we don’t have negative ratings.

    Utterly loathsome.

  24. 24
    GeorgeB on 9 Dec 2008 #

    As a long-time silent fan of this site I can’t say I’m surprised by the appraisal of this one. There does seem to be some sort of odd cachet associated with hating this one. And I say odd because I sense more than a smidgen of chopping down the tallest tree in the forest – and there’s nothing admirable about that. The expert-texperts hate “Imagine” with a passion, whilst hoi polloi like me tolerate it and even love it in our weaker moments. So Lennon was a hyprocrite, thug, nasty piece of work, child, whatever. Some of us like the fact that he was the only one who put himself out there without being afraid of being held up to ridicule. Misguided maybe, but he had chutzpah and the talent to back it up. Indeed, of his talent there’s no doubt – there never was (10). Anyway, I don’t see this song as the ghastly thing that iconoclasts find so disagreeable. Considering some of the rotten songs which have been accorded high marks lately I’ll give it (at least) 5. See you in 1984.

  25. 25
    LondonLee on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Re: #16 – “lazy utopianism” sums up a large chunk of Lennon’s solo work and I think is my biggest problem with him. One doesn’t expect something on the level of Das Kapital in a pop song but surely more than this stringing together of a Xmas wish list cliches and it’s the awful stench of reached-for profundity that kills it.

    I don’t blame Lennon for the hallowed status it’s achieved but the very style of it makes me think he was going for the GRAND STATEMENT along with all those other one-word title songs he wrote. But more of that later, don’t want the Bunny hopping mad.

  26. 26
    Tom on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Some of us like the fact that he was the only one who put himself out there without being afraid of being held up to ridicule.

    The only one of who? The Beatles? Pop stars in general?

  27. 27
    Kat but logged out innit on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I’ve barely seen any photos or video footage of Yoko Ono without her shades on – except for the ‘Imagine’ video. Her glazed-over inane expression while her and John are sat at the piano drives me up the wall way more than the song does. Their big white piano, in their big white house. It is WHITE which is the colour of PEACE do you SEE. Just look at her smug face in the last 30 seconds – she can’t quite believe her bloody luck.

    Add that to the fact that I’ve never liked Lennon’s voice on any track when it’s been put through that echo filter thing, and the result is cringeworthy at best.

  28. 28
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Funny how favouring Paul has become the hip thing to do – how times have changed!

    If the Beatles’ solo work demonstrates anything it’s the importance of group chemistry, alone they were all pretty so-so, often pleasant but generally unremarkable, together they were without peer (it goes without saying that the Beach Boys were better, but even they didn’t have the same thrusting dynamism of golden period (63-67) Fabs).

    The lyrics to Imagine are essentially greetings card tosh, but I’ve always enjoyed the soothing hymnal quality of those rolling piano chords and Lennon’s thin, quavering voice. I’d like to think it’s the sound of a troubled man who’s done much wrong to those around him reaching inside himself for something greater and more noble, rather than cynically peddling featherweight hippy tosh to his fans, but I don’t think it really matters. For better or worse most people seem to have made up their minds about this. It’s not Lennon’s best song (not even among his solo catalogue) but it’s far from his worst – there are some real stinkers…

  29. 29
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    And PS, when did we start getting off knocking pop stars for hypocrisy, narcissism, being a bit of a shit etc? I’d rather have a gradiose, arrogant posturing prick like Lennon than someone like Macca presenting himself as a humble man of the people sort, which is just as phoney and a lot more boring!

    Strip all the phoneys, the thugs, the poseurs, the druggies, the cheats and the lunatics out of pop and you’re left with Coldplay – surely no-one wants that?

  30. 30
    Conrad on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Woah there – disliking “Imagine”, whether it’s because you think the lyrics smug, hypocritical or plain trite (I don’t – I’m with Erithian, 15, on that one), or the music dull and plodding(I do – for reasons I posted in 10), is not an act of iconoclasm. Jesus. I’m not after cool points.

    This is a dull piece of music that, for me, has the added on annoyance value of having inspired so many fourth rate rock stars who picked up on Lennon’s arrogance, but forgot the talent and humour (not that Lennon was particularly funny, and actually I’ve always found Gallagher Senior a very amusing interview – he talks a good album any rate).

    Point is, this is not scared cow bashing for the sake of it. No doubt the vehemence of some of the criticism stems from the record’s hugely overplayed and venerated status – we are hardly likely to be a having a heated debate about some long lost b-side or obscure album out-take.

    Of course, it’s not the very worst song Lennon has ever written. It is however the very worst of those that have achieved any significant level of popularity.

    And as for ridicule???? Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

  31. 31
    peter goodlaws on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Elton John went round to Lennon’s gaf in New York once and took the piss, which I thought was blinding. Referring to the bit in Imagine which goes “imagine no possessions”, Elton, on seeing the apartment, which was the size of a block of flats in it’s own right, started singing

    “Imagine six apartments
    It isn’t hard to do
    One is full of fur coats
    The other’s full of shoes”

    Lennon went all defensive

    “It’s only a bloody song!”

    Says it all. Working class hero? Not on your nelly!

  32. 32
    Conrad on 9 Dec 2008 #

    28 – Is liking McCartney hip now? I’ve always been a big fan, partly because I am a bass player and producer and have been frequently left gobsmacked by McCartney’s playing and writing.

    And partly because I read “Revolution In The Head” a few years ago and was fascinated at just how much McCartney contributed to the experimental, envelope-pushing side of the Beatles.

    I know Wings/70s McCartney has acquired a sort of kitsch/GP style following. But, Wings were pretty ropey. The McCartney output is very inconsistent post-Beatles but every so often you get a “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Temporary Secretary” and you think, blimey, he’s pulled another rabbit out of the hat.

  33. 33
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    You get loads of broadsheet pricks like Miranda Sawyer saying things like ‘of course, Paul was the talented one in The Beatles…’

  34. 34
    Conrad on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Tommy – 28 I like your interpretation of the lyric. I don’t think Lennon lacked self-awareness, and I think there must have been an element at least of wanting redemption in writing this.

  35. 35
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Dec 2008 #

    it’s not an echofilter thingy, kat: spector liked getting lennon to double-track, ie sing in unison with himself

    i think there was quite a big difference between the effect of this song when recorded — when it was a pretty big fvck-you to a lot of people he’d recently been onside with (political radicals beginning to embrace violence as the only possible solution)* — and its penumbra ten years later, with him just dead and being sanctified, and this taken, not as one snapshot contrarian comment among many (cf, as tom notes, “how do you sleep?”), but the definitive stand-in for the totality of his belief system

    he was pretty good at not letting himself be sanctified while alive, he’d say and do things that made it very hard (i half-recall a story of him and harry nilsson getting bladdered in LA bars, lennon with a used tampon taped to his forehead hurrah, no, wait); and i am actually fairly forgiving of his new york radical activist phase, even though the music was often (not always) awful, because it’s not as though any political grown-ups round him were (radical or centrist or reactionary) were engaged in heroic achievement — the late 60s and early 70s were a horrible and a stupid time all round

    *he went constantly backwards and forwards on this kind of issue — he wasn’t a political naif the way a lot of popstars are — but he was extremely argumentative and disliked feeling he was being pushed around or manoeuvred into a corner; the downside of this is the worst of bono-geldof i think; but (even so) i am still (personally) very far from being inclined to say, ok, leave the political stage to the professional politicians; as i said before, i think the problem for lennon was the problem of perspective on his own power-to-affect-the-world, the scale of it and the nature of it — his situation was unprecedented, and i don’t see why he should simply have placed himself in purdah forever (he did end up doing just this: retiring from the fray; but it was chapman that made it permanent, not lennon-ono)

  36. 36
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I’d like to think he wasn’t exempting himself from the ‘I wonder if you can’ anyway…

  37. 37
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Dec 2008 #

    tommy are you arguing that coldplay aren’t phoneys?! that’s fighting talk!

  38. 38
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Yeah, I can see why people would end up hating the saintly image that’s been painted of him since his death (Stuff like that mobile phone ad with Chris Evans where they’ve doctored footage of Lennon standing in front of a tank in Tiannamen Square…)

  39. 39
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    They’re the worst kind of phoney – the sort of phoney who says ‘I’m just being myself…’

  40. 40
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    My point was that if you nix anyone with the chutzpah to record a grand, overarching, over-reaching statement like imagine then all you’re left with is mordant navel-gazing like ballache Martin and his pals

  41. 41
    LondonLee on 9 Dec 2008 #

    The first “name” I can remember going public with Paul-love was Paddy MacAloon in an NME interview. At the time it was startling enough for a hip indie kid to declare a preference for Macca over Lennon for the NME to put it in the intro deck after the headline.

  42. 42
    Tommy Mack on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Naturally, everone in pop is a phoney of some sort and that’s a good thing. It’s a grand dressing up box that’s far more important and profound than it will ever know.

  43. 43
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Dec 2008 #

    actually i’d be prepared to bet (a very very tiny amount) that elvis costello made pro-macca intervention at some earlier point; partly bcz he too is a pop craftsman; partly bcz he likes starting arguments and being difficult

    the korrekt position is: all the beatles were of exactly equal importance and so are you

  44. 44
    vinylscot on 9 Dec 2008 #

    I can’t see any need for the strength of negative comment this particular track has attracted.

    What many posters don’t seem to acknowledge, although they will be aware of it, is that the song was (in the UK anyway) originally just an album track from 1971. Seen as an artifact of its time, it does not seem so banal; there were all sorts of twee, simplistic “peace songs” around at the time, mostly written/performed by acts who could not lace Lennon’s bootlaces. In that context, “Imagine” was critically lauded as a refreshing and admirable statement or aspiration.

    I have always found it to be a rather sweet, innocent song. Yes it’s naive, but it’s rather disingenuous to extend that description to Lennon himself. I’ve always considered that Lennon meant it sincerely, while fully understanding and accepting that it was likely to be ridiculed and lampooned for that very reason.

    We were all a decade older and already familiar with the song by the time it made #1; perhaps we were more cynical; perhaps it just didn’t fit the times any more… and we’re another 27 years older now – it’s a lot easier to be sneering and knowing from a position of hindsight (and disconnectedness).

    It’s not the greatest Lennon song, and it’s not one of the best songs of all time, and possibly its ubiquity has rather negated its message, but I believe it is a fine song 6.

  45. 45
    Matthew K on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Just a quick moment to pause and enjoy the Olympic standard vitriol and dissing on this comments page – Imagine is a deserving target, as are many of the others, and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch such carefully honed edges employed for their intended purposes!

  46. 46
    Snif on 9 Dec 2008 #

    1974, Year 9 class in high school – my best friend declared that this song was nothing more than a communist manifesto. The teacher, amused, had the whole class write an essay on whether this was indeed so.

    (That same friend now practises law at The Hague)

  47. 47
    Malice Cooper on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Let’s be fair. One week in the top 5 in 1975 is how good this record really is.

  48. 48
    Mark M on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re: 44 – The whole point is that we are not discussing this as a John Lennon album track in the context of 1971 – Tom’s project is British number ones and therefore the Imagine on the table is a posthumous number one and secular hymn in the making. It’s past life is worth noting, but it’s the monster in the making that we’ve got here. The obvious current comparison is Hallelujah – every death or break-up scene scored to Jeff Buckley/John Cale/other similar version takes it further and further away from what it once may have been…

  49. 49
    Mark M on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re 46: Wow: that would have sent only Karl mad, almost as much as people describing themselves as ‘utopian Marxists’ (“Fred, how times do we have to tell this bastards that we hate sodding dreamers – we’re scientists.”)

    Re 14: Yes, but Clem never said “Imagine you no longer have to worry about paying the doctor”, he just did it.

  50. 50
    vinylscot on 10 Dec 2008 #

    48, but we’re not talking about it in the context of 1980/81 either – I think it’s accepted that it was only #1 because of Lennon’s tragic death.

    However, if we are to limit our discussion to current thinking, and disregard its history, and its impact in its time(s), we miss much of the point of the exercise.

    While today you might find the public rather split down the middle on this track, in either 1971 or 1980 you would probably have had a 90-10 split (I would imagine most posters here hadn’t even turned against it by then).

    I do think rather a lot of the vitriol being heaped on this is for effect and show – “Look at me, I’m dissing John Lennon”.

    I think we’ve agreed it’s not the best song ever, not even one of the best in Lennon’s canon, and I can understand why people don’t like it, but it doesn’t deserve the slagging it’s getting here.

    Still a solid 6.

  51. 51
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    I think there’s a big difference between dissing Lennon and dissing the version of Lennon that emerged after his death – what I’m calling the “Lennon brand” in my review, where “Imagine” (rather than “God” or “Jealous Guy” or “Mind Games” or “Working Class Hero” or “Oh Yoko” or any combination of any of them) is the iconic John Lennon song.

    At the time, I hated it with a passion, incidentally, but that’s a topic for the next entry.

  52. 52
    Rob K on 10 Dec 2008 #

    It’s awful. Whether 1971 or 1980 it’s awful. Trite, shallow, hypocritical but the worst crime? It’s as boring as any song I can think of. Apart from that, meh. Who cares? I don’t. 1

  53. 53
    Lex on 10 Dec 2008 #

    This is one of those songs whose popularity tips it violently from “nonentity” to “object of foaming-at-mouth hatred” – I like to think the best of people and their taste, but the fact that this trite, pious, BORING piece of crap is beloved by so many undermines that for me.

    Actually what bugs me most about the lyrics is how totally ineffectual they are – Lennon recommends absolutely nothing more than sitting around stoned, “imagining” things. THAT IS NOT GOING TO HELP.

    32 – liking McCartney is certainly not hip if I have anything to do with it. Tiresome old man.

  54. 54
    rosie on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Mark @ 48: Ah, but Hallelujah in its original incarnation on Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions album is in a completely different orbit from Imagine. Not least because Cohen, unlike Lennon, was a bona fide poet and master of the language. Lennon could work magic with sound, of course, was probably a better singer though that’s a moot point as Cohen’s deep gravelly voice is sexy music in itself regardless of ability to pitch correctly – an attribute of music that Lennon would surely have recognised. John Cale’s tribute version on I’m Your Fan is a worthy cover and Rufus Wainwright makes a good fist of it (I prefer Rufus to Lennie for running to, Lennie to Rufus for chilling out with a gimlet or three.) I blame Shrek myself, for the tiresome Hallelujah chorus.

    Back to Imagine. I liked it well enough in 1971, when I was 16 and naively idealistic and probably believed in the sentiments therein. I liked it well enough in 1981 by which time Imagine was already the iconic Lennon-only song. There weren’t that many to choose from that were widely-known after all. I came to like it a lot less when Lennon’s feet of clay really came into view during the following years. He had something close to genius and like many geniuses he was a deeply flawed and unpleasant human being. Working-Class Hero seems particularly galling – his Allerton upbringing would have seemed the height of bourgeois decadence to the likes of, say, the Starkeys in the Dingle.

    Maybe these songs are indeed Lennon working through his middle-class guilt. But I can’ help asking myself, did he who made Tomorrow Never Knows make thee?

    I’ve heard it suggested that Lennon could have been a chess grandmaster if he’d chosen that direction instead of music. Can any Populista shed any light on this?

    Anyway, let’s hear it for that missing Number One, Happy Christmas (War Is Over) – one of the more agreeable of the ubiquitous seasonal wallpaper.

  55. 55
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    My favourite version of “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is the one by the Pop Idol Finalists a few years back, a rendition for charity released in the wake of 9/11 which decided to end with a sound effect of A HUGE BOMB GOING OFF.

  56. 56
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    And discuss “Hallelujah” while ye may – it’ll be under Spoiler Bunny jurisdiction soon enough…

  57. 57

    i could have been a chess grandmaster if i’d been any good at chess

  58. 58
    Izzy on 10 Dec 2008 #

    The last paragraph of the review nails the problem – it’s a facet of its maker, not the whole thing. The vitriol is born out of betrayal, particularly that Yoko gets to use him as a one-dimensional simpleton, when we all feel we know him better.

    I don’t know if this is a peculiarly British reaction, but I suspect it might be as the ‘real’ Lennon being replaced by the iconoclasm – spiky, irreverent, unsure – is a very British character. The pomposity that the deification fuels certainly feels very unBritish to me – and certainly very unLennon, who as no.35 notes never missed a chance to deflate himself, even in this period (sabotaging the return of his MBE by making it a protest about ‘Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’, even the grand Peace gesture had a silly joke in there: ‘Bed Peace Hair Peace’).

    But it is still a facet of the man, and that’s a good thing – it would be a poor soul indeed who couldn’t at least see the appeal of utopianism. And I do see a degree of complexity in there – the oft-quoted opening line is just the right tone to strike.

    In any event, I’m more interested in the tune than what it stands for. I don’t find it particularly complex and I don’t much like the production, but it’s a pleasant tune and it’s beautifully constructed. Furthermore, it’s a standard I’m always glad to hear on those rare occasions when I do, and it clearly has something that touches millions, and you don’t get these qualities without merit.

    I’d compare it most to ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams – again, not as successful as you might think (an album track that only made no.4 in 1998), but has grown to become something universal. We’re all better off for stuff like that.

  59. 59
    Mark G on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Different tack:

    The arpegio.

    Is it 4 notes or three?

    That final note, I was listening to the track, and realising it’s not there. Is it an imagined half semitone up from the third note, or is it actually played? Maybe it was a bad radio reception or something.

  60. 60
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re #6 Best songwords in the Spitting Image book Smash Hits parody;

    THE STYLE COUNCIL

    Kids are good
    Grown-ups are bad
    Vote Labour
    Vote Labour

  61. 61
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re#17: Hard to tell, as all TOTP screenings are just listed as ‘Imagine (Video)’. I can only remember ever seeing the Sunninghill video.

    The song was interpreted by Pan’s People on the 6th of November 1975, though. Sadly, the tape doesn’t survive. If anything is going to make me sit through this song, its going to be cheerfully clumsy interpretation by comely dancers.

  62. 62
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    (Dirgelike music plus hectoring and empyheaded lyrics)

    Times saintly reputation and use as secular hymn

    Equals very worst song on Popular

  63. 63

    62: this equation also works for “grandma we love you”

  64. 64
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Lennon we love you
    Lennon we do
    Though you may be dead and gone
    We think of you

    And one day when we live as one
    We’ll look back and say
    There’s no one quite like Lennon
    He helped us on our way

  65. 65

    what does “when we live as one” mean? IN HEAVEN YOU SHARE A ROOM WITH ALL LOVELY DEADS

    (the afterlife — worse even than glastonbury)

  66. 66
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Has anyone ever heard ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven’ by the Righteous Brothers?

    Sadly recorded a few years too early to include John Lennon, it envisages – in the most bombastic terms imaginable – heaven as a place where continual entertainment is provided by a supergroup of dead stars;

    If you believe in forever –
    Then life is just a one-night stand!
    If there’s a rock and roll heaven,
    Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band! – Band!! – BAAAND!!!

    Jimi gave us rainbows
    And Janis took a piece of our hearts
    And Otis brought us all to the dock of a bay
    Sing a song to light my fire
    Remember Jim that way!
    They’ve all found another place
    another place to PLAAAY!

    This is not really my idea of a paradisical afterlife.

    It’s a song that you only need to hear once for you to remember it for the rest of your days.

  67. 67
    Mark G on 10 Dec 2008 #

    If there’s a rock and roll heaven,
    Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band!

    That’s one of those quotes that no-one knows (I didn’t) where it came from.

  68. 68

    by contrast, local oxford band dum dum dum — who the band i was in often shared a stage with — had a song called NO DISCOS IN HEAVEN

    as i was laying in my bed
    just the other night
    an angel came to visit me
    and tell me of his plight

    NO DISCOS IN HEAVEN
    NO DISCOS AT ALL
    NI DISCOS IN HEAVEN
    YOU JUST CAN’T HEAR MUSIC AT ALL

    (actually that last line may be slightly wrong)

  69. 69
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    It would be a bit of a lopsided band too – guitarist and four vocals. Maybe a sort of acoustic doo-wop thing happening?

  70. 70
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    There’s more! A fresh pair of stars come off the bench in the second verse;

    Remember bad bad Leroy Brown,
    Hey Jimmy touched us with that song.
    Time won’t change a friend we came to know.
    And Bobby gave us Mack the Knife,
    Well look out, he’s back in town!
    They’ll all be there together
    When they meet in one big SHOOOOW!

    And then a strangely utopian conclusion;

    There’s a spotlight waiting
    No matter who you are!
    Cuz everybody’s got a song to sing,
    EVERYONE’S A STAAAAR!!

  71. 71
    AndyPandy on 10 Dec 2008 #

    In a pop world where pomposity is amost expected and gets more and more ridiculous as the years go by John Lennon as Izzy points outs at 58 was surely one of the few who didn’t take himself too seriously.

    This was just an album track with to me a haunting piano tone (it even haunted me as a 10 year old in 1975)and IMO immediately a hundred times better because its mercifily rock guitar free.
    Once again because we’re the sort of people who analyse things to death we “worry” about the words when to most people out in the real world lyrics aren’t that important and they just like to hear a nice tune.After all I should imagine most of us on here are more intelligent and could write better lyrics if we tried than the laughable “poetry” of about 90% of rock writers.

    Lennon didn’t write this in a bid for deification but just as an album track which said “peace was better than war” which was probably worth considering after years of the Vietnam war etc.

    I’d rather have this any day than the pretentious shite that makes up the vast majority of rock lyrics and especially those of the last 20 years. 8 or 9 for me.

  72. 72
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    #71: “most people out in the real world”

    Unless we’re making up verifiable facts, ‘our’ world is no more or less real than that of others.

  73. 73
    H. on 10 Dec 2008 #

    For me it’s one of those songs that ubiquity has rendered impossible to like, but I don’t think it’s quite so loathsome as some here. I quite like the very simple piano in it. The lyrics are trite, but I’m utterly uninterested in how “phoney” Lennon is or isn’t, or any other pop star for that matter. I’ll simply assume that anyone who gets as big as Lennon, in whatever endeavour, must inevitably have a phenomenal ego with a narcissistic, contradictory personality to match, and leave it at that. For such a distinctly pop project as Popular, there seems to be a – dare I say it – rather “rockist” emphasis on lyrics as the embodiment of some sort of authenticity, a romantic desire to see lyrics as reflecting the artist’s life or, in this case, an outcry when they patently don’t.

  74. 74
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    #73 – Lennon is a slightly special case in that he pretty much laid the marker down for lyrics-as-soul-baring-art with the Plastic Ono Band album just before Imagine. I don’t think the “poptimist” position on authenticity and meaning is “they’re always irrelevant” by any means! We’ll have plenty of examples of records which seem to me to make a false claim to these things, and it’s worth pointing that out. (There might also be some where a TRUE claim is being made, or where the falseness of the claim isn’t a deal-breaker for the song).

  75. 75
    David Belbin on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Like Rosie, I think of this as an album track and one which, like ‘Oh Yoko’ on ‘Imagine’ is a love letter to his wife. In this case, he’s flattering her by paraphrasing one of her irritatingly naive poems and making it into a mediocre ballad. And now a tedious documentary series too…

  76. 76

    yeah lennon is pretty much the posterchild for fakeout authenticity-outflanking moves — cf rosie’s point above about “working class hero” — AND someone who (when in a world-famous pop group) took more subtle care with lyrics that was then the norm, and would have LOVED non-real-world over-analysis, even as he pulled all kinds of stunts to mock it (tho actually i think post-beatles post-paul-as-co-author opted for a more bash-it-out deliberately less subtle approach) AND someone who genuinely cared about whether or not he was an Important Artist (even when constantly changing his mind about which he was, yes or no!)

    the LP before imagine isn’t just radically and self-consciously autobiographical, it actually consists of his therapy* sessions turned into songs!! (i like it more than tom does, but it set a pretty dreadful precedent in rock

    *type of therapy = primal scream = uh oh x one trillion

  77. 77

    i hadn’t thought of “yoko wrote these words”; but her naivety is a high-art top-down move if ever there was one — which she sometimes pulls off

  78. 78

    in fact, to go a bit further, there’s a case for the argument that lennon’s famous very long* postbeatles interview with jan wenner in rolling stone in (i think) 1970 pretty much laid the ground-rules for what would (a lot later) come to be called rockism — rock-writing was still relatively new and unformed in the US (didn’t exist barely at all in the UK outside places like Oz magazine), and Lennon was able to set up a canon of past pop quality and a canon of value, as part of his escape project from the already burdensome legacy of the group he’d been in, which not that many people thought to challenge for quite a long time

  79. 79
    Matthew H on 10 Dec 2008 #

    I’d rate this slightly above ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, slightly more above ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and a smidgen even more above ‘Baker Street’.

    That’s right, isn’t it?

    BUT SERIOUSLY, it’s one o’ them innit? One for the canon, which is exactly what erodes any affection you may have had for the song in the first place. I mean, it’s very immediate and simple to get a handle on – those are pluses – but mawkish and, ultimately, empty. I prefer his next No.1, which probably makes me Sean Rowley.

  80. 80
    H. on 10 Dec 2008 #

    I like Plastic Ono and “Mother” is one of my favourite songs of his – although I can easily see how one might hate it. Yes, the precedent-setting soul-baring album etc., but is that soul-baring really such a play for authenticity, or just another move… after all, as someone mentioned above, he told Elton that Imagine was “just a song”. I think what’s going on with Plastic Ono, and Lennon in general, is quite ambiguous in that regard. On the one hand, his angst is real, on the other hand, it’s also an art-rock pose. He’s oscillating between the two positions without really putting his foot in either camp. (Maybe that’s why Bowie was so attracted to him.)

  81. 81

    i’m not clear the distinction you’re making, h — yes it’s “another move”, and yes it’s an outflanking play for authenticity: does he believe in authenticity of the authenticity himself? yes, some of the time he does

    (one of the arguments that ian macdonald makes is that this was risky and toxic stuff to be playing with, this far out into global mass popularity — and while i don’t think macdonald’s overall political-philosophical analysis is either insightful or interesting, there is the fact that lennon was assassinated by a confused and disappointed fan: if you played these same kinds of is-it-isn’t-it games with a child’s or a lover’s affections, you’d rightly i think be called a manipulative and abusive jerk) (which doesn’t make him any less intersting and complex as an overall figure)

  82. 82
    H. on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Yes, I’ll go along with Lennon being manipulative and a jerk, and yet still a fascinating artist!

    I guess the point I was trying to make was in response to Tom@74, who intimated that it was OK to call Lennon out on his phoniness because he more or less invented the soul-baring rock album genre. And I just wanted to say that Plastic One is not really straighforward soul-baring, that Lennon is still striking a pose even as he is supposedly baring his soul, and that’s an ambiguity I kind of like…

  83. 83
    wichita lineman on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re 74: “Lennon is a slightly special case in that he pretty much laid the marker down for lyrics-as-soul-baring-art”.

    Plastic Ono Band is far too much “hear my pain” for me to take seriously, and my favourite albums have a high proportion of breakdowns and comedowns (Pet Sounds, Big Star’s Sister Lovers, Velvet Underground’s 3rd, Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour, Britney’s Blackout). Which leads me to think of POB, as it doesn’t touch me at all, as entirely phoney and show-off. Ditto Lou Reed’s Berlin.

    A girl once told me that living without me was like a George Harrison solo record, fine but not enough. It was maybe the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid. But if she’d said life without me was like Plastic Ono Band, I’d have yawned.

  84. 84

    i guess the point is that to explore the ambiguity properly, you have to have a handle on how it would work if it WEREN’T merely pose — in other words you have to take the authenticity move seriously before you can pick it apart (properly) as an art move

  85. 85
    Tom on 10 Dec 2008 #

    #82 Fair enough – I think in the actual review I do make it clear that “Imagine” in Imagine context – as one of Lennon’s many angles on himself (posed or otherwise) – isn’t as bad as “Imagine” in this context, where its seriousness is kind of assumed.

    I am actually a big ‘lyrics person’ – I don’t always notice them but I do a lot, probably because I tend to zero in so much on the voice and performance when I’m listening to a song. I’m in the poptimist wing that says “good lyrics means ‘No Limits’ as well as ‘Like A Rolling Stone'” not “lyrics don’t matter”.

  86. 86
    LondonLee on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re #83

    At least she didn’t say that life with you was like the Plastic Ono Band album.

  87. 87
    Erithian on 10 Dec 2008 #

    John Cooper Clarke: “Life with you is like a fairytale… Grimm.”

  88. 88
    Conrad on 10 Dec 2008 #

    83, brilliant, but she can’t have been referring to “All Things Must pass” which is more than enough already

    59, an arpeggio could be 3 or 4 notes (or more), its the individual notes forming the chord which are played in sequence, so rather than strumming a chord on the guitar you pluck the individual strings – say the coda on I want you she’so heavy (since we’re talking lennon).

  89. 89
    Conrad on 10 Dec 2008 #

    I often don’t go too heavily into lyrical analysis, partly because I often find following the lyric gets in the way of the overall effect of hearing the song.

    also, because so many lyrics are arrived in a roundabout, contrived way to scan or fit a rhyme (shake and cough as someone pointed out on the sting/don’t stand so close to me discussion – there is no way Sting set out to wrote ‘cough’ until he had his nabakov moment)

    i do however really appreciate reading some of the analysis and interpretation of the lyrics on here…and it’s great to get new perspectives on songs you’ve heard many times before

  90. 90
    Mark M on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re 89: By instinct I’m not so into lyrics, not least because I struggle to make them out, which surprises lazy people who go “you read lots of books, you also really like music, therefore you must spend lots of time analysing lyrics”*. But I don’t think you can truly avoid them with a big statement song and this is undoubtedly a BIG STATEMENT SONG.

    *I have, however, encountered a improbable number of Dylan/Costello/Magnetic Fields fans who really do treat rock as a literary form.

  91. 91
    Brian on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Imagine = Anarchy , def : A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without the implication of disorder).”[2]

  92. 92
    Billy Smart on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Plastic Ono Band is the one Lennon solo thing to which I always come back – the sound of bridges being burned (“The dream is over”) is rather thrilling when the singer built those bridges in the first place (“Don’t believe in Beatles”).

    I have a theory that whenever artists release these kind of weight off chest songs, where as much soul as they are prepared to expose to us is revealed, then everything that they release subsequently tends to feel like an appendix. Cases in point other than Plastic Ono Band;

    Pet Shop Boys: Very
    Morrissey: Vauxhall & I
    The Divine Comedy: Too Young To Die

    There are probably others to support this theory.

  93. 93
    wichita lineman on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Re 92: How intreeging. I always think of Very as a panicked, commercially-slanted appendix to the reflective but low-selling Behaviour. Which possibly means I haven’t listened too closely to the lyrics on Very.

    But, yes. Alex Chilton’s career after Sister Lovers has been one long, rambling afterthought. Some might say the same about Pet Sounds (which is, generally, Brian Wilson’s bridge-burning exercise, away from the other Beach Boys and their musical past).

    Imagine (the album) doesn’t feel like an appendix to me – as Lord Tarkus says Oh My Love is incandescently gorgeous, and most of the album easily trumps POB’s cold turkey. I’d say it relates to Plastic Ono Band much as Ram relates to McCartney (the album): got that bunch of demos and “this is the real me and I really don’t need the others!” stuff off my chest, now for a proper album.

    Still, when it comes to solo Beatle statements of independence, I’d rather hear Maybe I’m Amazed and Every Night than God or My Mummy’s Dead any day of the week.

  94. 94
    will on 10 Dec 2008 #

    It’s the Mike Yarwood moment in every pop career – ‘and this is me..’. Not a card to be played lightly. What do you do when you’ve revealed everything?

    As for Imagine, even in 1981 I found it deathly dull to listen to. In 2008 overfamiliarity has drained it of any residual meaning or importance it might have once held.

  95. 95
    DV on 10 Dec 2008 #

    Thanks for linking to those lyrics, btw – at last a song that makes you think almost as much as Imagine does.

  96. 96
    LondonLee on 10 Dec 2008 #

    But “Very” also happens to be a, um, very good album in it’s own right.

  97. 97
    Billy Smart on 11 Dec 2008 #

    My feeling about ‘Very’ – and the Pet Shop Boys’ number 1 days were already behind them by the 1990s so this won’t worry the spoiler bunny – is that the first four albums were preoccupied with a sense of isolation and melancholy through intimate songs about being habitually single, while the joy of ‘Very’ is that its an album about finally being in love at last very late in the day, well into middle age (see, especially, ‘Liberation’). It was hard to know where to go from that moment on (for me as a listener, anyway, if not for Neil Tennant as a songwriter).

  98. 98
    LondonLee on 11 Dec 2008 #

    It’s still a rather sad (Dreaming of The Queen, Go West) and at times even angry (Can You Forgive Her? The Theatre) record.

  99. 99
    wwolfe on 11 Dec 2008 #

    I remember reading an interview with Lennon where he said the lyrics weren’t intended to mean that all it takes to change the world is to imagine changing the world. Instead, he meant them to serve as a response to people who argue that any fundamental, profound change in the world is impossible: that is, if one accepts that change is impossible, then change will be impossible, for the simple reason that no attempt will even be made to affect change. If, on the other hand, one at least allows for the possibility that change can be made to happen, then perhaps the thought and effort neended to make change will occur. Heard that way, the lyrics don’t bother me nearly as much as if I hear them as rich, smug rock star dropping pearls of wisdom at the feet of poor, simple me.

    Musically, the melody to the verses is tedious. And, the one thing I haven’t seen from any other poster here, Alan White’s drumming is awful: clumsy, intrusive, and – almost too ironical – unimaginative. Also, I agree with the poster who said that Lennon’s singing voice was never enjoyable when treated by Spector.

    As far as political thinking goes, Lennon’s most trenchant and convincing came with his vocal on “Money.” The way he sings, “I wanna be free!!” carries much more truth than “Imagine.”

  100. 100
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Dec 2008 #

    mark g, the phrase you’re referring to — i think — isn’t really an arpeggio, and here’s for why (in my opinion)

    arpeggio is the italian for “play like a harp” (or some such): harps are tuned chordally , which is why they’re so good at playing those great sweepy chordal effects, chords not as clawed chunks but as swoops up and down the staircase of the notes

    this is a run — a semitone run, if i’m hearing it right — and runs on a harp require pedal shifts; hence adjacent semitones usually can’t be played simultaneously on a harp; since you couldn’t play this as an “unarpeggiated” chord on a harp then (being hyperpedantic)* you can’t really arpeggiate it…

    anyway that may not be the official reasoning, but arpeggios need spaces between the tones, i would say — they need to be broken chords, not necessarily simple triads but not plain runs

    you’re right about the aural illusion, i think — it makes you think another note is sounding when actually it isn’t (not a bad trick for a song called “imagine”) (i have the sheet music for this somewhere — i will look it out)

    *it’s my job! i can keep it up all week!

  101. 101
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Thanks for that.

    I would be very interested. I’m sure there’s some cover versions that add that extra note, but is it really there? hmmmmmm….

  102. 102

    could not find the music on first search — it and the lp were my sister’s i think, so it may still be at my parents’ house

  103. 103
    Lena on 13 Dec 2008 #

    “The song was included in the list of songs deemed inappropriate by Clear Channel following the September 11, 2001 attacks.” This and many other strange facts at wiki are enough to make me think this song is, to paraphrase the recently Vatican-pardoned Lennon, bigger than the man himself.

    Does anyone know why it was released as a single first in the US?

  104. 104
    Mark G on 15 Dec 2008 #

    I think it was to make people buy the album to get the song.

    (At that time, singles were getting a bit ‘sniffed at’ and LPs were the ‘serious’ format, which continued until Punk happened. Also, the companies like selling albums more, profits etc were bigger)

  105. 105
    rosie on 15 Dec 2008 #

    When I bought LPs rather than singles in the late 60s/early 70s, it wasn’t because singles were to be sniffed at, it was because you got so much more for your money.

  106. 106
    wichita lineman on 15 Dec 2008 #

    It was pretty standard practise for Beatle-related albums in Britain (until ’73-ish) not to be plundered for singles. McCartney, Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo’s Sentimental Journey were stand-alone albums, though Every Night or Maybe I’m Amazed from the former could have easily been a no.1.

    So if Lennon later claimed that Imagine was too controversial to be released as a single in the UK (haven’t seen that quote myself), it was poppycock. The single preceding Imagine in Britain was Power To The People – a tad more controversial than “I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one”.

  107. 107
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 15 Dec 2008 #

    yes they may have “invented” the concept album (and “rock”) w. peppper, but the beatles were (if anything) ideologically pro-singles — they were adepts of the charts and chart placing as a conversation-stroke-stylebattle (some of lennon-ono’s early singles were recorded and releasede very swiftly, to be politically tpoicakl, no?)

    (tho come to think of it at least one of the L-O LPs made a noise about super-swift over-the-weekend recording-and-release: i’m at work so can’t look this up — roy carr is very snarky about it in his illustrated guide, and, iirc, quotes mccartney being acidly tongue-in-cheek)

  108. 108
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 15 Dec 2008 #

    er that wd be “topical”

  109. 109
    Mark G on 15 Dec 2008 #

    Lennon ‘imagined’ that the reason Imagine wasn’t a single was etc.

  110. 110
    James K. on 20 Apr 2009 #

    I dislike this song also, but I once read a clever semi-defense of it claiming that the emphasis was on the possessions verse – that people will sell out religion and patriotism pretty easily (“It’s easy if you try” and “It isn’t hard to do”), but will never give up material wealth (“I wonder if you can”). Even in this theory, a lot depends on whether Lennon was aiming the lyrics at himself – if not, this only increases the probability that the line is a sneer.

  111. 111
    lonepilgrim on 23 Jun 2010 #

    there’s a Top of the Pops 2 Lennon Special here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00747qb/TOTP2_John_Lennon_Special/

  112. 112
    punctum on 12 Aug 2010 #

    Why haven’t I commented on this so far? Here’s why: http://nobilliards.blogspot.com/2010/08/john-lennon-and-plastic-ono-band-with.html

  113. 113
    swanstep on 5 Dec 2012 #

    This 1975 performance changes (among other things)
    ‘Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of man’
    to
    ‘Imagine no possessions/I wonder if *we* can
    No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood *and [hurriedly] sisterhood* of man’.

  114. 114
    Ed on 5 Dec 2012 #

    Is that really the lyric?!

    I am gobsmacked.

    I have spent all these decades, and countless thousands of listens, believing that he’s singing “No need for greed or hunger / Or brotherhood of man.”

    I always thought it meant that “brotherhood of man” was one of those empty pious platitudes that could be dispensed with once we reached the Nirvana-state, or revolution, or whatever.

    It was always my favourite line in the song, a challenge both to the earnest good intentions of some of Lennon’s contemporaries, and to his own unattainable vision.

    And now I discover I just misunderstood it…. Gah!

    It turns out I like Imagine even less than I thought I did.

  115. 115
    swanstep on 5 Dec 2012 #

    @Ed. No, hunger, greed generally bad, fraternite generally good is pretty standard.

    Earlier in the 1975 performance, Lennon ditches ‘religion’ from the No Countries verse in favor of ‘No Immigration too’. This is a little like Imagine 2.0, answering/evading many of the (petty) objections that had been raised.

  116. 116
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2012 #

    “Immigration” presumably in the sense of the US dept which was giving him a hard time over his Green Card (because of his intermittently radical politics), rather than in the Eric Clapton sense?

    In the end this is Lennon attempting to mimic Yoko Ono’s shtick, of blithely serene utopian child-like simplicity — which of course he had massively fallen for, in contrast to his own embittered sardonic misanthropy/misogyny etc. Ono can (sometimes) pull it off: desite his occasional gift for the stripped-back-and-blunt, Lennon (here) can’t. Never switch simplicities in mid-stream.

  117. 117
    Mark G on 5 Dec 2012 #

    Maybe there were imagine(d) sequel lyrics that he hadn’t got to!

    “Imagine there’s no Tescos”…

  118. 118
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2012 #

    “Imagine there’s no irritation” <– IT'S EASY IF YOU TRY

  119. 119
    thefatgit on 5 Dec 2012 #

    #117 “All we are saying/is give Lidl a chance”

  120. 120
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Dec 2012 #

    “Imagine there’s no `Imagine'”

    That’d be better still

  121. 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.

  122. 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)

  123. 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.

  124. 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….

  125. 125
    richard thompson on 5 Jan 2013 #

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

  126. 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)

  127. 127
    Pete Baran on 15 May 2013 #

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

  128. 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.

  129. 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

  130. 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)

  131. 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.

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