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Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “Imagine”

FT + Popular127 comments • 5,487 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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Comments

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  1. 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….

  2. 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

  3. 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?

  4. 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)

  5. 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.

  6. 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”.

  7. 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)

  8. 108
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 15 Dec 2008 #

    er that wd be “topical”

  9. 109
    Mark G on 15 Dec 2008 #

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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/

  12. 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

  13. 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’.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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”…

  18. 118
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2012 #

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

  19. 119
    thefatgit on 5 Dec 2012 #

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

  20. 120
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Dec 2012 #

    “Imagine there’s no `Imagine’”

    That’d be better still

  21. 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.

  22. 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)

  23. 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.

  24. 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….

  25. 125
    richard thompson on 5 Jan 2013 #

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

  26. 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)

  27. 127
    Pete Baran on 15 May 2013 #

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

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