Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “Imagine”

FT + Popular134 comments • 10,208 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. 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.


  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.

  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

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