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. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 63

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

  4. 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

  5. 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)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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


    (actually that last line may be slightly wrong)

  9. 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?

  10. 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,

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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).

  15. 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…

  16. 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

  17. 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

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.)

  21. 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)

  22. 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…

  23. 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.

  24. 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

  25. 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”.

  26. 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.

  27. 87
    Erithian on 10 Dec 2008 #

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

  28. 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).

  29. 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

  30. 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.

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