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.



1 2 3 4 5 All
  1. 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]

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 96
    LondonLee on 10 Dec 2008 #

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

  7. 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).

  8. 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.

  9. 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.”

  10. 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!

  11. 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….

  12. 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

  13. 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?

  14. 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)

  15. 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.

  16. 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”.

  17. 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)

  18. 108
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 15 Dec 2008 #

    er that wd be “topical”

  19. 109
    Mark G on 15 Dec 2008 #

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

  20. 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.

  21. 111
    lonepilgrim on 23 Jun 2010 #

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


  22. 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

  23. 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’
    ‘Imagine no possessions/I wonder if *we* can
    No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood *and [hurriedly] sisterhood* of man’.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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”…

  28. 118
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Dec 2012 #

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

  29. 119
    thefatgit on 5 Dec 2012 #

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

  30. 120
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Dec 2012 #

    “Imagine there’s no `Imagine'”

    That’d be better still

1 2 3 4 5 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page