“Imagine” is possibly the most famous and enduring song by any of the Fab Four in their post-Beatles years. It wasn’t a massive hit when it first came out in 1971, only making the Top 10 in both the UK and the US, although it did make Number One in the UK following John Lennon’s tragic death in December 1980.
That seems like a slightly underwhelming initial response to a song which would pick up plenty of recognition in the years since its release. The BMI recognised it as one of the most performed songs of the 20th Century. “Imagine” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. And Rolling Stone magazine put it very firmly in the upper reaches of their 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll listing.
It probably didn’t help that John Lennon was seen as quite a divisive figure in 1971. Many people hadn’t got over his “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remark. And probably more people were angry that “he’d broken up the Beatles”.
John Lennon didn’t always come in a media-friendly package. And he was a deep thinker in the world when deep thinking wasn’t held in great esteem back in 1971. Goodness knows what he’d make the world today…
Like a lot of clever people, I suspect at its root he just got a bit exasperated with others who couldn’t see the world in a way that was face-smackingly obvious to him.
Thankfully there was one way John Lennon could communicate exceptionally well, and that was through the lyrics of his songs.
Put any controversy about John Lennon and his attitude on one side. There aren’t many greater lyrics in pop music than…
You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
I’ve always felt dreamers get an unfairly bad press. Being “too much of a dreamer” is an expression rarely intended as a compliment.
Yet the world needs dreamers…people who don’t go with the crowd…people who lift their eyes up from the task in hand to imagine a better tomorrow and build a path to take us there.
If Gandhi hadn’t dreamt of a world without colonial oppression, where would we be?
If Nelson Mandela hadn’t dreamt of a world where black and white would co-exist as equals, where would we be?
If Winston Churchill hadn’t dreamt of a world of freedom and democracy instead of one run by totalitarian dictatorships, where would we be?
The world needs its dreamers…now more than ever, possibly.
For all of John Lennon’s noble sentiments, he wasn’t always the poster child for enlightenment in his own life. Shortly before he died, he acknowledged he should have given Yoko Ono credit for providing the initial inspiration for his most famous song, and for her assistance with the some of the lyrics.
In 2017, Yoko Ono was given a co-writing credit on “Imagine” in recognition of the role she’d played in shaping one of the 20th Century’s most iconic songs. There’s very little doubt that John Lennon wrote at least the vast majority of the words, but there’s equally very little doubt that most of the inspiration had come from Yoko Ono.
Looking back, “Imagine” has a strong dose of the same radical inspiration Yoko Ono developed in her own work as an artist within it. So in the end, that was probably a fair outcome.
“Imagine” is a very radical song. Possibly the most radical song wrapped up in a comforting melody you’re likely to find.
It’s a plea for peace and understanding, but “Imagine” is a lot more than a pastiche of the kind of poem a sensitive teenager might write alone in their bedroom late at night…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
If that wasn’t getting the traditionally-minded middle classes spluttering in their tea back in 1971, I’m not sure what would. With the Vietnam war in full swing and conflict seemingly everywhere around the world, tribalism of all sorts was rampant.
You identified yourself by whether you were against these people or for those people. There was no middle ground.
You were a hippy or a commie if you didn’t want to support military intervention around the world. And never mind “dreamer”…neither of those words were ever intended as compliments either.
But John Lennon wasn’t done outraging the parents of the record buying public. “Imagine” argues for nothing less than the complete dismantling of everything capitalism stands for, which is dangerous territory - plenty of people who might not consider themselves religious are very strongly invested in the concept of capitalism…
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
But, in fairness to John Lennon, he felt that was a question worth asking.
There’s no doubt that’s a radically different view of the world, and over the years there have been some snide remarks about how appropriate that message was coming from a multimillionaire rock star.
For me, that rather misses the point. You don’t need to suffer personally to want the rest of the world to have what you have. This idea that only those in grinding poverty can speak the truth is sorely mistaken.
And it’s sorely mistaken for one simple reason. Very few people listen to the poor and downtrodden.
I wish it were different, but we have to work with the world as it is.
If it takes a multimillionaire rock star to challenge us on the way we see the world, I’m more than happy that they do that, because nobody else is.
It was group of multimillionaire rock stars who set up Live Aid when news reached the West of starvation in Ethiopia.
It was multimillionaire rock star Elton John who did so much to highlight the plight of those suffering with AIDS when that disease was a social stigma akin to the way people regarded leprosy in the Middle Ages.
None of those very famous people were the first to discover the issues they became so passionate about. None of them were the only people to work to find solutions. None of them were the only people to feel deeply about the plight of those who suffered.
But what they could do is talk to millions of people about those who suffered around the world through their music and concerts and get their audiences interested in previously unfashionable causes.
I wish it were different, but more people listen to what multimillionaire rock stars say than listen to random blokes shouting at passers-by on street corners. So if that’s the only way to get an important message out, then well done to our multimillionaire rock stars, I say.
For all the challenging thinking in the lyrics, “Imagine” is a very simple song musically.
In fact surprisingly simple given that Phil Spector produced the record, along with John and Yoko.
Phil Spector was famous for his “wall of sound” recording technique. And he was the butt of John Lennon’s sharp tongue himself when John described the Phil Spector-produced “Long And Winding Road” as “Produced by the Beatles. Over-produced by Phil Spector”.
But there’s not even a hint of that in “Imagine”. It’s just John Lennon on the piano, Klaus Voorman plucking away occasionally on the bass, a very restrained Alan White on drums and a string arrangement set so deep in the mix you’d hardly notice it.
In a production sense, “Imagine” is a million miles away from anything Phil Spector had made his name with as a result of producing records for the Ronettes or the Crystals. But “Imagine” is the better for it…there are no distractions from John Lennon’s message, nothing else to get lost in, no rabbit holes to scurry down.
The message of “Imagine” is about as straightforward and obvious as you’ll find in a pop song. You don’t need to go looking for what it means or reading between the lines of the lyrics.
“Imagine” stands proud and unadorned, its message hewn out of vinyl like the inscription on a marble monument, in plain view for all eternity.
And if there was ever a set of song lyrics which deserve to be chiselled out of a block of marble in a prominent public place, it’s probably the lyrics to John Lennon’s masterpiece, “Imagine”…
You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7pKfPomDEeI4TPT6EOYjn9