Exactly 50 years ago today, on September 9, 1971, John Lennon released Imagine, his second solo album. Initially, I had not planned to cover this milestone, especially given how many other records that are arguably better are also hitting their 50th anniversary this year. Imagine sounds much more produced than Lennon’s solo debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – even lush at times, which isn’t surprising, given Phil Spector’s involvement. Still, listening to it the other day reminded me this is a pretty damn good album by a member of my all-time favorite band. Do I really need more justification to celebrate its 50th anniversary?
Let’s revisit some of the songs. Starting with the opening title track really is a no-brainer. Whether you agree that it’s a great tune or not, it’s undisputable Imagine is John Lennon’s signature song. One could criticize a certain degree of hypocrisy that Lennon sang about peace while at the same time he was ignoring his first son Julian. Yes, John Lennon wasn’t perfect, but tell me one music artist you consider to be one of your heroes who is! Plus, it doesn’t change the fact the tune is a beautiful ballad with thought-provoking lyrics. Imagine also appeared separately as a single in the U.S. in October 1971 and in the UK in 1975, reaching no. 3 and no. 6 on the national charts, respectively. It became the most successful single of Lennon’s solo career.
One of the nice things that can happen when revisiting albums is that you come across a song that you previously had not quite recognized. This is how I feel about Crippled Inside, the second track on side one (speaking in vinyl terms). I love how that tune sounds, in particular the salon style piano played by Nicky Hopkins. Another notable guest I’d like to call out is George Harrison, who played Dobro guitar. There was also Ted Turner. According to Songfacts, he received a phone call from Lennon at 11:00 pm while his band Wishbone Ash was recording their own album to ask whether Turner could join Lennon’s recording session right away. Turner did and provided acoustic rhythm guitar.
“When you’re in love with somebody, you tend to be jealous, and want to own them and possess them 100 percent, which I do,” Lennon said about Jealous Guy, as captured by Songfacts. “Intellectually, I thought owning a person is rubbish, but I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her. You have so little as a child, I think once you find it, you want to hang onto it. You grab it so much, you tend to kill it.” Songfacts also notes Yoko Ono told music magazine Uncut in 1998, “He was jealous about the fact that I had another language in my head, you know, Japanese, that he can’t share with me. It was almost on a very conceptual, spiritual level. It wasn’t on a level of physical or anything ’cause I just would never give him a reason for that.”
Time to move on to side two and Gimme Some Truth, a song about Lennon’s frustration with slick and deceptive politicians. Songfacts adds the tune also refers to cover-ups like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, with Lennon demanding simple truth. Lennon’s outspoken stance against America’s war engagement in Vietnam did not endear him to the Nixon Administration, which mounted deportation efforts against him. Ultimately, they failed and “Tricky Dicky” was forced to resign in disgrace! Once again, George Harrison guested, playing electric guitar and slide guitar. Sadly, sleazy politicians are still all too common, so these lyrics very much remain relevant today.
Perhaps the album’s most intense track is How Do You Sleep?, which Lennon wrote when his relationship with Paul McCartney was at rock bottom. The song was a response to what Lennon felt were McCartney’s attacks against him on the Ram album, including lines in the song Too Many People and a picture of two screwing beetles on the back cover – or as Songfacts puts it, as if Paul was telling John, ‘screw you from one Beatle to another.’ Songfacts also notes an interview Lennon gave to BBC Radio 1 on December 6, 1980, two days before he was killed, during which he said, “I used my resentment against Paul, that I have as a kind of sibling rivalry resentment from youth, to write a song. It was a creative rivalry… It was not a vicious vendetta.” How Do You Sleep? is another tune featuring nice slide guitar work by George Harrison. Lennon would revisit the melody of the chorus on Steel and Glass, a tune that appeared on his fourth solo album Walls and Bridges from September 1974.
Let’s do one more: Oh Yoko!, the closer. The Beatles Bible notes Lennon started work on the love song in 1968 in India while The Beatles were visiting guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The melody was inspired by Lost John, a song by skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan, one of Lennon’s early influences. Additionally, Oh Yoko! holds the distinction of Lennon playing harmonica for the first time since Rocky Raccoon and The White Album. It also turned out to be his last recording using the instrument.
In addition to George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins and Ted Turner, Imagine featured many other guests. Some included drummer Alan White who in 1972 joined Yes and is a member of the band to this day; Klaus Voormann who had been brought in by Harrison and played bass on all tracks; as well as Badfinger’s Joey Molland and Tom Evans who provided acoustic guitar on Jealous Guy and another tune titled I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Mama.
Just like the title track, Imagine became Lennon’s most successful solo album, topping the charts in the U.S., the UK and various other European countries, as well as Australia and Japan. It has achieved 2X Platinum certification in the U.S. and Gold certification the UK. Imagine was ranked at no. 80 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 edition of the list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As of 2020, it’s still on the list, coming in at no. 223.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; YouTube