50 Years Ago Today: Imagine

I was going to head this post: “50 years ago today: John Lennon’s last good album” but that would not be in a very positive spirit, would it? But I think it is true. To my taste, after the break-up, the founder of the Beatles only made two records that were up to the standards he had set as a Beatle: Imagine (1971), and the prior John Lennon/Plastic One Band (1970). The previous one had been a masterpeice of self revelation, a sort of psychotherapy journal set to stark, harrowing, and distorted rock sounds. That remains a sub-theme on Imagine, but for the most part Lennon summoned his commercial instincts and managed to turn out one album with mass appeal (in its day) and which is eminently listenable in its entirety. At that, as with McCartney’s most popular LP Band on the Run, he seems to just barely fill the requirement with ten tracks, two of which are on the long side, as opposed to 12 or 14 or even multiple disks as Harrison had achieved in All Things Must Pass. But they are all first rate, I can hear every song in my head, can quote the lyrics of them all, and I pretty much like them all, which is a pretty good barometer, yeah? And that can’t be said of any of his subsequent albums, with the possible exception of the posthumous Milk and Honey.

The Imagine LP was a rare case where Lennon’s inconsistency worked in his favor. The fact that the songs are a kind of hodge-podge makes for an eclectic set, the kind of variety the Beatles used to provide on records as a group. There are songs of hope, songs of anger, political songs, philosophical songs, love songs, and even, perhaps for the last time on one of his LPs, examples of his humor, one of the things his fans love most about him. Track by track:

The title track is naturally the best known and most beloved, and it ended up being kind of his post-Beatles theme song. While it does indeed show Yoko’s strong influence (as did everything Lennon did from about 1968 on), it is also very much in the tradition of earlier Lennon songs such as “The Word”, “All You Need is Love”, and “Give Peace a Chance”. Musically, it is very simple, practically pro forma, but among its saving graces is that little “yoo hoo” at the end of each verse, reminding us of the guy who also sang on “She Loves You”. It feels trite to praise the song for its vision, but I will say this: what it advocates has meant more to me than ever over the last five years. No religion and no nations sounds just fine to me at the moment — if humanity could manage to do it without having chaos worse than the existing order. The song is honest, open, wide-eyed, and universal, which makes for a tension and contrast with many of the other songs on the record, giving the LP overall the same inherent contradiction present in his early hit “Instant Karma” (1970), a tune which informs us that “we all shine on”, even as it excoriates us with threats for being insufficiently tuned in.

The next track “Crippled Inside” has a nice ambigiuity to it. I think when I first encountered it, I probably assumed it was a taunt directed at squares of the Nixon variety, who were often described by hippies in terms like that: “insecure”, “impotent”, and the like. But it also (and this is what we value Lennon for) sounds pretty plainly SELF-directed, and seems to be one of the tunes that’s of a piece with the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band materal, except for the fact that musically, it is extremely playful, with a funny, country music sound (in the spirit of Country Joe’s “I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”),that rescues it from being over-serious.

“Jealous Guy” is justifiably one of the best loved tracks on the album. It could easily have been a hit single for Lennon (perhaps his most beautiful melody), as it proved to be a #1 hit for Roxy Music in the UK a decade later. The tune was composed by Lennon in 1968 as one of his White Album tracks, entitled “Child of Nature” (as I wrote here, I like that version too. I have a feeling he may have dropped it as redundant when McCartney introduced “Mother Nature’s Son”). While full of highly personal sentiments, it’s also universal enough to be a straight-up pop tune, which is very refreshing at this point in his career.

“It’s So Hard” is probably my least favorite track of the ten, a straight-up three chord rocker with lyrics that hearken back again to those Arthur Janov-primal scream-inspired autobiography songs of the previous record. It sounds almost identical to Dylan’s “Pledging My Time”, which sounds like a lot of other things (I like the Dylan song though). Increasingly, musicianship would come to be the one element you could consistently praise about Lennon’s work, as his songwriting began to fail. (The heartbreaking example of that is the single off his next album “Woman is the N–r of the World”, a pretty attrocious song, but SO well performed and produced). In a similar vein is the next song “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, Mama (I Don’t Want to Die)”, an unambiguous anti-Vietnam song, with minimalist lyrics and epic length, in the tradition of Abby Road’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.

The political theme is continued on the flip side of the record (for those playing vinyl), with another biting, witty track “Gimme Some Truth”, a holdover from the Get Back/Let it Be sessions, which would prove to be one of the last examples of the Lennon “torrent of wordplay” songs. One of the virtues of the song is that simultaneously manages to express equal frustration with the people in power, and the people COMPLAINING about the people in power…a theme very relatable to us now in the social media age.

Next comes the beautiful, poetic “Oh My Love”, originally developed from the White Album sessions (and sounding very much like it).

But we are very much on a roller coaster, for his next song is the angry “How Do You Sleep?”, generally understood as an answer song to McCartney’s “Too Many People” on Ram, although Lennon generally regarded that as an oversimplification. The fact that George Harrison also plays on it, may have added to the sting, but Harrison also plays on about half the album, so that too can be overtstated, but probably not much. The song plays both defense and offense, and it does after all literally mention Sgt. Pepper.

“How?” is a really interesting song, juxtaposing a really strange piled up syllabic rhythm with a Lennon lullaby feel at the end of verses, with each line of the song asking genuinely thought-provoking questions, undoubtedly reflecting Ono’s influence again.

And then the final tune, “Oh Yoko” which I have always found frustrating, not to say maddening, for it is SO catchy and has such a great feel that I suspect it would have commercial potential. But the barrier of course is the lyric, which is specifically directed at his wife. So when one finds one singing this song to oneself (as I will today, damn it) one finds oneself singing the lyric, “Oh, Yoko, My Love Will Turn You On” — and I really don’t want to do that!

As I’m sure you know, there are MILES of documentary footage of the Lennons and Phil Spector and the sidemen (Harrison, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voorman, Alan White, Jim Keltner, etc) recording this LP. One thing that I find interesting about a lot of the footage I have seen is that Lennon comes across as a ranting, perfectionist bastard in a lot of it. It’s to the good, of course, because, what a good record, but that was supposed to be MCCARTNEY’S hang-up! Whereas, McCartney’s next record would be the lax, one-take, almost unlistenable Wild Life. These guys were still figuring their shit out. The unfortunate thing is that Lennon pretty much didn’t figure his shit out after this. His musicianship and production were great, one might even say, over-wrought, but his songwriting, theoretically his strong suit, really waned, never to return in full strength. On Imagine he was still in top form, pretty much for the last time.

For some very different, very smart insights on Imagine, check out Conrad Brunstrom’s post. In particular, I love that he grappled with an angle I considered but chose not to wrestle with — that the title song, now apparently embraced by everyone in the mainstream, has come to seem like bullshit (much as we now have to witness the nauseating annual spectacle of Republicans claiming to embrace MLK — talk about revisionism! And charges of hypocrisy, usually expressed as “contradiction” with relation to Lennon. His post is here).