Get a Fly-on-the-Wall View of John Lennon Recording & Arranging His Classic Song, “Imagine” (1971)

In a recent inter­view, the peren­ni­al­ly cheer­ful Paul McCart­ney talked can­did­ly about his depres­sion after the Bea­t­les’ 1970 breakup, a rev­e­la­tion that may have come as a sur­prise to some peo­ple giv­en Sir Paul’s gen­er­al lev­el of, well, cheer. But, “you would be too if it hap­pened to you,” said McCart­ney, admit­ting that he “took to the bevvies… to a wee dram” (and mak­ing even a drink­ing prob­lem sound upbeat). Where McCart­ney admits he strug­gled to find his foot­ing again musi­cal­ly, two of his estranged band­mates released solo-career-defin­ing albums just months after the Bea­t­les’ offi­cial demise—George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Imag­ine.

Lennon, of course, had his own post-Bea­t­les issues with sub­stance abuse and depres­sion. But in 1971 he had kicked a hero­in habit, embraced pri­mal ther­a­py, and was in top musi­cal form. Not only did Imag­ine, the album, go dou­ble plat­inum, but fans and crit­ics con­sid­er “Imag­ine,” the song, one of the finest Lennon ever wrote. In the footage above, we see Lennon dur­ing the ear­ly Imag­ine record­ing ses­sions at his home stu­dio at Tit­ten­hurst Park. Lennon plays the new title track for the album’s musi­cians for the first time, records his vocals and piano, and dis­cuss­es the mix and arrange­ment with Phil Spec­tor and Yoko Ono.

The clip comes from the 2000 doc­u­men­tary Gimme Some Truth: The Mak­ing of John Lennon’s Imag­ine Album, which cap­tures the inti­ma­cy of those record­ing ses­sions, as Lennon and his band eat and talk togeth­er before going into the stu­dio. George Har­ri­son appears often to record gui­tar parts for sev­er­al songs; the band jams and hors­es around; Allen Gins­berg and Miles Davis show up and Davis plays bas­ket­ball with Lennon; and Yoko and John dis­cuss design and album pho­tog­ra­phy.

Lat­er that year, Lennon and Yoko appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to pro­mote the song and album and pre­mier the “Imag­ine” film above. As in near­ly all of his solo work, Ono act­ed both as Lennon’s muse and his col­lab­o­ra­tor, inspir­ing Imag­ine’s “How” and “Oh Yoko” and co-writ­ing “Oh My Love.” She is rarely giv­en cred­it, how­ev­er, for inspiring—and co-writing—“Imagine.” The song owes much to Ono’s “good-natured­ly defi­ant lit­tle book,” Grape­fruit, “part irrev­er­ent activ­i­ty book for grown-ups,” writes Maria Popo­va, “part sub­ver­sive phi­los­o­phy for life,” com­plete with whim­si­cal draw­ings very much like the kind Lennon him­self made and pub­lished in his own books of sil­ly verse.

But while crit­ics and Lennon fans over­look Yoko’s role in “Imagine”’s com­po­si­tion, Lennon lat­er admit­ted it “should be cred­it­ed as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more self­ish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omit­ted her con­tri­bu­tion, but it was right out of Grape­fruit.” The album cov­er did, how­ev­er, quote “Cloud piece,” one of the many med­i­ta­tive poems Lennon drew from: “Imag­ine the clouds drip­ping. Dig a hole in your gar­den to put them in.”

In the short mak­ing-of clip at the top, Lennon tells the room, after play­ing a raw ren­di­tion of “Imag­ine” solo on piano, “that’s the one I like best.” The song’s utopi­anism strong­ly con­trasts with the right­eous anger and bit­ter­ness Lennon gave vent to in oth­er songs on Imag­ine, includ­ing “How Do You Sleep?,” in which, he told Play­boy in 1980, “I used my resent­ment and with­draw­ing from Paul and The Bea­t­les, and the rela­tion­ship with Paul.” Ear­ly edi­tions of the LP even includ­ed a post­card pho­to of Lennon hold­ing a pig, mock­ing the cov­er of McCartney’s under­rat­ed Ram. McCart­ney expressed his post-Bea­t­les’ anger in a few minor lyri­cal jabs; Lennon respond­ed with unsub­tle vit­ri­ol. But many of Imag­ine’s songs—celebrations of love, protests against war, and the vision­ary title track—point away from the past and toward the future, or what lit­tle of it remained for Lennon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Two Appear­ances on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and 72

John Lennon’s “Imag­ine” & Paul McCartney’s “Yes­ter­day” Adapt­ed into Smart, Mov­ing Web­comics

Hear John Lennon’s Final Inter­view, Taped on the Last Day of His Life (Decem­ber 8, 1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.