Imagining a “brotherhood of man” sounds Pollyannaish and painfully naïve when even an “uneasy truce of man” seems hardly possible. But when John Lennon sings about it with conviction in “Imagine,” we sit up and listen. Such is the power of “Imagine”’s utopian vision, and Lennon later admitted it “should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song,” since “a lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko,” specifically from Grapefruit, her little book of whimsical “instructions.” For decades the pair’s collaborations have received withering scorn from Beatles fans, but no greater testament to their combined humanist vision exists than “Imagine,” a product of Ono’s conceptual dream verse and Lennon’s earnest songcraft.
So much has been said and written about the song, so many great and not-so-great covers performed since its 1971 release, that we might think we know all there is to know about it. We even have behind the scenes footage in the documentary Gimme Some Truth of the sometimes tense recording sessions. Yet it turns out that the original demo version Lennon recorded at his own Ascot Sound studios went unnoticed in a box of tapes for 45 years. We can celebrate its 2016 rediscovery and now hear it for ourselves, that eight-track tape transferred to digital and enhanced by engineer Paul Hicks, above.
The recording was discovered by Rob Stevens who found it, reports Jason Kottke, “while sifting through boxes upon boxes of the original tapes for Yoko Ono.” It seems that improper labeling damned the tape to decades of obscurity. “There’s a one-inch eight-track,” remembered Stevens, “that says nothing more on the ‘Ascot Sound’ label than John Lennon, the date, and the engineer (Phil McDonald), with DEMO on the spine. No indication of what material was on the tape.” The find was “true serendipity,” he remarks.
Hearing this moving, stripped-down solo version reminds me of David Bowie telling an audience in 1983—just before singing the song on his Serious Moonlight tour—of how Lennon approached his songwriting: “’It’s easy,’ he said, ‘you just say what you mean and put a backbeat to it.’” Even without the backbeat, “Imagine” says exactly what it means. Imagine all the people living for today.
A set of “Ultimate Mixes” of the Imagine album will be released in October (pre-order here) and will of course include the newly-unearthed demo along with many other demos and rarities. Till then, enjoy this amazing discovery, as well as Lennon’s live television performance from 1972 on the Mike Douglas Show, just above.