“Yoko and I always live about two-thousand light years’ speed when we’re working,” John Lennon says in one of the 1971 interviews unearthed on the new box set Imagine: The Ultimate Collection. “It’s usually moving very fast and there’s always a small hurricane around us.” But John was kidding about the “small” part—in 1971, he was caught up in a full-scale creative hurricane. His solo classic Imagine is an experiment he only tried once, making a state-of-the-art professional rock album with a rotating cast of top-notch studio hired guns. But because he’s John Lennon, it’s also weird and raw. It’s his slickest, glossiest album, his most grandly beautiful—the one where you hum the Nicky Hopkins piano solos. But it’s also his toughest and meanest. Marching into his thirties, throwing himself into collaborations with Yoko Ono and Phil Spector, he sets out to capture all the chaos raging inside his head, along with the turmoil he sees in the world around him.
Imagine: The Ultimate Collection is a lavish celebration of John’s masterwork, on four CDs and two Blu-Ray discs. It’s here just in time for his birthday—he would have turned 78 on October 9. It stands alongside the great new Yoko-curated coffee-table book about the making of the album, as well as the theatrical re-release of the 1971 films Imagine and Gimme Some Truth. It comes at a time when the Beatle presence is high—the essential new White Album box set arrives on November 9, with hours of previously unheard treasure and demos that finally prove, among many other things, the Beatles were very much a functioning band in 1968, with John rediscovering his voice as a songwriter. And oh yes—all this is happening while a certain Paul McCartney is on top of the charts, with his Number One smash Egypt Station.
Imagine was John’s second post-Beatles album, after the stark 1970 confessional Plastic Ono Band. It’s the album where he tries to break free of the Beatles, but it’s also the one where he tries to live up to their irreverent spirit. It’s the one where he bitches out Paul, with the nasty blues “How Do You Sleep?” But it’s also the one where he wears his Beatle badge proudly in his flamboyantly McCartney-esque piano ballads. It’s the one where he calls Yoko’s name like a mantra. “Oh My Love,” “Gimme Some Truth,” “Jealous Guy,” “Crippled Inside,” “Oh Yoko!”—these are songs that bring all his contradictions together, with a little help from his friends.
Imagine: The Ultimate Collection is a fresh way to experience this music, a full-immersion tour of John and Yoko’s world in 1971. It has new mixes of the original album, as well as outtakes, studio jams, interviews with John and Yoko. Each song gets an “Evolution” mix, a montage that traces the history of the song from acoustic demo to rough band rehearsal to polished studio version. It also has the songs John and Yoko were scattering around them on singles: “Do The Oz,” a benefit single for the U.K. radical press, kicks up a storm, along with “Power to the People” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The Evolution Mix of “Imagine” follows his most famous song from a piano demo, taped in his bedroom, all the way to the piano-and-strings album version, with detours along the way. One take has Hopkins’ electric piano along with John Tout’s vibraphone and John Barham’s harmonium for a droning Rubber Soul-style approach. “I Don’t Wanna Be A Solider Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” turns into a reggae skank, with Bobby Keys on sax, Klaus Voorman on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. When the groove falls apart, John announces “Let’s go listen to the mess we’re making.”
The films Imagine and Gimme Some Truth are available separately, as DVDs from Eagle Rock Entertainment, but they’re a revelatory companion to this box set. Imagine has a rep as a stoned cinematic melange, so it’s stunning to see how witty and clever it is, with John and Yoko doing visual interpretations of songs from both Imagine and her solo album Fly, taking turns. At one point, they’re at a house party, hanging in the driveway with Miles Davis; at another, they’re on board the Staten Island Ferry, looking out over New York City, arm in arm as they gaze on the brand new World Trade Center’s twin towers. Yoko struts into a hotel room on the arm of Fred Astaire; she then does the same thing on the arm of George Harrison, a moment that will be savored by anyone who argues George was the Hot Beatle. It’s basically Help! remade as a psychedelic romantic comedy, ending with John and Yoko rushing into each other’s arms on the beach.
Gimme Some Truth is only three musical performances—all captured in audio form on the Imagine box set, and all stunners. John and George play “How Do You Sleep?” together, eyeball to eyeball in the studio, with a deadpan George intent on his slide guitar solo, despite their tangibly mischievous delight in sharing a mean in-joke about their former bandmate Paul. As John said at the time, “If I can’t have a fight with my best friend, I don’t know who I can have a fight with.” Gimme Some Truth ends with John in bed in 1969, in a Bahamas hotel room, strumming an acoustic tune that turns out to be “Oh Yoko!” This demo is the emotional high point of Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, just as “Oh Yoko!” was the peak of the original album. He’s busking the song to show it off to visiting friend Derek Taylor, as Yoko improvises harmonies. When John bursts out into a Little Richard hook—“a wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom!”—he sounds as happy as he ever would in his life.