On the morning of January 27th, 1970, John Lennon glimpsed his future. He and Yoko Ono had just returned from a nearly month-long trip to Denmark, where Ono was visiting her daughter with her second husband, Tony Cox, and his new wife, Melinda Kendall. During one of many conversations there, the idea of “karma” was brought up and dissected, and Lennon still had those thoughts in his head when he awoke that January day in his Tittenhurst Park home.
Not long after waking up, he sat down at a piano and, using rudimentary chords not unlike those to “Three Blind Mice,” began pounding out “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On),” which was both a piece of advice and a warning: “Better get yourself together darlin’/Join the human race.” Within an hour he had a finished tune — and, afraid he’d forget it, played it over and over. Why not record it too? “I went to the office and sang it many times,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. “So I said, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio.”
By the afternoon, Lennon had gathered at Abbey Road studio with a familiar crew: George Harrison, keyboardist Billy Preston, and bassist and friend Klaus Voormann. Alan White, the future Yes drummer who had joined Lennon onstage at the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival concert the previous year, was also hastily recruited. “Mal Evans [who worked for the Beatles] called and said, ‘John just wrote a great song and he wants to cut it as a single,’” says White. “There was no talk of the Beatles breaking up. It was right in between, I guess.”
By evening, Lennon and the musicians, who’d already started rehearsing the song, were joined by another collaborator. “There was this little man running around,” Voormann says. “And I said, ‘Who is this little guy?’ We all started playing and it sounded good and very swinging and it came together fast. The little man was saying things, ‘Uh, could you put the cymbals down?’ and ‘Come in and listen.’ At that moment I realized it was Phil Spector. I had no idea who it was before that. “
By then, Lennon and producer and notorious pop oddball Spector were friends; they shared a similar sense of humor, and Spector was in the midst of fashioning the leftover Get Back Beatles tapes into the album that would become Let It Be. At some point the decision was made: to start and finish Lennon’s new song then and there, a marked departure from the laborious recent Beatles sessions. “It started as a joke,” Voormann says. “John and Phil got along really well. They said, ‘Let’s do it all in one day!’ They made a joke of it — but it worked.”
Adapting a version of his Wall of Sound approach, Spector doubled or even tripled the piano parts and made White bear down on the beat (no cymbals indeed). “Phil came in, and said, ‘How do you want it?’” Lennon recalled to RS. “I said, ‘You know, 1950’s.’ He said, ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in about three goes or something like that. I went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was that I said a bit more bass, that’s all. And off we went.”
To give the chorus a boost, some at the session, including Preston, went to the nearby Speakeasy club and asked some clubgoers to come to the studio and sing along; one of them, singer Beryl Marsden, had met the Beatles during their Cavern Club days. “How could I refuse?” she recalled of Preston’s offer. Listening back to the finished product, Voormann was stunned. “I thought it sounded amazing,” he says. “When you realized what Phil had done by adding echo and all that, it was incredible.”
Rushed out by EMI in February and credited to Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band, “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” wasn’t simply a terrific record, a thunderous clatter that couldn’t help but draw you in. To those around Lennon, the song was also a preview of life after the Beatles. Lennon had recorded and released music outside the band before, like his two experimental Unfinished Music albums with Ono and singles like “Cold Turkey” and “Give Peace a Peace.” But the speed and efficiency with which “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” came together all but confirmed to Lennon that he could make satisfying music on his own, without the other three Beatles. “You see, Phil is great at that,” Lennon told RS. “He doesn’t fuss about with fuckin’ stereo or all the bullshit. Does it sound all right? Then let’s have it, no matter whether something’s prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or a human, take it, don’t bother whether this is like that or the quality of this. Just take it.”
“There was a simplicity in the way he did ‘Instant Karma!’ that I don’t think he would have been able to get across with the Beatles,” Voormann says. “He felt much freer than before. John always wanted to get it out of his system as quick as he could. He felt that sometimes he lost that feeling.” The repercussions, especially once Paul McCartney told the world three months later that the Beatles were finished, would be enormous.