In June 1971, John Lennon sat at an upright Steinway piano in the small studio he had built at Ascot, his baronial home in Tittenhurst, England, and recorded a simple, elegant prescription for peace on Earth called “Imagine.” The session was over in minutes. The former Beatle did just three takes of the song, singing and playing the piano accompanied by a bare-bones rhythm section that performed with near-invisible grace: future Yes drummer Alan White and German bassist Klaus Voormann, a friend of Lennon’s since the Beatles’ club days in Hamburg in the early 1960s.
The third take wasn’t needed. The second one, White recalls, “had a magical feeling. It was obvious to us all when we heard it: ‘We nailed it.’ But John said, ‘Oh, let’s do another one just in case.’ ”
The speed with which Lennon cut the title track of his second solo album was business as usual. “Most songs, with John, were done quick,” says Voormann. “Spontaneity was important to him.” But Lennon had taken unusual care in preparing for the session. Before recording, he gave his musicians lyric sheets to read, carefully typed out in emphatic capital letters. “You had the feeling that he’d really thought about the song,” Voormann adds. “It made us feel like, ‘This is serious business.’ “
Lennon had written “Imagine” earlier that year, one morning in his bedroom at Ascot, while his wife and collaborator, Yoko Ono, looked on. He composed the melody, with its gently pumping cadence and distinctive four-note figure, on the white grand piano made famous in the films and photos of Imagine‘s birth. Recording legend Phil Spector, who co-produced the album with Lennon and Ono, remembers the first time Lennon played him that piano lick: “There was no question that this was going to be a statement and it was going to be very commercial.” Lennon did some rewriting on a plane trip, scribbling the lyrics on New York Hilton stationery.
But “Imagine” was virtually complete in its poetry and wisdom when he walked out of that bedroom. In twenty-two lines of lullaby rhyme, Lennon combined pungent social argument — imagine a world without artificial divisions of faith, politics and greed — with a solace and promise in his voice and piano that could cut through utter gloom. “It’s not like he thought, ‘Oh, this can be an anthem,’ ” Ono says now. “It was just what John believed — that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.”
Yet since September 11th, “Imagine” has emerged as a new national hymn, a strong, quiet counterweight to the institutional psalms and fight songs — “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful” — that have filled the air since the terrorist attacks. In the weeks immediately following September 11th, Lennon’s 1971 recording of “Imagine” soared in requests and airplay at pop and rock stations across the U.S. Many stations also played Neil Young’s majestic rendition of the song on the September 21st telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes, pulling it from home-recorded tapes of the broadcast.
According to Don Was, the show’s musical director, it was Young’s wife, Pegi, who suggested he play “Imagine.” “The magnitude of the events that created the need for the telethon left him feeling inarticulate and unsure,” says Was. “Neil didn’t know what he could say in one of his own songs that was going to bring comfort to people.” But Young’s tremulous voice and serene piano touch emphasized the sturdy hope in Lennon’s song, bringing a warming ray of optimism to a program largely devoted to dignified sadness. Young’s version was also faithful to the original arrangement, right down to the string chart and the amount of echo on his voice. In addition, Young’s band for the night included one-time Lennon sideman Jim Keltner on drums.
That same day, Tori Amos performed “Imagine” at a taping for CBS’ The Saturday Early Show. “It’s a song about sanity,” she explains. “I usually stand on the nonviolent side of things every time. But with this turn of events in all of our lives, I can feel myself reaching my breaking point. ‘Imagine’ is the one thing that can bring me to a place where I can get logical, think, breathe. Yes, the song is an anthem. But it’s also oxygen.”
Lennon, who died in 1980, would have appreciated the honor and irony of his song’s resurgence. He loved New York so much that he moved there with Ono in ’71, just months after the Imagine sessions at Ascot. Lennon then fought with U.S. immigration authorities for nearly four years for the right to stay, finally winning permanent-resident status in 1976. “If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome,” Lennon once said. “Today, America is the Roman Empire, and New York is Rome itself.”
But “Imagine” is a subtly contentious song, Lennon’s greatest combined achievement as a balladeer and agitator. He never uses the words “love” or “freedom” in the lyrics. Instead, he calls for a unity and equality built upon the complete elimination of modern social order: geopolitical borders, organized religion, economic class. There is a mocking dare in his language — “Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do” — and he kicks back at the cynics who laughed at his and Ono’s peace actions like the 1969 Bed-Ins: “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one.”
“He’s my favorite songwriter,” U2’s Bono says of Lennon. “And I love the simplicity of the song.” But what he likes best “is the Buddhist core of the song, the idea that imagination precedes action, that you imagine something before you make it true.
“I don’t like how the song has become this New Age anthem — ‘Imagine no restrictions,’ ” he says. “It is a rigorous idea — that you have to hold a thought, and then go after it. My respect for John is that he didn’t just have the thought. He went after it. Sometimes he made errors of judgment, but his mistakes were made in earnest.”
Ultimately, “Imagine” is a call for mutual responsibility — “A brotherhood of man” — and a condemnation of the hells we continually bring on ourselves. Don Henley of the Eagles admits that “hearing ‘Imagine’ now is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, it’s a calming influence. On the other, it’s connected to the violence. There will always be conflict in the world until we stop buying into these myths of God and property. But we’re always capable of doing better.” Guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, a big fan of Lennon’s radical premise in “Imagine,” takes a more extreme view: “If people really believed the sentiments John Lennon expressed in that song, we would have had revolution in this country a long time ago.”
Lennon himself described “Imagine” as “virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement…. But because it is sugarcoated, it is accepted.” Released as a single in the U.S. in the fall of ’71, “Imagine” went to Number Three on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. “Now I understand what you have to do,” Lennon noted. “Put your political message across with a little honey.”
“He played it to a few people after he wrote it,” Ono recalls, “and they all said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ But you got the feeling that they really liked it because it sounded so sweet — that if they tuned into the lyrics more, they might not have thought it was so pretty.
“But John was not being preachy — he was asking people to imagine these things, rather than ‘do it,’ ” she insists, sitting in her living room at the Dakota in New York on a recent autumn morning. From her windows, through the turning foliage of Central Park, one can see Strawberry Fields, the Lennon memorial at Seventy-second Street, a circle of benches around a black-and-white mosaic inscribed with the single word that best captured Lennon’s energy and idealism: “Imagine.” Since its unveiling in 1984, the space has been a favorite hallowed meeting place in times of trouble for New Yorkers and visitors alike. But one of the most striking sights on the morning of September 11th was the parade of refugees from downtown soberly marching up Central Park West, pausing at Strawberry Fields for tears and self-examination in Lennon’s spiritual company. Today, down in Times Square, two lines from “Imagine” literally hang in the air as an invitation to renewal, on a huge billboard paid for by Ono: “Imagine all the people/Living life in peace.”
“Imagining, visualizing — this is a powerful way of creating the future,” Ono continues. “It’s very gentle but also extremely basic. There is an incredible power to that. And instead of saying, ‘We’ll definitely get there,’ he put an element of hope in the song. If we knew we were definitely getting there, he wouldn’t have had to write the song.”
Lennon delivered it with eerily prescient timing. Imagine, with the title song pleaced at the start of Side One, was issued in America by Apple Records on September 9th, 1971 — thirty years, almost to the day, before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
“The world and everything in it, including music and poetry, has been divided into ‘B.S.’ and ‘A.S.’ ” — before and after September 11th, according to the venerable San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “We are living in a world of much harsher reality than Lennon ever experienced. Yet is not today precisely the time when we need, more than ever, to hear John’s idealistic vision, sung out again loud and clear?”
“It’s extraordinary that Lennon was able, out of a clear blue sky, to construct this elegant appeal for a saner universe,” says songwriter Jimmy Webb. “I could see something like this being inspired by a horrific event like the World Trade Center attack. But he was just sitting around one day and came up with this idea for a song calling for a better world. It’s clairvoyant.
“God doesn’t want us to do this stuff to each other,” he adds soberly. “The most important thing Lennon said in that song was this: Anything that divides us, that causes us to be violent toward one another, doesn’t come from God.”
Lennon knew how good “Imagine” was. In one of his last interviews, when asked if the thought his solo work would have the lasting imprint of a Beatles song like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he shot back with absolute confidence: ” ‘Imagine,’ ‘Love’ and those Plastic Ono Band songs stand up to any song that was written when I was a Beatle.”
In fact, the origins of “Imagine” go back to the very dawn of Beatlemania, to Ono’s life before Lennon and her conceptual art of the early 1960s. In her book Grapefruit, first published in Tokyo in 1964, Ono wrote a series of enigmatic instructions for paintings and musical compositions, works that literally began with acts of imagination: “Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky” (“Drinking Piece for Orchestra”); “Imagine your body spreading rapidly all over the world like thin tissue” (“Rubber Piece”).
When Lennon and Ono became a couple in 1968 — two years after they first met at a London exhibition of her work — they immediately began collaborating on art projects and peace efforts that challenged the limit of dreams, like the set of billboards that appeared in a dozen cities during Christmas 1969 with the message “War is over” and, in smaller type underneath, “If you want it.” “We were two artists living together,” Ono explains. “We influenced each other. He wrote the song, but ‘Imagine’ was a manifesto for both of us.”
Analyzing “Imagine” as poetry, composition and position paper is a tricky business because it is a compact work of the vernacular — a pop song, a compression of complex ideas into three verses and a chorus, dictated by the 4/4 arithmetic of a slow but steady rock & roll rhythm. “What the song says about religion resonates with me,” says Henley. “All religions start out with good intent and eventually become perverted by fanaticism and zealotry. And I think Lennon was a spiritual man; he was not denigrating spirituality. But ‘imagine no organized religion’ — you can’t say that. That’s the paradox of songwriting. You have to condense. You have to work within defined parameters.”
The poet Michael McClure, a charter member of the Beat movement in San Francisco in the 1950s, describes the actual metric structure of “Imagine” as a combination of “white soul and American, black Southern heart. It would have been a pretty good blues song — it has that kind of cadence. But it also echoes, in a subtle way, the English tradition of William Blake, saying, ‘How sweet I roamed from field to field’ — the classic English ballad structure. “It’s a great poem,” McClure says.
“It’s a great song. But I think that’s minor to the fact that it’s really a wisdom work. The essentials of life are all in this poem, all in this anthem. And we’re so lucky to have it in Lennon’s voice. We don’t have the voice of the writer of the Book of Job or the Tao Te Ching. But we have the voice of Lennon.”
In the studio, Lennon tended to favor impulse over craft, sometimes with mixed results. Bassist Voormann remembers doing a harmony vocal on “Bring It On Home to Me” for Lennon’s 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album: “I was just trying it out — I didn’t even know the words. But then he was, ‘OK, thank you!’ It was already on tape.” Voormann also notes that Bobby Keys’ exuberant sax solo on Lennon’s 1974 hit “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” is actually in the wrong key.
But Lennon clearly cared for “Imagine.” After cutting the basic track at Ascot, he experimented with tonal color. On an outtake included on the 1998 box set The John Lennon Anthology, an extra churchy organ sugars the homespun feel of the trio’s performance. But that part was scrapped and, during a day of overdubbing in New York in July of ’71, Spector supervised the addition of a lush but discreet bed of strings, arranged by veteran Broadway orchestrator Torrie Zito. “The strings don’t draw any attention to themselves,” says composer and arranger Michael Kamen, who has worked with Pink Floyd and Metallica. “All great arrangements have that commonsense approach.”
The practically weightless clarity of Lennon’s recording of “Imagine” is one of Phil Spector’s great triumphs as a producer. Best known for his explosive Wall of Sound on 1960s hits by the Ronettes and the Crystals, Spector emphasized message and purity in his work with Lennon. “I was determined to make a Number One album with him,” Spector says of Imagine, which topped the Billboard album chart in October 1971. “I believed he was that good and deserved it that much — and yet could say things in that album that would be controversial and political. I made that album like each cut was a single.”
In his performance of “Imagine” on A Tribute to Heroes, Neil Young replicated Spector’s touch to the letter. But Young took one critical liberty with the song. In the third verse — “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can” — Young sang, “I wonder if I can,” an explicit gesture of inclusion and personal challenge that Lennon, one of the richest pop stars in the world, only implied. It was a minor but essential adjustment for a world that, on September 11th, had suddenly been made smaller and more fragile by anxiety and envy.
“Sometimes we use the word ‘you’ to mean ‘all of us,’ ” says Henley. “Lennon might have been better off singing ‘we’ at that point: ‘I wonder if we can.’ I would like to think his ‘you’ was all-encompassing, that his ‘you’ meant ‘one’ — ‘I wonder if one can.’ “
Years after he’d written “Imagine,” Lennon explained himself more clearly: “The Buddhist says, ‘Get rid of the possessions of the mind.’ Walking away from all the money would not accomplish that. It’s like the Beatles. I couldn’t walk away from the Beatles. That’s one possession that’s still tagging along.” Ironically, for a song planted so deep in our collective memory, “Imagine” has rarely been attempted on record by other stars. Covers of Paul McCartney’s most famous ballad, “Yesterday,” number more than a thousand. But few major artists have dared to put their own stamp on Lennon’s best-known prayer. Folk singer and veteran peace activist Joan Baez cut it a year after Lennon for her 1972 album Come From the Shadows; Diana Ross had a stab at it in 1973 and Blues Traveler contributed a version to a 1995 benefit album of Lennon songs, Working Class Hero.
Dave Matthews has played the song onstage with Blues Traveler but admits, “I’m not inspired to perform it. It’s hard, when something so important has been said so clearly. The power of that song, the sincerity, is in that one performance by Lennon. Why mess with it?”
It may be, too, that “Imagine” simply belongs to all of us, not merely professional voices. Lennon wrote the song and made the definitive recording, but that’s as far as he could take it. “That’s what artists do,” says Ono. “We create something, an inspired idea, that we want to communicate to other people. And when it comes out, it has an independent life. Sometimes you live and the work doesn’t survive. Or,” she adds quickly, “vice versa.”
She talks of once hearing “Give Peace a Chance” in Bali, sung by someone passing her on the street, and of a 1985 visit to Russia where everyone she met knew every single line of “Imagine.” Baez recalls a concert she gave in Romania eight years ago. A group of students in the audience suddenly started singing “Imagine” and would not stop until she joined in. “It’s like ‘We Shall Overcome’ to me,” she says of the song. “It has tremendous meaning in places that are in the throes of social change. And it has meaning now, in this country, because of this event in our identity” — September 11th. “This is a reaching out that we’ve never done before.”
For all of his faith in the power of imagination, Lennon could never have pictured the enormity of the horror that has brought his song back to life. But he was not writing about what had happened. “Imagine” was about what can happen. “It’s step one in an ambitious program,” Bono says of Lennon’s song. “We have been overpowered by the pragmatic. The overwhelming mood at the moment is that the world is what it is. And I don’t accept that. I love the ‘Imagine’ billboard in Times Square. It’s telling people: ‘Imagine that things don’t have to be the way they are.’ ”