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.”