When John Lennon headed into the studio in 1971 to make his solo classic Imagine, wth Yoko Ono and Phil Spector, he had a lot to prove. He wanted to shake off the shadow of the Beatles, yet also build on the band’s legacy. He was itching to leave his ex-bandmates in the dust — Imagine has his notorious attack on Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” But he also wanted to come to terms with his past and embrace his future with Yoko. He wanted both raging protest songs and tender love ballads. He wanted it all. As he explained at the time, “I was still full of wanting my own space after being in the room with four guys, and always having to share everything, share shirts, share the same dry cleaner, the same everything.”
This restless moment in John’s artistic evolution comes to life in the new box set Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, out October 5th, telling the story of John’s solo masterpiece over four CDs and two Blu-Ray discs. As an exclusive preview for Rolling Stone showed, the Imagine box is full of revelations and insights into the music, from a crazy year when John exploded creatively. As John admits in an interview in this box, “Yoko and I always live about two-thousand light years’ speed when we’re working, or just sort of no absolutely movement at all, you know. It’s one extreme or another. But it’s usually moving very fast and there’s always a small hurricane around us.”
Imagine: The Ultimate Collection tells the full story of that “small hurricane.” It’s loaded with previously unreleased treasures: outtakes, demos, studio jams, raw mixes, interviews with John and Yoko conducted by Elliot Mintz, plus “element” tracks that isolate individual aspects of the mix, as in the strings-only version of “Imagine.” It also has new remixes of the original classic album, from engineers Paul Hicks and Rob Stevens. There’s also the “Evolution” mix of each track, a fascinating way to experience the songs — a montage by engineer Sam Gannon tracing each song’s journey from demo to final studio version, editing drafts and rehearsals and studio chatter along with John and Yoko’s commentary. The box also collects stray singles from this period: the broadside “Power to the People,” the future holiday standard “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)” and, best of all, the little-known radical romp “Do the Oz.”
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All over the album, Lennon sings about unrest, repression, violence, the draft, the media, the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam. As Yoko says in a new liner note, “Imagine was created with immense love and concern for the children of the world.” But unlike John’s confessional 1970 solo debut Plastic Ono Band, Imagine was a rowdy studio collaboration with a loose cast of creative sidekicks, with a more freewheeling approach. After one jam on “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die,” Lennon cuts it off and says, “Yeah, let’s go hear the mess we’re making.” That’s the spirit that comes through in this edition.
All over Imagine, you can hear John find his voice as an adult solo artist, with a little help from his friends. “‘Imagine’ was inspired by Yoko’s Grapefruit,” John admits in an interview here. “I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. So that song was actually wrtitten by John and Yoko. But I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging her.”
The Imagine box set is part of a Lennon celebration set for the first week of October, which would have marked his 78th birthday. John and Yoko’s films Imagine and Gimme Some Truth will also be released on October 5th; Imagine will get a limited theatrical release, a cinematic collage featuring everyone from Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas to Fred Astaire and Jack Palance. Also the lavish Imagine John Yoko coffee-table book comes out on October 9th, John’s proper birthday. The Yoko-curated book is packed with photos and interviews telling the story of John and Yoko’s 1971, with the many characters involved, from George Harrison to King Curtis to Nicky Hopkins, editing their stories together in an oral-history format. It’s full of images fans haven’t seen before — some of the most poignant show John and Yoko wandering through their new home, the Tittenhurst Park estate where the Imagine tracks were written. Here’s our tour of the eight most revelatory moments on Imagine: The Ultimate Collection.
“Imagine” (The Evolution Mix)
John’s most famous solo song expands on “Evolution Mix,” from the raw piano demo he taped in his bedroom to a polished studio confection. One fantastic version has John Tout’s vibes, John Barham’s harmonium and Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano for a droning feel. John marveled that such a politically outspoken song became a hit. As John says here, “The idea came like a child’s song, you know, and I wanted to keep it that way so a child could understand it. I sort of think of it as ‘Working Class Hero,’ only in child language … It’s the same story in a way, but it’s just sort of say it with, you know, powder paints.”
“Gimme Some Truth” (Take 4)
A gentle folk-rock approach, with John’s chiming guitar. At the end, John says defiantly, “This is the truth.” Phil Spector sneers dismissively: “It’s gettin’ there.” John replies, “Oh — wasn’t that it?”
“Jealous Guy” (Take 9)
A powerful version with acoustic guitar from Joey Molland and Tom Evans of Badfinger. Basing it on the White Album outtake “Child of Nature,” written in India with the Maharishi, John saw “Jealous Guy” as his anti-sentimental love song. “I think, ‘Get away from this romantic knight on horseback galloping in,’” John says in his commentary. “The parents, they were fed this guff about the knight in shining armor. And what happened was they got Sid and his braces and it wasn’t the same. He didn’t get Veronica Lake, he got Maggie and her hair curlers. That’s just as beautiful to me — that is love, too.”
“It’s So Hard” (Take 6)
An early bash with a raw guitar solo from John — “well, that was not bad” he admits at the end. The complete studio jam has soul legend King Curtis on sax — one of the Beatles’ Fifties rock & roll heroes — just before his tragic death. King Curtis was murdered on the streets of New York, a month after playing his sax solo. Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder sang at his funeral.
“Oh Yoko!” (Bahamas, 1969)
This may be most emotionally affecting moment in this collection. John and Yoko were in the Bahamas, en route to Montreal to stage their famous Bed-In for Peace. He busks the brand-new song for his friend and publicist Derek Taylor, just strumming his acoustic guitar with Yoko improvising harmonies. John toys with the song as he goes along, adding a bridge (“I want youuuu, baby!”) and lines that got cut, including “In the middle of the sea,” a touching in-joke given the ocean-child double meaning of Yoko Ono’s name. Halfway through the song, he explodes into a shout from his idol Little Richard: “A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!”
“How Do You Sleep?” (Takes 5 & 6)
A looser, funkier slink through John’s attack on his longtime songwriter partner, although John admits it’s more a song about conflicts within himself. “If I can’t have a fight with my best friend I don’t know who I can have a fight with.”
“I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” (Take 11)
A reggae jam, with Bobby Keys honkin’ on sax while Jim Keltner and Klaus Voorman sink into the groove. In one take, John apologizes in formal tones: “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I’m incapable of following my own head.”
“Oh My Love” (Take 6)
A stripped-down early version of the album’s most intimate love ballad, co-written with Yoko, featuring George Harrison on guitar. John’s voice cracks as he gets to the line “I see the clouds.” It’s a moment that sums up the songwriting collaboration between John and Yoko at full blast — and the joy of John discovering his own strength as a solo artist. Imagine remains as fresh and timely as it was in 1971 — all over this box set, you can hear why.