Forty years ago this past week, John Lennon's second solo LP away from the Beatles, Imagine, hit number one on the UK album charts. The album was released on October 8, 1971 in England and September 9, 1971 here in the States.
The album was seen as a commercial answer to his previous outing, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which wowed critics with its wailing and barenaked honesty ("Mother") but didn't sell very well. Remember that at this point Lennon, with his wife Yoko Ono was very much an avant-garde figure, and not at all as brazenly poppy as former writing mate Paul McCartney.
Imagine is known best for its title track, which has become a worldwide anthem for peace, rejection of borders, religion, and all the trappings of a domineering culture. To some it's a great humanistic plea, and to others its communism made simple. Even Lennon admitted it was very red in it's scope, though he didn't consider himself a communist.
Upon release of Imagine, critics and fans alike were floored by the album. Billboard had this to say about Imagine:
"Lennon has emerged as the real British Dylan, chronicling his own personal search for self-expression with that of the times which threaten to divide the self into oblivion. Down-to-earth honest introspection is steeped in insight, while magnificent string arrangements complement Lennon's latest concept of rock on "Imagine," "Give Me Some Truth," "How Do You Sleep?," "Oh Yoko" and "Crippled Inside." Move over Sgt. Pepper."
Years later rock critics would reassess Imagine and instead deem it the high water mark of a solo career that wouldn't see another smash success until 1980's Double Fantasy. Lennon would be assassinated three weeks after it's release.
The first copies of the Imagine album contained a postcard of John holding the ears of a large pig, echoing the cover Paul McCartney's album, Ram, which featured Macca on the cover holding the horns of the titular animal. To add petty insult to injury, Macca also included a picture of two beetles screwing on the back of the Ram LP, meant to mean, you know, whatever.
Imagine was produced by Yoko Ono, Lennon, and Phil Spector over the summer of 1971, with the basic tracks being laid down at Lennon's home at Tittenhurst Park. The making of the album was documented almost completely by a film crew as well. The rest of the album was finished at the New York's Record Plant over seven days.
The song "Imagine" was inspired by Ono's Grapefruit book, released in 1964. If you own it, you are a nerd, yo, or Yoko Ono.
Few people remember that in 1971, Spector was named director of A&R for the Beatles' Apple Records imprint. He held the post for only a year, and during that time he co-produced the Lennon single "Power to the People" as well as Imagine.
After the September 11 attacks, "Imagine" was included on the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum of songs that you "do not play" which went out to their radio stations. Other songs on the memo included Louis Armstrong's hateful "What a Wonderful World" and Peter, Paul and Mary's violent version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
George Harrison plays on five tracks of Imagine, including the anti-Paul dig "How Do You Sleep?" which sorta made McCartney a little angry. Check out the video above for Lennon's own interpretation of the song.
Lennon wrote "Imagine" on a small brown Steinway upright piano. In 2000, George Michael paid over $2 million for the piano, and it now tours the country as a symbol of Lennon's message. One year it made an appearance at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, while JFK assassination buffs were on the grounds for the anniversary of the Kennedy shooting.
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Oasis sampled/used the piano intro on their 1996 song "Don't Look Back In Anger," further embedding the notion that the band was a backwards Beatles tribute act.
"Oh My Love" was written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968 during the "White Album" sessions but for obvious reasons was never put on the sprawling double-disc.
Lennon wrote the plaintive "Jealous Guy" while still in the Beatles. They had roginally recorded it as a demo called "Child of Nature" about their trip to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Left unused by the band, Lennon instead changed teh lyrics to reflect on his relationship with Ono, and how possessive he became of her while his band was imploding.