Counterbalance No. 93: John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’

John Lennon

Klinger: For a certain type of Beatles fan, one that wasn’t overwhelmed with grief or consumed by inter-Beatle battles, 1971 might have seemed like a year when things could end up turning out OK after all. Paul McCartney had just released Ram, which had its share of high points (and is now being reassessed as a classic), George Harrison had just dropped the three-LP explosion of songorrhea that is All Things Must Pass, and even Ringo Starr was cranking out enjoyable pop singles. Meanwhile, John Lennon’s Imagine seemed to suggest that the brainy Beatle was ready to knock it off already with the experimental noisescapes of his first efforts—and the primal scream soul-baring of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—and start making albums that folks could actually enjoy. I could see people might have had reason to be optimistic.

Of course, that wasn’t really the case. Almost no one could resist choosing up sides in the apocalyptic hellscape of the post-Beatle world, critics included. (After all, “things are pretty much OK” doesn’t sell a lot of papers.) Lines have to be drawn, good guys and bad guys must be called out, and blame has to be assessed. And rocker Lennon spoke those early critics’ language. So the angsty Plastic Ono Band album has garnered the lion’s share of the acclaim, while Imagine was seen as something of a retreat into pop (in the early editions of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, it received a pretty tepid three-star review). Imagine only appears to have taken on its cachet after Lennon’s murder as the title track has become a universal anthem of idealism. But you were pretty lukewarm to Plastic Ono Band, so I’m interested in hearing your take on this more accessible effort.

Mendelsohn: Imagine won’t sway my opinion of ex-Beatles, post-Beatles records. I find Imagine interesting and downright enjoyable, but there was magic between those four kids from Liverpool that none of them could recreate by themselves. Lennon had the most unique voice out of all the Beatles so I think there is no question that anything Lennon would do would demand attention, as his first solo effort demonstrated. With Imagine, though, Lennon does achieve a better balance than he did on his previous attempt. He’s still sour but it’s been tempered with a little sweetness (and fleshed-out arrangements) and as any kid knows, a little sugar (and saxophone) helps the medicine go down. The thing I love about this record is, as a listener, we get to see the four sides of Lennon clearly on display. We get Peacenik Lennon, Sharp-Tongued Lennon, Confessional Lennon, and Old School Rocker Lennon. You can pretty much drop each song on this record into one of those four categories. Do you have a favorite Lennon, Klinger?

Klinger: Well, if by Confessional you mean Hopeless Romantic Who Is Very Much in Love then that’s my favorite Lennon, and it’s good to see him make an appearance here. “Oh Yoko” is has a sense of joy to it that makes it seem way more universal than a song with the word “Yoko” in the title has any right to be. Listening to this album over the last few weeks, the song that’s really jumped out at me is “Oh My Love”. The melody is absolutely gorgeous, straightforward but shot through with surprise chord changes and melodic flourishes, especially in the descending lines of the verses. Couple that with the sparse lyrics that repeat variations on a theme throughout the song (a trick Lennon uses several times on this album, although never as effectively as he does here) and you have what I’d call a lost classic.

If I have a least favorite Lennon, it’s the guy who nearly ruins the album with the bullying “How Do You Sleep”. Whatever legal/personal issues Lennon and McCartney were having, neither did themselves any favors by airing the dirty laundry in public. But Lennon went for the jugular in song, and to me he comes of the worse for it.

And while I’m at it—”How Do You Sleep”? Paul McCartney wasn’t dumping toxic waste or running a crooked old folks home; he was writing silly love songs and arguing about royalties or whatever. The song seems like a pretty egregious overreaction. Sure, Harrison’s funky slide guitar solo nearly saves the proceedings, but just his presence on the song makes him look like that kid that was always hanging around with Scut Farkus.

Mendelsohn: Thank you for the A Christmas Story reference in August. I like Sharp-Tongued Lennon on this record. I agree that “How Do You Sleep?” is a bit heavy-handed, but on the flip-side you get the excellent honky-tonk social critique of “Crippled Inside”. And while Scut Farkus had yellow eyes (probably related to the tanning solution leaching out of his coonskin cap directly into his brain), Lennon seems to only have eyes for Yoko, which is sweet and endearing. I wanted to interject with some snarkery to deflate your love for “Oh Yoko” and “Oh My Love”, but I can’t. “Oh Yoko” is the high point for me on this record. After the ups and downs of this album, I’m always ready to go back to the beginning and listen to it again because I know, waiting at the end, will be “Oh Yoko”.

But to get to “Oh Yoko”, I have to go through Peacenik Lennon and Peacenik Lennon annoys me, but, as you rightly stated above, it’s “Imagine” that really drives this album, isn’t it?

Klinger: Clearly—and it’s become a career-defining standard for Lennon. And while I’m not exactly sure what you have against a person singing about peace, I will say that “Imagine” is a pretty different animal from Lennon’s more sloganeering anthems (which are great in their own way—I’ve been known to crank up “Power to the People” on a regular basis). Instead of creating an “us vs. them” dichotomy, “Imagine” challenges the listener to move beyond everything that our culture deems importance: materialism, nationalism, and our own concepts of heaven and hell. Over the years, “Imagine” has come to mean different things to me depending on where I am. When I was a callow young man, I was drawn to the more confrontational line that he’s not the only dreamer out there. Now I can’t help hearing the grace in a line that says “I hope someday you’ll join us”. That’s a lot more powerful than the sound of marching charging feet, and I suspect it’s the idea Lennon would have embraced more fully as he got older.

It’s also significant to me that Lennon sings “Imagine there’s no heaven”, rather than “Imagine there’s no God”. Whether he fully understood the ramifications of what he had said, what he ended up doing was articulating an idea that has become increasingly mainstream within Christianity, that the Kingdom of God is already here with us—waiting around for our reward in the great beyond is well beside the point. That’s a pretty astute saying for a guy who five years earlier was struggling to defend his “bigger than Jesus” statement, and I reckon it’s a big reason why “Imagine” has gained stature within the more “relevant” outposts of the church. (It also explains why the song has been viewed as heretical by your more Falwellian types.)

Mendelsohn: I don’t have anything against people singing about peace, and the sentiment expressed in “Imagine” is a beautiful, multi-layered plea for everyone to see the humanity within each other. It annoys simply because of the over-saturation. Outside of the Beatles, “Imagine” is probably the first thing most people would connect with Lennon. Plus, singing about peace and actually doing something to help bring about peace are two completely different things. Lennon was a great spokesperson for a generation seeking change, but aside from saying the word “peace” a whole bunch and getting other people to talk about “peace”, did he really perform any actions that would help bring about real change? Not so much. After this record (and a couple others I’ll just gloss over) he went to Los Angles for an epic, 18-month bender. That’s just me being a cynic—adding a little counter to our balance. In reality, I can’t find any real fault with this record and I’m still surprised that it falls so far behind John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. I understand the critical prestige that John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band holds, but in my opinion the quality and the sense of joy on Imagine make it a much better record. What do you think Klinger? Imagine or Plastic Ono Band?

Klinger: I must concur with your assessment. Plastic Ono Band might be a great album (in the sense that it’s a searing personal statement in which a brilliant artist bares the depths of his soul), but Imagine is a great record (in the sense that it’s a well-crafted collection of songs that I’m going to listen to on a Friday night). But in all fairness, Lennon did try to engage more politically right after Imagine. He moved to New York and took up with the Yippie movement, but 1972 turned out to be crappy year for radical politics, what with Nixon coasting to re-election. And then all the Nixonian phone-tapping and skullduggery and personal crises took a serious toll on Lennon and Ono’s relationship. As was his wont, Lennon got disillusioned pretty quickly—it’s easy to see how Abbie Hoffman would get annoying real fast, but the fact that everyone hated Lennon’s political opus Sometime in New York City couldn’t have helped. I’d have started hitting the sauce pretty heavily too.

Mendelsohn: Well, he was a complicated man with complicated problems, maybe the biggest of which was his refusal do to what we all expected of him be it with his music, his love life or his political stance. But if he didn’t do it his own way, he wouldn’t have been John Lennon, and on Imagine we get to see the many sides of a complicated man come together for a brief, shining moment and create an enduring work of rock music.