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In the Studio for the ‘Imagine’ Sessions

5 Min Read

What was it like to be in a recording studio the size of a cozy living room while John Lennon and Yoko Ono were making the “Imagine” album with producer Phil Spector? Bassist Klaus Voormann and drummer Alan White were not only eyewitnesses to the sessions at the couple’s Tittenhurst estate in the English countryside during 1971, they were key participants.

Voormann, a graphic artist, fell into rock ‘n’ roll after befriending the Beatles during their residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, during the early ‘60s. He later became roommates with Ringo Starr and George Harrison and conceived the cover art for the band’s classic 1966 album, “Revolver.” In 1969 he was recruited by Lennon to join him and Eric Clapton in the Plastic Ono Band on stage for a concert in Toronto. Their musical connection was further cemented when they collaborated on Lennon’s first post-Beatles album, “Plastic Ono Band,” in 1970, and then “Imagine” in 1971.

White, a 20-year-old drummer making his way through the London club and session scene, was recruited by Lennon for the 1969 Toronto concert and the recording session for the “Instant Karma” single in January 1970. In 1971, Lennon summoned him again, this time for the “Imagine” session at Tittenhurst.

In separate interviews, Voormann and White shared their memories of the sessions at the Lennon-Ono estate, which started in May 1971 and continued through early July. “Imagine” went on to become a No. 1 album in both the U.K. and U.S. and the title song is generally considered Lennon’s signature musical moment, covered by more than 200 artists.

Klaus Voormann: John noticed that (his previous album) “Plastic Ono Band” was not a great hit, and he was wanting a more successful record. The “Plastic Ono Band” album was so personal, so direct, he showed how vulnerable, angry he was. Our playing was so sparse so you could really hear the words. 

Voormann: During the “Imagine” sessions, Yoko and Phil (Spector) got along really well. She was encouraging John, but she was really delicate about it. Sometimes John would ask Yoko if something we recorded was alright, and Phil deferred to her. He wasn’t pushy at all. Phil invented the “wall of sound” and made great records like (Ike & Tina Turner’s) “River Deep - Mountain High” and (the Righteous Brothers’) “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but he was working for John Lennon and he knew that wasn’t what these songs needed. He did whatever was necessary to bring those songs to life. Lots of times it was don’t play so much, keep it simple.

Alan White: The recording of (the song) “Imagine” was pretty special. There was a sense in the room when we did the take they used for the record, there was a sense of, “That’s it, we got it.” It was the third take. We did a few more, but that was the one. I could tell it was a very special song by the lyrics, but no one knew at the time that it was going to become this huge thing.

Voormann: John wanted slap bass on “Crippled Inside” and I said, “I don’t play slap bass.” And he said, “Yes, you do.” So I drove to London and bought one. 

White: John wanted some kind of skiffle beat. He had me playing drum sticks on the frets of the acoustic double bass while Klaus held down the bottom end of the string. It turned out to be easier than we thought it would be.  

It was a song where you sit down, close your eyes and you hear John’s voice — it was like meditation. 

Voormann: “Jealous Guy” is the standout moment in my career as a bass player. Jim Keltner was on drums, and we were just floating along. I didn’t know what key it was in. It was a song where you sit down, close your eyes and you hear John’s voice — it was like meditation. 

White: There was a bathroom in the corner of the recording space, and during “Jealous Guy” I recorded the vibraphone in the bathroom with the door cracked open about six inches. Jim Keltner was there for that song, and John wanted him to play drums. We talked about what else the song needed, and I suggested some vibes — I had a small set in the trunk of my car. I had started out playing piano as a young boy, so I had some knowledge of how to play them as they’re kind of a keyboard. John loved it (he later credited White on the record with “good vibes”).  

Voormann: We knew “How Do You Sleep?” was about Paul (McCartney). No, I didn’t think John was too rough on his buddy. There was so much shit going on (with the breakup of the Beatles and who was to blame), it spoiled all the nice feelings those boys had. It was just terrible, they all wanted something and there was a lot of fighting, and that song came about. John said himself later that he felt different about Paul, but the great thing about John is he always puts down what he feels in the moment.

White: John said, “This is what we’re saying to the world” — he showed us the lyrics — “and you can play on it or not.” I didn’t think it was out of line. I didn’t know Paul back then, but I know him pretty well now, and he’s a great guy. John wrote a song about him, and Paul wrote a song about John. They were both reflecting on the breakup of the Beatles.

Voorman: Yoko changed John — the two together, it was fantastic. His whole life changed. He was in desperate need when he met her, he was uncertain, he was frustrated, he couldn’t cope. He had times when he didn’t want to live. When Yoko came in, he became a different person.

Imagine

Directed by and starring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and featuring famous friends and collaborators (George Harrison, Fred Astaire, Andy Warhol, Jack Palance), this unique, surreal reality film — composed to music from Lennon's "Imagine" LP and Ono's "Fly" — from 1972 features a different visual treatment for every song and follows the couple during recording sessions in the U.K. and New York.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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