The emotional scope of “Imagine” ranges far beyond the famous title track
John Lennon balances complex relationships during the album’s recording
Renowned for his songwriting, Lennon comes into his own as a pure singer
“Humans always tend to talk about rubbish, because they don’t really want to face the reality.” John Lennon offers this thought to a journalist in a scene from the 2000 documentary “Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine.” And the music on the 1971 album whose sessions are chronicled in the film certainly backs up his words — “Imagine” is the most complete and complex record in Lennon’s catalog, an expression of his greatest strengths as a singer and songwriter, and a triumph of reality, with all its contradictions, over rubbish.
At this point, “Imagine” is largely overshadowed by its magnificent, ubiquitous title track. The misinterpretations and misuses of “Imagine” often overwhelm its radical message, but watching Lennon feeling his way through the song’s arrangement in the film — keying back into his search for the best way to convey the ideas of “imagine there’s no hunger” or “imagine no religion” — quickly surpasses the image of Hollywood celebrities using the song as a feel-good singalong.
You can’t talk about ‘Imagine’ without looking at Lennon’s previous album, the 1970 landmark ‘Plastic Ono Band.’
The “Imagine” album is so much more than its best-known song, encompassing the existential struggle of “How?,” the confessional regret of “Jealous Guy” and the love-struck breeziness of “Oh Yoko!” You can’t talk about “Imagine” without looking at Lennon’s previous album, the 1970 landmark “Plastic Ono Band.” A product of the singer’s dive into primal scream therapy, and his first release after the breakup of the Beatles, that album is a deeply intense and emotional howl of confusion and pain. The arrangements are spare, the lyrics stripped to the bone, the subject matter (check the song titles: “Isolation,” “Mother,” “God”) blisteringly personal. It’s the best album any of the solo Beatles ever made, but it’s not an easy ride; with no hit singles, it peaked at No. 6 on the album chart.
Lennon often presented “Imagine” as a companion piece to its predecessor; he would later refer to the album as “Plastic Ono with chocolate coating.” He worked with notorious producer Phil Spector on both projects, but allowed the sound on “Imagine” to open up beyond the claustrophobic focus of its predecessor. On songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die,” “Gimme Some Truth” and “Crippled Inside,” the lyrics maintain a bold intimacy, but the accompaniment brings in slashing guitars, honky-tonk piano, sweeping strings and even the barroom R&B of the great King Curtis (the guy who plays the saxophone solo on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”).
Producer Phil Spector (seated at left), John Lennon and Yoko Ono sculpt ‘Imagine.’
The album also allows some of Lennon’s dark humor to shine through, most infamously in his attack on Paul McCartney on “How Do You Sleep?” — though he would have called it a rebuttal to some perceived subtle digs on McCartney’s 1971 album, “Ram.” The references to his former partner’s songs and biography (“those freaks was right when they said you was dead”) are clever but mean, and he knows it, describing the song in the “Gimme Some Truth” documentary as “the nasty one,” with a devilish grin. Riveting footage shows Lennon drawing out its feel and nuances.
The emotional and musical range of “Imagine” — which would be the only No. 1 solo album of Lennon’s lifetime — may also be a result of the way he assembled these songs, pulling from unfinished bits and pieces; “Jealous Guy” started life as “Child of Nature,” initially intended for the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 record, aka “The White Album.”
“There’s only three I’ve written this year,” Lennon explains in the documentary, “the rest were written earlier and I’ve just finished them off.” In this case, at least, the process opened up the lens and revealed different facets of a wildly complicated artist. “Writing songs is like writing books,” Lennon scrawled in an unpublished set of album notes, “you store little melodies/words/ideas etc. in your mind library and fish them out when you need them.”
“Gimme Some Truth” illustrates the endless little decisions and little frustrations that go into a recording session, and captures the elaborate juggling act Lennon was living at the time — as George Harrison puts it, “a life in the day of John Lennon.” The conviviality of the band at his home studio at Tittenhurst Park in the English countryside, eating meals between takes and his idyllic private time (except for the cameras) with Yoko Ono contrast with the pandemonium that erupts when the couple go into London for a book signing or an anti-war march, and with the glamor of hosting a party for guests including Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol and Miles Davis.
Most chilling is the brief exchange with a dazed-looking fan who wanders up to the gates of Tittenhurst, convinced that the Beatles were singing messages directly to him. Lennon speaks to him quietly but firmly — “don’t confuse the songs with your own life” — and then invites him into the kitchen for some food. It’s touching, and it’s almost unbearable to watch, given the way we know this story ends.
Lennon always disliked his singing voice, insisting that it be double-tracked or doused in reverb on so many Beatle recordings. In those unpublished notes, this insecurity still emerges; for “Soldier,” he wrote, “It depends on what mood I’m in to like it or not.” And he said of “Gimme Some Truth” that “I like the overall sound on this track tho I’m not sure if I’d go out and buy it,” before ultimately concluding, “If you like it listen to it if you don’t shuttup.”
As extraordinary as the album’s songwriting is, returning to it is a reminder that Lennon was one of the finest pure singers in rock ‘n’ roll history.
But 50 years after the release of “Imagine,” it’s the voice that stands out most of all. As extraordinary as the album’s songwriting is, returning to it is a reminder that Lennon was one of the finest pure singers in rock ‘n’ roll history — as watching him cut some of those vocals in “Gimme Some Truth” affirms. Even without the words, you can hear it all: nasty and gentle, jealous and generous, angry and sad and joyous. A dreamer. And not the only one.