Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine has described John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ as “twenty-two lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith, in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.”
On Imagine’s 1971 release, Robert Christgau – major music critic and long-time senior editor for ‘The Village Voice’ – hailed the song “both a hymn for the Movement and a love song to (Yoko)”. When Christgau used the term Movement he meant the anti Vietnam war, a counter-culture, movement.
To the general public’s eye, the 2021 equivalent might be Extinction Rebellion.(Christgau said something else, to which I will return.)
Following the song’s original release, in 1971, Imagine got to number three in the US and number one in Canada.
Since then the song has made appearances in charts around the world. In Britain on its first release in 1975, it got to number six. After Lennon was murdered, in 1980, it got to number one and stayed for a month.
In 1999 ‘Imagine’ showed it had worked itself into the Brit consciousness – a BBC listener’s poll – to mark the turn of century and millennium – Brits voted it the nation’s favourite song lyric. I repeat – song lyric.
For some the song will always retain its particular beauty. The single piano’s gentle opening – the pretty turn of notes, then Lennon’s voice, sounding vulnerable to my ears – as he makes suggestion, to a simple thought experiment:
‘Imagine there’s no heaven …’
Flatterers and detractors have called it a hymn.
“How dare he make a hymn-like song – that praises the secular!” say the detractors.
Yoko Ono, Lennon’s wife, was sat in the room the morning he completed the song. Ono said, in 2001:
“‘Imagine’ was just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out”.
Lennon himself said the song was a sugar-coated version of another song he wrote ‘Working Class Hero’. That thought starts another level of thought concerning Lennon the artist, and irregular man, that this short commentary is unqualified to pursue.
Ono’s words reflect perhaps the major way in which the song is viewed by us, the audience – as voice promoting a world where brotherhood-of-man rules. Lennon actually uses the words ‘brotherhood-of-man’ in the third verse.
For such values choirs have sung the song – over 100 artists have performed or recorded the song. From Joan Baez to Lady Gaga – Jeff Beck to Stevie Wonder.
After all – what could be wrong with a song that sings about – what Ono says … one country … one world … one people.
A couple of things, if fixed religion is your thing, and also if you think pop stars can’t talk about idealistic values.
In 2006 the headmaster of a primary school in the UK, made national news when he decided those first four words of the first verse:
‘Imagine there’s no heaven … ’
together with four words at the end of the second verse:
‘ … and no religion too…’ made ‘Imagine’ anti-religious.
It does take an uncommon understanding and maturity – in what you believe in – to accept another asking you to put the thing aside for a moment. To accept that anything under the sun – is a human-made thing, with human-type frailty.
Surely it is a high form of spirituality that can consider – for a moment – the world neutral, empty of any such creations.
‘Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can …’ begins the third verse and this fires up a squabbling body-of-opinion.
Its followers say, when Lennon sang that line, he became a hypocrite.
“Because he was rich,” they insist.
I believe a lack of imagination regarding the spirit of the song, and a type of jealousy – combine, to destruct the accuser’s conception – of what a hypocrite is.
To be a hypocrite – is (roughly) to say one thing and do another.
Yes, Lennon had a pile of money.
But why shouldn’t he suggest – for this is what I believe – makes the song live:
A thought experiment.
Nowhere does Lennon suggest anyone gives away their money – while he keeps his.
When he wrote the song he was merely doing his job. Being a songwriter.
The song has also been described as sanctimonious. I don’t hear it.
I just see the “22 lines of graceful plain-spoken faith” as noted by Jann Wenner … ‘Imagine …’ an exhortation to thought experiment.
What Lennon Said
In the 1980 Playboy interview Lennon was asked directly what inspired ‘Imagine’. He answered:
“Dick Gregory gave Yoko and me a little kind of prayer book. It is in the Christian idiom, but you can apply it anywhere. It is the concept of positive prayer. If you want to get a car, get the car keys. Get it? ‘Imagine’ is saying that. If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion – but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God, thing – then it can be true.”
Which opinion I shall hold cause it fits without issue when I hear the song.
Oh it pains me to write … in the same sentence that Robert Christgau called ‘Imagine’ a hymn for the movement, he also said it celebrated Herbert Marcuse – a man in his lifetime known as the father of the New Left.
And Lennon in another interview said things that supported the far left:
“No more country no more politics” Lennon began and reportedly continued: “is virtually the Communist Manifesto.”
No it’s not John – and as for you Herbert Marcuse … both souls believed that Marxism, and all its theorised allies, Communism etc – are sweet, benevolent ideas, that if implemented could result in that brotherhood-of-man.
I couldn’t agree less. Like religion all such made ideas are the product of frail man. Unlike religion they have no philosophy for forgiveness or the sanctity of the individual soul. The Communist Manifesto is far far from ‘Imagine’. The Communist Manifesto is ultimately responsible for millions of deaths (see Solzhenitsyn).
Lennon and Marcuse were out the 1960s into the 70s. They believed a system could be changed. They believed if you started a communist system from the ground up, unlike Russia and China, you could make it work. They probably would have believed in Pol Pot. Look at Pol Pot.
In the Playboy interview Lennon goes on to say:
“The song was originally inspired by Yoko’s book ‘Grapefruit’. In it are a lot of pieces saying ‘imagine this – imagine that’. Yoko actually helped a lot with the lyrics, but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit …’
In 1964 Ono had relocated to New York and was mixing with the likes of John Cage (4.33). She had released ‘Grapefruit’ a poem collection – several began with the word ‘imagine’.
One of the poems ‘Cloud Piece’, was reproduced on the back cover of the original ‘Imagine’ LP.
It took time for Ono to get her deserved credit. Ono had it in time for a 2018 solo release of the song.
After all is said and done, remains the song. It keeps with people. ‘Imagine’ is there for people to bring its sense and magic to their need.
Since 2005 ‘Imagine’ has been played in Times Square, New York every New Year’s Eve. The 2012 Summer Olympics, the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (in 2021) have all seen performances of ‘Imagine’.
Pre-recorded in the case of Tokyo. Performances by John Legend, Keith Urban, Alejandro Sanz and Angelique Kidjo, music by Hans Zimmer.
Particularly worthy of note was a virtual spontaneous performance. The morning after the November 2015 Paris attacks -when 89 concertgoers were murdered on a night-out at the Bataclan.
The next morning, Pianist Davide Martello brought a piano outside the venue and played an instrumental version.
Following this, Katy Waldman of Slate pondered the song’s life.
“The plainest and least complicated key … gentle as a rocking chair … underpins lyrics that belong to the tradition of spirituals that visualise a glorious after-life – without talking of any end to suffering on earth.”
I can only add:
The alchemy of that “gentle as a rocking chair melody” that exhortation – ‘Imagine’ – it makes us think.
About a world – a little different. A world that may not even – ever – exist.
But it makes us think about it. Imagine it. And in that moment, we are better for having the song.
It’s more or less what Ringo Starr said, when faced with questions about the song on a Barbara Walter TV interview.
“Imagine” Ringo said, “just – imagine.’