The most famous (and commercially successful) of John’s solo career is undoubtedly ‘Imagine’, the song that first appears on the album of the same name in 1971. Many theories to its meaning and origin exist.
Why did John Lennon write ‘Imagine’? Whilst the writing credits for ‘Imagine’ were solely listed as being John Lennon, John himself has subsequently said that it should really be a Lennon and Ono credited piece, due to the inspiration coming directly from poetry written by Yoko, back in 1964.
Yoko Ono, a Grapefruit and a Prayer
Yoko Ono published the book, Grapefruit, and within it was a particular poem called ‘Cloud Piece’, that was actually reproduced on the back cover of the record sleeve for ‘Imagine’. It talks about ‘imagine the clouds dripping’ and ‘dig a hole in your garden to put them in’, clearly showing the impact that it had on John when writing ‘Imagine’.
In 2017, at a ceremony hosted by the National Music Publishers Association, Yoko was officially added as a songwriter for ‘Imagine’ and given the Centennial award for her contribution.
The chief concept of the song, that of positive prayer, actually came from a Christian prayer book given to John by Dick Gregory. He imagined a world without denominations of religion and by avoiding the idea of ‘my god is better than your god’, a world at peace was truly possible.
He was once approached by the World Church and asked if they could use the lyrics but change them to say ‘imagine one region’. He rejected the idea because it showed that they did not understand his concept for the song, that it was about no single religion, not about having a single religion.
Radical Thinking Not Peace
Many link ‘Imagine’ to another great Lennon solo track, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, but they were recorded 2 years apart, with ‘Give Peace a Chance’ recorded during the famous ‘Bed-In’ protests that John and Yoko did in 1969.
‘Imagine’ has stronger links to radical politics than peace protests, with John conveying the idea of positive thinking. He has said that ‘Imagine’ is about anti-religion, anti-capitalism, anti-nationalist and anti-conventional – but that he had to put it into lyrics that would be acceptable and listened to by everyone, as he put it ‘sugar-coated’.
Over time ‘Imagine’ has become closely associated to the peace movement but in his follow up song you start to see where John really wanted ‘Imagine’ to go, that song being ‘Power to the People’.
His ambition was always to raise awareness of a political belief he felt strongly about and with ‘Imagine’ he had worked out that you could get across a powerful message, to a large audience, by adding a little honey. To understand that idea, listen to how John once described ‘Imagine’ – ‘Working Class Hero’ for Conservatives.
A Fast Turnaround
John wrote the song very quickly at the family home in Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, completing it in one session on his white grand piano (once owned by George Michael) with Yoko Ono in attendance.
He then worked with Yoko and Phil Spector on the arrangement at his home studio. John always talks how simple the process was, with Yoko and Phil just calling out ideas from one room, whilst John was next door completing the track. It was completed with help from musicians Alan White, Klaus Voorman and Nicky Hopkins.
Paul McCartney said he knew it was a ‘killer’ the moment he heard the song (Paul wasn’t on good terms with John at the time, so it was high praise) and Bono has cited it as the reason for his career.
Despite it being a massive success over the years and the song most associated with John Lennon, he didn’t release it in the UK until 1975, when it reached number three in the charts. It re-entered the UK charts in 1980 after his untimely death and went to number one in January 1981, remaining there for four weeks.
‘Imagine’ has been covered by many artists over the years (Diana Ross, Eva Cassidy, Dolly Parton and even Yoko Ono) and is considered alongside ‘Yesterday’ as one of the most popular songs to cover, which is interesting when you consider ‘Yesterday’, although a Beatles track, was really the first time Paul McCartney wrote and sang a track by himself.
This leaves two of the most iconic tracks in history being written independently by the great musical partnership in history.