473. ‘Imagine’, by John Lennon

Herein lies the beauty of a weekly chart of popular singles based solely on sales, rather than on accepted tastes and public decency. We can swing straight from ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, to this…

Imagine, by John Lennon (his 2nd of three #1s)

4 weeks, 4th January – 1st February 1981

There are surely very few people left on this planet who haven’t heard ‘Imagine’s hushed and reverential piano. I’m not sure what this was recorded on, but the piano sounds off in the distance, as if the opening chords are floating in from the nearest cloud. Then in come John’s vocals, and it is young John – Beatles John – sounding significantly different from ‘Starting Over’, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.

It’s simple, it’s stately. Piano, drums and subtle strings. It already sounds like a remnant from another era, despite being only a decade old (I noted the same thing with ‘Suicide Is Painless’), and musically I find this record quite beautiful. This is as close as we’ve come to a pop music hymn… If it weren’t for the irreligious lyrics.

And the lyrics are where ‘Imagine’ starts to lose its shine. Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try… Imagine no hell, no countries, no religion or possessions. Imagine all the people, Living life in peace… I’ve taught ‘Imagine’ to twelve-year-olds and, if we’re being honest, pre-teens are the only people who are going to buy the message on offer here. From our teenage years onwards, the vast majority of us are far too cynical to genuinely believe in a world of people living life in peace.

Maybe Lennon was being playful when he wrote this. He did have a wicked streak, and you can perhaps picture him grinning evilly at the thought of there being no countries, or possessions, and of every one living in the moment, in an orgy of flesh and, let’s face it, violence. Not to mention the church’s tutting at the idea of there being no heaven. Or maybe not. I think he did mean it. And only he, perhaps, could get away with recording this and not having people laugh in his face.

It’s easy to dismiss this song as the trite ramblings of a very rich rock star. In the wrong hands it can sound deludedly ridiculous. (Remember that celebrity cover version from the early days of Covid last year, later described as ‘creative diarrhoea’…?) But you can see why this was the Lennon record that everyone flocked to in the wake of his horrific death: a fitting eulogy for a flawed but beautiful man. It was the title track of his 1971 album, and had been released belatedly in 1975, when it made #6.

‘Imagine’ is a huge, weighty record. It’s impossible now to properly judge it. Or even to properly enjoy it. I doubt I’d ever actually choose to listen to it and, if I did want to be preached to by John Lennon, I’d opt for ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, which was also riding high in the charts during the festive season of 1980-81. But it feels only right that ‘Imagine’ had this month on top of the UK singles charts, only to be replaced by…

28 thoughts on “473. ‘Imagine’, by John Lennon

  1. Very noble sentiments, but the fact that they were expressed by a tax exile…..ho hum. At least the creator was honest. Ray Coleman’s biography mentions him showing a friend around his pad in New York one day. The friend remarked, presumably with a grin on his face, ‘Imagine no possessions, John?’ To which John replied, ‘Oh, it’s only a bloody song!’

    • I do like that about Lennon, the way he was always out to wind someone up. I half suspect he wrote ‘Imagine’ to take the piss, and is chuckling from heaven every time it’s covered by a self-righteous celeb.

  2. I clearly remember first learning about “Imagine” in elementary school music class where my teacher would often talk about The Beatles (She also showed us the Ed Sullivan performances and the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) and eventually told us about “Imagine” with its peace message and showed us the video with John and Yoko in their mansion. For me, it’s a song that’s become so much a standard that you can’t really argue much about it even if there are flaws to point out. Pretty much everyone performs it now and is a song you’re required to perform after some tragedy. When I watch the New Year’s Eve performances in Times Square, they always have an artist perform “Imagine” just before midnight. Todd in the Shadows had a funny remark about this, “Ending your plea for peace by singing “Imagine” is like having “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” as your graduation theme: it just shouldn’t happen anymore.” For me, I would say I’m not as cynical about the song as you would expect. I mean yes it’s hard to take the lyrics at face value and think of any way all of it could happen in real life but to me, I see it more as Lennon asking us to visualize his visions for the world rather than act on it to make it happen. And I like the piano playing setting a somber tone that immediately hooks you into the message. It’s a perfect execution you have to admit that. Unlike the UK, “Imagine” was given an immediate release in America upon its initial 1971 release. For Lennon, “Imagine” and its title album was meant to court a more mainstream audience after his debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band wound up a commercial flop despite good reviews. In Lennon’s words about the song, “Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” That approach wound up working with “Imagine” going to #3 on the Hot 100 in November 1971 tying the #3 peak of “Instant Karma” the year before for Lennon’s biggest solo hit but wasn’t as big as Cher’s “Gypsys Tramps and Thieves” that week. The Imagine album was also a #1 hit but was still not as big as what George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass had done throughout 1971.

  3. It’s also worth remembering that at the start of the 70s, some acts had reservations about issuing singles off albums in Britain (Led Zeppelin being the prime example), partly because they wanted people to go out and buy the album instead – more money for them and the record company – and partly as they were trying to get away from the ‘singles act’ stigma. This began to change around mid-decade, and by the time of ELO’s ‘Out of the Blue’ it was going to the opposite extreme. (And when ‘The Works’ by Queen and ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson arrived in the early 80s, within a few months pretty well every track would be out on a 45 as well). But in 1970-71 Apple and EMI had to be persuaded ‘by public demand’ to put ‘My Sweet Lord’ out as a single in the UK after initially saying they wouldn’t, and that never happened with regard to ‘Imagine’. In the US it was different, as they saw radio play for singles absolutely vital for selling an album. It finally reached seven-inch form in the UK in the autumn of 1975 as a trailer for John Lennon’s solo work compilation ‘Shaved Fish’. Interesting to note that a few weeks later EMI also released a Ringo Starr best of, ‘Blast From Your Past’, but didn’t take a single from it. It sold poorly and failed to chart, perhaps because the lack of a single and therefore no plays on Radio 1 meant most people didn’t even know it was out – although admittedly Ringo had rather fallen off the radar by then.

    • Interesting info, thanks. I hadn’t really thought much on why ‘Imagine’ wasn’t originally a single. It does have a ‘well-loved album track’ feel to it, much like ‘Yesterday’ (though that was a single in many places) and probably didn’t stand out as lead-single material.

  4. Yea I’m a Lennon fan but…why do people take it so literal? I mean when Jagger sang about a Street Fighting Man…was he really a street fighting man? But what can a poor boy do
    Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band? Yea while he is eating his smoked salmon in his palace Stargroves? Yea he is going to start a revolution lol.

    What was Lennon (or Jagger for that matter) suppose to do? Give away all of their money and live on the street? Why does it make a difference if a poor person sings it or a rich person? If he would have been poor…guess what? We would never have heard it. Imagine is totally idealistic and I don’t think meant to be taken on face value. It was just a song for peace…that is it…at least to me. Now…it was a very catchy song for peace.

    I’ll get off my soap box now lol…Don’t get me wrong…it’s not my favorite song by him but to me it’s a plea to get along with each other…no more no less. I never felt preached at. The song does have staying power.

    • Thing is… I like ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and I love ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over’) because they are about peace, which I, and everyone (OK most people) can and should get behind…

      Very rich people singing about no possessions, however well-intentioned? You’re going to get criticism. Would you, as a big Lennon fan, not roll your eyes a bit if, say, Sting had written it?

      Anyway, knowing JL, I’m still half-convinced he wrote it as a piss-take, like ‘I Am the Walrus’….

      • But this one when you boil it down…is about everyone living in peace. Different window dressing and REALLY idealistic…and you also have to remember the time he wrote it in.

        I know you won’t believe me lol…the reason I would not like it from Sting…is not because he is Sting…it’s because he would manage to make it into a damn jazz song!

        I just never thought about the possessions line with him being rich. If we thought about that so much… we could dissect so many songs. I never took it literal.

        If Ringo wrote this song…would people have taken the same stance? Yes I do agree with you…the man loved to shock people and he knew what he was doing.

      • I think you’re right about the time he wrote it in. I grew up in a much more cynical age, when
        calling someone a ‘hippy’ was an insult. A pop star writing that kind of song nowadays wouldn’t get away with it either. Musically, though, it is a beautiful piece, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to write something that sounds so timeless and simple.

      • A hippy is a badge of honor to me lol. No, you couldn’t get by with it today. It’s a fairytale song obviously but are we all too cynical today?

  5. I agree with all comments about Imagine. I think it can mean whatever you want it to mean and wveryone st the time knew johns primary goal wasnt to get rid of wealth – The Beatles paid 95% tax so its not surprising they decided to keep a bit for themselves. Given the tax fodging schemes of the filthy rich today they were positively saints in comparison and none of them had privileged backgrounds.

    I worshipped the song at the time john died, but i agree about happy xmas and give peace a chance being better anthems and im fed up with hearing imagine these days. I would much rather hesr his forgotten gems like 9 dream and mind games.

  6. I’m not the Lennon fan that Max is. I know the song speaks volumes to many but, it was just background music to me. I was 14 when he was shot and I remember being confused. Why would anyone want to kill a Beatle? None of it made any sense to me. It wasn’t until many years later that the sick truth came out.

    I remember being in Art class and one of my classmates was a huge Lennon fan. She just gushed about “Woman.” She thought it was the most beautiful song she’d ever heard (more background music to me). She was really upset when he was shot.

    It wasn’t long after that when the sick jokes started coming out.

      • What song now…new or old isn’t background noise anymore? It’s so disposable now. Music doesn’t mean as much to people. Vic you grew up when I did…we lived for music. I watch Bailey and his friends and they don’t live and breath it the way we did because it’s right there now….instantly….until the new thing comes along.

      • I so agree. We ate, slept and drank our music. It carried us thru life. We can be transported to adjacent memories with certain pieces. I was amused with your description of playing surf music loud in your Mustang when everyone else was listening to Van Halen.

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