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…