In honor of John Lennon, who was killed 32 years ago this past December, Fusion 45 celebrates John Lennon Week. Here’s the second of five articles focused on his five best songs.
As is true with the song’s B-side, “Working Class Hero” (John Lennon Week, Post #1), the beauty of “Imagine” is in its simplicity.
Musically, the song is simple enough to be played by someone with rudimentary skills. It’s an uncomplicated ballad written in C-Major, modulating to F-Major at the chorus, clocking in at a gentle 75 beats per minute.
Lyrically, the record shows that simple words have powerful meaning.
The song is credited to Lennon himself. He wrote it over the course of a few hours one morning in 1971 at his Tittenhurst Park estate. Later, he said the song truly belonged to Yoko, as well: it “should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song,” he said. “A lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of [Ono's 1964 book] Grapefruit.”
The other lyrical inspiration for “Imagine” was a prayer book given to Lennon by author Dick Gregory. In the book, Lennon read of “the concept of positive prayer … 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.”
The song was, naturally, the object of scorn by those who considered it a Socialist manifesto, a message Lennon embraced to some degree. “‘Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist manifesto,” he told NME magazine, “even though I’m not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.”
Shortly after Lennon wrote the song, he walked down the hall to his home studio, Ascot Sound, where he laid down the basic tracks. In July ’71, he made the trip to The Record Plant in New York to finish the recording, which included Klaus Voorman on bass and Alan White on drums.
The song was released as a single in October that same year and, within weeks, became his most successful single, reaching #3 on the pop chart. With regard to its mass appeal, Lennon is quoted saying: “Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted … Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.”
The song has sold over 1.6 million copies since Lennon’s death 32 years ago.