“The album Imagine was after Plastic Ono. I call it Plastic Ono with chocolate coating.” – John Lennon
In 1971, the world was still coming to terms with the loss of one of the greatest pop culture phenomenons its inhabitant had ever witnessed — The Beatles. The Fab Four had been disbanded for over a year but that didn’t mean we weren’t getting music from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, it just meant that fans were getting four separate albums instead. While some of those albums can be quickly forgotten, cast to the back shelves of dusty record collections, Lennon’s Imagine is one of those efforts that continues to hold water today. Even 50 years after its release, this album is still powerful enough to leave you staring into space, contemplating a better world.
John Lennon’s most successful solo album was his now-iconic sophomore record. Heartily helped by the lead single ‘Imagine’, which quickly gathered pace as a timeless classic from the moment it was released, the record has become one of Lennon’s finest. Even in consideration of his Beatles output, the album showcases Lennon’s unique viewpoint on life perfectly.
While the first track on the album, ‘Imagine’ may well see Lennon at his most politically expansive and deliberately extroverted, the rest of the record saw Lennon’s personal reflections put down on paper. It provided a deep sense of balance on the album and hinted at the continual fight between light and dark that drew battle lines within the songwriter’s personality. It was clear that while Lennon’s demons hadn’t yet been banished, they had certainly been tempered to an appropriate level.
This is the album that has become the clearest image of what John Lennon was all about. While there are certainly moments of reflection on a life littered with mistakes, misgivings and missteps, there are also nods to the shining past, hope for the glittering future and, of course, a deep and undying love for Yoko Ono. Truly, Imagine is John Lennon through and through.
But which songs are the best on the album? We’ve scratched our heads and pulled together a definitive ranking of the record with number one spot being a bit of a surprise.
Ranking John Lennon’s Imagine from worst to best:
10. ‘I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama’
A track that has been likened to some of Lennon’s composition ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ for its lyrical simplicity—containing only 25 different words—the song has a habit of falling by the wayside amid an album packed with killers. It’s no doubt that this one is a bit of a filler.
‘I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama’ began life as a studio jam as the sessions musicians crowded around while recording the ‘Power to the People’ single. It’s the only song on the album to receive infamous producer Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ treatment and yet still feels a little too thin to be any higher than dead last.
It’s rare that John Lennon writes a forgettable song, no matter how much he once professed The Beatles catalogue to be “lousy”. But on ‘How?’ he does just that.
While sonically it is pleasant and enjoyable, the track is gone almost as soon as it arrives. Equally, lyrically, the song is another singing piece of poetry as Lennon offers a counter-argument to his piece ‘Imagine’.
While that track seemed to offer all the answers to life’s problems, on ‘How?’ Lennon debates his own standing and legitimacy to be offering advice at all. “How can I have feelings, when my feelings have always been denied?” asks Lennon on the track as he deliberates the meaning of it all.
8. ‘It’s So Hard’
To be the B-side of ‘Imagine’ means that ‘It’s So Hard’ is already struggling to make any real impact. One of the shorter songs on the record, the track benefits from being straight-to-the-point without coming close to belabouring it.
In the somewhat experimental song, Lennon opens himself up to his audience and shares his feelings towards the mundanity of life. Which, considering his position as one of the most famous men in the world is quite a stretch.
Professing that he only needs his lover to be happy, Lennon bemoans the difficulties in modern living and his desire to spend the rest of his life in bed with Yoko.
7. ‘Crippled Inside’
When John Lennon welcomed his old pal and former-Beatle George Harrison to take part in the recording sessions of Imagine hopes were certainly high and the duo didn’t disappoint.
Though ‘Crippled Inside’ may fall below the mean line on this record, the song is still a cracking effort. Rich in lyrical tapestry and uncanny in delivery, it’s a fine song.
There’s a folk-rock undercurrent to the song and it sheds more light on the ‘Imagine’ proposition as Lennon confirms that while perfecting one’s perceived and outward body is all well and good, one must change their heart to have any real effect on the world around them.
6. ‘Oh My Love’
One more song from the Get Back sessions that resurfaced on the 1971 album, ‘Oh My Love’ was the last track to be recorded for the album.
There are certainly influences from the Fab Four too. Harrison’s piano-playing on this track comes remarkably close to both ‘Julia’, a song Lennon wrote for his mother, and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, arguably the Quiet Beatle’s finest moment on record.
As Lennon lyrically tries to offer a more crystalline image of what utopia could be, the song lilts and tips towards the lullaby end of the spectrum. If there’s one track on the record where we get to experience the inner sanctum of Lennon’s mind then ‘Oh My Love’ is about as close as you can get.
5. ‘Gimme Some Truth’
Another moment of Lennon letting his politics run wild as the protest song sits pretty within Imagine. In one of the leftover songs from The Beatles’ Get Back sessions, Lennon turns his caustic wit and razor-sharp tongue at lying politicians “short-haired yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky”, hypocrisy and chauvinism, “tight-lipped condescending mommy’s little chauvinists”.
It sees Lennon reflecting on the world around him and trying to gather up further ground support for a change in the political system. Lennon is desperately trying to sift through the media minefield trying to find a golden nugget of truth.
Another song with contribution from George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle arguably steals the show with his gritty playing on this one. It speaks highly of an album if a song like this isn’t on the top spot of its ranking.
4. ‘Oh Yoko’
The final track on the album, ‘Oh Yoko’ is a straight love letter to his inspirational lover, Yoko Ono. The song was born in India, as he and The Beatles were under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but was not completed until the Imagine sessions three years later.
Featuring Nicky Hopkins on piano, Klaus Voorman on bass and with Lennon picking up a harmonica for the first time on record since The Beatles’ ‘Rocky Raccoon’, musically the song is gilded with gold.
Lyrically it’s simple in its message and convinced of its direction. It’s a match made in heaven, much like John and Yoko. Beautifully orchestrated and utterly beguiling.
3. ‘How Do You Sleep?’
Some songs on this record rely on Lennon’s vision of the future while others lean heavily on Lennon’s reflections of the world around him, some are purely directed at the past and, in the case of ‘How Do You Sleep?’, at Paul McCartney in response to his own song.
The track ‘Too Many People’ doesn’t name names or refer to specific events in the lives of John and Yoko but when you look into the lyrics it all becomes fairly obvious what the subject matter is. In the opening verse, “People reaching for a piece of cake” sounds like it is about the latter years of The Beatles era but if you listen to the chorus as being about Lennon and Yoko, no wonder he was not best pleased. McCartney sings “That was your first mistake. You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”
Speaking to Crawdaddy Magazine, Lennon talked about his anger upon first hearing the track: “I heard Paul’s messages in Ram – yes there are dear reader! Too many people going where? Missed our lucky what? What was our first mistake? Can’t be wrong? Huh! I mean Yoko, me, and other friends can’t all be hearing things.”
It meant that Lennon recorded ‘How Do You Sleep?’ in retaliation and with Harrison on guitar the song was given extra weight, “So to have some fun, I must thank Allen Klein publicly for the line ‘just another day’. A real poet! Some people don’t see the funny side of it. Too bad. What am I supposed to do, make you laugh? It’s what you might call an ‘angry letter’, sung – get it?”
The iconic work which is left behind following John Lennon’s untimely death in 1980 is vast and expansive. But there’s one song that will represent Lennon for Infinitum.
‘Imagine’, the title track of the record, remains a bastion of possibility and humanitarian hope to this day. While the lyrics were written by Lennon and Yoko Ono (in fact, following the claim that Ono provided much of the lyrics, she was given a co-writing credit on the song in 2017), it’s is Lennon’s serene and ethereal delivery that moves the song into a new realm of sonic poetry and social possibility.
It’s a sentiment that has outlived Lennon and one which will likely outlive us all. It’s widely considered one of the best songs ever written and is easily the purest of heart. However, it doesn’t take our top spot.
1. ‘Jealous Guy’
‘Imagine’ may be John Lennon’s anthem, the kind of song that will still be sung in 100 years time as a desperate plea for peace. But ‘Jealous Guy’ is the very inner workings of John Lennon, it is the iconic man putting himself on the canvas, warts and all, and unflinching dissecting everything that is good and bad about him. Mostly the bad.
Inspired by his time with the Maharishi, the song has since become a vision of Lennon’s life at the time and a candid moment of vulnerability. Speaking with David Sheff in 1980, he revealed: “The lyrics explain themselves clearly: I was a very jealous, possessive guy. Toward everything. A very insecure male. A guy who wants to put his woman in a little box, lock her up, and just bring her out when he feels like playing with her. She’s not allowed to communicate with the outside world – outside of me – because it makes me feel insecure.”
Speaking with the BBC, Lennon revealed further, “When you actually are in love with somebody you tend to be jealous, and want to own them and possess them one hundred per cent, which I do… I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her, you know? That’s the danger, that you want to possess them to death.”
It’s not a unique feeling, it’s one that many of us have experienced but far, far fewer have ever expressed. This is why it deserves to be at the top of this list. ‘Jealous Guy’ shows that John Lennon committed himself completely to his art.