John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is arguably the most loved song of all time. The track captures Lennon crying out for a fairer world, and it epitomises the Beatle’s legacy within one collective effort. As the decades go on, ‘Imagine’ has morphed into a tragically appropriate tonic to whatever travesty is currently tearing the world apart and, in reality, the true meaning of the track has decayed.
‘Imagine’ is undisputedly Lennon’s most widely revered track from his post-Beatles career but, in truth, the song feels as though it no longer belongs to him due to the plethora of different ways it has been interpreted over the last half a century. The legacy of the song was most perfectly summarised by President Jimmy Carter, who noted: “In many countries around the world — my wife and I have visited about 125 countries — you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”
The song is impossible to avoid and because it has become so deeply ingrained into the culture that the true meaning of the track has become lost. It’s now become the go-to song when it comes to grief or mourning; this is down to the tangible sense of hope that rings out from ‘Imagine’ and an overriding feeling that everything will eventually be okay. However, that’s not the initial message that Lennon intended the song to have.
How ‘Imagine’ took on this meaning can be traced back to a moment when Queen covered the track in tribute to Lennon the day after his death during their performance at Wembley Arena. Stevie Wonder then performed the number during the closing ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, in tribute to the victims of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Later, Neil Young delivered a blistering cover of the iconic track during the ‘9/11 Tribute to Heroes’ concert, and then in 2004, Madonna covered it during a benefit concert for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Fast forward again to 2015, following 90 music lovers lost their lives after attending an Eagles of Death Metal concert at The Bataclan in Paris, the song took on its most pertinent meaning. The day after the brutal killing, German pianist Davide Martello took a grand piano out to the street out in front of the venue to perform a tear-jerking instrumental version of ‘Imagine’, a moment which epitomised the sombre mood that united Paris following the attack.
Yet, in an interview with David Sheff for Playboy Magazine, shortly before his death in December 1980, Lennon shared that Dick Gregory had given him and Ono a Christian Prayer-book which had inspired him to write the track. “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 Beatle continued, “The World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.”
Despite the concept of unity that Lennon touched on with David Sheff, the song was also inspired by the communist movement. Lennon later confirmed that the similarities between his ideals set out in the song and Communism were indeed deliberate: “‘Imagine’, which says: ‘Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I’m not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.”
Lennon was open about his political views, once stating: “I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere. I mean, it’s just a basic working-class thing.”
The former Beatle managed to sugarcoat the communist message that breathes out of every pore of ‘Imagine’ to such a degree that he made people from all different political ideologies sing: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”
This is a testament to the greatness of Lennon’s songwriting that he managed to create such a delectable, infectious melody that instantly makes everything seem better. People were too lost in the song to question the lyrics that they were bellowing out.
The legacy of ‘Imagine’ would be somewhat different if it was released today and Lennon would likely be cast as a ‘Champagne Communist‘ by the media. It would be shunned by the same people who adore it, and the universally adored anthem wouldn’t have grown into becoming this monolith of a better world that it is today.