The Story Behind The Song: ‘Instant Karma!’, John Lennon’s one-day wonder
John Lennon could hang his creative hat on a plethora of songs. From his work with The Beatles to his enigmatic solo work, ‘Instant Karma!’ provides the perfect bridge between the icon’s career islands. The track has since gone on to typify Lennon’s work and his creative integrity, something always propelled by his intense desire to make his art.
The song was written and recorded in one day, January 27th, 1970, and released just 10 days later, with Lennon once boasting that he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner.” It’s the kind of ingenious method of working that put Lennon on the map as a purist.
While that is a slight exaggeration, ‘Instant Karma!’ was one of the most hastily put together songs Lennon ever wrote. The singer and songwriter’s choice to put out the track so quickly would have some huge implications for the rest of The Beatles and quickly put Lennon out into the public as a solo artist before the confirmation of the band’s split had been announced.
Though the general public had not yet had the devastating news of the Fab Four’s official split, John, Paul, George, and Ringo had been pulling in different directions for some time, and the cracks had quickly turned into chasms. As well as their creative calls pulling them down different paths, the group were also locked in a series of bitter battles about their solo releases. It would mean when Lennon finally released ‘Instant Karma!’, he signalled the end of The Beatles and the beginning of John Lennon, the solo artist.
‘Instant Karma!,’ was released with the Plastic Ono Band in the U.K. on February 6th, 1970, and it quickly shot to number five on the charts. Two weeks later it was issued in the U.S., and it again reached some high heights taking the number three spot. It was a top 10 smash in several other countries, including Canada where it climbed to the second position. It remains one of Lennon’s most successful releases.
It was a mark of things to come for Lennon as he took his conceptual songs to the masses. ‘Instant Karma!’ was born out of a conversation between Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and her former husband Tony Cox and his wife Melinde Kendall, where the quartet discussed the idea of ‘ultimate fates’ and the idea that they happen in this lifetime rather than the next — it’s the kind of conversation that only Lennon and Ono would have over dinner. It inspired Lennon to steam into the studio and complete this high-concept thought and turn it into a song, the unification of mankind to fight against the evil in the world needed an anthem.
“Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the ’60s,” Lennon revealed to David Sheff, “but it occurred to me that karma is instant, as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So, the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form. I just liked it.”
Though The Beatles were most certainly on the way out, Lennon still turned to his friend and fellow Beatle, George Harrison, to help put the song together after Lennon finished the track in less than an hour. Harrison called up the infamous producer and convicted murder Phil Spector to get things to tape as quickly and professionally as possible.
“John phoned me up one morning in January and said, ‘I’ve written this tune and I’m going to record it tonight and have it pressed up and out tomorrow—that’s the whole point: ‘Instant Karma,’ you know,'” Harrison later remembered. “So I was in. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll see you in town.’ I was in town with Phil Spector and I said to Phil, ‘Why don’t you come to the session?’ There were just four people: John played piano, I played acoustic guitar, there was Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White on drums. We recorded the song and brought it out that week, mixed—instantly—by Phil Spector.”
Alan White was a member of Lennon’s band at his solo concert debut with the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto, and being apart of this recording (as everything did), the wheels were moving quickly indeed. “I was just waking up in the morning when I got a call from [longtime Beatles assistant] Mal Evans,” White remembered in 2014. “He said John had just written this song and he wanted to record it today and release it next week.”
As per Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ style, though the song was recorded in a day, the massive amount of overdubs were concluding over the following week and pushed back the release date. Three pianos (two acoustic, one electric) were added, with Lennon, Harrison, White, and Voormann all being a particular brick in this wall of sound. A rag-tag group of people from a nearby nightclub was even invited to provide the singalong backing vocals, Harrison leading the sozzled choir which also included manager Allen Klein.
“We all met at Abbey Road, and I had an idea of what I wanted to do,” White said. “It was kind of one of those things where you are playing a rhythm, but when it comes to a drum break, you play in a different meter. It came naturally—and John said, ‘Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It’s wonderful.’ There were only a few of us in there. He and I played piano overdubs afterwards. Phil Spector liked to take multiple sounds and make them sound like one. He’d never put one tambourine on a record; he had to have 15 of them.”
“Suddenly we went in the room and heard what he’d done to it,” Lennon later remembered. “It was fantastic. It sounded like there was 50 people playing.” It would see the track resonate loudly with music fans across the globe. ‘Instant karma!’ would be the third single from Lennon under the Plastic Ono Band banner but as soon as the song broke one million copies sold (the first Beatle to do so on a solo project) it would be the first blast of the bugle that The Beatles were very much over.
Lennon’s adoration of the song meant that he demanded Spector takeover the ill-fated post-production of Let It Be. The album had been moved around and re-shaped under the strains of the band’s inner battles with Spector now firmly taking the reins. The infamous producer soon upended the recordings from their ‘back-to-basics’ ethos to his traditional wall of sound style. It created a final, unbridgeable, rift between McCartney and the rest of the group that would essentially end The Beatles.
Listen below to John Lennon’s one day wonder, ‘Instant Karma!’ the song he wrote and recorded in a single day, the kind of song that cemented John Lennon as a pop icon.