Neil Young's powerful cover of John Lennon song 'Imagine'


After the September 11th attacks, America’s largest owner of radio broadcast stations Clear Channel (known today as iHeartMedia) issued a memo to its various stations across the country advising them from playing certain songs. The conglomerate sought to minimise the playing of songs they deemed “lyrically questionable”, but the scope of their memorandum was wide, and the resulting list was so unfocused and laughable, that it became a point of controversy almost immediately.

Reading the list today makes Clear Channel seem like the golden standard for knee jerk reactions. Take, for instance, the fact that Rage Against the Machine had all of their songs included. Songs of joy, like Martha and the Vandellas ‘Dancing in the Street’ are puzzlingly included, as are songs that even briefly mention air travel, like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’.

But perhaps the most egregious suggestion was to halt the playing of one of the most unifying peace anthems ever created: John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. It’s hard to think of a song more well suited or more immediately necessary in the wake of a tragic event that contained strong political and cultural overtones than ‘Imagine’, with its lyrics regarding the absence of religious dogma and the unity of man. The decision to censure Lennon’s best-loved creation is hilarious, puzzling, and sad all at the same time.

Leave it to forever iconoclastic singer-songwriter Neil Young to kick back at the ridiculousness of the Clear Channel memo. Young himself didn’t have any songs blacklisted (although if Clear Channel really wanted to curb songs that question government actions in the wake of a tragedy, they probably should have targeted CSNY’s ‘Ohio’), but he took issue with the notion that ‘Imagine’ had the potential to provoke more than unify. As such, during the America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast that occurred just ten days after the attacks, Young took on ‘Imagine’ to viewers in more than 200 countries. 

Notably, Young made a slight edit to the song’s lyrics. Instead of singing “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can” in the song’s third verse, Young instead turns the proposition inwards and sings: “I wonder if I can”. The edit takes what could have come off as a slightly preachy line and makes it far more philosophical, bringing around the idea that change starts from within. It’s a small but well-placed addition that actually improves upon one of the most beloved songs of all time.

Watch Young’s performance of ‘Imagine’ down below.