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The love and the hate: 50 years on from John Lennon's 'Imagine'


The second of John Lennon’s post-Beatles solo endeavours, Imagine has been a firm fan favourite since its release on September 9th 1971. It acted as the follow up to 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and, in many ways, marked a continuation of the style Lennon had developed with the group in the immediate period following The Beatles’ infamous split.

Both albums feature Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production style, and many of the songs from Imagine feel as though they could have been plucked from that previous record. However, with Imagine, John Lennon had his sights set firmly on the number one spot and did everything he could to make his second solo album as commercially viable as possible.

Lennon’s deliberate attempt to make Imagine a hit with the masses certainly paid off. Unlike John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which was very well received by the critics but failed to capture the hearts of fans, Imagine was a huge hit in both the US and the UK. The production and arrangements on tracks like ‘Imagine’, ‘Jealous Guy’, and ‘Oh My Love’ represented a clear pivot in Lennon’s songwriting, from an angular and experimental sound to something polished, even, and sonically accessible. However, the album also acted as a space for Lennon to vent some of his frustrations with his ex-Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney, who he practically rips to shreds in ‘How Do You Sleep?”

The song was written in response to the lawsuit McCartney filed against The Beatles as well as to Paul’s own potent barb, ‘Too Many People’, which he admitted had been targetted at Lennon. In ‘How Do You Sleep?’ Lennon sings: “The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you’ve gone you’re just another day,” referencing Paul’s biggest hit with The Beatles, ‘Yesterday’.

The title track is, of course, the most recognisable song on the album. Written in the key of C Major and comprising of just 26 lines, it is a minimalistic masterpiece of accessible songwriting. After the release of Imagine, the track became an anthem of peace and solidarity, with the public coming to regard it as one of the most defining songs of the liberal humanist cause. In that way, it has come to be seen as a song that captures the very essence of the human struggle against adversity. As a whole, the album, especially amongst avid Beatles fans, typifies Lennon’s songwriting. and stands as one of the most brilliant solo albums of all time.

But, today, Imagine has a strange ability to divide opinion. In fact, the album is going under something of a reappraisal fifty years after its release. It likely has something to do with that harrowing rendition of ‘Imagine’ which was sung by Gal Gadot and her gang of tone-deaf Hollywood stooges back in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. But even before that, ‘Imagine’ was something of a liberal cliche.

It had taken on a set of very specific connotations and had a whiff of the school assembly about it, of teachers in polo shirts holding hands at charity fun-runs. And, even though Imagine contains some of the best songs Lennon ever wrote, such as ‘Oh Yoko’, ‘Imagine’ imbues the record with a sickly sweetness that is impossible to ignore.

Imagine is an album of two distinct characters. On the one hand, it is a commercially accessible record crafted by Lennon out of a hunger to achieve greatness on his own terms and spread a message of peace and love across the entire globe. On the other, it is an album filled with mischief and confessional wit, which seems to simmer with raw and undiluted emotion capable of bringing out the worst of his character traits.

Regardless of how you feel about Imagine, it is difficult to see it as anything other than one of the truest reflections of an icon. John Lennon may not be the messiah of music he was once perceived as but one thing is for sure — he knew how to write a damn fine song or two.