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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

John Lennon: Imagine

JOHN LENNON: IMAGINE (1971)

1) Imagine; 2) Crippled Inside; 3) Jealous Guy; 4) It's So Hard; 5) I Don't Want To Be A Soldier Mama; 6) Give Me Some Truth; 7) Oh My Love; 8) How Do You Sleep?; 9) How?; 10) Oh Yoko!.

General verdict: The raging spirit of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, slightly sugar-coated by a superb team of qualified sugar-coaters.


Imagine there's no Beatles (it's easy if you were born after 1980, and even easier if you were born after 2000), no Paul McCartney to shake a stick at, no progressive or punk rock, imagine all the people living without access to Rolling Stone or Pitchforkmedia or any snarky media source that seems to have figured it all out about the greatest musical minds of the 20th century, and try to simply go ahead with your gut feelings. There is a good chance that in such a context, Imagine might seem like the finest pop music album ever made. Unfortunately, such a context is almost as impossible to generate as an antimatter gravitational field in your living room.

The problem with John is that he is very much an artistic gambler. Every now and then, he would raise the stakes so high that he'd be hardly able to call — and in order to enjoy his catalog through and through, you constantly have to deal with moments of hypocrisy and falling back on his own potential. Thus, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band ruptured with his past and established a whole new formula for aspiring singer-songwriters; no sooner had it come out, though, that John went back to a much less ascetic, much more smooth and conventional type of pop sound — all the while continuing to pinch and harass those who, like Paul, never backed away from that type of sound in the first place. Many people cringe at Imagine because it is too soft; many more, I think, cringe at it because it is soft stuff produced by a hard-ass guy accusing others of being soft.

Yet I have never found it to be a big problem. From 1971 and all the way to 1980, issues of creative and challenging musical arrangements did not bother Lennon as much as the issue of saying precisely what he wanted to say at any given moment. Granted, even in his Beatle days he was always more preoccupied with base melody and «idea» as opposed to sophisticated arrange­ment and «innovation» — on his own, he was thoroughly dependent on whatever technical masterminds were at hand, and never bothered much to check whether the final product came out as experimental, artsy, or commercial. Fortunately, the professionalism of the technical master­minds was rarely in doubt, and even if John did frequently sound out of time, this is no longer a problem, now that time has pretty much leveled all genre conventions.

Anyway, even if you have not heard Imagine the LP (not hearing ʽImagineʼ the song would be definitely un-imaginable), you must have guessed by now that this was a perfectly accessible, «normal», regularly produced and arranged pop album, unmarred by avantgarde influences and expanded beyond the stark minimalism of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band. This time, John had assembled a fairly large team — and what a team it was: Harrison on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Alan White and Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and even the mighty King Curtis himself dropped in to add saxophone parts to two of the songs (by the way, this was one of King's last, if not the last ever, recording sessions — he'd be stabbed to death one month prior to the album's release). Even Moody Blues fans should be interested, since Mike Pinder is credited for shaking the tambourine on ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ (maybe that is why I've always been so partial to that track?..).

No amount of session talent would have saved a bad album, of course, but John was still on a roll: every single song here is at least memorable and/or fun, and quite a few are masterpieces. There is no single theme, but most of the songs are centered around the usual subjects — sarcastic put-downs of those who have it wrong (ʽCrippled Insideʼ, ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ), political protests (ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ, ʽGive Me Some Truthʼ), personal crises (ʽIt's So Hardʼ, ʽHow?ʼ), relationship issues (ʽJealous Guyʼ), and Yoko (ʽOh My Loveʼ, ʽOh Yoko!ʼ). At the very least, this certainly gave John the advantage of being able to claim that all of his art is still directly related to significant personal experience, rather than, you know, singing about dogs with three legs, monkberry moon delights, and eating at home.

Prefacing all that is the title track, sincere and innocent enjoyment of which has been rendered impossible by incessant profanation — miriads of bland covers, radio overplay, commercials, and, most importantly, ripping out of context. Personally, I can still enjoy ʽImagineʼ just fine when it sits close to the acidic-venomous ʽCrippled Insideʼ, rather than finds itself in the company of church hymns, Amazing Graces, ʽTake Me Home, Country Roadsʼ, and other similar setlists created by and for very idealistic, very boring, and (typically) very obnoxious young people who prefer a very straightforward approach to the idea of spiritual enlightenment. But there is no getting away from the simplistic magnificence of the piano melody — a stately, but humble escalator to Heaven — or from the awesomeness of the "yoo hoo" falsetto hook, whose personal magic I am not able to explain in words, because it does not fall neatly under any type of emotion I am aware of. As for the «communist» lyrics of the song, which are so off-putting to all those who never fail to point out that John Lennon himself had always been quite particular about his "possessions", for some reason, they have never bothered me — maybe because the song in general is such a cloud-walking musical utopia that it never came across as «preachy» to me, even despite the "I hope someday you'll join us" line.

Anyway, ʽImagineʼ is just one out of ten songs on Imagine — and it is pretty hard for me to pick a favorite. The whole thing is evenly divided into a «tender John» and a «nasty John» part, so evenly, in fact, that sometimes I think it would have been great fun to amend the sequencing so that each of the two would inhabit a separate side of vinyl. But although the tender-nasty dicho­thomy would persist all the way up to Walls And Bridges, John was always particular about interweaving those two sides of his personality in his art, just as they were so tightly interwoven in his real life. There is nothing surprising that the biggest dick in the world can also be its most passionate and sympathetic lover, after all.

The real good news here is that John's team, assembled for the album, was able to perfectly amplify both of those sides. A large part of my own love for Imagine is due not to John's tor­mented personality, but to the little things that his friends contribute to the expression of said personality. For instance, ʽIt's So Hardʼ could be a fairly generic blues-rocker, if not for King Curtis' panicky sax solo, conveying the idea of all of life's problems much more explicitly than John's vocals — but the best bit is John's guitar duet with the strings of The Flux Fiddlers, first in call-and-response form and then as they bring it down together in a single joint wail of despe­ration. (There is also the irony of using the line "sometimes I feel like going down" in both of its possible senses, but that's just a bit of classic John hooliganry).

One song that is typically discarded even by fans of the album is ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ: too long, too noisy, too repetitive, too simplistic, too «ugly». It is all of that, for sure, and perhaps I am too influenced here by childhood memories when I used to be transfixed and terrified by it, but even today it strikes me as something musically unique — not just in Lennon's catalog, but in general. If there is one single influence for that song, I'd go ahead and place my bets on Bitches Brew: a long, multi-layered, controlled-chaos jazz-rock jam functioning as a tribalistic ritual, except that certain complexities are sacrificed in order to make the effect spookier. With Harrison contributing some of the most aggressive slide licks he ever laid down, with Nicky Hopkins doing those agitated, paranoid piano runs in the background, with Jim Keltner causing minor earthquakes with his drum patterns, with King Curtis creating total saxophone havoc in the solo sections with multiple overdubs, how could anyone in his right mind be bored with this apocalyptic sonic panorama? Perhaps John's single repeated vocal line with minimal variations is what pisses people off, but it is so insignificant next to that voodoo they all do so well — and speaking of "well", some of John's "we-e-e-e-e-ell, I-I-I-I..." are creepy as hell here. As far as I am concerned, never again would the man rise to the same levels of sonic nightmare — and this on one of his «tenderest» albums, too.

Then there is the case of ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ. God knows I admire Paul McCartney and his genius as much as is permissible without getting too embarrassed about it, and clearly, the venom in John's lyrics is mean, offensive, disturbing hyperbole. But who are we to judge, particularly when that venom is being spewed from the mouth of somebody who used to know McCartney a hundred times better than all of us combined? And do not throw all the blame on John, either: a major part of ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ is made up by George's inventive, melodic, and equally poisonous and vicious slide guitar lines — every time I listen to that solo, I can just feel Harrison grinning from ear to ear as he is finally given the chance to take a shot of sweet revenge at the one man who once forced him to "play anything you want". Sure, it's mean and dirty, but it's just so damn classy at the same time — and although some of the lyrics are too explicit and dated, the song itself has never lost its relevance. (In fact, it was a very natural association to me after my initial impressions of Adele's 25).

Switching topics and skipping over to «tender John», we also find consistently great stuff. ʽJealous Guyʼ is ample evidence that the man who can toss out the sickest and dirtiest insults in the musical world can also issue the sweetest, most moving pleas for forgiveness — the whole song is a letter-perfect exercise in psychological therapy. (I also do believe that Nicky Hopkins should have been co-credited for the song, which is totally made by his piano — even if the song originally started life as ʽChild Of Natureʼ back in India, it never properly came to life until Nicky worked out the piano pattern). ʽOh My Loveʼ reprises the minimalistic approach from Plastic Ono Band, but is again much aided by Hopkins' piano — providing the perfect reali­sations for John's parsimonious musical genius: a classic case of how to make a tender love ballad without lapsing into the sin of sugary sentimentality. And ʽHow?ʼ, which some people have shrugged off as four minutes of soft pap, actually aches and throbs as much as ʽMotherʼ — it has simply been sugarcoated a little bit, with pleading and complaining instead of screaming, and with extra strings and vibraphones softening and dulling, but not eliminating the pain. Besides, "how can I feel something if I just don't know how to feel?" is such a good question, we should probably ask it of ourselves far more often...

With ʽCrippled Insideʼ featuring even more first-rate guitar and piano work from George and Nicky, and with ʽGive Me Some Truthʼ containing some of the finest-worded insults in Lennon history ("short-haired yellow-bellied son of tricky dicky" takes the cake), the only song on the album that is less than perfection is... well, you know. Not because of the word "Yoko", even: more because there is an oddly grating dissonance between the triumphant, ecstatic tone of the lyrics and the production of the song, which fails to properly realize that anthemic potential. The melody is suggestive of some long-winded tell-tale country ballad (think Dylan's ʽFrankie Lee And Judas Priestʼ, or something — it might not be a total coincidence that this is the only song on the album to feature a harmonica solo), while the words are a hyperbolic love prayer — the final combo just does not seem to "turn you on" precisely as promised. (ʽDear Yokoʼ on Double Fantasy would be somewhat more successful in that respect). Not to mention, of course, that the song is somewhat anti-climactic, especially compared to the stately coda of ʽGodʼ and the creepy post-coda of ʽMy Mummy's Deadʼ. It is just one of those things that added extra fuel to the fire: was it really necessary to end the album with such a blunt and straightforward pledge, when it already had the far subtler and far more touching ʽJealous Guyʼ and ʽOh My Loveʼ — songs that did not mention Yoko's name directly but expressed their feelings far less formalistically? It comes across not so much as a love anthem as a gesture of public self-humiliation.

Nevertheless, despite a slightly lackluster conclusion, Imagine as a whole is nearly perfect. Like almost any of John's records, it could have proudly born the title of Songs Of Love And Hate, had the title not already been appropriated by Leonard Cohen that same year — and, frankly, Imagine is more worthy of the title, because there are very few records in this world whose love songs are more full of love and whose hate songs are more full of hatred, and both of them feel so totally organic. Chalk it up to the crazy power of this guy that I, with a lot of love for Paul McCartney and a lot of, er, um, mixed feelings towards Yoko Ono, can so naturally get behind the emotions on both ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ and ʽOh My Loveʼ without a second thought. Rich melodies, classy arrangements, talented backing band, supreme depth of feeling — really, I cannot understand anybody who still has a problem with this record. Sure, it would be much nicer if more of those American Idol or The Voice contestants chose ʽI Don't Want To Be A Soldierʼ instead of ʽImagineʼ, but this is merely one more incentive to stay away from classic rock radio, TV commercials and reality shows, right? Once you do, who knows, not only ʽImagineʼ, but maybe even ʽYesterdayʼ might begin to come in their original colors once more... 

25 comments:

  1. What's up with that "mixed feelings towards Yoko Ono"?

    Probably we all used to hate Yoko in our teens and believed the tale about Godzilla ruining Beatles, and sure enough she's not a very pretty looking person (skin deep level, I mean) to automatically induce some positive feelings. But now we all understand The Beatles would break up regardless.

    She used to be an inspiration for John, there's a handful of good songs written about her directly (like 'The Ballad of John & Yoko', 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide', etc.) or indirectly ('Too Many People', ha!), she's released some very good outtakes (well, judging by general quality of such releases) compilations after Lennon's death and so on. I don't have any warm feelings or respect for her but there's nothing I can dislike/hate her for. Same for Linda, by the way.

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    1. Because her music sucks?

      (Which come to think of it makes her the exact opposite of the Godzilla who actually broke up the Beatles.)

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    2. Sure. But noone really counts "Two Virgins", "Life with the Lions", "Wedding Album" (and George even skipped "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band" review) when we talk about Lennon. And should be really pay attention to 5-6 Yoko compositions on classic Lennon albums? Dunno, I've really trained myself to listen to these tracks as if they don't exist (except 'Moving On', I think).

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    3. "I've really trained myself to listen to these albums as if these Yoko songs don't exist" — that's what I meant

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  2. So Ram comes in colors everywhere, Radiohead's boredom comes in different colors, and there's hope that Lennon's songs can again come in their original colors. If this keeps up, there won't be any colors left!

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  3. There was a really nasty streak to Lennon, for all his talent and emotional honesty. I don't understand how he could write a song like How Do Yo u Sleep. It's an incredibly cheap shot, even if it's a catchy song. I'm not really a fan of McCartney but it was such a hatchet job, and a dishonest one at that. Credit to McCartney that he was able to speak fondly of Lennon later. The only thing I can think of as an excuse is that this kind of intense hatred and revisionist of former bandmates is not that uncommon. Waters' attitude to Gilmour comes to mind. But I think it's nasty all the same. And shame on Harrison for adding his weight to it.

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    1. I don't know if this is true, but I've heard in some interview that George told John something like, "ok, that's enough," after recording. Maybe it's only a groundless legend. If it's true, he did his small part in trying to quell John's public bile.

      Btw: here's an incisive parody of John's acidic, arrogant, petty side. Peace loving lover that he also is.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSnjRaGoYyI

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  4. It barely needs saying that Imagine and Jealous Guy are two of the best songs Lennon ever wrote, in or out of the Beatles. And I particularly like Jealous Guy but for some reason, the way Lennon sings "I'm just a jealous guy", with the "just" and "deal" being inflected, has always grated with me. Otherwise, the piano arrangement is almost perfect.

    Just a comment if I may about the bigger picture with Lennon and McCartney, although I'm no expert on the Beatles. It strikes me how much they owed each other. Together, each of them made an effort to compensate for their individual flaws - over-"niceness" or blandness in the case of McCartney; and too much cynicism (or idealism, because what is idealism if not a reaction to cynicism?) in the case of Lennon.

    The balance was perfect as a result and very rarely did either of them capture the magic they had together. Generally, it's why we're all better when we're closely involved with someone in a positive way - we make more of an effort to change our flaws and become better people as a result. I actually suspect that neither would have made it if they hadn't met, for all their creative talent, which feeds into the point in my previous comment about the underhandedness of How Do You Sleep. Fortunately, it can't ruin a great album. Cloudsurfer

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    1. I've always disliked the claim that Lennon and McCartney needed each other to be great - which is basically the same as saying neither of them is/was, it was only a person who never actually existed called "Lennon/McCartney" - but at this point, since the Plastic Ono Band album was always acknolwedged as a masterpiece and now Ram is too, I guess I'll consider that 51% of a victory and say that's pretty much good enough.

      Anyway, the essential thing about the Paul = nice/bland & Lennon = cynical/idealistic line is that it's supposed to be even-handed while implicitly but obviously putting down one and elevating the other (noone really thinks cynicism is as bad as blandness), and I don't think it's a coincidence that it didn't really solidify until after the band broke up and everyone hated Paul's solo albums. If you read what people were writing 1966-1969 it's more that John is the extroverted words guy, Paul the introverted music guy.

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    2. (Not saying the 1966-1969 line was right either.)

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    3. Would Lennon's cynicism have been received in the hippy, happy Sixties? Would McCartney's "niceness" (for want of a better word) have worked, particularly in the later half of that decade when bands started experimenting and becoming more frank with their lyrics, if not altogether dark? Did either of them have a strong enough personal image to break through the competition? I'm not an expert and obviously it's speculation, but I have my doubts. Together I maintain that they brought out the best in each other or maybe just negated the worst. And they had a great image along with the others in the band. It takes more than just talent to be "great". You need opportunity, timing, contacts etc no matter what field you're in.

      I'm not a huge fan of Lennon's solo stuff, as far as I know it. I find it preachy and cynical - even when he's singing about "peace". There's an element of patronising if not acidity going on there. Occasionally his better angels own the battle. But in the Beatles, they won the war.

      And although its a matter of taste I don't get McCartney's solo stuff. At least Lennon wrote a few timeless classics. I don't think, to my relatively unrefined ears that MCCartney did. But then, I've listened to Band on the Run a couple of times and I'm just clueless as to how it could be rated - there's nothing I think is any good there apart from the title track, which is also too bland and silly lyrically for my taste.

      Now if only he had written a riposte to How Do You Sleep, he would have gained many more fans. But then, he didn't really do anger, at least on his own. Therein maybe lies the problem.

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  5. - Everyone knows McCartney was the main mover behind the Beatles' musical experimentation. Words are another story, but obviously Lennon's genius wasn't necessary just to KEEP UP with changing trends in pop music lyrics - hundreds of songwriters did that.

    - There was no competition for the Beatles to break through. British pop music was nothing in the early '60s until they made it something.

    - "Dear Friend" is the riposte. Like you said, McCartney doesn't do anger, he does passive aggression.

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    1. Fair enough. I guess we were lucky to have both of them, 2 very different people but equally creative in their own ways.

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  6. Throwing in my own two cents into the various discussions here:

    1) Another great review, George. Though it says something about how straightforward this album is in comparison to Ram that the way you describe it is far less ephemeral and offers somewhat less in the way of wholly original insights than your exceptional review of Ram. That's not a criticism against you, by the way, it's just the nature of the two albums.

    2) It also isn't really a criticism of this album, really, as I pretty much love this album. I do think It's So Hard and I Don't Want To Be a Soldier are both pretty weak and drag the album down a bit in the middle but after the bleakness of the excellent but somewhat impenetrable Plastic Ono Band, it's nice to see John get back to the songcraft that always accompanied even his most nakedly emotional Beatles songs. Hell, I even really enjoy Oh Yoko!

    3) Yes, it is hilarious that he blasts Paul's domesticity when some of the album's best tracks are an homage to the exact same thing. For the record, though, regardless of the mean-spirited and disingenuous lyrics, How Do You Sleep is just killer, on a musical level.

    4) The John vs Paul thing. Straight up, when it comes to their respective solo careers, however much I do love some of John's stuff, I far, far prefer Paul McCartney's solo albums over his former partner. The idea that Paul's solo music is "bland" when it's as innovative, quirky and often flat out weird as it is strikes me as very strange. John's solo albums - especially the ones between this and Double Fantasy - often suffer most from a musicality that is less than inspired. Yes, Paul is usually lightweight lyrically but his sheer musical talent allows his music to do the talking even when the lyrics are beyond banal. He also does effortless melancholy like almost no one else. His later albums, in particular, aren't as innovative as his earlier ones and, frankly, they do sometimes suffer from truly terrible mastering but they do have a feeling to them that almost matches Lennon at his best - just much more subtly.

    5) Better together. All that said, I absolutely do think that Lennon and McCartney complement each other perfectly and, over all, aren't as good apart as they are alone. My preference for Macca's solo albums does mean that I think that John needed Paul a wee bit more than the other way round but that's clearly mostly personal taste. The fact is that there is something in that writing relationship that elevates the two artists beyond what they are alone. That said, it should be stressed that this isn't the case of two OK artists becoming good together or even two good artists becoming great together. Lennon and McCartney are both truly brilliant musical artists - it's just that working together nullified their respective flaws (Paul's form over content, John's content over form) and amplified their individual excellence to stratospheric levels that haven't been matched by anyone else in pop music.

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    1. For one thing, I think George's speculation here about what we'd think think of Imagine if we didn't know the Beatles or McCartney is quite original.

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    2. Yeah, definitely. I don't mean that there were no interesting or original insights here, just that after his Ram review - which, like his his Pepper review, gave me new appreciation for an album I already adore - it's more typical.

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    3. "Ephemeral" means trivial and insubstantial. Surely not the idea you intended, but I'm not sure of what exactly you did mean. Do you mind explaining?

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    4. Quite right. Wrong word. I meant ethereal - I have a bad habit of confusing the two at times.

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  7. "I Don't Want to Be A Soldier" could have been a little better. I love "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", so its not the length thats the problem with it.

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  8. Think it was Ringo that got a little upset at John when listening to him recording early takes of 'How Do You Sleep'. He must have just been dropping in--I'ven't heard if he was ever due to perform on the album. On the other hand regarding HDYS, John tells us later that it was really about himself. Same goes for the very similar, almost self-ripping Steel and Glass. Mike Pinder said he was invited initially to perform on John's melitron, which turned out to be unplayable. Fancy the thought of Pinder's melitron appearing on the album--maybe IDWBAS woulda sounded like a Moodies' tune.

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    1. Amen to Pinder: Apparently the tape loops had been pulled out of the unit so he ended up on tambourine. A great missed opportunity--thanks Mr. Engineer for blowing that one.

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  10. The bitterness of the put-downs on this album is just too much for me, though they are musically brilliant. "How Do You Sleep?" is of a piece with John's interviews of the early 70s, when he was also laying into George Martin's production and saying that the Beatles lost their musical souls when they started wearing suits. To me it's adolescent petulance that hasn't worn well.

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  11. IMHO Ringo is the only Beatle whose solo career was not a disappointment - mostly because the expectations weren't sky high.

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  12. Lyrics of the song 'Imagine" by John Lennon, beautifully translated in Hindi :
    https://rkkblog1951.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/imagine-by-john-lennon-inhindi/

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