John Lennon – ‘Imagine: The Ultimate Collection’

❉ Andrew Hickey takes a closer look at Lennon’s most popular album, one that’s talked about rather less than it’s listened to. 

“Because McCartney hangs over this album in all sorts of ways, a close listen to the album shows it’s far more about exorcising the ghost of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration than Plastic Ono Band ever was.”

Last month saw the release of a new box set — Imagine: The Ultimate Collection. This is a new issue of John Lennon’s most popular (though not his most critically acclaimed) album, and I thought it would present a reasonable opportunity to look at an album that’s talked about rather less than it’s listened to.

Imagine is not Lennon’s best solo work – that’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – and it’s not my favourite of his other solo works — that’s Walls and Bridges, which I consider a seriously underrated record. And that means that I, at least, haven’t paid it as much attention as I should. It’s that decent John Lennon solo album that’s a bit better than Mind Games and that has that overrated title song on it, to the extent that I think about it — but that’s even though it’s an album I have listened to hundreds of times, since I was a small child, and know as well as I know any record ever.

In part, that’s because it’s Lennon’s most generic record. There’s a type of record it fits neatly into — the post-Beatle album. These are mostly, but not only, made by ex-Beatles (though McCartney never made one, and we’ll get to that later). As well as Imagine, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Ringo’s Ringo fit into it — and so do Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, and to stretch a point most of Badfinger’s early work (in style if not personnel). You get Phil Spector or Richard Perry to produce, get at least one of George or Ringo in to the sessions, a couple of members of Badfinger, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, maybe Eric Clapton if he’s around. You have three or four really good songs, and a few bits of filler and half-written songs that can be made to sound better than they are by that group of musicians. It was an infallible formula for making records that would sell well, be regarded as “classics”, and indeed be very good records, but perhaps be a little soulless.

Imagine is an album that fits those parameters pretty much exactly. It’s an album with some magnificent music on it, but it’s a curiously characterless album at least on a casual listen. Which is odd, as diving deeply into the album, as this box set invites us to, shows that it is a deeply personal album, and possibly Lennon at his most Lennonesque. Far more than John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band it exposes Lennon’s own insecurities, often in ways he didn’t intend. It’s an album about Lennon’s own hypocrisies, about jealousy, and above all an album about the way in which Lennon collaborated with other people.

Before we get into that, it’s probably an idea to talk about the box set itself. Now, I’m here talking about the digital release, which is rather different. The box set itself contains six discs — four CDs, plus two Blu-Rays, which contain 5.1 mixes of material which is on the CDs in stereo, plus the original quadraphonic mix of the album. As I don’t have a Blu-Ray player — and frankly don’t have the ears to notice sound quality improvements past a certain point — I’ve bought the much cheaper MP3 version of the box set, which just contains the material on the CDs.

Disc one is “the Ultimate Mixes”. This is the latest in the recent habit of remixing old records so that they fit 2010’s ideas of what “a good mix” sounds like rather than the ideas of when they were made. In general, I dislike this for much the same reason that film buffs dislike old black and white films being colourised, as it seems to me to be something of a rewriting of history and disrespecting the original artists (I make an exception for the new stereo mixes of the Beach Boys’ sixties music, for a variety of reasons).

Here Paul Hicks has created new stereo mixes of the whole Imagine album, plus the singles Power to the People and Happy Christmas (War is Over), the two sides of the Elastic Oz Band single plus Lennon’s demo of God Save Oz, and the studio recording of Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) that was originally released on the John Lennon Anthology box set in 1998.

These stereo mixes are very different to the original mixes of the album (which, surprisingly, aren’t included on the box set anywhere — presumably on the reasonable basis that anyone who wants to buy four or six discs devoted to Imagine probably already owns a copy). There’s a much wider stereo separation — the string overdubs, for example, were dumped in mono in the centre channel in the original mix. Here, they’re mixed across the whole stereo spectrum. There’s also more differentiation of instruments in the mix, more clarity, and Lennon’s voice is much more prominent in the mixes (as, also, are the backing vocals on some tracks).

Of course, the question is whether this is “respecting” the music and the artist’s intentions, or whether it’s going against them. I’d argue that it’s definitely the latter. Lennon chose Phil Spector to co-produce the album and, frankly, if you choose Phil Spector to produce your record, you know what you’re going for, and what you’re going for isn’t wide stereo separation, instrumental clarity, and prominent vocals. Spector’s whole aesthetic, on every record he ever made, was to go for a big blurry echoey mush, in mono or as close as he could get given the realities of the marketplace. It’s not like Lennon didn’t know that when they made the album. And in particular, Lennon never liked having his own voice sound clear and unadulterated, as it does on much of the new version of the album. He hated his own voice, and literally never put out a studio vocal, from the second Beatles album on, where it wasn’t altered in some way by studio trickery.

(On the other hand, the new mix was approved and supervised by Yoko Ono, who is the only co-producer of the original album not currently dead or in prison, and who also co-wrote at least two songs on the album. Given that Lennon was so emphatic in later years about her creative contributions to this album, we should assume that she has the right, if anyone does, to make editorial decisions about it. )

But leaving aside issues of creative intent, are the new mixes worthwhile? To my ears… sometimes. On songs like the title track, Jealous Guy, or Crippled Inside I found myself noticing a plethora of little details that were buried in the original mixes, and which improve the sound immensely. But on the harder-rocking songs, like I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Want to Die, Gimme Some Truth and, especially, It’s So Hard, the additional space in the mix, and the comparative lack of reverb, make the whole track seem weak, diluted, and flaccid. Those tracks are meant to overpower you with their sheer sonic power, and they just don’t any more.

For example, look to Power to the People, the most Spectoresque of all the tracks on the collection (though it’s not a track from the album itself). That song, in its original Spector mix, has a choir on it, obviously, singing the chorus. What I had literally never noticed, though I’ve known the track intimately since I was four years old (I can date when I first heard the song to the day, as my mother bought my father The John Lennon Collection for Christmas 1982) is that the choir continue singing throughout. I’d not noticed this because they were singing simple “ooh”s, absolutely buried in the mix, providing chordal support but not at all prominent — I’d assumed that that was an organ, to the extent I was thinking about it at all.

(No doubt I will now get a myriad comments all saying “well I knew there was a choir there all along”. Well done, I didn’t, even though I must have listened to the song close to a thousand times.)

On the new mix, on the other hand, those “ooh” vocals are popping out of the mix, fully separate from everything else. They’re no longer one element adding to a general impression — a roar of saxophones and voices and guitars and pianos and drums — they’re a separate element, distinct and on their own. The effect is rather like printing an old four-colour comic on glossy white paper, but keeping the individual ink dots of the colouring, so what may have looked brown originally is now a red dot and a green dot next to each other. There’s a lot more clarity there, but the art wasn’t created with that clarity in mind.

Overall, I find the new mixes probably more good than bad — but that should be taken with the context that I’m not really a big one for bludgeoning sonic power, and will always choose subtlety, quietness, detail, and complexity over a wall of sound. I know a lot of people take the opposite view.

For those who don’t get as obsessively interested in details of different mixes as I do — and to be honest, a casual listener probably wouldn’t notice much difference here, though I doubt a casual listener would buy the box in the first place — the main attraction on disc one will be God Save Us, the Elastic Oz Band single that Lennon wrote, which I believe has never been released on CD before with the original Bill Elliott lead vocal (a version with Lennon singing a guide vocal was released on the John Lennon Anthology in 1998 — that version is also on here). That track is not particularly special or interesting in itself, but it’s nice that it’s out in a completist sense.

Disc two is a mixture of demos, outtakes, and “elements mixes” — these are, for example, the isolated string section for Imagine. These vary from the pointless (a remix of Happy Christmas (War is Over) with Yoko’s chorus vocals brought up in the mix) to the fascinating (a demo of Oh Yoko! from 1969 which seems to show it was originally the same song as I Want You (She’s So Heavy)).

Disc three is “raw studio mixes”, and is probably the disc that best balances the two opposing requirements of this kind of thing — of presenting a familiar album in a way that’s listenable, and of allowing the listener to dig into the construction of the record. These are the basic takes of each song on the album, presented as live, as they were originally recorded, in the same order as on the final album. They’re the master takes, but with no effects and no overdubs, just the basic tracks, so Imagine, for example, is Lennon on vocal and piano, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Alan White on drums, without the strings and without the reverb applied to Lennon’s voice. You’ll occasionally get a bit of Lennon talking to the musicians during a solo and so on, but what these reveal more than anything else is how tightly these musicians were playing together — these are live takes, with live vocals, and yet even without the post-production work they sound like strong tracks. It’s an interesting, and very listenable, disc that basically amounts to a live performance of the album. This disc is filled out with a few outtake versions, mixed in the same way.

And disc four is an interesting experiment — “evolution documentary” versions of each song. Usually starting with Lennon discussing the song in question in an interview, they then proceed through snippets of demo, studio recordings of Lennon teaching the song to the other musicians, false starts and so on. Each seven-minute track becomes a mini-documentary on the making of one track. There are some annoyances about these — most importantly, the way they repeat bits of audio we’ve already heard on discs two or three, relatively frequently — but they paint a fascinating picture of Lennon’s working process. Primarily they show Lennon being annoyed at the unprofessionalism of the people he was working with, who seem constantly to be chatting or watching TV in the next room while he’s trying to work, but they also show the way he worked in collaboration with the other musicians, going in with a definite idea, but letting the musicians find their way to where he wants them to be, shaping their performances between takes rather than telling them at the start what to play.

“We talk a lot at the moment about whether it’s ever appropriate to separate the art from the artist, and whether good art can be made by bad people, and whether the existence of that good art can ever be redemptive. I think in Lennon, far more than most, we see the optimal case for the defence there — we see a man who acknowledges his own flaws, tries to overcome them, and records the process of that attempt.”

They also show that Phil Spector was, unsurprisingly for an evil misogynist murderer like him, a sexist dick towards Yoko Ono. She can often be heard giving constructive feedback to the musicians — and it is, at least from what we hear here, sensible commentary of precisely the type a producer should be giving, things like “you’re playing softer in the bridge, try to stay at the same level throughout” (not an exact quote, but quotes of that nature) — and Spector will repeatedly talk over her, repeat what she’s just said, ignore her, or all the other ways in which misogynist men make women feel like they have no value.

But I said earlier that this box has made me reevaluate the album, and it has, in a number of ways, many of which can be summed up by looking at the title track.

There are a few quotes in the documentary part of the box that I think bear pointing out here, before I go any further:

On Imagine:

“And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics, but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it, so that song was actually written by John and Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it. Because I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with four guys and always having to share everything, share shirts, share the same dry cleaner, the same everything”.

On Jealous Guy:

“Intellectually, before that, I thought you know owning a person is rubbish, but I love Yoko, I want to possess her, completely… I don’t want to stifle her. That’s the danger is you want to possess them to death.”

On How Do You Sleep?:

“Somebody said the other day, it’s about me… it’s not about Paul, it’s about me, I’m really attacking meself…. the only thing that matters is how he and I feel about those things and not what the writer or the commentator thinks about it. Him and me are OK.”

I’d read those comments in the interviews they’re from (I’ve probably read every Lennon interview ever — he didn’t give that many, sadly) but they resonated a lot when I got to them in my listen, in this new context, because I’d already formulated some ideas about what Imagine the album was about, and they tend to reinforce it.

Of course, the big criticism of Imagine, the song, is that it’s Lennon being a hypocrite. As Elvis Costello wrote in one of his songs “was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions?’” Lennon was an immensely rich man, and yet the song advocates getting rid of property rights, at least as a thought experiment (I assume, at least, that Lennon and Ono were talking about getting rid of property rather than or as well as getting rid of possessions — i don’t think either of them were particularly up on Proudhonite distinctions between the two concepts). Surely that makes him a hypocrite?

Well, yes. But that’s the thing about Lennon that drives his entire artistry. He was a massive hypocrite, and he knew it, and his work was mostly him analysing his own hypocrisy and failings. That’s what gives Lennon’s best work its power, and means that even his weaker work (and I think “Imagine”, as a song, is actually one of his relatively weaker pieces) is often more interesting than one might expect at first glance.

Lennon was a man who spent his whole life in a battle between his instincts and his intellect. He was a bad man, with vicious, violent, instincts, but who was trying constantly to become a good man. His music is a record of that process, of his constant attempts to rise above his instincts and upbringing, and to become the person that he intellectually knew he should be.

We talk a lot at the moment about whether it’s ever appropriate to separate the art from the artist, and whether good art can be made by bad people, and whether the existence of that good art can ever be redemptive. I think in Lennon, far more than most, we see the optimal case for the defence there — we see a man who acknowledges his own flaws, tries to overcome them, and records the process of that attempt.

That doesn’t make him a good person, but it does make the case for the art slightly different than for an artist who either celebrated their own flaws or tried to pretend they didn’t exist at all.

And this tension between instincts and intellect is there in Lennon’s work in all sorts of ways. Perhaps most interestingly for our purposes here, it’s there in his views on what art should be.

If you read any Lennon interviews from the last decade or so of his life, you see a rather consistent theme in his attitudes to his own work. He belittles things like I Am The Walrus, even while saying how good they are, because he found them easy to write — he sees writing that kind of thing as a trick, and regards other artists who traffic in obscurity as having found the trick themselves, as being conmen. It’s something he finds easy, so he thinks anyone can do it.

What Lennon comes to believe over the course of that last decade is that the only valid art is art that’s very specifically about the artist themselves — that it needs to be as accurate as possible about the artist’s feelings, and that anything else is frippery. For a brief time in the seventies he also believed that it was worthwhile to treat music like a piece of journalism — to write songs about current political events — but he later said that this was something he was persuaded into by his friends in the Marxist counterculture, rather than something he thought was actually a good idea.

And certainly, almost all of the lyrics in Imagine fit with Lennon’s intellectually-espoused ideas. But we’ll look at the music in a second, and I think that tells a slightly different story. And I think that part of the story it tells is hinted at in the line from How Do You Sleep? “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday’, and since you’re gone you’re just ‘Another Day’”.

Now here’s the thing about that line. Another Day is actually an absolutely fantastic song, but it is pretty much the epitome of the kind of McCartney song Lennon was defining himself against — it’s absolutely joyous, it has a chorus that goes “doo doo doo doo doo doo”, and most importantly as far as Lennon’s intellect was concerned it’s telling a story about someone else, a fictional character. This was something that Lennon would always happily define himself as against — “Paul said ‘come and see the show’ while I said ‘I read the news today oh boy’”.

Except it was all a little more complicated than that, wasn’t it? Because Lennon also said “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?”, he also wrote about Old Flattop and Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam and Bungalow Bill and Mr Kite. His criticism (one shared by George Harrison, who played the fantastic guitar on How Do You Sleep?) was that you can only write honestly about yourself, not about fictional characters, certainly doesn’t seem to have applied to his own work, does it? And it wasn’t as if he disclaimed those songs — the only Beatles songs he played live in his post-breakup live performances were Come Together, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and McCartney’s I Saw Her Standing There — another of McCartney’s story songs.

Almost as if he were drawn to that kind of songwriting but thought he shouldn’t be, because of authenticity. Authenticity that, paradoxically, forced him to go against his own instincts.

And the thing about McCartney is that in many ways he’s far *more* authentic than Lennon. For better or worse, most of his songs are first-draft, top-of-the-head things. The man who would, shortly after Imagine, record Wild Life with its songs like Bip Bop (“Bip bop/Bip bop bop/Bip bop bip bop band”) is not someone who let his head overrule his heart. His records show no sign of having second thoughts — they barely show signs of first thought. They’re pure instinct, and that’s both the best and the worst thing about them — McCartney when he’s coasting is still good enough often enough that he never needs *not* to coast. And “Another Day”, as pure distilled McCartney as it is, sounds effortless even as it’s a wonderful track. McCartney wasn’t torturing himself to make records like that.

But what does “authenticity” mean when it comes to art? And in particular, what does it mean when you’re dealing with songs, which have both words and music?

Because the music on Imagine… well, firstly, it’s substantially better than the lyrics, which are generally not among Lennon’s best, but it’s also… well, it’s Lennon putting on a series of masks and playing games. Being inauthentic, if you will. It’s pastiche. You’ve got It’s So Hard, which is by-the-numbers white blues, you’ve got Crippled Inside which is one fiddle away from being a Buck Owens record, and you’ve got Imagine itself which… well look… it’s a stately, hymnal, rather plodding, gospel-inspired, piano-based ballad with a bit of a Bridge Over Troubled Water feel to it… just like Let It Be, a song that Lennon said was “Nothing to do with the Beatles” and “Could have been Wings”.

Because McCartney hangs over this album in all sorts of ways, and a close listen to the album shows it’s far more about exorcising the ghost of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration than Plastic Ono Band ever was. Not only do you have both How Do You Sleep? and Crippled Inside — the latter of which is another song that was at least partly aimed at McCartney but which Lennon later admitted would apply more to him — and not only do you have the McCartney pastiche of Imagine (which, I will grant, is possibly a stretch. It certainly feels to *me* like an attempt to do Let it Be 2, but that’s not necessarily backed up by any evidence other than my own ears) — you also have the last ever Lennon/McCartney song to be recorded. And, just like he didn’t credit Yoko for “Imagine” — because he needed to be by himself, to stand alone, to not be a collaborator any more — Lennon didn’t credit McCartney for Gimme Some Truth:

“Another ‘oldie’ with words finished recently (if you think ah ha! he’s running out of songs – no chance) The middle eight was written with Paul – he’s getting half the money anyway and vice versa. I was wondering what truth I was after in India. George does a sharp solo with his steel finger (he’s not proud of it – but I like it). I like the overall sound on this track tho’ I’m not sure if I’d go out and buy it.” — John Lennon.

Anyone who has listened to the Get Back session recordings will have heard Lennon and McCartney collaborating on that song — something that was later admitted in writing when the book The John Lennon Letters (from which the above quote comes) was published, but which was obvious to anyone who had ears from the moment they first heard the tapes that have leaked. The song, as the Beatles recorded it in 1969, was a duet between Lennon and McCartney, with Lennon singing the bulk of the song — the verses and choruses — while McCartney sang the bridges: “no freaked out narrow-minded son of Gary Cooper’s gonna mother hubbard soft soap…” in his Little Richard voice.

Once you’ve heard that — even if you’ve not heard the studio dialogue, even if you’ve not seen the proof in writing that McCartney was a co-writer — anyone who has ever heard a Beatles record will know, that bit was written by McCartney. It’s got the man’s fingerprints all over it. Lennon changed the lyrics slightly when he rerecorded it — to “no short-haired yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky…” — but he keeps McCartney’s music and much of the lyric from his section. It’s a Lennon/McCartney collaboration. Uncredited. On an album where he included one and a bit songs (Crippled Inside isn’t only about McCartney) attacking McCartney, and included a postcard of himself parodying the cover of McCartney’s last album.

That McCartney has literally never mentioned this lack of credit that I have seen, and that his reply to those songs was the rather touching Dear Friend, says a lot about him, I think.

That Lennon lied in the songwriting credits, to a song called Gimme Some Truth, says a lot about him and his songwriting. About the gap between imagination and reality. And the fact that he would admit to that lie, and to the distortions in his songs, and to his desire for credit he didn’t deserve, and his erasure of his wife’s credits, also says a lot.

Imagine is an album in which a flawed man tries to examine his own flaws, and tries to imagine a better world where he’s flawless, but still manages to sabotage himself with his own insecurities, his jealousy, his desire for possession in all the different meanings of that word, and with the difference between his instincts and his intellectual beliefs — and this comes out in every bar, in every note. After all, it’s only that level of deep conflict that allows you to write a hymn and start it with “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

Imagine is disguised as a bland early-70s pop-rock album, but it’s a darker, stranger, more interesting album than that. It’s self-loathing externalised and rebounding on the originator. And it’s got some absolutely great music. This box set is flawed, but then that’s appropriate for the album. But it’s an album with a lot more depth to it than its reputation, or even my own longstanding opinion, would suggest, and this box set proves that.


❉ This article is a guest post, originally published on Andrew Hickey’s blog, Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and reproduced with the author’s consent.

❉ A writer of note, Andrew Hickey has published authoritative, critical and insightful discographies of the Monkees, The Kinks, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles’ mono albums, as well as well as novels including ‘Head of State’ and ‘The Basilisk Murders’ – he is also keeper of a must-read blog and dedicated Twitter profile. Check out his new podcast, A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, at 500songs.com or on iTunes. 

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