John Lennon - Imagine (1971) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

Lennon Squared

It is 50 years since John Lennon said "imagine no possessions" from his huge mansion in Tittenhurst Park, in one more of the many contradictions that fill the life of the man who, together with Paul McCartney, formed the most important songwriting duo of the 20th century. Precisely from his relationship with Paul comes another of the enormous contradictions of this album: on the one hand here is How Do You Sleep? his furious response to the alleged attacks of the author of Yesterday in Ram; on the other hand this Imagine could be described as Lennon's ‘most McCartney album’, with several of its songs, including the famous hymn that gives it its title, musically recalling the author of Hey Jude, Let It Be and Maybe I'm Amazed.   

The curious thing is that Lennon himself seemed to be well aware of this and was looking for his belligerent message to enter more homes, after seeing how his wonderful debut, the stark Plastic Ono Band, had to settle for a sixth place in the charts while the first post-Beatles albums by
George Harrison and McCartney had climbed to the top of the charts. It was thus that Lennon decided that his definitive song, an anti-religion, anti-materialist, anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist theme, with one of his most beautiful melodies, should have a musical arrangement that Lennon himself qualified as Working Class Hero with "sugar".


That was why Lennon's second solo album went in the opposite direction than his spartan, stripped-down debut. For this album he featured a collection of guest musicians and unleashed his producer’s - Phil Spector’s - famous 'Wall of Sound', who added strings to several of the songs. Many saw it as a concession to commerciality, but the result, for this writer, is the pinnacle of his solo career.

The dissolution of the songwriting partnership between Lennon and McCartney was a trauma for both. Even though they had been writing separately since 1966, while they were in the Beatles they always listened to each other's point of view, as Lennon contained Paul’s frivolity, while McCartney musically and melodically stimulated John. That may be why Imagine is the best collection of songs of his career, because Lennon had once again felt the sting of competitiveness with McCartney after hearing Ram tracks such as Too Many People, in which he referred to him. That resentment served to spur his creativity and, probably without realizing it, to try to be Paul and John at the same time.


That's how Child Of Nature, one of the songs he had offered for the Beatles' White Album, is transformed here into Jealous Guy, going from an acoustic folk track to a fantastic piano ballad with strings. Also on How? - with another great string arrangement by Spector - trades primal therapy and screams for 'beatle' melodies and leaves several questions unanswered....

On the B side appears Oh My Love, another ballad, but this time totally his own, with a little help from Yoko, a sort of Julia part two with a beautiful melody with classical influences. It is precisely another tribute to his second wife, Oh Yoko, the one in charge of putting the fabulous finishing flourishes to the album, with folk touches and a harmonica solo by Lennon that was the last one he ever recorded in the studio.


But not everything on Imagine are mid-tempos and ballads, Lennon also included several blues numbers and flirted with his beloved 50's rock & roll, for example with the magnificent saxophone of King Curtis on It's So Hard. Although if one musician stands out among the plethora of guests - including Curtis himself, and members of Badfinger, Jim Keltner and Nicky Hopkins - it is none other than Harrison, who delivers some of his best slide moments on this album on songs like Gimme Some Truth, I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama or, the best of the lot, How Do You Sleep? a song that deserves a separate paragraph.

This song is John's most furious attack on Paul, an attack so personal that it made Ringo Starr himself exclaim when he heard it for the first time, "that's enough John". As if they wanted to make the attack even harsher, Harrison plays a splendid slide guitar with Lennon's Stratocaster Sonic Blue and Lennon attacks where he knows it hurts the most "The sound you make is muzak to my ears" / "The only thing you've done was Yesterday" / "You must have learned something in all those years" (A curious idea as this record confirmed that Lennon had in fact learned one or two tricks from McCartney...). Maybe even its author ended up regretting the lyrics (once they made peace he ended up by declaring that he didn't write it about Paul, but about himself) but nobody can doubt that it is one of his great songs and one more proof of how bitter it is when love turns to hate.

The conclusion is that Imagine is the best solo album by one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century, even though it also comes with its imperfections and contradictions. It is the album in which Lennon asks for world peace while acknowledging his past as an abuser, and it is the same guy who asks with the same sincerity towards humanity how it is possible that we cannot all live in peace and shortly after cruelly attacks the one who, possibly, was the best friend he had in his life. Imagine is ‘Lennon squared’; and that is nothing but confirmation of its excellence.