December 8, 1980 remains a day I still don’t fully understand and I guess I never will. A couple of years ago I posted this on what I was doing on that day and the day after. Ever since he was murdered the mournful intro to this song connects me to that day again.
This song has been dissected to pieces and I wouldn’t even attempt to do it. It’s never been my favorite John Lennon song but it is his most important solo song…and a song that he is remembered by.
This may be the most popular song by an ex-Beatle. The song was released in 1971 and it peaked at #3 in the Billboard 100 and #1 in Canada. In 1981 the song peaked at #1 in the UK after Lennon’s death.
In 2002, this came in #2 in a poll by Guinness World Records as Britain’s favorite single of all time, edged out by “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
John Lennon: The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing then it can be true … the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea
Lennon was asking us to imagine a place where the things that divide us, like religion and possessions, did not exist. He felt that would be a much better place.
This song is a strong political message sugarcoated in a beautiful melody. Lennon realized the softer approach would bring the song to a wider audience, who hopefully would listen to his message: If you want peace, first you have to imagine it.
The imagine concept came from Yoko Ono, who was very much into open-mindedness and using your imagination. In 1964, she published Grapefruit, a book of “instructions and drawings” that established the lyrical concept for the song. Here are some examples of her “instructions”:
Imagine the clouds dripping
Dig a hole in your garden to put them in
Imagine myself crying and using my tears to make myself stronger
Grapefruit was re-issued in 1971 before the song was released. That July, John joined Yoko on a series of book signings where he wholeheartedly endorsed it, often wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the book’s cover.
John Lennon wrote and recorded this song at his Tittenhurst Park estate in the English countryside where he and Yoko took up residence in the summer of 1969. When they moved to Tittenhurst, The Beatles hadn’t officially broken up, but they were on the outs and would never record together again (the last Beatles photo shoot took place there in August, 1969).
Lennon had released two avant-garde albums with Yoko: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions. At the end of 1969, they released another: Wedding Album, which contained sounds gathered at their wedding and “bed-in” honeymoon. In 1970, after a round of primal scream therapy, Lennon released his first commercially viable non-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, with contributions from Ringo Starr and production by Phil Spector.
In early 1971, Lennon worked up songs for a new album – “Imagine” was one of them. In May, he summoned several of his musical cohorts to Tittenhurst to record it, including Spector, George Harrison, bass player Klaus Voormann, piano man Nicky Hopkins, and drummers Alan White and Jim Keltner. They recorded on-campus in the studio Lennon had recently built, which he called Ascot Sound Studios. It was a genial atmosphere; footage from the sessions shows Lennon and his cohorts enjoying each others’ company, but also getting down to business when it came time to work – Phil Spector kept the sessions on track, and Lennon was exacting in his musical detail. “Imagine” was one of the first songs they recorded. With a very simple arrangement designed to spotlight the lyric, it required just Lennon’s vocals and piano, Voormann’s bass, and White’s drums. Strings were overdubbed later.
Lennon took the sole songwriter credit on this track, but later said that his wife, Yoko Ono, should have been credited as well. On December 6, 1980, two days before he was murdered, Lennon did a radio interview with Andy Peebles for the BBC where he explained: “That should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song because a lot of the lyric and the concept came from Yoko. But those day, I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.”
On June 14, 2017, the National Music Publishers’ Association announced that Yoko would finally be added as a songwriter for “Imagine.” This took place at a ceremony where Yoko was given the Centennial (song of the century) award for her contribution, which was followed by a Patti Smith performance of the song.
Hundreds of hours of footage was shot to document the Imagine sessions and subsequent events, including John and Yoko’s move to New York City shortly before the album was released. Music videos (or as they were known at the time, “promotional films”) were rare in 1971, but The Beatles were on the vanguard, creating them for some of their songs and also making five movies. Yoko Ono was a visual artist, so having cameras around wasn’t a big deal to the couple.
Every song on the album got a video, and in 1972 they were compiled into a film called Imagine. The clip for the song “Imagine” shows John and Yoko walking to the entrance of their home at Tittenhurst, where Lennon then plays the song on a grand piano in a white room. Yoko eventually sits next to him on the piano bench, where they share an intimate moment.
Footage for the project was later used in these films:
1988: The documentary Imagine: John Lennon
2000: Gimme Some Truth – The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine
2019: John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky
There are two famous Steinway pianos associated with this song: a brown Model Z upright in Lennon’s studio and a white baby grand in one of the rooms of his estate. Film footage shows Lennon first writing the song on the upright, then working it out on the grand. He tried recording it on the grand, but the room was too big, which caused excessive reverberation, so he recorded it in the studio on the upright.
The grand is more associated with the song because it’s the one he plays in the music video and the one used in promotional images – it’s a more striking visual than the upright.
In 2000, George Michael paid over $2 million for the upright, and then donated it to the Beatles museum in Liverpool. It has since been “on tour” around the world to promoting peace. The grand Lennon had shipped to his apartment in New York City, where Yoko still lives. It’s assumed she still owns it.
A sidewalk mosaic spells out the word “Imagine” in a section of Central Park dedicated to Lennon. The area is called Strawberry Fields, and is located across from Lennon’s apartment where he was shot.
Released as a single in America, “Imagine” climbed to #3 in November 1971. In the UK, John and Yoko decided not to release it as a single to put focus on their Christmas peace anthem “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” In 1975, “Imagine” was issues as a UK single for the first time, reaching #6. Soon after Lennon’s death in 1980, it was re-released in the UK and hit #1 on January 10, 1981, where it stayed for four weeks. On February 7, it was replaced at #1 by Lennon’s “Woman,” marking the first time an artist replaced himself on top of the UK charts since The Beatles followed “She Loves You” with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
This is credited to The Plastic Ono Band, the name Lennon used for some of his recordings after leaving The Beatles.
Lennon didn’t think the song had any hit potential when he wrote it. After recording a rough version in his home studio at his Tittenhurst Park estate, he made a demo record with “Imagine” as the flip side of his political screed “Gimme Some Truth.” He wanted some perspective on the songs, so he invited a few journalists and other associates over to have a listen. Ray Connolly of the London Evening Standard recalls Lennon playing him the demo and asking, “Is it any good?” Connolly and the others who heard it had to convince Lennon he had a hit on his hands with “Imagine.”
Yoko Ono performed this live at a show in Budapest, Hungary in 1986 that was included on the 1997 reissue of her album Starpeace. She included a studio version on her 2018 album Warzone.
On September 21, 2001, Neil Young performed this on a benefit telethon for the victims of the terrorist attacks on America. Almost 60 million people watched the special in the US.
At a 2001 tribute special to Lennon, Yolanda Adams sang this with Billy Preston on organ. Preston played keyboards on some Beatles songs, including “Get Back.”
Oasis used the piano intro on their 1996 song “Don’t Look Back In Anger.”
This song returned to the Hot 100 three times in the late 2000s thanks to cover versions by Jack Johnson (#90, 2007, for the compilation Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur), David Archuleta (#36, 2008) and The Glee Cast (#67, 2009). Other artists to cover it include Joan Baez, Bruce Hornsby, Ray Charles, Eva Cassidy, Our Lady Peace and A Perfect Circle.
This song plays a role in the movie Forrest Gump. Gump (played by Tom Hanks) appears on a talk show with Lennon, talking about a place where there are “no possessions” and “no religion.” It’s implied that Gump gave Lennon the idea for the song.
Some speculate that this song contains backwards messages. With a keen ear and vast imagination, you can barely make out the words “people war beside me” when reversing the line “imagine all the people.”
On September 13, 1980 Elton John played a free concert in New York’s Central Park, ending it with “Imagine.” This performance was three months before Lennon’s untimely death; before playing the song Elton said, “This is for a dear friend of mine who doesn’t live too far from here, so let’s sing it loud enough for him to hear it” (Lennon lived only a few blocks from that part of Central Park). The flamboyant Elton performed the song wearing a Donald Duck outfit.
Julian Lennon shared his thoughts on the song in the 2019 documentary Above Us Only Sky: “He’s not shoving it down people’s throats. It’s not religious and it’s not political – it’s humanity and life. We all really want what he’s singing about, and I think that’s why even today the song is still so important. The sad thing is, the world is still in a bad way. Why is it impossible to move forward in these dreams and make them a reality?”
The jazz musician Herbie Hancock recorded this as the centerpiece to his Imagine Project. His version features Jeff Beck, P!nk, Seal, India.Arie, Konono N°1 and Oumou Sangaré.
According to Yoko Ono, who controls the rights to John Lennon’s music, the most frequent request she gets comes from musicians who want to record “Imagine” but change the “no religion, too” lyric, a request she has always denied.
So, does this mean you can record any song, but you need special permission to alter the lyrics? Essentially, yes. Alex Holz at the music licensing and royalty service provider Limelight tells us: “Artists can be afforded ‘some’ leeway in adapting a track to your band’s style (so long as you don’t alter the fundamental character of the work), though lyric changes/alterations typically require direct permission from the publisher as a derivative work. Every songwriter/publisher/song is unique and requirements vary.”
This was the last song played on WABC before they switched from a Top 40 format to talk radio on May 10, 1982. Based in New York City, WABC was for decades the top AM radio station in the country. They debated long and hard to decide which song should be their farewell.
It’s a stretch, but some have wondered if Lennon included a message in the video for this song. Lennon wears a cowboy hat in the beginning, and Yoko wears jewelry that evokes Native American culture. This could be a kind of message about all cultures getting along. Or it could just be what they chose to wear. >>
A moving rendition of “Imagine” took place in Paris on November 14, 2015, at the Bataclan theater, where 89 people were killed by gunmen in terrorist attacks the previous night. The German pianist Davide Martello brought his grand piano to the theater and played the song while crowds mourned outside the venue.
Over the next few days, Martello brought the piano to every location in Paris where the attacks took place, performing the song in tribute.
When Nike used the Beatles song “Revolution” in 1987 TV commercials, Yoko Ono joined the surviving band members in suing the company. In the court proceedings, it was revealed that Yoko appeared in a Japanese TV commercial for a telephone company where “Imagine” plays. According to court documents, she authorized use of the song and was paid about $400,000. The “Revolution” case unified the Beatles in their opposition to having songs used in commercials, especially since they didn’t control those rights – Capitol Records and Michael Jackson did.
At the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, four singers from that country performed “Imagine,” with each taking a verse. The singers represented a range of genres, including K-pop, with Ahn Ji-young of the duo Bolbbalgan4 performing along with Ha Hyun-woo of the rock band Guckkasten, Jeon In-Kwon of the rock band Deulgukhwa, and the solo artist Lee Eun-mi.
The theme of the ceremony was “Peace in Motion,” with a message of unity as athletes from North and South Korea entered under one flag.
Ben & Jerry’s, makers of “Cherry Garcia” and “Phish Food,” named an ice cream flavor after Lennon’s hit song in 2007. Retired since 2013, “Imagine Whirled Peace” was a caramel ice cream mixed with toffee cookie pieces and chocolate peace signs.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today (ah ah ah)
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one