A Dance to the Music of Time — “Imagine”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.


The Song: “Imagine”
from the 1971 album Imagine by John Lennon
reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 (see note at bottom of page)

In the 365 days following Paul McCartney’s announcement on 10 April 1970 that he was leaving the Beatles, the four members of what had been the greatest band in the world put out a LOT of work. Paul, in between his hissy fits, somehow managed to squeeze out McCartney, a totally forgettable album that somehow also happens to have “Maybe I’m Amazed” — probably his greatest love song outside of the Beatles. George went and made All Things Must Pass, a triple album widely considered the pinnacle of post-Beatle work (I’m not sure about that, but any album with “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life” on it can get it). Surprisingly, RINGO was the most studious of them all: he went and created two albums plus a smash hit (“It Don’t Come Easy”) that cemented his status as both the hottest drummer and the nicest musician on Earth. And in between all that, he also went and played drums on John Lennon’s sole creative work during this period.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band usually runs a close second to All Things Must Pass when people talk about great post-Beatle albums. I don’t know about that, but it certainly is the most intense and emotionally raw album I’ve heard from them. Recorded in October 1970, while John and Yoko were off doing primal therapy in NYC and reliving all their terrible childhood experiences one by one, John alternately screams (“Mother”, “Well Well Well”), jeers (“I Found Out”, “God”) and moans (“Isolation”, “Love”) his way through 39 minutes of brash, raw music with the help of Ringo on the drums. John’s mental state at the time pours into the music, his changing moods turned up to 11 on each of the songs, and it really is a weird experience, hearing this grown, 30-year-old man yelling like a maniac, his heartbreak scarily audible, and then hearing him do a 180 to croon to Yoko on the next track. There’s only John, Ringo and their bassist friend Klaus Voormann on most of the tracks, which allows the main feature of Plastic Ono Band to come forward: a picture of a man in a fragile state of mind, a man who desperately needs a hug but who refuses it and instead spends his time moping on the floor of the studio.

Plastic Ono Band, therefore, is an album famous for its coarseness and unforgiving tones. I bring all this up because John’s next album, 1971’s Imagine, is famous for its title song being its exact opposite, and it’s this huge contrast that draws me to talk about the song this time round. (Yup, the previous 439 words were all just context. Strap in, you’re in for the long haul.)

Let’s be honest: usually the songs I feature on this blog need a bit of introduction. This one, on the other hand, is familiar to millions: it is frequently hoisted out as a call to peace, usually in a fight against violence and tyranny. (It got a lot of attention in the protests over here last year.) It is quite often the first song by a Beatle anyone will ever come into contact with — my secondary school taught us “Imagine” in Form 1 and “Yesterday” only in Form 3 — even though it isn’t really by the Beatles (the cheek of it all). Everyone who has heard of John Lennon will remember his granny glasses and his soft touch on the piano, both images that come from the film for “Imagine”. This is the song that spells out “John Lennon”: kind, a peace activist, a visionary.

And to be fair, that magic works. It works because “Imagine” is, first and foremost, a beautiful song. There is a reassuring tone in the way he croons the lines, as if he’s a father figure telling us what to do if we want to be happy, if we want to achieve world peace. There is a simplicity in the piano as it tinkles away — the lack of any loud, harsh chords in the piano, which we’ve learned to expect from hard rockers like him, has magically disappeared, replaced by a soft, floating soundscape. There is a romance in the way strings are allowed to accompany his gentle vocals — I’m not sure about this, but I think it’s a first for Lennon. And in the middle of it all: lyrics that are comfy and squishy, a gentle exhortation for world peace, for us to imagine a world where everyone is a dreamer and is striving for equality.

The music video helps too: it begins with John and Yoko, wrapped in clothes that make them look like hip Jedis, silently traipsing through the fog and through a mystical landscape to the front door of their house (and then suddenly disappearing into thin air, like the good ethereal spirits they are). As the strings ease in, Yoko slowly opens the windows in the room, letting the sunshine in and raising the brightness, and therefore our spirits. It’s a waking dream, all fuzzy and happy, and it gives you confidence. There is hope, John is telling us. We can imagine, and we’re not alone. We, too, are visionaries, and together, we can do this. We agree.

So yes, “Imagine” is a beautiful song that inspires us, that makes life worth living. Yet I’ve never been able to listen to the song without squirming a little. After my first exposure to it in secondary school, it stuck around in my head, never really going away. In the intervening years, my relationship with it has gradually soured in a way that I really find hard to explain, and even though I can’t really hate the song — and trust me, a LOT of people hate the song, and not just because of Gal Gadot’s disastrous video — it still is seriously flawed, to the point where I can’t help but wish I could leave the room every time somebody starts singing it.

There are quite a few reasons for this, and almost all of them have something to do with the very qualities I just listed out. A lot of people I’ve read take umbrage with how bland and unexciting the melody is: it’s in the key of C (the most unadorned and therefore unsophisticated key there is), it’s the same chords over and over again, it doesn’t do anything exciting. (Yes, there are people who actually mark down songs for being peaceful.) I don’t really hate the song simply because it’s in C major, but this does mean that a lot of people can join in because it feels like a very accessible key. And it’s usually the case that most of those people aren’t very good at singing anyway.

Terrible spontaneous covers aside, it’s that aspect, the singalong nature of the song, that opens the door to why I don’t really like “Imagine”. As with most singalongs, when we sing this song we are thinking about the lyrics, about the noble values that it suggests and encourages us to follow. We feel that John Lennon gets it, that his words are the key to (going across?) the universe. Yet when you look closer at the lyrics, you discover that there isn’t any real profundity to it. “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion, too”, he sings. Somehow we look at these lines and go, “whoa, this guy’s on to something! These are definitely things we should try doing, what radical and unthought-of ideas!” when in fact these are lines which a child could utter and would get dismissed for. (And as I’ve discussed before in my piece on “Space Oddity”, children HAVE done better with much more mature sentiments.) It feels like somebody’s roll-calling a list of things that we haven’t tried being without, and it’s simplistic. Even without my personal religious misgivings, “no religion too” feels lazy, something tacked on as an easy target, impossible to defend.

It’s at this point that I remember John’s first attempt at writing an anthemic piece that brings the world together: “All You Need Is Love”, written during his time in the Beatles for a worldwide television broadcast. Like “Imagine”, it has taken on a life of its own in the battle for world peace. (I cannot believe I just wrote that last sentence.) Both songs were written deliberately simple so that people worldwide could understand it, so that it would be accepted by all.

But whereas “All You Need Is Love” has a few kernels of truth inside it (“there’s nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time”), “Imagine” just hazily commands you to “imagine” a number of different things, and then nothing. What am I supposed to do after I’ve imagined there being no religions or no countries? I find it weird that we as a people fall for this so easily: that people told to dream do as they’re told. Even if your worldview is similar to John’s, you need something more concrete than that, and this song feels like it’s telling you to simply stop at imagining. It keeps the dream alive, but nobody concerned knows — or cares about? — how to pull the dream into reality.

But enough with the ideological beef I have with the song, let’s get onto what I find really fishy: John himself. Because simplistic lyrics are not a huge problem — it only applies to those who take his words as gospel. What really irks me is the condescension you can find in the lyrics. All the verses begin with him telling us to imagine stuff. That’s fine, we all need to do a little imagining. But then: “it’s easy if you try”. “I wonder if you can”. He makes it sound so easy: maybe we haven’t tried before, maybe he alone is the only person who has had this foresight. But whatever the reason, he sounds preachy, in the way he carelessly moans about world peace and how we haven’t tried it, and I just can’t have it.

Now, I have nothing against somebody being preachy in music (his bandmate George Harrison has made a living out of it and “My Sweet Lord” is AMAZING) but “Imagine” is different. As one piece I’ve read puts it, he sounds like a teacher telling little children what to do, instead of approaching us like equals. So he sounds smug, like he’s got shit figured out — and in the last lines, when he says “you may say I’m a dreamer/ But I’m not the only one/ I hope someday you’ll join us”, it doesn’t feel like he’s making an attempt at reconciliation at all. It feels more like he’s setting up a force to oppose, he’s telling us how he is the supreme dreamer — and all of us need to join him, or risk being labelled unimaginative. And well, I don’t like this type of preachy.

And when you realize the historical context around the time this was made, you come to the ultimate reason why I cannot in all honesty feel good about this song. As I mentioned at the very beginning of this piece, the John in Plastic Ono Band was this raging, screaming maniac with disconcerting tendencies to switch personas between songs. For all the grating, rough vocals we find in that album, it’s undeniable that it’s John at his most honest. There is pain, there is condescension, there is sappy love. Coupled with the infamous Rolling Stone interview he gave around that same time, we know that John circa 1970 was a very fragile person, and — when he felt like it — could be an utter arsehole. I’d like to say that by the time this song came out, just nine months after Plastic Ono Band, he was a changed person, and that he treated everyone around him with kindness. But no: in the very same album as “Imagine”, we find “How Do You Sleep”, a shamelessly vitriolic and baseless six-minute jam against Paul McCartney, who had poked fun at him that spring with a song in the latter’s album Ram. (It gives me no amount of delight to report that yes, I like “How Do You Sleep” much better than “Imagine”.)

And look: I do not doubt that Lennon was a man who sincerely wanted world peace. I do not doubt that he wanted to be an activist for justice: much of his output around this time — “Power to the People”, “Instant Karma” and “Woman Is the”… erm, “N-word of the World” — show a man who genuinely kept an eye on injustices on the world. But he spoke from an extremely privileged position, and to have one of the richest musicians in the world to tell me to give up my possessions, to hear this man who had nothing to worry about in the world talk about there being “no need for greed or hunger”, and to hear him talk about “all the people living life in peace” when he was IN THE SAME ALBUM raining fire and brimstone on his former best friend — it’s just laughably rich. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order. Of course, we’re all hypocrites at one time or another, but this hypocrisy being touted as an example of John’s saintliness is just something I find so, so astonishing.

So why do we like this song? Why do we insist on treating John Lennon like a prophet instead of a flawed person, why do we call this song his greatest contribution to mankind? I mean no disrespect towards the man, of course — he’s a member of the effing Beatles, for Christ’s sake — but surely there are better songs to uphold. (“All You Need is Love” is infinitely more singable and far less egregious when it comes to the offences listed up there.) Of course, this song had been popular during the 1970s already, but I suspect that the narrative that’s been established since December 1980 gave it a major boost: shot down by an unhinged fundamentalist, the violence of his murder unintentionally confirmed what he’d been pushing for all along: the need for peace and harmony, lest this injustice descend on us again. Following his death, humanity tried to look for a comfortable narrative, to find good things to say about him, and “Imagine” stood out as an example of his goodness. Its lyrics are almost mantra-like, and as pointed out above: mystic. And no one wants to look too hard at somebody who died a horrible death — let alone a musical genius. So it persisted, and almost fifty years on, it still holds.

This is not to say, of course, that “Imagine” is a pox on mankind: as I’ve noted above, it’s a beautifully crafted song, and it comes from a very good place. But this is a song that’s become too big for its boots, a song that’s become the one thing people know about John Lennon, blocking out the full picture — not only of his career, but also of the man himself. His reputation is now defined by this one song: it’s not easy to find people outside of the English-speaking world who know any other song than this. And I can’t help but squirm when I think about this, that a simplistic song like this could easily charm the whole world with its naïve statements, and have it dreaming of a vague utopia — all while infinite darkness raged on unnoticed, behind those blankly staring eyes.

(Cover by Apple Records.)

Note on chart position: yes, he was British but from 1970 he was stationed in America and his works were for the American market, so I’m putting down its position on Billboard. It reached #1 in the UK only in January 1981, on its second run on the charts.

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