John Lennon

Imagine

Song Review by

"Imagine" was the most successful song of John Lennon's solo career after his tenure in the Beatles, his only solo composition that can be considered an across-the-board standard. It remains curious that this should be the case, since the lyrics of "Imagine" disparage religion, capitalism, and patriotism, and embrace an atheistic, socialist utopia. Lennon wrote the song in 1971, the year after he had delivered his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, an unsentimental reflection on his dissatisfaction with his past, including his career with the Beatles. By 1971, Lennon had turned increasingly political, in March issuing the single "Power to the People," a piece of musical agitprop. As he prepared a new album that spring and summer, he continued to explore these concerns, and "Imagine" was one result. Composed on the piano, the song has a gentle tone and a simple melody. Recalling the poetry book Grapefruit, written by his wife Yoko Ono, which exhorted readers to imagine various fanciful things, Lennon wrote lyrics in which he asked listeners to imagine a world without religion, national borders, or possessions, in which people lived in peace and brotherhood. "You may say I'm a dreamer," sang the man who had sung "The dream is over" less than a year before, "but I'm not the only one." The message couldn't have been more explicit, containing phrases like "no religion," yet it never stirred up resentment, perhaps because it was rendered with such an appealing arrangement and in such a hopeful mood. Lennon himself would later refer to it as being akin to his bitter song "Working Class Hero," but with a sugarcoating. That coating seems to be what people have always heard, rather than the song's radical intent. How else to explain its widespread popularity among listeners who don't share its viewpoint? "Imagine" was the leadoff track and title song of Lennon's second solo album, released in September 1971, which topped the U.S. charts and went gold. The song was released as a single that just missed going to number one in America; it was not initially released on 45 in the U.K. It was quickly taken up by mainstream performers, appearing on chart albums by Ray Conniff, Andy Williams, and Joan Baez within a year. Baez, whose outspoken left-wing views would have seemed to make her particularly sympathetic to the song's message, seemed to be one of the few who paid close attention to the words. When she sang it in concert, she sometimes added qualifying remarks to the line "Imagine no possessions," suggesting that she wasn't sure she could imagine that. "Imagine" continued to attract cover versions over the years, eventually being recorded by dozens of artists including Diana Ross, the Average White Band & Ben E. King, Roger Whittaker, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Randy Crawford & the Yellowjackets, Chet Atkins, Henry Mancini, Richie Havens, Liza Minnelli, and Blues Traveler. In 1975, the original John Lennon recording was belatedly released as a single in England in connection with its appearance on Lennon's Shaved Fish hits compilation, and it reached the Top Ten. Following Lennon's assassination in 1980, it was released a second time as a U.K. single and hit number one. The song was covered at an increased pace after Lennon's death, as it now served as a memorial tribute to him. In 1988, Tracie Spencer revived it for a pop singles chart entry. It has also been featured on compilations and archival releases by Lennon, including a 1972 concert version issued on 1986's Live in New York City. A 1988 documentary film on Lennon was titled Imagine: John Lennon, and the original recording was used on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Mr. Holland's Opus. In December 1999, it was released for a third time in England as a holiday single and entered the charts in the Top Five.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Imagine 1971 Capitol 3:04
Shaved Fish 1975 Capitol 3:04
The John Lennon Collection 1982 Capitol 3:05
No Image 1991 CBS Records
No Image 1992 Pioneer
Mr. Holland's Opus [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 1996 PolyGram 3:01
Anthology 1998 Capitol 3:29
Capitol Records 1942-2002 [Deluxe Box Set] 2002
Various Artists
Capitol 3:03