Above Us Only Sky: Imagine Turns 50

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John Lennon – Imagine

Released September 9th, 1971 on Apple Records

Produced by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Spector

Peaked at #1 U.S., #1 U.K.

Singles:

Imagine” (#1 U.K., #3 U.S.)

Former skiffle kid and one half of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting bonanza, John Lennon was by 1971 an international superstar in a state of constant crisis. The Beatles went out, if not at their peak, then something close to it; part of their breakup lay in the splintering of that Lennon-McCartney partnership. Lennon, having fallen head over heels into the orbit of Japanese artist Yoko Ono, wanted something more out of rock ‘n’ roll than what the Beatles could offer him, even at their most experimental. His first solo record, Plastic Ono Band, was recorded in the wake of cutting-edge therapy sessions and an awakening class consciousness that would flare even brighter upon the couple’s move to New York City. It was a masterpiece of experimental rock music, often counted among the best albums of the era, but its commercial potential was stifled by its extremely personal lyrics and Lennon’s New Left politics. For Imagine, Lennon decided to take a more commercial route, putting together songs that he later derided as being “sugar-coated for conservatives to swallow.” The result was slicker than Plastic Ono Band and even though the songs are more or less as good, that commercial sheen makes them feel a bit more at odds with Lennon’s contemporary firebrand left political activism. “Imagine,” the song everyone likes to start chant-singing when plagues start apparently, was in the author’s own words just a safer take on “Working Class Hero” from his first album. “Crippled Inside” was a little rag-country banger and “Jealous Guy” a typical Lennon ballad that resolved into something heavier 2/3 of the way through; along with side B’s penultimate ballad “How?” these were all songs about Lennon’s own internal turmoil, his struggle with anger problems and his penchant for expressing himself through violence. He would at one point in his career claim that the reason he kept banging on about peace and love was because it represented a conscious effort to change himself.

Elsewhere that anger bubbled up against external targets. “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” is a strange, fuzzy track that further explores Lennon’s anti-war ideals. “Gimme Some Truth” was anti-establishment, the kind of thing that got Nixon to open a file up on him and to try to get him deported from ’71 until the time he was forced to resign from office in disgrace. “How Do You Sleep At Night?” was aimed squarely at Paul McCartney. Desperate to win some cred from New Left American radicals, Lennon slagged McCartney as a conservative who was in it for the money. They would later make up and were much more friendly in public after Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ ended when Sean Lennon was born. There’s a cute little story from the late Seventies where they were at Lennon’s NYC apartment watching SNL when Lorne Michaels put a reward up for the two to come down and reunite live in the SNL studio. The two seriously entertained the idea of making it happen that night but got stoned and ordered food instead. To be fair, SNL’s acoustics are notoriously bad.

The album would be Lennon’s last great record. Sometime in New York City, a follow-up recorded with Yoko, was a commercial and critical failure (much of the critical response can be traced back to reactionary backlash to contemporary leftist ideas) and the recording of Mind Games in 1973 was marred by his temporary breakup with his wife. He would spin his wheels for the most part until 1975 and then dropped out of being a full-time musician to raise his son. He was staging a comeback with a well-regarded new album in 1980 when he was shot to death in New York. Imagine is the last album in a streak of excellence stretching back to Please Please Me and a standout in the canon of former Beatles solo albums.

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