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Not only does "Imagine" possess some of the simplest lyrics in rock music, but it also was written in the most basic key, C Major. But just like"Lean on Me," "Do-Re-Mi," "Heart and Soul," and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," "Imagine" proves that C Major is one of the most feel-good, enduring keys that exist on piano.
Speaking of which, Lennon has said in many interviews that he's no good on the piano. He once said, "My piano playing is even worse than me guitar. I hardly know what the chords are, so it's good to have a slightly limited palette." (Source)
"Imagine" remains one of Lennon's few solo masterpieces composed solely on the keys (the strings that back him up in the final track are not his doing). In his 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner, Lennon remarked that he was gearing up to get back to the basics. He'd had enough of tricky melodies and complicated harmonies that marked songs like "I Am the Walrus," and wanted to return to the core of the music:
Well, I've always liked simple rock… I always liked simple rock and nothing else. I was influenced by acid and got psychedelic, like the whole generation, but really, I like rock and roll and I express myself best in rock. I had a few ideas to do this with "Mother" and that with "Mother" but when you just hear, the piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest. I think the backings on mine are as complicated as the backings on any record you've ever heard, if you've got an ear. (Source)
As far as time signature and rhythm go, "Imagine" also happens to be written in the most regular, even beat that exists in music: 4/4. That just means that there are four beats to every measure and a quarter note (1/4 of a second) receives one beat. Essentially, each measure of music comprises an entire second and it's the steadiest, most recognizable, most natural form of meter. Just as Shakespeare discovered that the iambic pentameter rhyme scheme in poetry most closely mimicked the rhythms of natural English speech (and the human heartbeat), so too did musicians understand that 4/4 was their innate beat.
As Yoko, who was classically trained in piano, explained in the same interview, classical music started out in 4/4 with the Baroque and Classical periods, but then later changed to 3/8, 6/8, 2/2, and all sorts of other odd time signatures as we crept into the modern period. She said, "Classical music was basically 4/4 and then it went into 4/3, too, which is just a waltz rhythm and all of that, but it just went further and further away from the heartbeat. Heartbeat is 4/4. Rhythm became very decorative, like Schoenberg, Webern. It is highly complicated and interesting—our minds are very much like that—but they lost the heartbeat." (Source)
Ragtime, with its syncopated beats, and impressionism, with its incredibly long measures, all broke the original 4/4 scheme; yet we still appreciated them for their beautiful abstraction. However, Yoko and Lennon felt that it was time again for music to return to the heartbeat, that simple, true 4/4 that follows the rhythm of our souls.
In a famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Jann Wenner asked John Lennon, "Are you the Beatles?" to which he replied:
LENNON: No, I'm not the Beatles. I'm me. Paul isn't the Beatles. Brian Epstein [their first manager] wasn't the Beatles, neither is Dick James [later manager]. The Beatles are the Beatles. Separately, they are separate. George was a separate individual singer, with his own group as well, before he came in with us, the Rebel Rousers. Nobody is the Beatles. How could they be? We all had our roles to play.
WENNER: You say on the record, "I don't believe in the Beatles."
LENNON: Yeah. I don't believe in the Beatles, that's all. I don't believe in the Beatles myth. "I don't believe in the Beatles"—there is no other way of saying it, is there? I don't believe in them whatever they were supposed to be in everybody's head, including our own heads for a period. It was a dream. I don't believe in the dream anymore.
This is pretty heavy stuff coming from a guy whose life was shaped by being a Beatle, but it's also indicative of the man behind the tinted glasses: John Lennon always had, even through his years in the band, considered himself more of a solo artist, and finally in 1970, was able to make that dream into a reality.
In the same interview, Wenner—always the straight-shooter—asked Lennon if he considered himself a genius. Lennon replied:
When I was about 12, I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody's noticed. I used to wonder whether I'm a genius or I'm not, which is it? I used to think, well, I can't be mad, because nobody's put me away, therefore, I'm a genius. A genius is a form of madness, and we're all that way, you know, and I used to be a bit coy about it, like my guitar playing. If there is such a thing as genius—which is what...what the f--k is it?—I am one, and if there isn't, I don't care. I used to think it when I was a kid, writing me poetry and doing me paintings. I didn't become something when the Beatles made it, or when you heard about me, I've been like this all me life. Genius is pain too. (Source)
While most people upon hearing this would emphatically jump up and say, "Hey that guy's a raging egomaniac!" they'd be right, and Lennon even said as much. However, there's absolutely no denying the fact that Lennon was, in fact, a genius. He always felt different, and always was punished for it rather than celebrated, until he finally made it big with the Beatles. He was the philosopher, the acid to Paul's honey in their songwriting team, and always the Beatle most lost in his own head.
However, in 1966, after the band had already completed such hit albums as A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Revolver, Lennon started feeling a tug that he couldn't ignore. He was starting to drift away from his musical fraternity. He was sick of pandering to the public and producing song after song to feed the insatiable appetites of his record label and his fans, but he couldn't see a way out. And then he met Yoko Ono.
Arguably the most misunderstood and hated rock and roll wife of all time, Ono came along one night and stole John's heart, much to the dismay of his adoring fans and the other Beatles, who collectively behaved like a person bitter at their best friend for falling in love. Yet what everyone failed to see is that John's break from the Beatles really wasn't Yoko's idea. All she did was give Lennon the little push he needed to take his life in a new direction, something he'd already been planning to do.
Things really started to change when the band went back into the studio in the summer of 1968 to begin recording what would later be known as the Beatles White Album: Yoko was there, and the boys weren't happy about it. Figuring that she would just be another passing fancy, they tolerated her with a forced pleasantry, but soon began to resent her as John became more detached from the group. In fact, just days after the release of The White Album, John and Yoko released their own first album, Unfinished Music No. 1—Two Virgins. Both albums received immense public attention, albeit in very different ways. Though Lennon's biographer called The White Album "a blueprint for a breakup" (source), it remains to this day one of the best Beatles releases.
It's true, however, that the classic Lennon/McCartney fluidity isn't present on this album. During the recording sessions, both Paul and John wrote many songs completely on their own and didn't look much to each other for feedback. John's main hits from The White Album are "Revolution," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and "Yer Blues," whereas Paul shines through in "Blackbird," "Martha, My Dear," and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." Still, the album got rave reviews and no one could foresee the imminent demise of the Beatles.
Meanwhile, Two Virgins was getting some very public attention of its own. In arguably one of the most infamous album covers ever, Lennon photographed himself and Yoko standing full-frontal naked with their arms around each other. The back was their naked backs, with the two of them looking over their shoulders. The point, according to Lennon, was to show the public that he and Yoko were just regular people like everyone else; the picture was purposefully unflattering in order to hammer home this idea.
During this period, plenty of other forces were at work which began to dissolve the Beatles infrastructure while the world became an even more fractious place. Their company, Apple, fell apart; Paul married Linda Eastman (later Linda McCartney); John announced that he was quitting the band; Paul and John fought via their respective solo albums' song lyrics; Woodstock happened; Nixon was elected president; the students of Berkeley rioted; and eventually Paul sued the Beatles due to management strife. However, in an unexpected period of solidarity and reinvigorated collaboration in 1969, the Beatles came together for the last time at Abbey Road studios, enlisting the help of their original producer, George Martin while working together wholeheartedly (though everyone could tell this was the end).
The Beatles released Abbey Road in September 1969, on which this iconic cover photograph appears. It's arguably one of their best albums, and also their last time working together in the studio as a cohesive whole. Despite the success of Abbey Road, however, the Beatles were already done before it was released in 1969. John told Paul during a meeting with the record labels that he wanted out and that was that. As he said in later interviews, "I started the band, I disbanded it. It's as simple as that." (Source)
As far as the other Beatles and the fans were concerned, however, it wasn't simple at all. Paul McCartney, especially, took the hit hard and things were never really the same between the two old friends again.
Fast forward to 1971. Yoko and John had just gotten done with several years of peace campaigning, forming the Plastic Ono Band, and undergoing primal scream therapy and John had written one of his most personal and vulnerable albums ever. Now it was time to make Imagine, the album and film which would represent a high point in his solo career. And he was proud of his new life, family (he and Yoko had a son, Sean), and career.
As he later told Playboy magazine, "'Imagine,' 'Love' and those Plastic Ono Band songs stand up to any song that was written when I was a Beatle. Now, it may take you 20 or 30 years to appreciate that, but the fact is, if you check those songs out, you will see that it is as good as any f---ing stuff that was ever done." (Source)
When John sat down to write "Imagine" in 1971, he had moved far away from his "Dylanesque" period of obscure references and deliberately confusing imagery. His songwriting had evolved through primal scream therapy, in which he was forced to strip away his defenses and truly feel all the pain he had buried since childhood.
Even before the therapy brought this newfound cathartic songwriting style to its peak, however, he was already on his way. When talking to Jann Wenner about the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album (the one that took shape post-primal scream), he said:
I remember that the simplicity on the new album was evident on the Beatles double album [The White Album]. It was evident in "She's So Heavy," in fact a reviewer wrote of "She's So Heavy," "He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it's so simple and boring." "She's So Heavy" was about Yoko. When it gets down to it, like she said, when you're drowning you don't say, "I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me," you just scream. And in "She's So Heavy," I just sang "I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you," like that. I started simplifying my lyrics then, on the double album. (Source)
Every bit of anger, hurt, love, sexual impulse, bitterness, jealousy, and regret that he had ever felt and buried came flooding to the surface and began to shape his songwriting as he matured. By the time he got to Imagine, Lennon had reached a calm after the storm and was ready to take this simplicity to a higher, philosophical level. The inspiration for the lyrics of "Imagine" was Grapefruit, a book of instructional poems by Yoko Ono. Shortly after the two met, Yoko gave John a copy of her book. At first, he didn't really understand the point of these poems that were usually just based around one word, but gradually began to appreciate them.
The first line of the book is, "Burn this book after you read it," and John's contribution is, "This is the greatest book I've ever burned." John recalled:
She gave me her "Grapefruit" book and I used to read it and sometimes I'd get very annoyed by it; it would say things like "paint until you drop dead" or "bleed" and then sometimes I'd be very enlightened by it and I went through all the changes that people go through with her work—sometimes I'd have it by the bed and I'd open it and it would say something nice and it would be alright and then it would say something heavy and I wouldn't like it… I would start looking at her book and that but I wasn't quite aware what was happening to me and then she did a thing called Dance Event where different cards kept coming through the door everyday saying "Breathe" and "Dance" and "Watch all the lights until dawn," and they upset me or made me happy depending on how I felt. (Source)
Still, "Imagine" wasn't his lyrical best. As Philip Norman points out, "With Paul looking over his shoulder, one cannot picture him rhyming 'isn't hard to do' and 'no religion too,' or repeating the same word ['one'] in the chorus. The little falsetto 'You-oo' he uses as a bridge to the chorus seems too poppy—too Beatly—for such elevated subject matter." (Source)
But perhaps that's the point. Perhaps "Imagine" needs to be appreciated with the same bare simplicity of these instructional poems. We're asked to envision a world free from suffering, and it's a beautiful thought no matter how far-fetched or naive it might be. As far as cohesiveness is concerned, Lennon really does model his lyrics around the poetry; "imagine" is the central verb and there's no central image, but rather an abstraction upon which the rest of the lyrics are built.
If you think about it, some of the most enduring and affecting poems in the English language are just a few simple words. The "imagist" movement in modern poetry is representative of this idea, though it focused on concrete images instead of philosophical ideas. Poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams led this movement and were able to create a huge feeling and capture the essence of something with just a few words. Check out "In a Station of the Metro" or "The Red Wheelbarrow" if you want to see an example of this.
As Lennon told Pete Hamill in 1975, part of the reason he left the Beatles was because he felt their songwriting had lost its poetic quality:
It became journalism and not poetry. And I basically feel that I'm a poet. Even if it does go ba-deeble, eedle, eedle, it, da-deedle, deedle, it. I'm not a formalized poet, I have no education, so I have to write in the simplest forms usually. And I realized that over a period of time… I realized that we were poets but we were really folk poets, and rock and roll was folk poetry—I've always felt that. Rock and roll was folk music. (Source)