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Celebrating 50 Years of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’

October 2021 will mark 50 years since John Lennon released his classic ‘Imagine.’ We take a look at what inspired him and the cyclonic drifts that surrounded him before and after he wrote what would become a universal anthem for peace

Vipasha Aloukik Pai Jun 29, 2021

John Lennon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0

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With only 26 lines and not a single word over three syllables, with a free-flowing melody and minimalist sound production, it is, by all means, a simple song. And yet, “Imagine” by John Lennon, a song he once claimed is for children, continues to profoundly tug at the heartstrings even 50 years after it was first bestowed on us.

“Imagine” has been called a ‘humanistic paean for the people.’ It has been described as ‘an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief. It has repeatedly been chosen by critics and voted by audiences as one of the great songs of the seventies, of the century, of all time. Bono has said he would not be a musician if he had not heard this song. Stevie Wonder broke down while performing it on Stage. It has been covered hundreds of times by a plethora of artists, from Neil Young to Joan Baez, from Coldplay to Lady Gaga. It is one of Lennon’s more enduring legacies, perhaps even surpassing what he gave to the world as one of the founding members of The Beatles. But what has been considered for decades to be an anthem of peace, is in fact, a radical call for revolution. And nothing about it is simple. 

Far from twee

David Fricke, senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine, has pointed out the marked absence of the word ‘love’ in “Imagine.” A song that has caused many an emotional upheaval in listeners is entirely devoid of sentimentality. The words in it are not only unambiguous but distinctly political. And anarchistic. And revolutionary. According to anthropologist Desmond Morris: the lyrics attack nationalism (‘Imagine there’s no countries’), patriotism (‘Nothing to kill or die for’), capitalism (‘Imagine no possessions’), social inequality (‘no need for greed or hunger’), religion (‘Imagine there’s no heaven’) and the concept of the afterlife (‘Imagine all the people living for today’). Lennon himself has said that the song pretty much references The Communist Manifesto and that it is accepted because it is, to use his word, ‘sugarcoated.’

This version of Lennon seems at odds with his public persona as a Beatle. But the fact is, Lennon was always an agitator. Born and raised in Liverpool, England, he was convinced he was an unwanted child—a belief that would shape his personality in more ways than one. His father was a merchant seaman who would be away for extended periods while his mother surrendered, or some say was forced to, the custody of Lennon to her sister. His aunt and her husband raised him, and through his own admission, he was the troublemaker from whom other kids were warned to stay away. ‘I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home…partly out of envy,’ he once said. 

When he was part of The Beatles, manager Brian Epstein tightly controlled the narrative the band presented. Band members were forbidden to get involved in politics lest that affect their popularity. Through their music and personalities, they were supposed to be purveyors of joy and happiness, which they did brilliantly. But the moment Lennon decided he wanted to part ways with his bandmates, the innate rebel in him came to the fore. And with the new love of his life by his side, he found ways to dissent on a scale he had never done before. 

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Counterculture couple

Before Meghan Markle, there was Yoko Ono. A Japanese-American conceptual artist, who was pathbreaking before it was fashionable to be so, Ono found herself to be the object of universal hatred when she fell in love with Lennon, who was, by all means, British pop royalty. Everything Lennon did once he was with Ono was deemed to be her doing. The Beatles broke up because of her, they said. They made her into an all-powerful being who could brainwash and control a global superstar. They made him a non-entity who could have no motivations of his own. And everything the couple did was tainted by the fiction of what the world thought of them. 

Sometimes we think we have peeped into the soul of an artiste because the art they painstakingly created touches us. We worship them or burn their effigies. But no one knows them. And separated by the wall of time, space, and celebrity, no one can truly say whether Lennon and Ono were saints or savvy marketing geniuses. Who can say with perfect confidence whether those famous weeks-long bed-ins for world peace in Amsterdam and Montreal were or were not brilliant PR moves? 

But there are things we do know for sure. Lennon, with all his songs of peace and love, has admitted to being dangerously possessive about women, cheating, and even hitting them. He would admit later that the lyrics to “Imagine” were inspired from sections of Grapefruit, a collection of poetry published by Ono in 1964, but he never credited her. 

Despite this chequered history, there was also an intense evolution. Years later, he would admit that had a man inspired him to write the song, he would have been duly credited. As a direct result of this statement, in 2017, more than four decades after the song was released, the National Music Publishers’ Association in New York gave Ono songwriting credit for “Imagine.”

After his marriage to Ono, Lennon also became an exceptional feminist. He officially changed his middle name to Ono. When their son Sean was born, he became a homemaker for years, spending his days raising the baby, changing his diapers, baking bread, and making the family meals while Ono worked to expand their business investments. And to his credit, he chose this life in the New York of the 1970s, when gritty machismo was rampant, and the world was watching his every move. 

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Their eyes were watching John

While the world watched, so did the FBI. Spurred by requests from a paranoid administration, Lennon’s friendships with anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War and Nixon’s re-election campaign were deemed suspicious. Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files—by journalist Jon Wiener, who painstakingly uncovered FBI files over many years after Lennon’s death—discusses aggressive efforts to combat Lennon and get him ‘arrested if at all possible, on possession of narcotics charge’ which would make him ‘immediately deportable’. In an interview with NPR, Wiener said, “For much of 1972 and ’73, Lennon was under an order to leave the country within 60 days…it wasn’t until after Watergate, after Nixon left office, that the Gerald Ford administration immigration service finally agreed to grant Lennon his green card on very narrow legal grounds. So, for two years  he was under a 60-day order to leave the country, almost continuously.”

The pressures Lennon faced were enormous and omnipresent. There was hate from fans of The Beatles. There was government surveillance. There were constant requests from the who’s who of the entertainment world to reunite with The Beatles for this or that benefit concert. There were frequent fights to justify his choices to a world that wanted him on stage or in the studio. Klaus Voorman, musician and friend, who played the bass on “Imagine,” remembers Lennon taking a call from Leonard Bernstein and saying to the composer: “The Beatles are not getting together…I have no obligation towards anybody. I’m a free individual… If I change the nappies of my baby, I do it because I want to do it.” Then there was the obsessive insanity that led to his murder outside his apartment building by a man who was angered by his public statements. John Ono Lennon was only 40 years old. 

It is fair to say that once Lennon-the-artiste was born from the ashes of Lennon-the-Beatle, someone somewhere was always trying to control him. But he lived his truth, made powerful choices, expressed his art, and tried his best not to apologize for his success. When Morris asked Lennon, what drove him to work, he said, ‘It’s like throwing a stone in the water, and the initial splash is very exciting, but when the ripples come, it’s great.’ 

Lennon would perhaps be profoundly happy with the tsunami-like ripples “Imagine” has created and continues to do. As for us, what we are left with is something quite spectacular at the end of it all. An introspective man, his quest for the greater good, his luminous lyricism, and those songs he created that continue to hold us in good times and bad. 

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

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