Recording: Instant Karma! by Plastic Ono Band

Studio Two, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Producer: Phil Spector
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

The third single by Plastic Ono Band, Instant Karma!, was written, recorded and mixed on this day.

John Lennon wrote the song on the morning of 27 January 1970, on an upright piano at Tittenhurst Park, his mansion in Ascot, Berkshire.

It just came to me. Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the Sixties. But it occurred to me that karma is instant as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form. I just liked it.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Keen to record the song as soon as possible, Abbey Road’s Studio Two was hastily booked. The session began at 7pm.

Eric Clapton, who had played on the previous Plastic Ono Band single Cold Turkey, was unable to attend the session at such short notice, so Lennon invited his Beatle bandmate George Harrison instead. Harrison suggested to Lennon that Phil Spector produce the session.

John phoned me up one morning in January and said, ‘I’ve written this tune and I’m going to record it tonight and have it pressed up and out tomorrow – that’s the whole point: Instant Karma, you know.’ So I was in. I said, ‘OK, I’ll see you in town.’ I was in town with Phil Spector and I said to Phil, ‘Why don’t you come to the session?’ There were just four people: John played piano, I played acoustic guitar, there was Klaus Voormann on bass, and Alan White on drums. We recorded the song and brought it out that week, mixed – instantly – by Phil Spector.
George Harrison

The legendary Wall Of Sound producer proved a perfect match for Lennon and Harrison, who later enlisted him to work on the Let It Be recordings. He also produced subsequent solo albums including All Things Must Pass and Imagine.

It was great, ’cause I wrote it in the morning on the piano, like I said many times, and I went to the office and I sang it. I thought, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio. And Phil came in, he said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, 1950 but now.’ And he said ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in just about three goes. He played it back, and there it was. I said, ‘A bit more bass,’ that’s all. And off we went. See, Phil doesn’t fuss about with fuckin’ stereo or all the bullshit. Just ‘Did it sound alright? Let’s have it.’ It doesn’t matter whether something’s prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or as a human, take it. Don’t bother whether this is like that or the quality of this. That suits me fine.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Instant Karma was recorded in 10 takes between 7pm and midnight. The basic track featured Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison on electric guitar, Voormann playing bass, Alan White on drums and Billy Preston playing electric piano.

From midnight until 3am a number of overdubs were added. Spector decided to omit the guitars, and instead added heavy reverberation to the drums, and various extra keyboard parts. These included Lennon and Voormann on electric piano, Harrison and White on a grand piano, and an additional Hammond organ part. Mal Evans also added chimes during the chorus.

Considerable echo was also added to Lennon’s lead vocals. It was then decided that a choir was needed for the chorus. Evans and Preston rounded up volunteers from Hatchetts nightclub in London, and three tracks of backing vocals and handclaps were recorded. The singers were conducted by Harrison; Allen Klein was reportedly one of the performers.

From 3-4am the song was mixed four times in stereo. Geoff Emerick had been the balance engineer until Spector decided his presence was making him edgy and he was asked to leave. Emerick later claimed that the final version, the fourth attempt, was a rough mix which Spector had marked ‘Do not use’, but Lennon’s haste to release the song meant it was issued on the UK single regardless.

A different mix was created in Los Angeles a few days later by Spector, unknown to Lennon, and released on the US single. Emerick created three further mono mixes on 10 February 1970, removing one of Lennon’s lead vocal parts to allow the song to be used as a backing track for the Plastic Ono Band’s appearance on the BBC’s music show Top Of The Pops the following day.

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