Released: 8 October 1971 (UK), 9 September 1971 (US)
John Lennon: vocals, electric guitar
George Harrison: slide guitar
Nicky Hopkins: piano
Joey Molland: acoustic guitar
Tom Evans: acoustic guitar
Klaus Voormann: bass guitar
Jim Keltner: drums
Alan White: vibraphone
Mike Pinder: tambourine
Steve Brendell: maracas
The Flux Fiddlers: strings
The raucous closer to the first half of John Lennon’s Imagine was one of the earliest songs to be recorded for the album.
Lennon entered the session buoyed by the critical acclaim afforded to the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, and intended to preserve the stripped-down feel of those recordings. However, whereas the earlier songs were focused in their primal intensity, I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier and It’s So Hard were lyrically vague, even if they did share much of the disaffection and protest that informed much of Lennon’s early solo work.
I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier was a six-minute rant against the expectations of society. Containing just 25 different words, the song harked back to the simplicity of Lennon’s I Want You (She’s So Heavy), although the I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier was far less effective in its emotional resonance.
In the studio
The song began essentially as a studio jam based around the words in the title. Indeed, Lennon later described it as an “amazing jam session track”, and studio outtakes confirm this assessment. Take two, a raw, funk version in the vein of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’s Well Well Well, was included in the John Lennon Anthology box set.
That version featured Jim Gordon on drums and Jim Keltner playing percussion. Lennon was evidently unhappy with the EMI version, and re-recorded the song at Ascot during the Imagine sessions. This time Keltner was on drums, and a host of other musicians, including George Harrison, were added to the mix.
The Ascot recording took place immediately after the studio musicians had completed Jealous Guy.
Finally, in walks John Lennon and he’s really bug-eyed, really gone – ‘Hello everybody!‘ He was shouting. It was eleven o’clock at night and he’d just gotten out of bed. There was a bunch of people there: Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Mike Pinder and he was really brusque with us, really almost rude, but not rude. I was just in awe, just ga-ga. Then he sits down on the stool and starts playing Jealous Guy and I’m so flabbergasted I can’t play. He was singing and I’m literally astounded, ‘It sounds like John Lennon.’
So we recorded acoustic guitars on that and John said, ‘You can fuck off now if you’d like.’ Of course he wasn’t being like, ‘Fuck off.’ It was like, ‘Do what you like.’ So they started playing I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier Mama and me and Tommy [Evans] were just hanging out. We just started to play along because we weren’t about to move and let somebody throw us out. We didn’t play it, we just started this ‘doodley-do’ kind of Bo Diddley strumming, because the song didn’t seem to settle into any particular rhythm. And it ended up on the record. One of the most exciting nights of me life.
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As the space at Ascot was so small, Alan White was recorded playing vibraphone in a bathroom next to the studio.
I was playing vibraphone in the bathroom. There was a door in the corner, with a bathroom back there, and we couldn’t have the vibes out in the room where the drums were, ’cause it would go all over the mics, so they put me in the bathroom.
The string parts were recorded at Record Plant East in New York City in early July 1971. The score was written by Torrie Zito, and the musicians were members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra whom Lennon dubbed The Flux Fiddlers.
During the session King Curtis also added his saxophone part to the song, as well as a solo onto It’s So Hard. They proved to be among his final performances: he was murdered on 13 August 1971, shortly before Imagine was released.
The final version of I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier was the only song on Imagine to feature Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to its full extent. Whereas the producer had adopted a pared-down approach throughout John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, here he was given free rein to treat the sound with his trademark sound, giving a suitably opressive feel to the final mix.
Interestingly, at one point Lennon considered using I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier to open Imagine, but perhaps fortunately decided otherwise. “We’ll start the beginning of it with footsteps running, and end with a toilet flushing,” he announced during the session. He also considered adding the sound of motorbike engines to the finished article.