In the studio
Imagine was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios (ASS), the eight-track facility John Lennon had installed in his Tittenhurst Park home. Prior to recording Imagine, John Lennon gathered the musicians around an upright piano to demonstrate the song. This rehearsal was later released on the soundtrack album to the film Imagine: John Lennon.
After Lennon’s solo performance, bassist Klaus Voormann suggested using the white baby grand piano located in the ‘white room’ of Tittenhurst. The group attempted several takes but producer Phil Spector was unhappy with the acoustics of the room.
Upon their return to the studio, some of the early attempts featured Lennon and Nicky Hopkins on the same piano, with Hopkins on an electric piano, or with John Barham on harmonium. The first of these takes was issued on the John Lennon Anthology box set.
In the end, however, Lennon and Spector realised that the song required a simple arrangement. Indeed, without the strings it would not have sounded out of place on the previous year’s stark John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
The string arrangements were scored by Torrie Zito, and were overdubbed at Record Plant East, New York City, in early July 1971. The musicians, which Lennon dubbed The Flux Fiddlers, were members of the New York Philharmonic.
Imagine was one of the songs played during a late-night jam on 9 October 1971, Lennon’s 31st birthday. The occasion was the launch of Yoko Ono‘s exhibition This Is Not Here at New York’s Everson Art Museum. Afterwards a rowdy party was held at the Hotel Syracuse in upstate New York. This particular version featured Phil Spector on vocals.
A more successful attempt took place on 17 December 1971 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The event was a fundraiser for victims of the Attica State prison riots, and Lennon and Ono played acoustic versions of Attica State, Sisters, O Sisters and Imagine, the first and last of which were later released on John Lennon Anthology.
Imagine was played during the couple’s spell co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in January 1972. They appeared alongside Elephant’s Memory, their backing group during the Some Time In New York City period.
Lennon also performed Imagine during his final concert appearances, at the One To One shows at New York’s Madison Square Gardens on 30 August 1972. It was the second song played during both the afternoon and evening shows, with Lennon on electric piano. The first of these was included on the 1986 album Live In New York City. The rendition was notable for the widening of the lyrics to incorporate “a brotherhood and sisterhood of man”.
Lennon’s performing career ended on 18 April 1975 with a final performance of Imagine. He appeared on Salute To Sir Lew – The Master Showman, a tribute to Sir Lew Grade, controller of ATV Music and owner of Lennon-McCartney’s song publishing rights.
He was accompanied by the band Dog Soldier, and was introduced obliquely as ‘John Lennon Etc’. The band wore face masks on the backs of their heads, possibly as a comment on the perceived two-faced nature of Sir Lew.
Three tracks were performed: Slippin’ And Slidin’, Stand By Me, and Imagine. For the latter Lennon played acoustic guitar, and amended the lyrics to “Nothing to kill or die for/And no immigration too”. He dedicated Imagine to Sir Lew, “and to my other friend, Yoko”.
Imagine was released as a single in the United States, where it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also Lennon’s only solo number one in Australia, where it spent five weeks at the top.
In the United Kingdom it was issued as a single in 1975, to coincide with the release of the Shaved Fish compilation. It reached number six on the singles chart. Following Lennon’s death in 1980 the song re-entered the charts, and spent four weeks at number one in January 1981.
In 1981 George Harrison released the song All Those Years Ago, written about Lennon, which contained the line “You were the one who imagined it all”.
In 2002 Liverpool John Lennon Airport was renamed in Lennon’s honour. A bronze statue was installed in the check-in hall, and on the roof was painted the line “Above us only sky”.
The phrase also appears on the airport’s signs. Imagine is the official song of Amnesty International, after Yoko Ono gave the organisation permission to use it.
Those who know the song ‘Imagine’ understand that it was written with a very deep love for the human race and a concern for its future. It is about the betterment of the world for our children and ourselves. Like the song, Amnesty International gives a voice to the importance of human rights. And like the song, it has been able to effect change.