Released: 6 February 1970 (UK), 20 February 1970 (US)
John Lennon: vocals, electric guitar, electric piano
George Harrison: acoustic guitar, piano
Klaus Voormann: bass guitar, electric piano
Billy Preston: organ
Alan White: piano, drums
Mal Evans: backing vocals, chimes, handclaps
Yoko Ono, Allen Klein and others: backing vocals
John Lennon’s third single with the Plastic Ono Band was written and recorded on the same day, and released just 10 days later. Upon its release he told the press that he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner”.
Lennon wrote Instant Karma! in the morning of 27 January 1970. Its lyrical theme suggesting urgency inspired him to record and release it as quickly as possible.
Its title came from Melinde Kendall, the wife of Yoko Ono’s former husband Tony Cox. She had used the phrase in conversation during Lennon and Ono’s stay with them in Denmark during December 1969 and the following month.
Lennon had become familiar with the concept of karma during The Beatles’ spiritual awakening in 1967. The Indian belief features in a number of Eastern religious beliefs and traditions, and is concerned with the free will of humans to choose good or evil and suffer the consequences.
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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon wrote the words as a demand for people to take responsibility for their actions. The lyrics are perhaps the most spiritual of his entire post-Beatles output, and touch upon themes which George Harrison would later explore more fully.
Instant Karma! was recorded with the full Wall Of Sound effect. It’s echo-laden sound, pounding rhythms and insistent piano chords came together triumphantly, and became one of the highlights of Lennon’s solo career. It was based around a sequence of three descending chords, pounded with maximum sustain and volume.
The recording began with piano chords adapted from Ritchie Barrett’s song Some Other Guy, a Cavern Club favourite often performed by The Beatles. From then on Spector was given free rein over the Plastic Ono Band, with the results a clear departure from George Martin‘s clean productions.
In the studio
Lennon booked Studio Two at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, and the session began at 7pm. George 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.
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.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
Instant Karma! was recorded in 10 takes between 7pm and midnight. From then until 3am a number of overdubs were added, including three tracks of backing vocals. These were the contribution of anyone who happened to be in the studio, plus people rounded up by Billy Preston from Hatchetts nightclub in London.
In the final hour of the session four stereo mixes were made, the last of which was issued on the UK single. A different mix was created in Los Angeles a few days later by Spector, unknown to Lennon, and released on the US single.
Geoff Emerick began engineering the Instant Karma! session, before Spector decided his presence was making him edgy and he was asked to leave. Emerick later claimed that the song was given a rough mix which Spector marked ‘Do not use’, but Lennon’s haste to release the song meant it was issued regardless.
Emerick created three mono mixes on 10 February 1970, in a session which took place from 2.30-3.45pm. He took out one of Lennon’s two 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.
Instant Karma! was released in the UK on 6 February 1970, as APPLES 1003. It entered the singles charts on 21 February, and peaked at number five. In all it spent nine weeks on the charts.
The b-side to the single was an acoustic ballad, Who Has Seen The Wind? It was written by Yoko Ono, produced by Lennon, and recorded privately. The label had ‘PLAY QUIET’ printed in large type, in contrast to the a-side’s ‘PLAY LOUD’.
Its US release came two weeks later, on 20 February. It was issued as APPLES 1818. It peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100
Instant Karma! was the first solo single by a former member of The Beatles to sell more than a million copies in America.
On 11 February 1970 Lennon performed Instant Karma! on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops. He was the first Beatle to appear on the show since 1966. He sang live while other members of the current Plastic Ono Band – Voomann, BP Fallon and Mal Evans – mimed. During one of the performances Lennon and Ono wore armbands saying ‘People for peace’.
Four performances were filmed, two of which were selected for broadcast. Ono sat behind Lennon wearing a blindfold in both. In the first she knitted, while during the second she held up a series of cards bearing instructions.
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono did Instant Karma!, everyone thought Yoko was wearing a napkin over her eyes as a blindfold. It was actually a sanitary towel.
The appearance was recorded at the BBC’s Television Centre in West London. A camera rehearsal took place from 3.30pm, and the performance, complete with studio audience, was recorded between 7.30 and 10pm.
The first performance was broadcast the following evening from 7.15pm, and the second was shown on 19 February.
Instant Karma! was performed fully live on just two occasions, at the One To One benefit concerts for handicapped children. The concerts took place in the afternoon and evening of 30 August 1972 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Lennon appeared with Elephant’s Memory, the New York group he had played with on the Some Time In New York City album earlier that year. The version from the afternoon concert was later issued on the 1986 album Live In New York City.