In the studio

Choosing to collaborate more fully with Phil Spector than he had on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon began recording the Imagine album after the ‘Power To The People’ sessions in February 1971.

Lennon retained Klaus Voormann from the Plastic Ono Band sessions, but Ringo Starr was unavailable. In his place Lennon recruited Jim Gordon, formerly of Derek And The Dominos, and also added saxophonist Bobby Keys to play on ‘Power To The People’. The group recorded six other songs: ‘It’s So Hard’, ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’, a cover of The Olympics’ Well (Baby Please Don’t Go, an early version of ‘I’m The Greatest’, and two by Yoko Ono – ‘Open Your Box’ and ‘O Wind (Body Is The Scar Of Your Mind)’.

‘It’s So Hard’ was taped on 11 February, and ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ on 16 February, although the latter was later re-recorded. Their lyrics matched the emotional intensity that ran through John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, suggesting Lennon was considering repeating the formula for its follow-up. However, work stalled on the project, and Lennon committed himself to other projects for three months.

Work on Imagine began in earnest between 23 and 28 May 1971, at Ascot Sound Studios, Lennon’s recording facility at the Tittenhurst Park mansion he shared with Ono. In those six days a total of eight songs were recorded: the title track, ‘Crippled Inside’, ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’, ‘Oh My Love’, ‘How Do You Sleep?’, ‘How?’, and ‘Oh Yoko!’.

The sessions normally began around 11am and finished in the early evening. Lennon typically assembled the musicians around him, taught them the chords and explained the arrangement he had in mind, and recording ended when Lennon, Ono or Spector pronounced themselves to be happy with the results. Lennon always sang guide vocals with each take, which he later replaced by overdubbing a final version.

On 23 May Lennon played through some of the songs for the musicians, including the title track.

Recording began properly on 24 May, with the recording of ‘Jealous Guy’ and the remake of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’.

On 25 May Lennon and the other musicians recorded ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and ‘How?’, and the following day recorded ‘Crippled Inside’ and ‘How Do You Sleep?’

‘Oh Yoko!’ was taped on 27 May. The following day ‘Oh My Love’ was recorded, and Lennon added lead vocals and slide guitar to ‘Gimme Some Truth’.

29 May was an overdub sessions, and saw additions to ‘How?’ and ‘Oh Yoko!’

The cast list for Imagine was more extensive than for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. George Harrison appeared on several tracks, as did pianist Nicky Hopkins, Badfinger guitarists Joey Molland and Tom Evans, and respected session drummer Jim Keltner.

During the May sessions the musicians also recorded an unreleased cover version of ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, plus four songs by Yoko Ono: ‘Mind Holes’, ‘Mind Train’, ‘Midsummer New York’, and ‘Mrs Lennon’. The songs were included on her 1971 album Fly, released as a counterpart to Imagine but, unlike her Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band release before it, with a quite separate identity to Lennon’s album.

Lennon and Ono had been documenting their private and public appearances as audio or filmic records since 1968. The Imagine sessions at Ascot were no different, and a camera crew which captured around 60 hours of footage.

A full-length documentary film was planned, to be called Your Show then Working Class Hero, but the project was shelved as Lennon and Ono worked on the Imagine promotional film in July and September 1971. The footage was, however, used as the basis for the 1988 biopic Imagine: John Lennon, and a documentary released in 2000, Gimme Some Truth: The Making Of John Lennon’s Imagine Album.

Recording for Imagine was completed in early July 1971, with the addition of saxophone and string overdubs in New York City’s Record Plant East studio.

The strings were recorded on 4 July, and were performed by members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, whom Lennon dubbed The Flux Fiddlers. The arrangements for ‘Imagine’, ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘It’s So Hard’, ‘How Do You Sleep?’, and ‘How?’ were scored by Torrie Zito.

The saxophonist was King Curtis, who recorded his contributions for ‘It’s So Hard’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ in less than an hour on 5 July. Curtis was murdered on 13 August 1971, shortly before Imagine was released.

With recording complete, the album was mixed quickly and prepared for release.

The release

Imagine was issued on 9 September 1971 in the United States, and on 8 October 1971 in the United Kingdom. It topped the charts in both countries.

It was also the first Apple album release in quadrophonic, a four-channel system which was an early form of surround sound. The format was issued on LP and eight-track cartridge.

Cover artwork

The front and rear photographs on the cover of Imagine were taken by Yoko Ono. The original concept for the front had been a picture of John Lennon with his eyes replaced by clouds, but the idea was abandoned.

The back cover also featured a quotation from Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit. ‘Cloud Piece’ was an instructional poem dated Spring 1963 which inspired the album’s title track.

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.
Yoko Ono

George Maciunas, an artist affiliated with the Fluxus movement, designed the cover lettering and the inner sleeve layout. Early copies of the album also included the pig parody postcard, and a 33″x22″ poster of Lennon seated at his white grand piano. The photograph used for the poster was taken at Tittenhurst Park by Peter Fordham.