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 during the Power To The People sessions at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London, between 11 and 16 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 Keyes 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).
Of the six songs, It's So Hard and I Don't Want To Be A Soldier appeared on Imagine, 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.
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 Phil 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.
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. The sessions were filmed by 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 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. Sadly, King Curtis was murdered on 13 August 1971, shortly before Imagine was released.
The strings were performed by members of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, whom Lennon dubbed The Flux Fiddlers. Arrangements for Imagine, Jealous Guy, It's So Hard, How Do You Sleep? and How? were scored by Torrie Zito. With recording complete, the album was mixed quickly and prepared for release.
Imagine was issued on 9 September 1971 in the United States, and on 7 October 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.
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 Lennon with his eyes replaced by clouds, but the idea was abandoned.
The back cover also featured a quotation from Yoko 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.
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 by Peter Fordham.