Appearing directly after the vitriolic ‘How Do You Sleep?’ on the Imagine album, ‘How?’ showed the other side of John Lennon: insecure, uncertain, and unafraid to reveal his weaknesses to the world.
Lyrically, ‘How?’ would not have been out of place on the soul-baring John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It shows Lennon struggling for meaning after The Beatles’ disintegration and Primal Therapy left him exposed and vulnerable, attempting to make sense of his fame, status and relationships.
Musically, jettisons the raw production of Plastic Ono Band, in favour of the “chocolate coating” of Imagine. The performance, too, is more sophisticated than the raw rock ‘n’ roll of its predecessor, with stop-start syncopated beats mirroring Lennon’s uncertainty over which way to turn.
A series of home demo versions of ‘How?’ were recorded by Lennon on piano in late 1970. The recording sees Lennon toying with the verses, with the lyrics undergoing some changes before he entered the studio. In the demo, Lennon ruefully sings: “How can I go home when home is something I have never had?”
The middle eight, too, was missing from the demo, and when written provided a solitary note of positivity in an otherwise unremittingly rueful performance. ‘How?’ remains one of Lennon’s most affecting and effective solo recordings.
In the studio
The backing track for ‘How?’ was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios on 25 May 1971.
It took an unusually long time for an Imagine song, and required 40 takes, the last of which became the master.
On the eight-track tape, tracks 1 and 2 contained Klaus Voormann’s bass guitar and Alan White’s drums respectively. Track 3 was left unused.
Track 4 contained Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano, while Lennon’s acoustic piano was on 5.
Track 6 had acoustic guitars played by Rod Lynton and Andy Davis, but only on takes 1-32.
Track 7 had John Tout’s vibraphone on takes 1-32, and Lennon’s vocal overdub on take 40. Track 8 had Lennon’s lead vocals.
The strings were taped on 4 July 1971 at New York’s Record Plant studio.
This one of the best songs by John. Very timeless, I must say.
The first time I heard this song, I had a tear in my eye. It’s amazing how John could just inject his soul into every note of a song.
In the documentary “composing outside the beales”, someone says the piano part was copied from “the long and winding road”, I don’t quite agree, but there’s something, listen carefully!