meaning and history of John Lennon’s masterpiece song

An important date is happening in a few days for music enthusiasts, especially for Fab4 lovers, those four guys from Liverpool who, under the name of The Beatles revolutionized music forever. On December 8, 1980, exactly two months after his 40th birthday, John Lennon was assassinated in New York, near his home. “Hey, Mr. Lennon,” a 25-year-old named told him Mark Chapman, before exploding five shots at him. To celebrate the genius of the British singer-songwriter we have therefore decided to dedicate this episode of Dentro la Canzone to Imagine, the most popular and representative of John Lennon’s solo songs, a song full of political and social significance. An eternal song.

Imagine comes out in 1971, the first track of the homonymous album, which contained at least a couple of masterpieces. Just think of melancholy Jealous Guyor even the incredible melody of How?. Yet when we talk about that record, who knows why, we think of the title track: Imaginestill today a manifesto of the struggle against all forms of oppression.

In 1971, however, a reprint of a book called Grapefruita collection of poems, dream instructions and illustrations by Yoko Or notcontroversial wife of John Lennon. Some pages of the book, especially those containing instructions, began with a verb: “imagine.” Lennon, who wrote the introduction for the reissue of Grapefruit, was struck by the evocative power of this word. So he thought of writing something, a song first and then an entire album.

Well yes: behind John Lennon’s greatest masterpiece there is the hand of the woman who, for many, was the cause of the breakup of the Beatles.

Imagine: the meaning of the song by John Lennon

The meaning of Imagine it is not difficult to understand, on the contrary, but the text is extraordinary for John Lennon’s disruptive ability to evoke images. The singer-songwriter, with an oxymoronic sweetness, rails against all forms of physical and spiritual oppression, starting from religion and reaching governments. A freedom undermined by them geographic borderswhich by definition divide men.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Lennon addresses us. He invites us to imagine and dream of a life in the present, without the prospect of hell or heaven. Two religious concepts that aim to undermine man’s freedom, encouraging them to behave in a certain way only for the bogeyman of a punishment or the promise of a reward. No heaven: above us there is only the sky. A simple but very powerful image.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace

No countries, territories or borders. As in the first verse, the singer-songwriter seems to encourage the listener: “it’s not difficult to imagine, try it”. He almost seems to want to remark that society raises us with concepts, with solid certainties: the different peoples. Lennon, with the gentleness of a parent addressing a child who can’t solve a simple equation, seems to say: “hey, try it, if you try it’s easy. Forget what you know and imagine a world without religion or self-interest. Imagine a world made of peace”. Again a simple concept. So simple as to become subversive.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

The artist is aware that the prospect of a peaceful world is just a utopia. And then he replies with one of the most beautiful phrases in the history of music: “for you I’m a dreamer, maybe it’s true, but I’m not the only one. I hope you join us one day”. Utopias, if they are mass-produced, can become reality. Lennon is not alone, he knows it, he is the spokesman for an entire generation tired of belligerent policies (see Vietnam). He is the symbol of spiritual freedom in the West. He is, above all, one of the greatest songwriters this spit of the universe has ever known.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

This is the verse that most of all caused problems for John Lennon, at least from a private point of view. Of strong progressive ideas at a time when there was a ruthless hunt for the communist, Lennon invites us to imagine a world without possessions. Without what’s mine and what’s yours. A direct affront to the tearing capitalism of the United States. Yes, because possession means greed and greed is divisive: we don’t need it. Lennon imagines where everything belongs to everyone, in a universal brotherhood made up of sharing.

From a musical point of view

The song features a two-chord intro: C major and F major. In the return to C there is a scale of only three notes which makes the entire sequence unmistakable and iconic. John Lennon wrote and recorded the audition tape for Imagine using a Steinway piano in the bedroom of his home Tittenhurst Park, in the English countryside, where he and Yoko moved in the summer of 1969. At the time the Beatles were still officially a band, but the official disbandment was around the corner. The production was entrusted to Phil Spectorwho had just had the unhealthy idea to get his hands on the recordings of The Long and Winding Roadarousing the ire of Paul McCartney which (also) for this reason will definitively dissolve the Beatles.

To record ImagineLennon will also recall two other old acquaintances: George Harrison And Klaus Voormann (who in addition to being a decent bass player had created the album cover revolvers of the Beatles). The pianist completes the training Nicky Hopkins and the drummers Alan White And Jim Keltner. The official recordings were held on May 27, 1971, in Lennon’s personal studio called Ascot Sound Studios. Initially the song was meant to be piano and vocals. The idea was to give space to the meaning of the text of Imagine and to John Lennon’s melody. The other instruments were added only on the following 4th July.

At first Lennon didn’t think the song would become a hit. For once, only once, history will prove him wrong.

Why Yoko Ono was not included in the credits?

As mentioned, the works of Yoko Ono greatly influenced the drafting of the text. John Lennon himself, during a radio interview with Andy Peebles for the BBC, explained: “It should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song because so much of the lyrics and concept came from Yoko”.

On June 14, 2017, the National Music Publishers Association announced that Yoko would finally be added as co-author of Imagine. This happened during a ceremony where Yoko Ono received the award Centennialswhich rewarded Imagine how song of the century. Not bad.

Moreover, Yoko Ono, who owns control over the rights to John Lennon’s music catalog, has revealed the most frequent request she receives comes from musicians who want to re-record Imagine changing the phrase “no religion, too”. A request that the woman has always refused. Certainly it takes audacity to propose to modify a text signed by Lennon.

Even Forrest Gump tried to take credit for Imagine

Those who instead tried to take the credit for the song, so to speak, is Forrest Gump, the beloved character of the homonymous film by Robert Zemeckis interpreted by Tom Hanks. In a historic scene Forrest is seen meeting John Lennon during an interview on the talk show The Dick Cavett Show. Telling him about his experience in China, Forrest unwittingly suggests to Lennon the lyrics of Imagine.

The cultural heritage of Imagine

Imagine by John Lennon, due to its strong meaning, has been the subject of numerous covers and tributes, not necessarily musical. In Central Park, for example, it is possible to admire a mosaic with the inscription “Imagine“. The work is located within an entire area dedicated to Lennon called Strawberry Fields Memorial (like the Beatles song of the same name Strawberry Fields Forever). The area is right across from John Lennon’s New York apartment where the artist was assassinated.

The song Don’t Look Back in Anger of the oasis pay homage Imagine using its same chord sequence in the intro. Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher, founders of the Manchester band, are openly fans of the Beatles and Liam, in particular, said he was obsessed with the figure of John, to the point of calling his son Lennon Gallagher. Of Don’t Look Back in Anger we talked to you in depth in another episode of Inside the Song.

On September 13, 1980, three months before John Lennon was assassinated, Elton John held a free concert in Central Park, a few meters from Lennon’s home. This is the historic concert in which Elton John performed dressed as Donald Duck. The artist decided to close his set by playing a cover of Imagineannouncing it thus:

“This is for a good friend of mine who lives not too far from here, so let’s sing it loud, so maybe he can hear us”

A moving rendition of Imagine by John Lennon, charged with all its symbolic meaning, took place in Paris on November 14, 2015, outside the theater Bataclan. This is the same concert hall where the day before, November 13, a group of terrorists opened fire in the middle of an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing 89 people. The man who starts playing in the crowd is later revealed to be the German pianist David Martell.

Another noteworthy cover is the one made in 2004 by the A Perfect Circle, supergroup led by Maynard, former frontman of Tool. It is a particularly dark version, with a music video that shows the horrors, violence and contradictions of the contemporary era.

During the 2020 lockdown, the actress Gal Gadot involved numerous other stars of the show to make a virtual cover of Imagine. The video went viral, but hides a bizarre story: he was supposed to participate in the initiative too John Mayerexcept that the singer and guitarist misunderstood the invitation, sending a video of himself singing Imagine by Ariana Grande. Mayer was convinced that Gadot was making a cover of the homonymous song by Ariana Grande.

It is worth noting the version of the jazz legend Herbie Hancock and the fact that the piece was performed in three different Olympic opening ceremonies: Atlanta 1996, London 2012 and Tokyo 2021. On this last occasion the arrangement was curated by Hans Zimmer. Live the song was also sung by Queen, Eddie Vedder, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Neil Young, Zucchero Fornaciari, Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie and many others. However, we want to close with a particular cover: the one performed this year by Julian Lennonson of John, as a dedication to the Ukrainian population affected by the Russian invasion.


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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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