'Imagine': Why John Lennon's Most Enduring Song Is Actually His Worst
As we approach the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I think it’s time to take a hard look at the song that — sadly and improperly — personifies Lennon’s legacy for far too many people.
That song is “Imagine.”
Why this weak entry in Lennon’s dazzling oeuvre receives such adoration mystifies me. The song features a syrupy melody, a cloying piano line, none of the startling chord or time changes that distinguished Lennon’s great Beatles songs, and no memorable hook.
Lyrically it’s even worse. There are lines in this song that a young John Lennon would have savaged.
“No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”
Oh, spare me. This is Jonathan Livingston Seagull territory; mawkish sentiment shoehorned into Lennon’s ironically un-Imaginative melodic framework.
Clearly, the song has attained its beloved status because it addresses world peace, or some Yoko-inspired concept of what world peace should look like: The “world will be as one,” stuff, clumsy phrasing depicting inaccessible ideals.
World peace is a wonderful value. I appreciate Lennon’s pursuit of it, as nutty as that pursuit was (Literally nutty: John and Yoko sent acorns to world leaders).
The problem is, every time I hear “Imagine” I feel the need to listen to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or some other brilliant Lennon song to remind me of his true genius.
Some artists can turn big societal observations into memorable pieces. Others lose their art to their cause. Lennon’s musical creativity seemed to decline in proportion to the importance of his subject matter.
When I hear “Imagine” I picture Lennon setting about to write an Important Song about Important Things: peace, love, understanding, Heaven, whatever. This approach — big thought, music and lyrics to follow --doomed the piece from the outset. It is precisely opposite from the approach that made Lennon a songwriting immortal. His great pieces featured flashpoint creativity, whether sparked by a poster (“Mr. Kite”), a cereal jingle (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), a drawing by his son (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), or the death of a friend (“A Day in the Life”).
Lennon mined his boyhood to great effect, both in his memories of place (“Strawberry Fields Forever”) and literature (“I Am the Walrus”). He produced many of his gems under deadline pressure, with recording schedules beckoning and Paul McCartney ready to go. Lennon lacked the time to reflect, thus, he created.
“Imagine” is all reflection, and that’s what makes it so mundane.
Some artists can turn big societal observations into memorable pieces. Others lose their art to their cause. Lennon’s musical creativity seemed to decline in proportion to the importance of his subject matter. “Imagine” has its roots in “Give Peace a Chance,” another Lennon world-improvement effort featuring inspired concepts and featureless musicality. Message trumped music. Whether this was a byproduct of ego, or laziness, or misguidance, or simple evaporation of talent, I’m not sure.
Plus, there’s an undercurrent of condescension to the piece, with Lennon laying out his insipid version of world peace (“no hell below us, above us only sky”) and then asking whether we can imagine it along with him, before belittling our capacity to do so (“I wonder if you can”). Yes, we can. Imagining world peace is the easy part.
McCartney certainly released his share of saccharine tunes over the years, but at least he had the good graces to call them what they were — silly love songs. And Paul never fell into the pretentious trap of thinking that his music could stop bullets from flying.
I don’t disparage “Imagine” and other post-Beatle Lennon compositions (“Our life, together, is so precious, together, we have grown, we have grown” Oh, the pain!) because I dislike Lennon’s music. Quite the contrary. I disparage them because I love Lennon’s music. His memory should live on in the sparkling songs he created as an acerbic, witty Beatle — not in the mushy musical observations of his later years.
So, on Dec. 8, I’ll be thinking about John Lennon. I’ll be thinking about how utterly cool he looked on the back of “Revolver.” I’ll be thinking about his ghostly vocal on “A Day in the Life.” I’ll remember seeing the Beatles perform Lennon’s “Rain” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and realizing their music had, impossibly, become even more brilliant.
And, in honor of Lennon, when “Imagine” comes on the radio, I’ll change the station.
This program aired on December 6, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.