“Imagine” at 50: Timely Then, Now, Always

john lennon imagine

It was at once a plea and a command. When “Imagine” landed on the pop music charts 50 years ago this year, it was new yet recognizable, familiar yet unique. Deceptively simple and casually abstract, its anti-materialistic message freely offered by a very rich man. “Imagine” was born in the studio with The Beatles, came of age as a John Lennon solo record, and matured into Lennon/Ono composition. Teaching the song to friend and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, John simply called it “the one I like best.” It is a study in dichotomy.

“Imagine” quickly took on a life of its own, distinguishing itself for its singular ability to evoke a pure vision of peace. As it grew in fame and stature, the song would be called upon more than any other to soothe, console and inspire; comfort in times of crisis, celebration in times of joy, and commemoration of milestone events. “Imagine” continues to grow in stature.

It was the product of John Lennon’s experience to that point. The musical expression was the sum of Lennon’s expertise as a songwriter, honed over many years at home, in the studio, and on stage. Its simple repeating melody is akin to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Its heartfelt cry is reminiscent of “Don’t Let Me Down.”

But the lyrical expression marked a new mode of abstraction for the thirty-one-year-old Liverpool native.

John Lennon had always been a “word person.” He cherished Lewis Carroll’s nonsense language, relished double entendres, and bent meaning into lewd suggestions. He made poems of malapropisms and reveled in psychedelic surrealism. But “Imagine” was unique, even for him.

Speaking to the BBC on December 6th, 1980, John Lennon confessed: “Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song. Because a lot of it, the lyrics and the concept, came from Yoko. But [in] those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘“Imagine” this and “Imagine” that…’ and [let’s] give her credit now, long overdue.”

John & Yoko yielded many creations; performance art events, books, photographs, short films, albums full of songs. But John &Yoko only ever gave birth to two masterpieces. One is their son, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, composer, performer, and confirmed mensch, Sean Ono Lennon. Their other masterpiece is “Imagine.” The key to understanding both descendants is Yoko Ono.

A childhood victim of World War II air bombings, Yoko Ono retreated into her own imagination. Once there she reigned over a conceptual world of her own design. Ono’s world was decidedly not an idealized fantasy like Walt Disney’s. Her world was theoretical, abstract, and intangible. As an artist in her 20’s, Yoko Ono would challenge reality itself, expose its hypocrisies, and stare—or shout—them down. This darker, more confrontational side of Ono’s work, is the one that rubs some people the wrong way — and is meant to.

Related: “Imagine – John Lennon’s Complicated Masterpiece”

But Yoko and her work have a lighter, more wishful side, one that is positive and constructive. This cerebral landscape is where the two met, and John Lennon fell in love. Ono’s longing for a better world was rooted in pain and flowered in hope. John Lennon could relate. He found the combination irresistible.

The couple was widely bashed in the press. Something about one of Britain’s favorite sons divorcing his proper English wife did not sit right. The fact that he married a Japanese woman, not long after England’s war with Japan, made the disapproval worse. Racism, prejudice, and nationalism all played a role in their condemnation. The couple would not soon forget it.

“Imagine” is a firm indictment of nationalism, religion, and capitalism, and of prejudice and racism by extension. John & Yoko’s regarded all of these as forces of division, enmity, and hate; the necessary ingredients for war.

Like its parents, “Imagine” is no stranger to controversy. There are many who do not share John & Yoko’s idealized worldview. “Imagine”, while widely beloved, has, like its parents, also been vilified. The lyrics have been likened to the Communist Manifesto — once by Lennon himself. And fans who love God and Country are quick to take offense to any worldview without them. The kid is a chip off the old block.

It is a bittersweet occasion, this marking of “Imagine’s” 50th birthday. It is a sad and terrible reminder that the song has outlived John Lennon by a decade.

Lennon clearly intended to share songwriting credits with his wife and partner, but he would not live long enough to do it. It was not until almost fifty years later that Yoko Ono finally made the change herself. In 2017, The National Music Publisher’s Association named “Imagine” “Song of the Century.” They simultaneously marked the occasion by ascribing to “Lennon/Ono.” Sean Lennon, in a press release, noted “It may have been the happiest day of mine and mother’s life.”

“Imagine” continues to thrive. It graces us with its presence and conjures that of its parents. It is summoned often to do so. Like the national anthem, it has become a fixture in the soundtrack of our lives. But it is more an invitation than a pledge. The song’s gentle idealism evokes an alternate reality and lulls listeners into solemn contemplation. In this way “Imagine” is sublime, transcendent, and nearly spiritual.

We call upon “Imagine” in times of need, to mark sacred moments and to evoke them.

“Imagine” is regularly sounded at The Olympic Games, succinctly reminding competing nations of their spirit of cooperation, multi-culturalism, and unity. It has been played not just by host countries with a claim upon its authors—Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States—but also by Italy and South Korea. “Imagine’s” message is so universal as to inspire a sense of collective ownership. It is our international anthem.

“Imagine’s” singular power to unite and inspire is called upon in moments of need and desperation. Neil Young’s rendition in the wake of 9/11, was a supremely poignant call for peace on the eve of war. “Imagine” has since been employed to support countless charities and causes. There is no song that can solve the world’s problems. But in its efforts, “Imagine” is a hero, a champion of a song.

Happy 50th to  “Imagine.” Long may you live. And long live John & Yoko.

-Edward Zareh

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Ed Zareh is the playwright of “Long Lost John,” and co-creator (with Mary Clohan) of “Long Lost John: Drama Therapy,” a program supporting bereaved families, presented in partnership with COPE Foundation. Past writing credits include Second City This Week, UCB Comedy, and SNL Studios. He’s a frequent contributor to Culture Sonar.

7 comments on ““Imagine” at 50: Timely Then, Now, Always

  1. Lennon himself confessed that the song is “bullshit”. It’s not. However, as a Christian, I will always take issue with the implication that we’d all be better off if “there’s no heaven”. Still, one of the genuinely moving listener experiences.

  2. Gary M Theroux

    “imagine” is a charming song if you enjoy the Communist Manifesto set to music — and long for an authoritarian, totalitarian world. I don’t.

  3. In college I’d developed a distrust for “dreamers.” A Chinese-American art professor who hated communism, nevertheless admired Mao Zedong, because he was a “dreamer” who wrote poetry as he chased Chang Kia-Shek to Formosa. Nevertheless, I dismissed “Imagine” as not one of John Lennon’s better songs, but conceded that he had a right to express himself and I agreed with many of his points. My overall impression was that most of it went without saying. And understanding that John was a songwriter who had no intentions of tearing down Christianity or establishing a new world order made it easy for me to dismiss the “danger” of his musings.

    • The rest of it is, I had always considered Yoko One American, not Japanese. Knowing of her contributions to the song, and how her family’s ordeal during the second world war shaped her art, helps me understand and appreciate this song

  4. Stephen Bartholomew Ward

    The author wrote “It is a bittersweet occasion, this marking of “Imagine’s” 50th birthday. It is a sad and terrible reminder that the song has outlived John Lennon by a decade.” I’m not following the logic here. John Lennon died in 1980; songs don’t “die.” So far, the song has outlived John Lennon by 41 years. We will still be talking about this song in 2031, and 2041…

    The author also stated his opinion that “… John & Yoko only ever gave birth to two masterpieces.” The argument is untrue and entirely unsupported here. I’d argue that the Double Fantasy album is also a masterpiece, and in particular, the song “I’m Losing You,” as has been noted in other articles on this website. But the larger issue is that the author’s opinion is superfluous to the article, and it undercuts the author’s credibility.

  5. laura chekow

    Thank you for this, and for your part in giving credit where credit is due, in highlighting this aspect of the story. “I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.” (John Lennon). Men have “forgotten” to include women’s work in their achievements historically, and every time someone such as yourself sheds light on that fact it helps heal the imbalance.

    For this reason alone I would welcome reading/seeing your play. Which I trust is dedicated and attributed inclusively. 🕊️

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