Heavy Rotation is a column focused on an LP in my collection. This month I’m discussing John Lennon, Imagine, Capitol Records – 72435-80321-1-6. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab – MFSL 1-277, Limited Edition, Numbered, Reissue, Remastered, 2003
While there were only 10 months between 1970’s Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon’s first post-Beatles studio outing – and his sophomore release Imagine, there’s been 50 years of people asking if there’s more or less light between the two LPs than critics of the time acknowledged. Described as a masterpiece and artistic dead end, it’s been argued the musical language used by Lennon and Yoko Ono on POB, like Latin, limited further explorations in order to not draw comparisons. POB was very much a creation of a time and place, and following it up would be more conscious decision for Lennon than simply wanting to write another album a year later.
Yet, utlising the underpinnings of the vernacular learned on POB allowed Lennon to construct his most commercially successful and arguably finest solo album in Imagine. A success Lennon credited to the anti-capitalistic, anti-religious album being “sugar coated” for mass consumption. Imagine seems a return to the comfort and accolades of pop after the unorthodox texture of experimental work with Ono – and the lack of a No. 1 hit off POB. A zig to POB’s zag.
"So you think 'Imagine' ain't political? It's 'Working Class Hero' with sugar on it for conservatives like yourself."
Phil Spector’s widely credited raw, uncomfortably-close production quality on POB benefitted from the emotional and psychological churn Lennon was experiencing at the time – precipitated by his involvement with primal scream therapy and the latent parent abandonment and dead mother issues (among others) it brought to the fore in him. Imagine’s acoustic sensibilities and orchestral flourishes could be seen as exhalations and acknowledgements of character flaws following POB’s anguished cries.
The sparse arrangements of POB form a skeletal structure beneath Spector’s wall of sound production layers on Imagine. They provide support for the indiscriminate plucking of musical inspiration Lennon drew upon from the previous decade to populate the album – varied as his 1968 India trip, to early ‘60s Liverpool when The Beatles were successfully mining rock.
Recording of Imagine was spread over three locations the first half of 1971, with initial tracks cut to tape at Ascot Sound Studios (the name given to the space taken over in Lennon and Ono’s 18th-century mansion located on their Tittenhurst Park estate), Abbey Road Studios and the Record Plant in New York City. Lennon called upon friends and musicians like George Harrison, bassist Klaus Voormann, drummers Alan White and Jim Keltner, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and saxophonist King Kurtis (among many others) to help flesh out the album, with Voormann carrying over from POB.
Having two pressings of this LP, an EX+ original 1971 Canadian release from the RCA plant at Smiths Falls, Ontario and a MINT– Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab limited edition, numbered, remastered version released in 2003, I can say unequivocally that the Mo-Fi GAIN 2 version is night and day over the original Bell Sound Studios in sound quality, hence its use for Heavy Rotation.
Dropping the needle on the lead-in groove to Imagine one cannot help but feel expectations to be moved, provoked – emotionally and intellectually chagrined. This album was written as a challenge to the ruling establishment of the late ‘60s, a protest to many societal ills: corporate greed, political and religious hypocrisy… but it is also an achingly beautiful album, full of much of the orchestral majesty and breadth Lennon brought to The Beatles’ later LPs. After all, whether he ever intended it be or not, “Imagine” the song – and consequentially the album – has come to define Lennon’s post-Beatles discography.
The resonant impact and sonic weight to notes and sense of physical scale created by the close mic’ing and reverb on Lennon’s piano opening the album instantly relate it is loading a larger room. As Voormann and White’s first deep bass and percussive notes drop in behind Lennon’s light-baritone asking listeners, Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us, only sky, the punch of instrumental presence and fine textural rendition of the felted hammers on steel wire, fingers plucking nylon and sticks on skins is subtly rendered dead centre between the loudspeakers. Spector’s working of Torrie Zito’s string arrangements create the effect of pushing out the spatial presentation in the horizontal axis – as if side-curtains suddenly opened up on a stage production exposing a hidden orchestra. Despite having heard this song throughout my life – from sitting in the backset of my parent’s car as a child with the radio playing, to being stretched out on the floor between a set of speakers while attending university – it is difficult to shake the feeling of Lennon asking the listener to walk for a few minutes in this alternate reality he’s proposing. Fifty years later, the songwriting still has the same transformative power. So much, and so little, have changed since Lennon penned “Imagine” that, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, while we have aged and recorded many sins, Lennon’s premise remains unstained by the passage of time and our bent morality.
Some may look at Imagine as a more disparate collection of songs, rather than a cohesive whole, but one cannot help but sense a tide or momentum of ebb-and-flow throughout the order of tracks. Take, for example, the honky tonk piano of Hopkins and folk-rock twang of Harrison’s dobro slides on “Crippled Inside.” Following “Imagine” it provides a rollicking segue to digest the still receding mediative state precipitated by the opening cut before being dropped into the character misgivings of “Jealous Guy.” Timbral delineation between Ted Turner and Rod Linton’s accompanying acoustic guitars on the cut proving just how good the Mobile Fidelity GAIN2 mastering chain is at extracting resolution from studio tapes.
Ethereal strings float over Hopkins’ plaintive piano and the inadequacy-laced confessions of Lennon’s vocals and exquisite acoustic guitar picking on “Jealous Guy,” laying a path to Voormann and White dropping in the rhythm section with lower-octave authority around the 45-second mark. This original version of the song probably garners less attention than Bryan Ferry’s cover with the under-30 crowd, which is unfortunate because the two are separated by light years of honest intention in their delivery. Whereas Ferry comes across as lacking sincerity, with a sheen of the glib, Lennon’s voice seems unwavering in both its pitch and depth of heartache. Once again, Spector is able to meld the air and space of the orchestral scale common to Sgt. Pepper’s with the stripped-down, lo-fi intimacy of POB in bringing the listener into the circle of possession the track engenders sonically.
The grinding, King Curtis saxophone-soaked, Blues-driven bass of “It’s So Hard” offers a sublime counterpoint to the Asian-infused arrangement of strings The Flux Fiddlers provide, maintaining the cavernous hall vibe that “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” and its booming, Jim Keltner-supplied drum kit opens with. Raucous, reverb-driven electric guitar, gated-mic vocals with a demonstrative contempt for societal expectations and all of it wrapped in full-throttle signature Spector wall of sound. “Gimme Some Truth” offers hard licks and slam as Lennon’s lyrics “short-haired yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky…” tears a new one for every deceitful politician trying to soft soap the various electorates into wars nobody wants.
“Oh My Love” offers beautiful body and weight to Hopkin’s keyboard and pedal work on the RMI Electra digging down between the lower octaves as Lennon accompanies on piano in the upper registers. Harrison’s electric guitar work is meaty and offers up texture and timbral colour, nicely adding harmonic drive and balancing the lighter touch on the keys Lennon provided. The percolating funk of “How Do You Sleep” shows the still simmering resentment between former bandmates Lennon and Paul McCartney following the breakup of The Beatles and the dissolution of their songwriting partnership. Lennon’s biting commentary and contempt for McCartney stems from sleights perceived in the lyrical content of several songs on McCartney’s 1971 solo album Ram. The languid delivery of Lennon’s retort, The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you've gone you're just another day is but one of several pointed digs at McCartney on the track.
“How?” is another cut demonstrating how cleverly Lennon is able to marry melody and harmony and brings the album to its unfailingly sunny, if slightly melancholy finish “Oh Yoko!” Hopkins’ piano glitters amid Lennon’s electric guitar chords as Spector, the deadpan producer, adds his almost childlike harmonizing vocal to Lennon’s dovish croon. Jangly harmonica playing contributes to the camp atmosphere of the cut with the sweet tension of Voormann’s plucky bass laying down the rhythm over White’s stick-on-skin work.
“Oh Yoko!” beckons the listener to flip the LP and restart – ouroboros-like – the expectations, the provocations, the challenges that every song on Imagine seems to incite. While some of the work here could be questioned in its specific motivations for inclusion, there isn’t a track that feels out of place or that it is not a triumph of Spector’s recording prowess and production excellence. It is saturated with visceral textures ranging from the plucking and bowing of stringed instruments, alloyed crashes, shimmers and decay of percussion, squeaky fretwork, and brassy sax blaat, to the deep, intonate weight of felted hammers and steel slides. Imagine’s soaring, honest, introspective, furious and sly vocals offer music lovers, simple listeners and audiophiles alike a trove of powerhouse songwriting delivered with captivating high-fidelity credentials via the Mo-Fi remastered version.
You can find copies of Imagine in its Original Master Recording guise HERE.