Released: September 1971
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 45
Certified Gold: 10/1/71
If John would stop bemoaning his mental state, stop being petty, swear off clichés, and get rid of Phil Spector, he could make an excellent recording. As it is, he's settled for a good one, thanks mostly to some classy melodies he thought up to cancel out his often dopey lyrics. A curious thing -- in the the Lennon-McCartney team, it was assumed Lennon was the expert on lyrics and McCartney constructed the melodies. But without John, Paul's lyrics are fairly good and his melodies grow mushier and mushier; in Paul's absence John writes better than passable melodies but lyrics that are as paranoid as a porcupine. Without the moderating influence each provided for the other, they take to extreme the elements they fed into the Beatles.
Spector, of course, brought in big names from all parts to play too many instruments. No mistaking his touch: Klaus Voorman on bass, King Curtis on sax, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and many others, including George Harrison, who generally saves things with various types of guitar, although he's pretty bad on dobro.
When the album is good, it is quite good, despite overproduction. A couple of songs, "Jealous Guy" and "Oh, My Love," recall the heyday of the Beatles ("Jealous Guy" recalls it perhaps too vividly, containing a piano change lifted directly from "A Day in the Life"), "Imagine" is facile, and particularly interested me because, in setting up an imaginary utopia, John eliminates religion, along with greed and hunger. Not a terribly fashionable idea just now.
When the album is bad, it is quite bad. "How Do You Sleep?," obviously addressed to Paul, raves on. "A pretty face may last a year or two/ But pretty soon they'll see what you can do/ The sound you make is Muzak to my ears..." The buyer gets a small photo of John holding a pig by the ears, which says something about the petty bickering if you've seen the cover of Paul's Ram. Also, there is the usual bragging about feeling insecure ("How?," "It's So Hard," and "Crippled Inside") and clichés purporting to express outrage about how things are run ("Gimme Some Truth" and "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier").
Is the album better than it is bad? It is. Is it better than Plastic Ono Band? Much. Is it disappointing? Yes.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 1/72.
Lennon has emerged as the real British Dylan, chronicling his own personal search for self-expression with that of the times which threaten to divide the self into oblivion. Down-to-earth honest introspection is steeped in insight, while magnificent string arrangements complement Lennon's latest concept of rock on "Imagine," "Give Me Some Truth," "How?," "Oh Yoko" and "Crippled Inside." Move over Sgt. Pepper.
- Billboard, 1971.
What fascinates me about the Beatles, apart from their music, is the almost uncanny way they have managed to maintain the public's interest in their personal lives. Whether unwittingly or a case of planned hype, the fact remains that all the drug and religious trips, the "Paul is dead," the John and Yoko bed-in antic, the group's split...all have certainly added to their aura.
The fact is that, hype or no hype (all those TV talk shows), this album leaves no doubt that John, when he wants to, can write and sing just as pretty as his ex-partner. The album's four slow ballads, particularly the title song, are all beautifully arranged and constructed melodies, equipped with tastefully produced string arrangements. John's singing hasn't sounded better since he sang "Mr. Moonlight" on Beatles '65. His voice has always sounded best when the electronic embellishments were kept to minimum, as in the case of "Jealous Guy" and "Imagine."
On the rockier side there's a "Yer Blues"-type number, "It's So Hard," a jazz-oriented "I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier," and a great though poorly produced pop song, "Gimme Some Truth."
Apart from the Paul put-down on "How Do You Sleep?," Lennon doesn't seem as bitter as he did on his previous album. The album on the whole has an uplifting quality to it, relating to a person's thoughts before, during and after Primal Therapy. The sequencing of the album works well musically but falls apart lyrically. But, however, Lennon seems much more content with his reality than his last album.
- Harve Mann, Hit Parader, 5/72.
Imagine was as lush and melodic as anything John Lennon had created since the break-up of the Beatles. Unlike the spartan, three-piece Plastic Ono Band, Imagine gave Phil Spector plenty to work with. The album features over a dozen of rock's top sidemen, and half the tracks are further enhanced with highly commercial strings.
The benign, low-key aura that suffuses Imagine (with one or two curious execptions) may have been due to more than a fulfillment of Arthur Janov's promise of "a tensionless, defence-free life" for those who complete primal therapy. Plastic Ono Band had impressed the critics more than it had the public; and sold a modest quarter million copies. Robert Klein's promo man Pete Bennett let slip that "we told John he had to go more commercial if he wanted a big smash."
The general tone of Imagine (which, as it turned out, sold well over a million) is set by the title song -- easily John's most popular and widely covered solo compostion. "Imagine" also sounds very Beatle-ish, with a melody that conveys the poignant innocence (or naiveté) of "Dear Prudence" and "Because." Retrieving the white banner he had waved throughout 1969, Lennon invites us to share his vision of Utopia devoid of religions ("no hell below us/above us only sky"), possessions, countries, and causes.
The second most popular song on the album was "Jealous Guy," similar to "Imagine" in its refreshing tunefulness, simplicity, and lush orchestration. To a melody almost identical to the verse of "A Day In the Life" John asks Yoko to forgive his cruelties ("I'm just a jealous guy") in a thin, plaintive voice that often comes close to cracking. Like most of Imagine, this touching piece shows Lennon attempting to put across his painful self-discoveries in a more popularly accessible format.
"How Do You Sleep?," a devastatingly powerful piece of music, was evidence that the battle between John and Paul had turned very nasty indeed. George Harrison, whose presence on the cut makes clear where his own sympathies lied, contributes the most stinging slide guitar work of his career; and John's voice, around which an unusually hard-assed string section weaves nightmarish arabesques, has never sounded more menacing. Lennon's vitriolic open letter goes on to castigate McCartney for living with "straights," for having married a nag, and for being dead after all.
But whatever dissapointment some fans may have felt at McCartney's recent work, few enjoyed being witness to the execution. Musically, "How Do You Sleep?" is brilliant, in that it forces the listener to share John's anger; for that reason, many of his admirers preferred not to listen. (To drive the point home, Imagine was packaged with a postcard depicting Lennon fondling a pig -- an unmistakeable lampoon of Paul's Ram cover, on which McCartney fondles a ram.)
In "Gimme Some Truth" Lennon launches into a similar tirade (again accompanied by Harrison's vicious slide guitar) -- this time against nameless hypocrites, bigots, "pig-headed politicians," and "paranoic prima-donnas" everywhere. A gripping riff and a non-stop torrent of assonance and alliteration add up to an electrifying performance; nonetheless, to Rolling Stone's Ben Gerson, "Gimme Some Truth," together with "How Do You Sleep?," raised a disturbing question: "I fear that John sees himself in the role of the truth-teller, and as such can justify any kind of self-indulgent brutality in the name of truth." Lennon's next album would prove Gerson woefully correct.
Imagine first appeared on the Billboard chart on September 18, 1971, reaching #1 and spending a total of 30 weeks.
- Nicholas Schaffner, The Beatles Forever, 1978.
Primal goes pop -- personal and useful. The title cut is both a hymn for the Movement and a love song for his wife, celebrating a Yokoism and a Marcusianism simultaneously, and "Gimme Some Truth" unites Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay as it provides a rationale for "Jealous Guy," which doesn't need one, and "How Do You Sleep?," which may. "Oh Yoko!" is an instant folk song worthy of Rosie & the Originals, and "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" an instant folk extravaganza worthy of Phil Spector. "It's So Hard" is blues. "Crippled Inside," with its "ironic" good-time ricky-tick, is folk-rock in disguise. And the psychotherapeutically lugubrious "How?" is a question mark. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The follow-up to Plastic Ono Band continued Lennon's self analysis, but this time the primal scream was tempered with pop sensibility. The anguished search for meaning in life, "Give Me Some Truth," the self-deprecatory "Jealous Guy" and "How?," and the artist's testimony to what it's like being "Crippled Inside" would be quite jolly.
The album first became famous for its anthemic title track, an instant hit in the United States, a smash in Britain upon its years-delayed release, and a posthumous UK number one. The sales achieved during its two chart runs made it one of the best-selling singles in UK history. Its utopian lyrics found favor with people who wouldn't support their sentiments if they were translated into concrete political proposals, a sure sign of how seductive art can be. The actor Christopher Reeve chose "Imagine" when asked on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs what one record he would take with him if stranded.
Anyone who doubted the sincerity of Lennon's love for his second wife or her importance to him need only listen to "Oh Yoko!," a track played like a single on WABC-New York even though it never became one. "How Do You Sleep?" was an insulting jab at Paul McCartney, with whom John was having a public argument of his own launching. It was beneath both of them, but survives as an example of what happens when jilted partners use mass media to deliver personal messages.
In 1987, Imagine was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #85 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
Imagine can reliably be said to be John Lennon's finest solo album. Lennon's painful, and at times painfully embarrassing, exploratory soul-bearing songs seem excluded from Imagine. The cherry on the cake however comes in the form of the classic title track and the superb now much-covered "Jealous Guy."
Lennon could still deliver a sly kick to the listener, wrapping up "Crippled Inside" in honky-tonk singalong disguise for instance.
Sound quality is variable: "Jealous Guy," is, sadly, still fuzzily distorted: "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" astonishingly but intentionally boxy; "Give Me Some Truth" still dull and squashed. Other tracks have a simple, direct impact -- in sound as in song.
"So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise..." Lennon sings here -- launched in the UK the same week as the CD Pepper, Imagine is more clearly in the mainstream of rock'n'roll and despite the protestations of that album's influence is the more important and the more honest. Imagine is a sad testament to all the rock'n'roll Lennon did not record.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
In addition to the revered title track (a #3 hit), this eclectic pop album also contains "Jealous Guy" (later a hit for Roxy Music) and "Gimme Some Truth" (later adopted by such punk rockers as Generation X). * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Imagine contains the enduring title hymn and a dark stab at Lennon's former Beatles partner Paul McCartney in "How Do You Sleep?" * * * *
- Roger Catlin, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Perhaps his most important recording, this stirring album is a brilliant look at one man's uncompromising view of life, documenting Lennon's continuous couch trip -- self-analysis, love, venom and politics with a backbeat, demonstrating which Beatle had the brains. George Harrison's guitar and Phil Spector's production further elevate master provocateur themes from peace ("Imagine," one of the greatest antiwar songs ever) to skewering Paul McCartney ("How Do You Sleep"). * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
After the primal-scream therapy of Plastic Ono Band, Lennon softened up on his second solo album. There is still some stinging "Gimme Some Truth" and Lennon's evisceration of Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" -- both featuring George Harrison on guitar. But there is also the aching soul of "Jealous Guy" and the irresistible "Oh Yoko!" Imagine is self-consciously luminescent, pointedly embraceable. Lennon said of the title track, "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugar-coated it is accepted... Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."
Imagine was chosen as the 76th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
After the primal existential confessions in his solo debut album, Plastic Ono Band, the ex-Beatle needed a breath of utopia, a pinch of hope. This and the rich musicality of the output provided by a stellar cast -- George Harrison, Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, Jim Keltner, Alan White, King Curtis, and members of Badfinger -- made Imagine a huge hit that charted at No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, just as Lennon and Yoko Ono were moving to the United States.
Produced by Phil Spector at the studio Lennon had built in his English mansion, Tittenhurst, Imagine gave us the song for which the world remembers the most interesting personality in The Beatles, a hymn to human trust in a better world in the face of the most despairing reality. It also featured some of the best love songs a man has written to a woman -- "Oh My Love" and "Jealous Guy" -- and its share of crude rock 'n' roll too, Lennon style, as in the political outcry "Gimme Some Truth" and the infamous McCartney diatribe "How Do You Sleep?"
Some tracks recalled past introspections, such as "Crippled Inside" or "How?," but the newfound center in John's life provided by Yoko -- along with Spector's orchestrated but still rough production -- made this his most accomplished, balanced solo record.
A self-portrait of a man at the same time sensitive and aggressive, insecure and bold, introspective but socially aware. The title song alone, a work of stunning simplicity (released four years later in the UK, it made No. 1 -- naturally), will undoubtedly keep bringing this evergreen masterpiece to the attention of new generations for years to come.
- Ignacio Julià, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
By the time he got to Imagine, John Lennon (1940-1980) had pretty much exhausted the narrative devices of the rock and roll song. As a member of the Beatles, he'd explored rock as pure hedonistic escape, a means of grappling with cosmic mysteries, and many points in between. On his own, with Plastic Ono Band, rock became an outlet for the jarry subconscious secrets revealed by primal scream therapy, a window into the harrowing and the surreal. (Mind Games itself came later.)
Imagine, Lennon's most consistent solo work, can be seen as an attempt to get back to basics and to reengage with the world that Lennon had kept at some distance since his band's demise. Throughout songs that howl about war, seek open communication, and dare to dream of utopia, Lennon maintains two seemingly contradictory perspetives: He's the somewhat jaundiced, cynical citizen who, despite knowing better, isn't willing to completely abandon his idealism.
The result is music defined by confrontation and conflict -- yet at its core it retains a hint of touching schoolkid earnestness. Lennon makes sweeping demands ("Gimme Some Truth") that voice deep impatience and bitterness, and he derides war in unequivocal terms ("I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier"). But he's also a frail human, not some diatribe machine: Another highlight of this album is the aching confessional "Jealous Guy." Then, of course, there's the title track. A lilting private moment at the piano, "Imagine" exists in a place entirely apart from everyday concerns -- it's an idyllic afternoon daydream that makes time stand still. In a calm and centered voice, Lennon implies that any seemingly unattainable goal (whether global unity, or peace) begins within each of us -- with attitude change, with belief change. The caustic Beatle expects to get slammed ("You may say I'm a dreamer," he muses, taking comfort in the fact that he's "not the only one"). He knows that simply by sending out such a message, he's beginning to move the energy around. And by reclaiming the right to dream big, Lennon makes an idealistic notion seem somehow possible -- not simply within our reach but worth reaching for. Put this on the next time you need to be reminded that a song really can change the world.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
After the primal scream rage of Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon still had some anger to get out (the anti-McCartney "How Do You Sleep?"). But the lovely "Jealous Guy" and "Oh Yoko!," and honeyed utopian politics of the title track make this Lennon's most tranquil album.
Imagine was chosen as the 223rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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