Above Us Only Sky: Imagine at 50

A half century later, John Lennon’s second solo LP still stands as a towering testament to his artistry beyond The Beatles

Postcard of John Lennon with pig from the inserts included in Imagine (Image: Capitol Records)

The 70’s began with the world’s biggest band breaking up, and everything just seemed to go downhill from there.

But for the four individuals involved in the most acrimonious break-up in music history, the decade after their split would see each explore a variety of musical styles that their collective identity hadn’t given them the freedom to fully pursue. The time between 1970 to 1971 was a particularly fertile period, as it saw Paul McCartney announce the break-up of the Beatles via the press release accompanying his self-titled debut, while George Harrison showed that he had an ample backlog of material itching to see the light of day via All Things Must Pass, and Ringo would end up being, well, Ringo. But John Lennon would release two albums that would stand head and shoulders above anything else he did in the decade he had left on this planet, first with the primal scream of Plastic Ono Band and then, less than a year later, Imagine. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

I’ll get to the title song in a bit, but I want to give some of the other songs on this landmark album their just due. As a Beatles fan and John devotee from an early age (on account of our shared birthday), I had always thought of the group as John’s band. And so I thought the songwriting genius that he’d displayed throughout the Beatles’ recording career would continue when I explored his solo stuff. I’ve mostly confined myself to best-of collections with the occasional album here and there, and I think it’s safe to say that both Lennon and McCartney lost something when they didn’t have the other there to temper their worst tendencies as songwriters (John’s wordy self-aggrandizing tone, Paul’s wistful sentimental bent). So I’ve never become a big fan of the Beatles as solo artists, but I can safely say that John’s first two albums after the split deserve a place in any self-respecting music fan’s library. And Imagine, while perhaps more slick and less raw than Plastic Ono Band, is the best Lennon album I’ve heard so far. 

John Lennon Imagine, Capitol Records 1971

For my money, the title song isn’t even the best one on the album: depending on how I’m feeling that day, my vote could go to either “Jealous Guy” or “Crippled Inside.” Both tunes are about as honest as any singer-songwriter could get, the former depicting how John was self-aware about his own self-destructive and abusive tendencies when it came to his relationships, while the latter is a fantastic poison-pen letter of a song about the sort of hypocrites who once condemned him for comparing the Beatles to Jesus.

 

VIDEO: John Lennon “Jealous Guy”

“Jealous Guy” is gentle musically, which actually complements the harsh words Lennon has for himself (and he was the kind of songwriter who could only ever write about himself when singing from the first-person perspective; you wouldn’t mistake the “I” in “Jealous Guy” for a character John was trying to inhabit). Coming as it does in the midst of his life with Yoko Ono, it could easily be read as a confession to her, but it could just as easily be John apologizing to all the women he’s loved and let down before, from his first wife Cynthia to the women he had affairs with because of his status as a world-famous rock star. John’s relationship with his mother Julia was cut off just as the two were finally reconnecting after years apart, and she famously figures in a lot of his songwriting as a lost ideal; perhaps she’s the real focus of the song?

As for “Crippled Inside,” I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most bitterly funny tunes Lennon ever wrote (along with his Beatles-era “The Ballad of John and Yoko” or “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”). Holding the feet of the religious fundamentalists to the fire, Lennon spares no sympathy for their blinders-on view of how the world should be despite their own contradictory behavior. Lennon had a top-notch bullshit detector in him, and he had been through enough grief over the years from the Religious Right to know how much manure they were shovelling even at that stage in world history. 

 

AUDIO: John Lennon “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama (Take 11)”

“I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama” is an anguished plea that anyone caught up in the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era could relate to, “Gimme Some Truth” is an angry call to arms against the purveyors of bullshit, and “Oh My Love” and “How?” are tender, aching love songs. But the other great songs on the album are “Oh Yoko” and “How Do You Sleep,” the latter aimed squarely at McCartney. John’s anger at his former bandmate would abate over time, and the two would even share a measure of reconciliation, but for the time John was venting his spleen about how Paul had effectively taken over the Beatles after Brian Epstein’s death in 1967 and then decided to leave the band long after John himself had declared his intention to walk out the door. You won’t find a better break-up song, in every kind of relationship sense, than this one. “Oh Yoko” is a song that I love, even when I’ve listened to it so much on repeat that I’m sick of it; it’s probably one of the goofiest silly love songs ever. But now we must turn to the title song, which I will admit I have a complicated relationship with. 

Here’s the thing: “Imagine” the song is rightly called naive by many people because it’s the ultimate celebrity plea for a cause. It demands nothing of the listener besides platitudes to tolerance and understanding and stuff. But it’s also a very revolutionary song for its time, beginning with the implication that you should imagine the absence of any high-powered deity. This just wasn’t done in 1971, and it’s not likely to be done now (and Cee-Lo Green infamously tried to alter that line when he performed the song live, which is the least of his sins). I think I’m not out of line for suggesting that I can agree with the sentiments of the song (especially the parts about there being no greed or hunger in the world) without necessarily thinking the song itself is a brilliant piece of songwriting (and yes, it’s basically the Communist Manifesto in song form, but that still doesn’t mean it’s on the level of Shakespeare for me). But if the song catches me on a good day, hell, I’ll admit that it’s a fine tune that many a songwriter would give their right and left arms to pen. Even a second-rate John Lennon tune is better than a lot of the stuff that’s come out since then. 

 

VIDEO: John Lennon “Imagine”

After Imagine, John Lennon would have about nine more years left, during which he experienced some extreme highs and dangerous lows. He would step away from recording in 1975, returning to the studio in 1980 and leaving us with Double Fantasy and some other recordings that eventually saw the light of day. There are good tunes from those years after Imagine came out, but I think it’s safe to say that the album marked a high-water mark for his creativity and talent.

John Lennon proved, with Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, that he was more than just an ex-Beatle. The sad thing is, he could’ve done more work on this level if he’d lived longer. 

 

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Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is a substitute teacher (the chill one) in South Carolina. He is more machine than man now, but you can still look him up @T_L_Seigler on Twitter.

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