Post-Beatles album number two finds John hitting his stride as a solo artist. I love his first record, the minimalist John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; there’s a certain charm to it, but it’s by no means a record for the Beatle-loving masses. Here we find him producing a piece of work as commercial – but still as artistically valid – as anything released by the Beatles from 1965 onwards.
The only sour note on the record is How Do You Sleep?, a nasty attack on McCartney in retaliation for comments he had made in public about John and Yoko. I’ve never heard these comments, nor have I ever deciphered McCartney’s lyrics on Ram, which are supposed to be just as negative.
Still, if you’re going to have a go at somebody, at least be subtle about it. Lennon’s lyrics on How Do You Sleep? just make him out to sound nasty and childish. He even precedes the song by a short blast of an orchestra tuning up, the same idea thought up and used by McCartney on the intro to the title song on Sgt. Pepper’s.
One of the points stressed by Mark Lewisohn in his fantastic Beatles biography, Tune In: The Beatles – All These Years, Vol 1, was that Lennon could be so brutal and nasty in the way he would ridicule others. Usually, it would be people outside his circle of friends who would feel the brunt of his antagonism, but from time to time those close to him would get a earful too. How Do You Sleep? finds him completely unrestrained, doing everything except actually mentioning McCartney by name. The lyrics are so thinly veiled that he might as well have called the song ‘Paul Is A Douchebag’. In fact, a more Beatle-y insult might have been to name it ‘The Wally Was Paul’.
Always the most honest Beatle, Imagine finds John admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers on songs such as How? and Crippled Inside. It’s refreshing to hear such uncertainty from a ‘rock star’, and it’s almost the exact opposite of what you would hear from a global superstar in the twenty first century. It’s hard to imagine somebody as egotistical as Kanye West writing a song like How? Kanye knows everything of course, yet it’s strange how he couldn’t stop that knowledge from preventing his descent into bankruptcy.
One of my favourite moments on Imagine, the closing track Oh Yoko!, was included on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece Rushmore. It’s a lovely song, and used to great effect in the film when Max and Herman decide to join forces to win Rosemary’s affections. A song like that shouldn’t work in a film; it’s a love song written for somebody in particular – Yoko Ono, of course – and she’s name-checked repeatedly in the song. It should only really make sense if the love interest in the film is named Yoko. I’m not sure if the lovely Olivia Williams could pass for Japanese though.
Imagine represents an artistic peak for Lennon. His later albums would find him trying to repeat the success of this record, not least on its (official) follow-up, Mind Games, in 1973. Imagine is a fantastic record, and one of the reasons he never managed to match it is that it’s so bloody good – the curse of perfection.
Hidden Gem: Oh Yoko!