The Story of... 'Imagine' by John Lennon
19 March 2020, 14:04 | Updated: 19 March 2020, 15:42
John Lennon's seminal 'Imagine' is one of the most celebrated pieces of music of all time.
Released in 1971 from the album of the same name, it cemented Lennon as a songwriting genius on his own right following the breakup of The Beatles the year before.
Nearly 50 years later, and it's still one of the most covered songs ever, and continues to be used as a symbol of the pursuit of world peace.
But what inspired the song and how was it made? Here's all the important facts:
What inspired 'Imagine' and what is its meaning?
Lennon was inspired by several poems from wife Yoko Ono's 1964 book Grapefruit.
One poem, which Capitol Records later reproduced on the back cover of the original Imagine album titled 'Cloud Piece', reads: "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in."
Lennon later explained that the song "should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of it – the lyric 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 her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit."
He had also been given by Dick Gregory a Christian prayer book, which also inspired the main concept of the song.
On June 14, 2017, the National Music Publishers' Association announced that Yoko Ono would finally be added as a songwriter for 'Imagine'.
This occurred at a ceremony where Ono was given the Centennial award for her contribution, which was followed by a Patti Smith cover of the song.
When did Lennon write 'Imagine'?
Lennon composed the song one morning in early 1971.
It was written on a Steinway piano, in a bedroom at his Tittenhurst Park home in Ascot.
Yoko Ono watched on as he composed the melody, chords and most of the lyrics, and nearly completed the whole song in one short writing session.
Where was 'Imagine' recorded?
Lennon and Ono co-produced the song with Phil Spector, who later said: "We knew what we were going to do. It was going to be John making a political statement, but a very commercial one as well.
"I always thought that 'Imagine' was like the national anthem."
Lennon later described working with Ono and Spector: "Phil doesn't arrange or anything like that—[Ono] and Phil will just sit in the other room and shout comments like, 'Why don't you try this sound' or 'You're not playing the piano too well'. I'll get the initial idea and we'll just find a sound from there."
The recording occurred on May 27, 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios, which was Lennon's new home studio at Tittenhurst Park.
Strings were then added on July 4, 1971, at the Record Plant, in New York City.
The final recording featured Lennon on piano and vocals, Klaus Voormann on bass guitar, Alan White on drums and the Flux Fiddlers on strings.
Where was the music video filmed?
The song's famous music video was part of an 81-minute film to accompany the Imagine.
It featured footage of the couple at their home and the recording studio of their Berkshire property at Tittenhurst Park, as well as shots taken in New York City.
The famous 'Imagine' segment of the film shows Lennon sitting at his white grand piano in an all-white room.
Ono walks around opening curtains that bring in light, making the room brighter as the song plays on. At the end, Ono sits next to Lennon at the piano, and they share a friendly look and a quick kiss.
Many celebrities of the time appeared in the film, including Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Jack Palance, Dick Cavett and George Harrison.
How did it perform in the charts?
In 1971, it reached number one in Canada and number three in the US. However, it wasn't released as a single in the UK until 1975, where it reached number six.
After Lennon's murder in 1980, the single re-entered the UK charts, and reached number one, where it stayed for four weeks in January 1981.
It was re-released as a single in the UK in 1988, peaking at number 45, and again in 1999, reaching number three.
To date, it has sold over 1,640,000 copies in the UK, making it Lennon's best-selling single as a solo artist.
George Michael owned the famous piano
In 2000, George Michael paid over $2 million for the piano that Lennon wrote 'Imagine' on.
He then returned it to the Beatles museum in Liverpool, and has since been "on tour" to various world locations promoting peace.
George said at the time: "Even though I now own the piano personally, I don’t see any good reason for not leaving it with the people of Liverpool. It’s something that should be looked at, marveled at. So it will be back in the museum there soon. But first I want to write something on it."
Who has covered it?
Here are just a handful of times it has been covered:
- Elton John performed the song regularly on his world tour in 1980.
- Queen performed a cover on December 9, 1980, the day after Lennon's murder, as a tribute to him during their Wembley Arena show in London.
- David Bowie performed it in 1983 in Hong Kong, on the third anniversary of Lennon's death.
- Stevie Wonder performed a version during the closing ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, as a tribute to the victims of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.
- In 2001, Neil Young performed a cover during the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes.
- Peter Gabriel performed the song during the 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
- Joan Baez on her 1972 album Come from the Shadows.
- Diana Ross on her 1973 album Touch Me in the Morning.
- Eva Cassidy on her 2002 album of the same name.
- A Perfect Circle on their 2004 album eMOTIVe.
- Dolly Parton on her 2005 covers album Those Were the Days.
- Lady Gaga performed the song at the 2015 European Games opening ceremony.
- In 2018, Yoko Ono released her own version of the song.