John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images
We’ve Thrown Everything We Could At John Lennon’s "Imagine." The Song Nonetheless Endures 50 Years Later.
How did this song manage to poke the world in the eye?
John Lennon’s "Imagine" is little else but a small handful of piano chords, a question mark of a hook, and some probing lyrics about unity. Despite its solemnity and quietude, the well-meaning hit swelled so monstrously that it became visible everywhere, like the moon. As a result, the world has subjected it to celebrity sing-alongs, freighted it with ulterior political agendas, and piped it into rental-car agencies and cereal aisles. It’s Communist, critics have claimed. Atheistic. Hypocritical, given Lennon's wealth. It even fueled the seething delusions of the former Beatle's eventual murderer.
But everything "Imagine" has been through can be power-washed off its hull in a few minutes. Take a listen to a stripped-down mix from its 2018 Ultimate Collection box. Before laying into the opening chords, Lennon pauses for a beat, takes a meaningful breath, and exhales sharply into the mic. It’s a sobering, intimate and human moment. "There was a sense of the meaningfulness of the songs," drummer Alan White told Billboard that year. "John would give us the lyrics beforehand to make sure we knew what they meant and what we were saying to the world."
On the 50th anniversary of "Imagine," this year, this version—"Take 10/Raw Studio Mix" in the tracklisting—is the most vivid available reminder of why this song matters. Without strings or effects, Lennon doesn’t sound like a messiah or global ambassador. He sounds alone, while the nakedness of the take reinforces that the contents of "Imagine" remain bulletproof.
In an era where horse dewormer is a tinderbox of discourse, Lennon’s messages can feel more out of reach than ever. But that hook keeps coaxing us, promising us we can return to that glowing center. This, too, applies to the rest of Imagine, which was released 50 years ago this month (Sept. 9, 1971). Who among us hasn’t found humor in mental anguish ("Crippled Inside"), apologized for being a bad partner ("Jealous Guy"), or felt generally, unspecifically unmoored ("How?")? Imagine is like a soothing, musical therapy session, and it could have been written and recorded this morning.
Chances are, if you’re under a certain age, you were born with "Imagine" pre-programmed in your brain like a factory ringtone. Even so, it’s experienced a weird resurgence lately in response to modern horrors. In March 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot led a well-meaning, socially distanced, celebrity-filed virtual sing-along of "Imagine," where everyone from Will Ferrell to Kristin Wiig to Sarah Silverman joined in via selfie camera from their posh quarantine caves.
This in particular inspired virulent responses; an op-ed in The New York Times called it "far from inspiring in a time of crisis," which was on the milder end of its criticisms. One not-at-all-unrepresentative YouTube commenter summed it up: "Celebrities: have personal attendants, chefs, grocery shoppers, chauffeurs, masseuses, financial advisors, nannies to raise their kids for them, maids, trainers, investors, etc. Also celebrities: Imagine no possessions."
The virtual, We Are The World-style spectacle was central to an excellent Billboard piece by Stereo Williams headlined "Imagine No More Pandering: Why John Lennon's Protest Perennial Became an Anthem For the Clueless." The story was also hung on 2020 comments from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio in response to George Floyd’s murder by police and subsequent demands to defund and abolish the police.
"I’m reminded of the song 'Imagine' by John Lennon," de Blasio mused. "I think everyone who hears that song in its fullness thinks about, 'What about a world where people got along differently? What about a world where we didn’t live with a lot of the restrictions that we live with now?' But we’re not there yet." This, Williams argued, showed "Imagine" was "the kind of simplified quasi-anthem that gets repurposed and reinterpreted depending on who’s talking."
Even in moments of turmoil and tragedy, when the world could have used a dose of "Imagine," the song has proved controversial. Following the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel put the kibosh on "Imagine" along with more than 100 other songs. This odd policy inspired the rock band Drive-By Truckers to write "Once They Banned Imagine," a meditation on the world-changing event through the lens of misguided censorship.
In a 2016 interview with Americana UK, the song's author, Mike Cooley, noted that the song wasn't exactly banned, despite the title. But still, "Can you think of a better song to hear at that time," he asked, "after a religious maniac had just committed those acts, than one that says 'Imagine no religion?'"
So, how has "Imagine" survived all this, and why does it remain so impactful? It could be the haiku-like simplicity of the song's lyrics; Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit was a direct influence, and she eventually secured a belated writing credit on the song. Pair this with the chord progression, which almost anyone could play after two piano lessons, and you’ve got a recipe for universality.
And as the Ultimate Collection demonstrates, "Imagine" is far less haughty and assuming as some make it to be. At the end of his Billboard piece, Williams wonders aloud if another Lennon song, like the obscure Mind Games polemic "Bring On The Lucie (Freeda People)," should take its place. But "Imagine" still miraculously stands tall, a still-burning lamplight for the potential of the human race.
For its 50th anniversary, ignore the noise and hear "Imagine" for what it is: Not a half-baked coffee-shop cover or questionable sing-along or press-conference canard, but one man’s expression, transmitted to you and the world.