The literary deep dive into a record album, exploring everything from its making to its meaning and influence, has become a common format over the last 15 years, and as the 40th and 50th anniversaries of some of rock and roll’s signal achievements come around, specialist ruminations have become increasingly plentiful. The 50th anniversary of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is three years away, but Yoko Ono decided to celebrate early with “Imagine John Yoko,” a lavishly illustrated, intensely detailed study of the album, the related film (also called “Imagine”) and other adventures of the Lennons in late 1971.
Actually, “Imagine John Yoko” is part of a larger “Imagine” blitz that includes the simultaneous release of “Imagine: The Ultimate Collection” (Universal), a six-disc set, with remixes and outtakes, and a Blu-ray with both the “Imagine” film and “Gimme Some Truth,” a documentary made from outtake footage from the original production (Eagle Rock).
The book stands alone nicely, but it turns out also to be a key to fully understanding these other releases – a Rosetta stone that gives names and backstories to previously unknown people who appear in the films and explains previously obscure comments Lennon is heard making during the sessions.
Just about everyone who worked on the album and its accompanying film is represented by a page or two (plus photos). The musicians have their say, as do the technical crews and the Lennons’ small army of assistants. Functionaries at the New York offices of Apple, the Beatles’ label, are debriefed as well. Most of those still alive were interviewed for the book over the last two years; for those no longer among us, including Lennon and George Harrison, archival interviews were mined.
Getting Lennon’s thoughts on the album from these sources was easy, given his penchant for giving detailed, voluminous interviews during his lifetime. He commented on virtually every song on “Imagine” and addressed issues some listeners still have with the utopian title track.
By “Imagine no religion,” for example, Lennon said he was advocating the freedom to believe (or not) in any or all religions – a summary of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, in effect. The line may have been reductive, but “Imagine no sectarian divisions” doesn’t sing quite as easily. Lennon’s exhortation to imagine a world with no countries is argued similarly, and “Imagine no possessions,” which always seemed odd coming from someone who owned a great many of them, is explained as addressing what Lennon saw as deep-seated insecurity that drove him to be so acquisitive.
Not everything is tied up neatly. The musicians occasionally give contradictory accounts of who played what or how an effect was created. Mostly, though, the stories mesh, and often, one participant’s comments are later illuminated by another’s.
“John worked fast,” the drummer Alan White says, in one such instance. “He knew when something was right, and was definite about his ideas.” Others explained Lennon’s speed as a function of his well-known impatience, but Phil McDonald, one of the sound engineers, offered a more practical perspective.
“John was at his best running through a song two or three times,” he said. “After that he would tend to wane, so if you didn’t get the song on take two or three, then goodbye.”
The book is not strictly limited to the “Imagine” project. It revisits the Lennons’ origin legend – their meeting at the Indica Gallery, in London, where Lennon was given a preview of an art exhibition by Ono. It also offers a thorough overview of Tittenhurst Park, the Lennons’ 70-acre estate in Sunningdale, England, with maps of the grounds showing the type and location of every tree (not to mention the artificial lake and island the Lennons added), and floor plans detailing the locations of Ono’s artworks and Lennon’s Wurlitzer jukebox, as well as the layout of Ascot Sound Studios, Tittenhurst’s eight-track recording facility.
Lennon’s handwritten lyrics, with cross-outs and additions, annotated tape boxes and a few illuminating pieces of correspondence (including a cutting letter to the McCartneys) are among the illustrations as well, as are the typed lyric sheets he gave the musicians at the sessions, insisting that they read and understand them before recording them. As a source book – part coffee table volume, part oral history – a Lennon fan could hardly ask for more.
But more crucially, “Imagine John Yoko” has a message to drive home. As several of the participants say, often almost in passing, “Imagine” was an argument for peace that is as necessary to embrace now as it was in 1971.
“‘Imagine’ is a complete philosophy lesson in one record,” is how guitarist Rod Lynton put it. “It is such a unifying call to common sense.”
Allan Kozinn is a freelance critic who specializes in music and musicians.
By John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Grand Central Publishing. 320 pp. $50.