Listen to John Lennon’s beautiful and fragile original demo of ‘Imagine’

8 September 2021, 10:32

John Lennon - Imagine
John Lennon - Imagine. Picture: UMG

By Mayer Nissim

The former Beatle's classic album turns 50 and you can hear the original version of the title track here.

"If you can imagine a world of peace, if you can imagine a world with no denominations of religion – not without religion, whatever religion is – but without this divisive ‘My god is bigger than your god’ business.... Then, if you can imagine the possibility, then it can be true". – John Lennon

After the break-up of the Beatles, John Lennon poured his heart and soul into his first "proper" solo album, the personal, raw and stripped back John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

It established him as a solo star, but it wasn't really clear where he could go from there. The answer was to veer off in the other direction, giving co-producer Phil Spector more scope to push towards that big, lush sound he was known for.

The result was Imagine, which was released 50 years ago on September 9, 1971. The album went to number one in the UK and US, and is maybe still Lennon's best-known work outside the Beatles.

Gold's Hall of Fame: John Lennon

The album has been reissued a number of times, but the only version you need to buy is 2018's Imagine: The Ultimate Collection.

It's a whopping six-disc box set featuring new mixes, remasters, unreleased songs, outtakes, "evolution documentaries" and isolated tracks.

One of the absolute highlights on the box set is John Lennon's original demo version of the title track 'Imagine'.

QUIZ: How well do you know John Lennon's lyrics?

As the official John Lennon website says, this version was recorded four days before the master take on May 23, 1971.

"It’s a bit looser and covered in reverb, but it’s fully formed and beautifully raw with a little bluesy ending."

Fully formed is absolutely right. For all the smooth sparkle that Spector (and Lennon and Ono too) put on when recording, producing and mixing the final song, it's startling how "finished" the demo sounds, despite its fragility.

They began recording the song at Lennon's home studio in Tittenhurst Park in Berkshire, before doing the overdubs at the Record Plant in New York City a couple of months later in July.

Read more: Paul McCartney looks back on ‘hurtful’ John Lennon diss track from Imagine

Engineer Robin Stevens explained ahead of the release how this piece of music history was discovered.

"Early 2016, during the gestation period of this project, I'm in the Lennon archives with my people going through tape boxes that have labeling that's unclear, misleading, or missing entirely," he said.

"There's a one-inch eight-track that says nothing more on the 'Ascot Sound' label than John Lennon, the date, and the engineer [Phil McDonald], with DEMO on the spine. No indication of what material was on the tape.

"One delicate transfer to digital later, the 'Imagine' demo, subsequently enhanced superbly by Paul Hicks, appears within this comprehensive set. It was true serendipity."

John Lennon was given sole songwriting credit for 'Imagine', but before his death he revealed that his wife Yoko Ono wrote a lot of the lyrics, and she has formally been added as a co-writer.

"'Imagine' could never have been written without her," John said: "And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it.

"So that song was actually written by John & Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the 'Imagine' video
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the 'Imagine' video. Picture: UMG

"The song itself expresses what I’d learned through being with Yoko and my own feelings on it. It should really have said ‘Lennon/Ono’ on that song, because she contributed a lot of that song."

'Imagine' was only released as a single in the US at first, going to number three. It got a belated UK release in 1975 to promote the Shaved Fish compilation, going to number six.

It eventually got to number one in 1980 after Lennon was murdered, and has sold well over 1.6 million copies in the UK alone.

Read more: The story of how Petula Clark ended up singing on John Lennon's 'Give Peace a Chance' by mistake

“John and I were both artists and we were living together, so we inspired each other," said Yoko of the song.

"The song ‘Imagine’ embodied what we believed together at the time. John and I met – he comes from the West and I come from the East – and still we are together."

She continued: "We have this oneness and ‘the whole world would eventually become one’ is the sense that we will all be very happy together.

"All these instructions are for people for how to spend eternity, because we have lots of time.”

QUIZ: How much do you know about John Lennon?

Countless artists have covered the song, with everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Diana Ross to – less impressively – Gal Gadot and all those other celebrities marking the start of the first lockdown.

'Imagine' came second in Gold's 2021 Hall of Fame Top 300, just missing out on the top spot to Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

To celebrate #IMAGINE50, Yoko Ono Lennon, Sean Ono Lennon, Mercury Studios, Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, The Coda Collection, AXS, WDR/ARD, Hard Rock, Sage Gateshead, Music Venue Trust and Universal Music Group have invited everyone to join a Global Party with a free screenings of the 1972 Imagine film.