When The Beatles broke up in 1969-70, John, Paul, George and Ringo began producing solo albums that seemed at first to ensure they would continue to create individually the fine music with which the "Fab Four" had dominated the Swinging Sixties. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the quality to drop off. In Lennon’s case he produced two excellent albums, "Plastic Ono Band" in 1970 and "Imagine" the following year, before his third effort, "Sometime in New York City" in 1972, heralded a run of largely nondescript work until his death, in 1980. "Imagine" remains critically acclaimed to this day, and is generously celebrated in this grand book.

In 1970-71, Lennon and his partner and artistic collaborator Yoko Ono conceived and recorded the album at their Georgian country home, Tittenhurst Park, in Berkshire, England, in their own Ascot Sound Studios they had installed in the 29-hectare grounds, and then shifted to the Record Plant in New York to finish off the album. Released on September 9, 1971, it soon topped charts worldwide. A single of "Imagine" was released in the US a month later but there was no "Imagine" single in the UK until 1975, and that was to promote a compilation album. Nobody recognised it much at the time, but the "Imagine" lyrics had been directly inspired by Ono’s 1964 poetry collection "Grapefruit, A Book of Instruction and Drawings". "Imagine", though, was credited solely to Lennon as composer.

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Recording at Tittenhurst Park

The song’s central lyrical structure consists of a series of wistful, utopian scenarios, after Lennon took note of such lines in "Grapefruit" as "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in." (Cloud Piece); "Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky" (Drinking Piece for Orchestra); "Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time." (Tunafish Sandwich Piece). And there was her typically enigmatic "Imagine your head filled with pencil leads / Imagine one of them broken."

The word "imagine", then, was instrumental in Ono’s 1960s conceptual artworks, which Lennon famously saw for the first time in London’s Indica Gallery in 1966, on the night he first met the Japanese artist, seven years his senior. In a 1980 BBC interview, quoted prominently in a double-page spread in the "imagine john yoko" book, Lennon acknowledged that debt and said Ono should have been co-credited on the album’s title track.

"A lot of it – the lyric and the concept – came from Yoko," Lennon said. "But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of ‘Grapefruit’, her book." In 2017, the credit was changed to Lennon-Ono by the National Music Publishers’ Association in the US. It was 46 years after the event but Ono, now in her mid-80s, finally received her due for her inspiration and influence.

When the song was composed, Lennon and Ono had been together for three years. She was being lambasted by some as the "dragon lady" who had broken up Lennon's marriage to his Liverpool girl Cynthia – and, in the process, the beloved Beatles. Yet, as the book from Thames & Hudson suggests, Ono was misrepresented and she and Lennon had inspired each other from that first meeting.

Lennon had gone to a preview of Ono’s show at the Indica and he wanted to contribute to a piece called Hammer a Nail in. But Ono was reluctant to let him, as she recalls in an archive interview in the book. "I said, ‘All right, if he pays five shillings, it’s okay,’ because I decided that my painting will never sell anyway."

Lennon had another idea: "I said, ‘Listen I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in, is that okay?’ And her whole trip is this: ‘Imagine this, imagine that.’"

Ono replied: "Imagine, imagine. So I was thinking, ‘Oh, here’s a guy who’s playing the same game I’m playing’. And I was really shocked you know, I thought, ‘Who is it?’"

She didn’t recognise Lennon, one of the most famous men on the planet. "I heard about The Beatles and I knew the name Ringo, and nobody’s going to believe me but still that’s exactly how it was. Ringo hit me because Ringo is ‘apple’ in Japanese. Yes, I knew The Beatles as a social phenomenon but rock ‘n’ roll had passed me by."

Ono offered Lennon a way back into art, which he had studied – when he felt like it – at Liverpool College of Art in the late 1950s before Beatlemania consumed his life. He said: "I always had this dream of meeting an artist woman I would fall in love with. Even from art school … It was like finding gold or something." Seeing her show unlocked something in him. "There was a sense of humour in her work, you know? It was funny. Her work really made me laugh, some of it. So that’s when I got interested in art again, just through her work. 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 to a lot of that song."

Ono recalls how they had to face a negative reaction as a couple, despite what appeared to be a radical, free-thinking culture in London. "They exuded new energy with a certain elegance of self-made people who would change the class structure in England, and would go on to change the world in a big way," she said.

"John and I got together in that atmosphere. So we were very surprised that the so-called hip society of the times, to which we both belonged, turned against us as soon as we announced our unity... their hipness ended at the point where John, their ringleader, chose an Oriental woman as his partner.

"We didn’t realise there was so much racism... I would not say it was easy but it was an education for us. A good experience. We always tried to deal with a lot of difficult situations, John and I, with a bit of a sense of humour and a sense of fun."

Ono recognised this was also a part of "Imagine". "John and I met – he comes from the West and I come from the East – and still we are together," she said in 1980. "We have this oneness and ‘the whole world would eventually become one’ is the sense that we will all be café-au-lait colour and we will all be very happy together."

The song, in a way, deals with imagining another world on the level of two people – as well as in a larger sense. "George Orwell and all these guys have projected very negative views of the future. And imagining a projection is a very strong magic power," said Ono. "I mean that. That’s the way society was created. And so, because they’re setting up all these negative images, that’s gonna create the society. So we were trying to create a more positive image, which is, of course, gonna set up another kind of society."

Lennon referenced humans’ desire to fly – "which might’ve taken us a long time, but it took somebody to imagine it first". He explained his reasoning. "People said, ‘You’re naive, you’re dumb, you’re stupid.’ It might have hurt us on a personal level to be called names, but what we were doing – you can call it magic, meditation, projection of goal – which business people do, they have courses on it. The footballers do it. They pray, they meditate before the game... People project their own future. So, what we wanted to do was to say, ‘Let’s imagine a nice future’."

Ono describes how they felt about "Imagine" at the time: "We both liked the song a lot but we honestly didn’t realise it would turn into the powerful song it has, all over the world... We just did it because we believed in the words and it just reflected how we were feeling."

According to Lennon, "My greatest pleasure is writing a song – words and lyrics – that will last longer than a couple of years. Songs that anybody could sing. Songs that will outlive me, probably. And that gives me my greatest pleasure. That’s where I get my kicks."

Lennon’s wish to write songs that would outlive him has been fulfilled, but not in the way he thought. Few readers will need reminding that it is a sad fact he was needlessly murdered outside his home in New York on December 8, 1980, age 40.


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