Yoko Ono reflects on tracks from Imagine, the classic 1971 album she helped make with her husband, John Lennon

By Jordan Runtagh
October 16, 2018 10:00 AM
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John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Photo by Iain Macmillan © Yoko Ono

Each year around Oct. 9, millions across the globe come together to honor the life and legacy of John Lennon on what would be his birthday. But this year fans had another reason to celebrate: the late legend’s solo masterwork Imagine received a lush multimedia reissue, providing unparalleled insight into one of Lennon’s greatest artistic achievements and, ultimately, his musical epitaph.

The album topped the charts worldwide upon its initial release in September 1971, giving the former Beatle his first number one under his own name. His solo debut, the previous year’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Bandwas a searing confessional, recorded in the wake of an excruciating bout of experimental Primal Scream therapy. Though possessing a raw beauty, Lennon’s self-lacerating lyrics, probing the darkest part of his psyche, made it ill-suited for the contemporary hit parade.

Imagine, with its delicately wrought title track, was aimed squarely at the charts. Just as he and Yoko Ono — his partner in life, love and art — parlayed their fame to promote peace through the medium of celebrity-driven mass media, Lennon drew upon his unparalleled gift for melody and Ono’s singular gift for poetry to craft a utopian anthem for the Top 40. “Now I understand what you have to do: put your political message across with a little honey,” he later said.

Sessions for the album primarily took place in May 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios, a custom-built facility installed at Tittenhurt Park, the couple’s sprawling country estate outside London. This pioneering exercise in home studio recording went a long way in contributing to the gentle feel of the album. With Phil Spector — the infamous architect behind the so-called “Wall of Sound” — co-producing with Lennon and Ono, guest musicians were called in as needed, on a casual rotating basis.

More of often than not, the players were old friends. Klaus Voormann, a confidant of the Beatles’ since their days playing Hamburg’s Reeperbahn circuit a decade earlier, was enlisted to handle bass duties, while London session player Nicky Hopkins commanded the keys. George Harrison turned up to play lead on half the tracks, including the Paul McCartney-bashing “How Do You Sleep,” and members of Badfinger — then signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records label — also put in an appearance, as did Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues. When they weren’t busy recording, the gang could often be found hanging out in the mansion’s homey kitchen located just off the studio. “It was really like home-cooking, that’s how Imagine was made,” Ono later reflected. 

Imagine: The Ultimate Collection box set.
Geffen/UMe

Consisting of four CDs, 2 Blu-Ray discs and a detailed book, Imagine: The Ultimate Collection offers rare demos, outtakes, and loose jams from the sessions, plus remixes of the original album skillfully handled by engineers Paul Hicks and Rob Stevens. The most unique element of the collection are engineer Sam Gannon’s innovative “Evolution” montages of each track, which edit together the earliest acoustic sketches and rehearsals through studio false starts and dead ends, all the way to the finished product. The result is a thrilling musical tour from conception to completion, allowing listeners to hear the song take shape through every step of the way.

Released on the heels of the box set is a hard-cover coffee table book, featuring intimate, never-before-seen photos curated by Ono herself, and reminiscences from nearly everyone involved with the record’s production. And if that’s not enough to satisfy your curiosity about this creatively fertile period (a “small hurricane” as Lennon once described it), a pair of documentaries — Imagine and Gimme Some Truth — have been issued on DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment. The former, produced and directed by Lennon and Ono in their inimitable way, serves as the album’s visual companion piece, while Gimme Some Truth is a video diary that chronicles the genesis of the album through seldom seen footage.

The stunning assortment brings fans as close as humanly possible to those spring days inside Ascot Sound Studios when rock history was made. To be sure, PEOPLE spoke someone who actually was there — and played a seminal role in the creation of Imagine. In addition to co-producing the album, Yoko Ono co-wrote “Oh My Love” and also the title track. She graciously went track by track through Imagine, answering questions via email.

“Imagine”

The seeds of the lyrics for “Imagine” are taken from “Cloud Piece” in your book Grapefruit — what is it about the act of “imagining” that’s so powerful?

Because now we are like people in jail, we have to use our power in a stronger way.

“Crippled Inside”

What are some of the best ways that we can heal and not be so crippled emotionally?

Once we decide that we can heal ourselves, not leaning on anybody else, and focus our attention on that, we will come out healed.

“Jealous Guy”

Was it hard for two strong artists to co-exist in the same (psychic and literal) space? How do you ensure there’s enough energy for your relationship, but also for yourself and your work?

We had to be extremely wise and knowing that we are both very strong people. We also decided that we should not use our energy to fight with each other.

“It’s So Hard”

I always had the impression that “It’s So Hard” is the inverse of “Imagine” — all the day-to-day troubles that get in the way of our peace of mind. How do you manage with daily stresses and keep a clear head and peaceful soul?

I just found a way to do it.

“I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier”

For so long, “manhood” has been linked with the capacity to kill. How do you feel we can move past this brand of toxic masculinity?

We have to really understand what men can do to make the world beautiful. The big mistake we make is to make men be what they don’t want to be. And vice versa.

“Gimme Some Truth”

In the eyes of many fans, John experienced a “political awakening” in the early ‘70s. How much of that do you feel was your influence?

I think I’d like you to imagine how much of it was me.

“Oh My Love”

In the past, you’ve named “Oh My Love” as one of your favorite songs of John’s. What is it about it that’s so special to you?

The reason is very clear, isn’t it?

“How Do You Sleep?”

What did you think about “How Do You Sleep?” at the time? Did you have any reservations about it?

No, because it’s a beautiful song.

“How?”

As one of the billions who love him, I always found this line particular affecting: “How can I give love when love is something I never had?” Why do you feel that so many people have such a hard time accepting love?

It was what John experienced too as a young boy. People are scared that the love offered to them may not be true.

“Oh Yoko!”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, circa 1971.
Photo by Spud Murphy © Yoko Ono

You’ve said that the two of you shared an almost psychic connection. In what ways did you think alike?

When we were creating a song we quite often realized that we were thinking the same thing.

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