When Lennon’s Sixties peers were jettisoning the utopian dream for soulless megastardom the ex-Beatle took a different path. His second album documents an artist still bleeding with idealism and naked human emotion. He was spilling it from the sides.
If the record's story or John’s itself, Beatles or no, can be told with a single song it’s ‘Imagine’. Here Lennon’s idealism transcends time (even if it's only by virtue of the impossibility of his desire). Lennon went further than stating the Fab Four were bigger than Jesus to suggest we all were. Absolute in their conviction these lyrics don’t talk, they broadcast. When Lennon feels it you feel it too.
Yet no sooner does he slip from the harmonious to the profane. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ chastises Paul. Still bitter from the Beatles fallout Paul initiated, Lennon pours his bile into a single song. And it’s raw.
Paul reacted as he always did. With a straight face. Ever the diplomat, he assured the world he didn’t care. McCartney wore masks.
But for all this track's difficult brilliance ‘Sleep’ seems like an afterthought to ‘Jealous Guy’. Having kicked around as a song fragments since the Beatles were in India it’s here on Imagine that John realises his long-gestating vision. ‘Jealous Guy’ is remarkable to have made it this far given the artist’s legendarily short attention span but evidently, there was something there.
John fires off. He was fed creatively not just by the depth of his own material but a tight-knit studio band which included George Harrison. He was also buoyed by (unattributed) creative partner Yoko Ono. She's always here beside him, ever his eternal muse.
John excelled when he had others with him, perfecting his ideas. First, it was Paul and later Yoko. But Phil Spectre fits into this equation too with discomforting ease. For decades Spectre menaced women and eventually lost his mind but what is Imagine without the sugar coating of The Spectre Sound? What is ‘Imagine’ itself but hollow sans the light touch of Spectre’s strings?
It raises a difficult question about separating artist from the art. And it’s clear by the re-release's surrounding press many involved are eager to write Spectre out of the story. But while he may have mauled Let It Be and muddied John’s chances with Rock 'N’ Roll this partnering produced some of the artist's finest work.
Lennon’s raw studio takes illuminate how much Spectre glosses over the rougher edges. But that’s not to say the extensive collection of outtakes and studio cuttings present aren’t without their charm. It’s especially interesting to listen to some more Beatladelic jamming which didn’t make the final cut.
But then consider songs like ‘Oh My Love’. This is John and John alone. Any kind of embellishment seems barely there.
It’s Lennon’s moment and it’s one of clarity. It’s not far from ‘Julia’ was for The White Album but instead of mourning the love he lost it’s cherishing the one he’s found. Even if John kept losing himself time and time again from here until his end of days. His vocals are something timeless.
This was where he woke up. The Lennon of Imagine didn’t see the ‘60s as a failure. In his own words:
“I am not in the group of people who think that because all of our dreams didn't come true in the ‘60s everything we said or did was invalid. No, there isn't any peace in the world despite our efforts, but I still believe the hippie peace-and-love thing was worthwhile. If somebody stands up and smiles and then gets smacked in the face, that smack doesn't invalidate the smile. It existed.”
‘Oh Yoko’ follows, a closing embrace. Lennon is almost drivelling in his tortured dependence. But this was his honest truth. This was how they were. Whether the world accepted their partnering or not Yoko set him on a path to salvation. And for all the bitterness, patchy idealism and haphazard dreaming – is it interesting at all that the record starts with ‘Imagine’ but ends here? – Lennon’s belief in love was unequivocal.
Singles ‘Power To The People’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ are in here too. Just for the kick of it really. Two of Lennon’s greatest statement singles, they’re enjoyable just insofar as they remind you that they exist.
Lennon was no saint. But that was part of his greatness. Brazen as it was his personality never overshadowed his art. When it came to the music itself his naked thoughts spilled out in ways not always comforting but unquestionably honest. Personal or collective he sang visionary truths. Rarely is such self-expression matched.
Whether this 'Ultimate Edition' is necessary past commemorating Lennon’s achievements and legacy is questionable. But what’s beyond reproach is the artist himself. The best of Lennon’s personality remains etched into our culture, colouring the hearts and minds of all of those his music has ever touched.
Words by Riley Fitzgerald
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