Many great composers, like many great actors and many great painters, have a signature work. And so it is with the Beatles. Although, strangely, two of the three prolific Beatle composers have as their "signature" song a non-Beatles tune. Paul McCartney, of course, achieved his greatest heights as a composer with his 1965 Beatles classic "Yesterday." Not so with George Harrison, who penned "My Sweet Lord" in 1969, right after leaving the band. Likewise, John Lennon wrote his most famous and beloved song two years after the Beatles split up, in 1971.
"Imagine," besides the above, is also, unlike Paul's and George's songs, hotly debated as to its true meaning. To its millions of fans, "Imagine" is a lovely anthem of peace, freedom, harmony, and a oneness of all mankind. To its many detractors, it is communistic, socialistic, anti-religion, and anti-American.
Interestingly, John Lennon, a huge egomaniac, was to admit taking full credit for the song when, in truth, his wife Yoko Ono was its co-composer. According to John, "The lyric, the concept, came from Yoko. But in those days I was more selfish, more macho, and omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of her Grapefruit book -there's a whole pile of pieces about imagine this and imagine that." Lennon was referring to Ono's 1964 book of poetry, and more specifically, a poem within called "Cloud Piece." "Cloud Piece" contains phrases like "Imagine the sky crying" and "Imagine you're a cloud." Lennon, in fact, had the lyrics of "Cloud Piece" printed on the back of the Imagine album upon its release.
"Imagine" was originally released as a single in America on October 11, 1971, peaking at #3 on the charts. It came out in the U.K. four years later, on October 25, 1975, topping out at the #6 spot on the British charts. It hit #1 in Canada and was to be Lennon's only #1 song in Australia.
Like so many great Beatles songs, ardent fans will often argue over the true meaning of "Imagine." Always the most political of the Beatles, Lennon once confessed to being "an instinctive socialist." He also once stated that "Imagine" was "virtually a communist manifesto, even though I'm not a communist and do not belong to any movement."
The song was written during John's most overtly political period (the late 60s-early 70s). He seemed to almost backtrack from any communist or political idea in his later years regarding "Imagine." The overt "communist manifesto" line was never repeated in any later Lennon interview, and indeed, after this early period, any political claims attached to the song can scarcely be found. In one of his last interviews, he simply stated that "Imagine" was "as good as anything I'd written with the Beatles." According to Yoko, the song was "just what John believed -that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out."
John and Yoko also made a promotional film to accompany the song. In the beginning of the film, John and Yoko are seen walking together in cowboy and Indian garb, respectively. It is thought that this was to show the song's peaceful coexistence theme. (Note: the "cowboy and Indian" angle is a fascinating one, albeit possibly completely coincidental. In watching the video, yes, John and Yoko look uncannily like cowboy and Indian from the back, but they also just look like John and Yoko taking a stroll, with John wearing a big hat. Judge for yourself.)
The two are then seen walking in the garden of their home. Then upon reaching the front door, they disappear, reappearing with John singing the song seated at his white grand piano. As he sings, Yoko opens the shutters in the room, letting the sunlight come in. This obviously symbolizes letting in the light of truth, peace, enlightenment, et al.
Yoko, who owns the rights to all John's post-Beatle songs, says the single request she gets most often is from musicians who want to record their own version of "Imagine." However, they request permission to omit the line "And no religion, too." Yoko says she never allows this liberty, choosing to keep the song in its original state.
"True" or "hidden" meanings aside, the song seems to strike some universal familiar chord with people around the world. Ex-president Jimmy Carter says, "In many countries around the world …you hear John Lennon's song "Imagine" almost equally with national anthems."
"Imagine" is, along with "Instant Karma" and "Give Peace a Chance," one of three Lennon solo songs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that "shaped rock and roll." Rolling Stone ranked "Imagine" #3 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. After the tragic death of John Lennon, "Imagine" was re-released in England and hit number one on the charts for four weeks straight. It replaced John's 1980 song "Woman" at the top spot. In a strange (and sad) coincidence, this was the first time an artist replaced himself as number one on the British charts since 1963, when The Beatles achieved the rare feat with "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
(Image credit: Flickr user somethingstartedcrazy)