It’s a bit too easy to criticise John Lennon for singing “Imagine no possessions”, seated at his expensive piano in a house which he had recently purchased for £145 000 (about £1.5 million today). We have to remember that the song is called “Imagine” and asks us all to work together for a better future. He is encouraging us to have big dreams like he does and he’s not the only dreamer, you know. At the time, Rolling Stone described the song as “22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself”. Yoko Ono said that the song is “just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people”. To state the obvious, John Lennon was a complex character. The man who poked fun at disabled people, the man who nearly killed Liverpool DJ Bob Wooler for suggesting that John Lennon had had a homosexual experience with Brian Epstein was the same man who refused to play gigs to segregated audiences in Florida, the man who was actually pretty relaxed about Brian Epstein’s sexuality. This is the man who in the course of history has done more to promote peace than practically anyone else. Gandhi? Nelson Mandela? I’m not saying that he achieved more than anyone else but his activities for peace were publicised the world over. Even now, “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is still being played on the radio every year. So John Lennon was rich and self indulgent. so what? To anyone that criticises these lyrics, I would ask – would you prefer he had given all his money away and become a grave digger like Peter Green? Sending every world leader an acorn to promote peace is a good idea. Using his celebrity status to make a big publicity event turns it into a brilliant and inspired idea. That activity is still remembered 50 years later. Other words on the song are “Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too”. The lyrics are idealistic, sure, but where would we be without idealism? Should we give in to the greed, bullying and the self serving nature of selfish narcissists simply because we are too cool to be idealistic. I vote “No”.
“John Lennon Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine” are very similar, lyrically. Both are confessional and give as much insight into an artist as anyone could possibly wish for. The difference between the albums is the musical context in which they are presented. John Lennon stated that “Imagine is “Working Class Hero” with sugar on”. The former is raw and the latter is sweet. “Imagine” probably has better melodies and the orchestration makes the naked truth behind the songs more palatable. Which is better? I don’t know and I don’t really care to come to a conclusion. Both of them are the high water marks of all The Beatles’ solo work. I know that “All Things Must Pass” and “Band On The Run” are brilliant albums but for someone who likes to dig deep, I love the truthful unadorned honesty of both of these albums. All I want is some truth.
“How Do You Sleep” is normally criticised as being an immature and nasty dig at Paul McCartney. I love it, not because I think that the only thing his (former?) friend wrote was “Yesterday” but because I think it’s witty, funny but with a kernel of truth in it. Musically it’s stunning, lyrically it’s amusing although Paul McCartney most likely was hurt by it. John Lennon was always holding out the olive branch during the difficult times when The Beatles were being dissolved and Paul McCartney was suing his former colleagues. In one of the open letters to Paul McCartney that John Lennon sent to Melody Maker, he signed off by quoting a James Taylor song that was ubiquitous at the time. He wrote “all you gotta do is call” which is from the song “You’ve Got A Friend” – from a distance of nearly 50 years it is lovely to hear that John Lennon still considered Paul McCartney to be a friend.
“Jealous Guy” was first written in Rishikesh and was called “Child Of Nature”. A version of this was included on “The Beatles” deluxe version issued in 2018. It’s a great example of a self confessional song in the spirit of “Plastic Ono Band”. The inspiration for “Child Of Nature” came after The Beatles had attended a lecture by The Maharishi called “son Of The Mother Nature” which also inspired Paul McCartney to write “Mother Nature’s Son”.
“Gimme Some Truth” is almost a “mission statement” by this genius. The man was always truthful and spoke from the heart. He said things that he later regretted but there was never any attempt at subterfuge. For example, at the time that he rubbished George Martin’s contributions to the sound of The Beatles recordings, he was trying to shrug off the legacy of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “A Day In The Life” etc. At the time he meant it but he was entitled to change his mind. We all are. There is no real bettering of the lines “No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of Tricky Dicky is going to mother hubbard soft soap me with just a pocketful of hope“. “Yellow-bellied”, “Mother Hubbard”, “Soft Soap”. How clever is that to incorporate those phrases into one impassioned plea for truth?
The best song on the album, for me, is “How”. The impassioned and confident pleas on “Gimme Some Truth” are replaced by internal doubts about absolutely everything. His feelings have always been denied, he’s never been loved, he doesn’t know where he’s going, he’s absolutely not sure what to do or how he fits in. Songs like “Mother” and “God” on “Plastic Ono Band” laid his soul bare but this strips everything away so that we can truly see the vulnerable scared man beneath the hard exterior.
The early Seventies saw the release of a lot of albums by “singer songwriters” such as James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell who all sang about their hopes, fears and loves. Nobody did this better than John Lennon.