Imagine: John Lennon; David Bowie; Neil Young

Hello there! Our song this week is Imagine. It is hard for me to ‘imagine’ a more powerful or moving tune. We will review the original by John Lennon. We will then discuss a cover version by David Bowie, and a second cover by Neil Young.

John Lennon, Imagine:

John Lennon first gained fame as the organizer and intellectual leader of the Beatles, the world’s greatest pop group. Below is a photo of John Lennon appearing at a concert in 1964.

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From 1963 to 1969, the Beatles produced one epic record after another, and took the world on a breathtaking musical journey. However, for a number of reasons the Beatles disbanded in fall 1969.

One of many reasons for the Beatles’ breakup was John Lennon’s involvement with Yoko Ono. After Lennon met and fell in love with Yoko, the couple spent virtually all of their time together, including at Beatles recording sessions. Here is a photo of John Lennon at a press conference at Heathrow Airport in March 1969, as he returns from his wedding to Yoko Ono.

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Lennon claimed that an inspiration for Imagine came from some poems written by Yoko Ono. In particular, her 1964 book Grapefruit contained the lines “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”

Lennon was also inspired by a book of Christian prayer given to him by comedian Dick Gregory. Apparently this caused Lennon to envision a world where positive religious messages could be absorbed, but without the divisive aspects of organized religion.

The song Imagine represents the perfect combination of John Lennon’s songwriting ability with his political activism. It urges the listener to contemplate a world in which the divisions of nationality and religion have given way to a peaceful society, a form of utopian Socialism where we renounce our attachment to material possessions.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… You…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

One morning in 1971, Lennon sat down at the Steinway piano in his British estate Tittenhurst Park, and composed the words and music to Imagine.

Lennon and Phil Spector then collaborated on the production. Lennon created a complete album with Imagine as its centerpiece. Phil Spector claims that he and John immediately perceived the impact of this song, and that Spector treated the production of Imagine “like the national anthem.”

The album was produced in May 1971 at Ascot Sound Studios, Lennon’s home studio at Tittenhurst Park, and finished at The Record Plant in New York City.

Here is John Lennon performing Imagine live. This took place at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1971, and was apparently Lennon’s first live performance of Imagine.

With Yoko Ono at his side, Lennon makes a few comments before launching into an acoustic version of Imagine. The musicians on stage apparently had not practiced the song, as they spend much of their time watching Lennon to follow the chord changes.

However, the song is so simple and the lyrics are sufficiently powerful that even this stark, stripped-down version is quite moving.

Imagine was not only John Lennon’s biggest-selling record as a solo artist, it has become his signature song and a world-wide expression of utopian aspirations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made this comment regarding the universal impact of Imagine:
“in many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”

Imagine has appeared at several other events that would bolster its claim to being a “world anthem.” Peter Gabriel performed the song at the opening ceremonies for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Imagine was also performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In 1996, Stevie Wonder performed Imagine at the closing ceremonies for the Olympic Games, as a tribute to the victims of the Centennial Olympic Park bombings. And Madonna performed the song at the Tsunami Aid benefit concert.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Imagine #3 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2005, listeners of the Canadian Broadcasting Association voted it the greatest song of the past century. And since 2005, Imagine has been played just before the ball drops in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Here is the music video for Imagine. This features excerpts from an 81-minute film that Lennon and Oko produced to accompany the Imagine album.

In this brief video, John and Yoko walk through dense fog to their estate at Tittenhurst Park. John then sits down at a white grand piano, in an all-white room in near-darkness. While John sings Imagine, Yoko walks around the room, opening windows to progressively illuminate the room.

The production values are both simple and stunningly impressive. The song begins with a few chords on piano, at a slow, stately pace. Lennon begins the  vocals, accompanying himself on piano. At the end of the first verse, Klaus Voorman and Alan White enter on bass and drums, respectively. Eventually we get strings from the group Flux Fiddlers.

I find Imagine one of the most powerful and inspirational songs ever. I am frequently moved to tears by the tune, especially when it is played at a particularly impactful moment. I remember that just after John Lennon was assassinated in December 1980, one New York radio station played Imagine continuously for several hours.

Just one negative note. It is not unusual for a performer to alter the lyrics to a song, either for dramatic effect or to highlight some aspect of the tune. However, when CeeLo Green produced his cover of Imagine in 2011, he changed Lennon’s line “and no religion, too” to “and all religions true.”

Green defended his version by claiming that Lennon’s song represented “a world [where you] could believe what [you] wanted.” However, I am with Green’s critics on this one, since this alteration completely contradicts the meaning of Lennon’s lyrics.

I hope that you find Imagine as powerful and moving as I do. What a beautiful, haunting tune. And given John Lennon’s unspeakable murder in 1980, the song gains even more resonance.

These are difficult, troubled times.  When I am thoroughly depressed from watching the daily news, I can hum to myself “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”  It helps to cheer me up.

David Bowie, Imagine:

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and he took the stage name David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ singer Davy Jones.

David Bowie burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).

In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes, such as is shown in the photo below from a 1973 tour. Well, you would see this if the photo weren’t in black and white; as it is, you will just have to “imagine” the vivid colors.

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Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band The Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was positively mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following as a result.

However, in 1974 Bowie drastically changed direction. He moved to the U.S., ditched Ziggy, and changed his musical style to something he called “plastic soul.” In 1976, Bowie trotted out a new persona, the Thin White Duke, named after the title track of his new album, once again signifying a new musical direction.

Bowie’s career contained many abrupt changes in style. In nearly every case, he emerged as a leader in a new musical direction. Bowie often changed band members and producers at the same time. A restless, probing artist, he was constantly pushing the envelope in the areas of musical genres, performing style, and fashion.

Shortly we will show a video clip of David Bowie performing Imagine. This occurred during the final show of Bowie’s 1983 tour called “Serious Moonlight.”  As it happened, the final show of that tour took place in Hong Kong on Dec. 8. This was the third anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

David Bowie and his guitarist Earl Slick discussed the possibility that they might play the Beatles’ tune Across The Universe as a tribute to John Lennon. Lennon had written that tune, and Bowie had recorded a cover of it on his 1975 Young Americans album.

However, Bowie reportedly said, “Well, if we’re going to do [something for John], we might as well do Imagine.” So they performed that tune in Hong Kong, as shown here.

The clip begins with a few comments by Bowie about John Lennon. David Bowie then introduces the song by saying “On this day, Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment.”

Bowie then segues into Imagine. I find it very moving. The song has an interesting background with horns and backup singers, and is highlighted by Bowie’s exceptionally versatile voice.

At the end, Bowie repeats the song’s final phrase, “and the world will live as one,” over and over. At first the phrase gets progressively louder, but then becomes softer and softer until the song, and Bowie’s concert, ends.

This is a loving tribute to David Bowie’s close friend John Lennon. In 1975 Bowie and Lennon were both in New York, and in the recording studio the two had collaborated on writing Bowie’s song Fame, which became the first #1 hit for Bowie.

Just a bit more about David Bowie’s life and career. We had previously mentioned how Bowie would create alternate personas at various points in his career. These characters became deeply ingrained in his behavior, to the extent that it became difficult for him to separate his own personality from that of his alter ego.

This psychological problem was exacerbated by his deep issues with drug addiction, particularly to cocaine. A net result was that Bowie suffered from paranoia and psychosis, before he was able to become sober in the 1980s.

Bowie’s struggle to overcome drug addiction had an impact on his Serious Moonlight tour. This 1983 tour was originally scheduled to take place in medium-sized venues holding up to 10,000 people. However, shortly before the tour, Bowie’s Let’s Dance album became a smash international hit.

As a result, the Serious Moonlight tour was upgraded to a stadium tour, with much larger venues. This turned into the most successful tour of David Bowie’s career. Over the course of 7 months, Bowie gave 96 performances, sold 2.6 million tickets, and sold out every venue.

Bowie had contracted with blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn as his lead guitarist for the tour, as Vaughn had contributed guitar solos to several songs on the Let’s Dance album. However, reportedly Vaughn showed up for rehearsals with
a cocaine habit, a hard-partying wife and an entourage looking for easy access to drugs.

Bowie feared that the presence of Vaughn would likely jeopardize his recent sobriety. Eventually Vaughn was replaced on the tour by guitarist Earl Slick, who had a long association with Bowie.

David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. In recognition of his creativity and versatility, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Bowie was also an acclaimed actor. He actually began training in acting before he embarked on a musical career. He appeared in a number of interesting films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1983 vampire film The Hunger, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige.  Bowie also played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway for 157 performances.

David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance. It is not surprising that he was a  talented actor, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be deeply missed.

Neil Young, Imagine:

Neil Young is a multi-talented singer-songwriter and political activist. Born in 1945, he grew up in Canada but then moved to California in 1966. His first big band was Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with fellow musicians Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. By the way, surely Buffalo Springfield has to be the only band named after a steamroller company!

Below is a photo of Neil Young in concert, circa 1970.

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Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young teamed up for a while to form the short-lived supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Neil contributed to some of CSNY’s early songs and concert appearances, but fairly rapidly left that group.

Since that time, Neil Young has carved out an extraordinary career as a solo artist. He is exceptionally prolific, continuing to churn out albums at a rate of about one per year.

Neil Young is also known for his eclectic versatility. Much of his solo work is acoustic, however he also teams up from time to time with the band Crazy Horse to tour and produce hard-rock music.
Musical styles such as alternative rock and grunge also adopted elements from Young. His influence has caused some to dub him the “Godfather of Grunge.”

Young also has a distinctive guitar style. I am not a big fan of his guitar playing, but I have to admit that his guitar work is unique. Young also is adept on keyboards.

Here is Neil Young performing Imagine live.

This took place at the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes. This aired just 10 days after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

America: A Tribute to Heroes was a gigantic telethon to raise funds for the 9/11 victims and their families, particularly the New York firefighters and police officers.

The concert was simultaneously broadcast without commercial interruption over 35 network and cable TV stations. It also was simulcast on the Internet and aired over 8,000 radio stations. In addition, it was distributed to broadcasters in over 120 countries worldwide.

Although Neil Young had never previously sung Imagine, he gives a very moving performance. In a stage filled with candles, Young accompanies himself on piano. A small string orchestra backs him up.

The song is perfectly appropriate for such a tribute concert. It has become not only a world-wide anthem aspiring to a peaceful world, but following John Lennon’s assassination, it has special resonance in times of crisis or after a disaster.

Imagine seems particularly fitting for a concert held in New York City, which had become John Lennon’s adopted home town.

There is one additional reason why Neil Young’s performance of this song was so meaningful at the benefit America: A Tribute to Heroes. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications issued a “memorandum” to their 1,200 radio stations.

That document contained a list of 165 “lyrically questionable” songs. Although Clear Channel (which has now re-named itself as iHeart Radio) insists that the songs on this list were not actually banned, the memorandum clearly had the effect of a temporary ban of those songs on all Clear Channel stations.

In some cases, the songs do seem questionable in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – for example, “Highway to Hell” or “Shot Down in Flames” by AC/DC. However, the presence of John Lennon’s Imagine on the “banned list” really seems like a stretch. Presumably, the line that landed Imagine on the Clear Channel list was “nothing to kill or die for.”

Or was the idea that any song that envisioned a peaceful world should be taboo, at a time when grieving Americans were planning to invade Afghanistan and Iraq? After all, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train, Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water also appeared on the ‘banned’ list.

Anyway, it was nice to see that there was no backlash to Neil Young’s performing Imagine at a benefit concert for victims of the 9/11 attacks; in fact, Young’s choice was widely praised as being highly appropriate to the occasion.

As a postscript, Paul Simon performed Bridge Over Troubled Water, another “Clear Channel banned song,” at the same America: A Tribute To Heroes concert.

Neil Young’s songs cover a vast range, from political protest anthems to deeply personal topics that deal with relationships and breakups, to anti-drug songs (several referring to colleagues who suffered or died from addiction), to hard-rock anthems.

Neil Young’s song Heart of Gold was a big commercial success, and this provoked a very interesting response:
Young … described “Heart of Gold” as the song that “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Neil Young has also made extraordinary contributions as a social activist. I will mention two of these activities. The first is Farm Aid, a series of concerts organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Young to benefit small farmers and to provide them with some financial relief.

The second is the Bridge School, a charitable institution that deals with youth who are afflicted with severe disabilities. Young helped organize the school in 1986 and has sponsored annual benefit concerts for the school.

Neil Young has a very personal connection to the Bridge School. Of his three children, two have cerebral palsy and the third has epilepsy (Young himself suffers from epilepsy). He also was afflicted with polio in 1951, shortly before a cure for the disease was discovered. Young’s annual concerts have raised a great deal of money for the Bridge School, and his public and financial support for the school has been noteworthy.

For his contributions to rock music, Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, initially as a solo artist in 1995 for his singing and songwriting, and then as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.

Despite his seminal contributions to rock music, Neil Young can be exceptionally difficult to deal with. However, it is impossible to ignore Neil Young’s brilliance. We have to admire his ability to move from acoustic folk to hard-rock to punk to grunge, and to marvel at a level of productivity that would fill an iPod with Neil Young songs. Long may you run, Neil.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Imagine (John Lennon Song)
Wikipedia, John Lennon
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Serious Moonlight Tour
Wikipedia, Neil Young
Wikipedia, 2001 Clear Channel memorandum

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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One Response to Imagine: John Lennon; David Bowie; Neil Young

  1. Pingback: America: Simon and Garfunkel; David Bowie; Yes. | Tim's Cover Story

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