History: Not long after the release of his first solo album, which was critically successful if not as commercially successful as those of George and Paul, John started work on his second album, once again working closely with Yoko and Phil Spector on production, and inviting in George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, members of Badfinger and others to join him in recording. Most of the sessions were filmed with the plans to release a documentary that didn’t come to fruition at the time, but large parts of it can be seen in both Imagine: John Lennon and John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky.
My own personal history and initial prediction: I actually own this album in LP form. I don’t think it was a hand me down from my parents, but most likely one I found at a thrift store at some point. It has admittedly been quite a while since I listened to it, but I remember enjoying it overall. I’ve also seen both of the aforementioned documentary films and there are some moments of it that really stick out in my memory, of John talking to the young man who appeared at their front door swearing John was speaking to him through his songs, and of a clearly upset John glaring into the camera and asking “How do you sleep, ya c**t?”
Review: I already named the song “Imagine” as my favorite of John’s solo work so far, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that I have a fondness for this album the moment I start it off. The song is just the perfect message for peace, an invitation to all of us to let go of all the things that have caused wars in the past and just do our best to share the world. I think the fact that it does ask us all to imagine rather than force us to change or demand something out of everyone is a large part of its universal appeal. I can certainly see where stronger urgings are required at times in history, but I do think these kinds of things we can all get behind are just as important to moving us all forward a little at a time.
Outside of the title track, “Jealous Guy” and “How?” are the ones I’m the most familiar with and listened to the most often. “Jealous Guy” is a great song, not only because it’s musically very beautiful, but it is one of the songs in a long sequence in which John spoke openly and honestly about his insecurities and jealousy. You have the songs where he was deep in the thick of it that can be truly shocking to listen to now, like “Run for Your Life,” the journey to self discovery like the line “I used to be cruel to my woman..” that pops up in the middle of “Getting Better,” and now you have the full awareness and regret here. It’s the kind of song where, if a man chose to sing this to you at a difficult point in your relationship, I might tell you to watch out and be careful of whether he was being truly sincere. But I don’t think John was writing this for others to pass along, I think this was his own heartfelt confession, and having witnessed so much of the journey there I believe him. He’s not necessarily completely cured or absolved of his past, but he’s trying like hell to get there. “How?” is very similar, a man struggling with his past and his pain and his faults and honestly voicing his doubts. Its structure is a little too repetitive for me to give it too many repeat listens, but I do enjoy the music of that one a lot.
“How Do You Sleep?” is of course the most striking song here for Beatles fans, a not even remotely veiled attempt to vent his frustrations he was feeling against Paul at the time. It’s interesting that John was simultaneously very willing to put this out there while also feeling the need to make comments to the press that the feud between them wasn’t really that bad. For what it’s worth I think that it’s certainly possible for both things to be true. You can easily put yourself in a mind set while working on something that will make you feel things deeply, but it doesn’t mean you spend all day and night seething about that one thing. The song is just a little too mean spirited for me to want to listen to all the time, but I do like that he’s taking a lot of the same clever wordplay he used in “Glass Onion” to tell the story. It’s also got a great bluesy sound.
“Oh Yoko!” is probably the other most well known on the album, a nice pop song even if the lyrics get a bit silly at times. It’s interesting that John didn’t want to release it as a single for fear of it being too commercial; you’d think any chance he got to sing Yoko’s praises he would jump on shouting to the world. Of the remaining songs I also enjoyed “Crippled Inside” for its juxtaposition of cheery bouncy music with its sad lyrics. “It’s So Hard” was also really striking to me because as soon as the guitar started my first thought was “this sounds glam” which I definitely wasn’t expecting, especially after everything I had heard on the album so far.
The worst qualities of Phil Spector’s production do rear their cacophonous head on the remaining three songs “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Oh My Love.” “Soldier” has an echo on the vocals that doesn’t work for me, even if I do enjoy the horn solos. “Truth” is just a mess, with the music drowning out the vocals. “Oh My Love” fairs the best out of all of them, though it also sounds unbalanced in the mix and is just overall a rather simple song with nothing to make it stand out.
That all said, three out of ten songs not working for me is nothing to really complain about. I’ve seen a lot of critics naming John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as his best solo work, and everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, but for me this one feels like a much stronger album. I’ve got quite a way to go before I can possibly call it his best, but for me it’s certainly his best between the two.
Singles released around this time:
“Power to the People” – I hadn’t heard this one before, and it strikes me as one that was created to be played loudly at protest marches rather than as a proper single. It’s not bad, but there really isn’t much here beyond him saying the phrase over and over again. I can see why Bernie Sanders would use it in his presidential campaigns, it’s something that could be uplifting and easy for people to sing along with, but that’s about it.
Next Time: Paul finds some new bandmates in Wings and they release their debut album Wild Life.