Rock and Roll Feature: Remembering Imagine on John Lennon's 70th Birthday

This is the thirty-fourth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

What can really be said that hasn't already been said about John Lennon?

His legacy with the Beatles alone is enough to fill more than one lifetime and yet his work outside of the band as a solo artist has transcended just as well becoming part not only of the rock and roll lexicon, but also all of society. A universal musical, social and political legend... a man who's work is often even more powerful during his moments of struggle as during his moments of brilliance... one of the most important artists of any media of all time... in my opinion all of these things describe John Lennon.

As with so many of the artists I discuss, saying I'm a fan of Lennon's work, or that his music speaks to me just doesn't do it justice. There are few if any artists I feel as directly connected to as Lennon...I feel he's something of an idol of mine... and not just because of his Beatles catalog. There's brilliance contained within his solo albums. There may be some inconsistencies throughout, some albums that aren't as successful artistically, or more difficult to listen to, but there's an almost visceral introspective realism contained within them as well. The moments that work are intensely powerful, and the ones that don't work as well are almost startlingly real... a direct look into the man's soul with all it's difficulties, mistakes, and personal struggles bared for all to see.

Today, October 9th 2010 would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday had he not been killed. As tribute to this man who has so effected my own life and the lives of so many world wide, I'd like to feature his most well known, and certainly one of his most powerful, solo works this month: Imagine.

This album begins innocently enough with a soft piano ballad, the title track... a song about dreaming. Even on your very first listen it is hard for “Imagine” to not become so much more than that though. It is a universal song of hope, of peace, of fighting to make the world a better place. I believe this song has transcended everything else Lennon has done to become his most well known and most powerful work. There is beauty in it's simplicity and so much emotion and hope in both it's lyrics and it's melody. “Imagine” is stellar... a perfectly crystallized moment of everything John Lennon was and is to people to this day.

Although surely the opening title track is reason enough for this album to be a must own for anyone serious about rock and roll, there's actually plenty of other great moments throughout as well. The lighthearted and bouncy “Crippled Inside” has a bit of great honky tonk piano to go along with it's toe tapping beat. It is a bit of a sharp contrast from the opening track, but being so upbeat is a good thing as it keeps things from getting to emotionally heavy right away.

“Jealous Guy” might be my favorite Lennon penned song of all time... not just from his solo work either. There's something amazingly powerful in it's melody, something that is only emphasized by the lush dreamy arrangement and sends shivers down the spine. I love how introspective and raw emotionally this song is as well. It is revelation of a man with faults, struggling with demons and insecurities, all of which are revealed and presented, not to be hid behind, dismissed or covered up with rock and roll posturing. It's about real human emotion more than anything else. I also especially like the whistled center section of this one. I think it's the perfect touch and highlight to the song... subtle, restrained, yet powerful.

“It's So Hard” is a blues swaggering slow rocker, one that's pretty rough and slightly reminiscent of “Yer Blues”, with great raw biting guitar work, while “I Don't Want to Be a Soldier” is certainly another standout. Political and hypnotic it sort of sways between eastern mysticism and grinding avant garde art rock. Bursts of saxophones and guitar break up the repetitive, yet ever changing lyrics with appropriately soaring climaxes and give the whole song some definite weight to back the heavy lyrical content. Lennon gets even heavier still though with the bitingly cynical “Give Me Some Truth”. A mid tempo rocker with great lyrical word play that's often scathingly bitter, it also features some great sharp and jagged slide guitar work that's good compliment to the raw emotional charge

“Oh My Love” is a return to lighter things... very dreamy and surreal with it's airy melodies and arrangements. I especially like this one for it's melodic progression, because on it appears quite subtle, but has great weight none the less. “How Do You Sleep” can only be described John lashing out a little bit. It's bit of a dig at former band mate Paul McCartney. The songwriting duo's relationship post Beatles was “tumultuous” to say the least, although I don't believe ever truly hostile. Lennon is quite upfront in this song that he's feeling a little resentful toward Paul. In many ways that actually makes the song more striking because it's about very real emotions specific to how John was feeling at the time... a snapshot of a personal conflict per say. Underpinned by a fantastic raunchy guitar riff though, this one's grinds along and gets in your head... Subject matter aside, it's a great track.

The sweeping “How?”, complete with thematic strings, asks some difficult philosophical questions with a very personal touch, making it all the more heavy, but the album actually closes on a lighter note. The upbeat and sweet “Oh Yoko!” is catchy and folksy, but also genuinely heartfelt and a fun listen.

Overall, it's a pretty great album with a really good range of emotions. Although the title track would of course go on to become so much more, as a straight forward rock and roll album, Imagine is still a compelling listen, one that really emphasizes the strengths of it's songwriter.

Lennon's solo work is often overshadowed by his work with the Beatles, but I really think some of his most creative and powerful songs came after the band broke up... specifically from this album numbers like “Jealous Guy”, “I Don't Want to Be a Soldier” and “Give Me Some Truth”... not to mention those from other albums. Sure there are also some of the stranger more avant garde albums amongst his catalog, ones that can be difficult to listen to... some are quite random and almost just straight personal recordings from the Lennon/Ono household... but there's also some fantastic music throughout. It's music that is very personal, real, empathetic and powerful, and I think that's at least part, if not a big part, of why John Lennon has become such a beloved musical figure.

Imagine is certainly the album to own or to start with if you're looking for a first experience with Lennon post Beatles. It's a good one though with great personal and social themes throughout... so good in fact, I'd recommend this album to just about anyone.

So today, on John's Lennon's 70th birthday, take a listen back to Imagine and really soak in the words as tribute to a great artist, a great musician, and a great man. Although we've come a long way, I think we can still use some help from John through his music and his legacy to guide us and help us strive for a better tomorrow... all we have to do is imagine it.

It is worth mentioning that along with this being Lennon's birthday, December 8th 2010 will also mark the 30th anniversary of his murder. As these anniversaries come and go, lets take some time to remember to do our best to make our world a better place... as tribute to the man so many wish could be here to see it.

In closing I'd like to dedicate this piece to Mr. John Winston Lennon, along with all of his family, friends, fans and everyone who feels the same connection, the same respect and appreciation for him that I do, on what would have been his 70th birthday.

Happy Birthday John.

You can find this classic album from Amazon here: Imagine

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