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John, Yoko and the making of ‘Imagine’

John, Yoko and the making of ‘Imagine’

John, Yoko and the making of ‘Imagine’
September 14
16:25 2018

He was a world-famous pop star, she was an avant-garde artist. The only Beatle she knew by name was Ringo, because it was Japanese for apple. When they married in 1969, they celebrated in Amsterdam with a week-long Bed-In for Peace.

In 1971, they began work on Imagine, Lennon’s most popular solo album, named after the song partially inspired by Ono’s book Grapefruit.

Here, in a new book of interviews past and present, we see how their love affair, the making of the album and their pacifism intertwined.

This is an edited extract from ‘Imagine John Yoko’ by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with contributions from the people who were there, to be published by Thames & Hudson on October 9 2018, £35

John: There was a sort of underground clique in London. John Dunbar had an art gallery called Indica. I got the word that this amazing woman was putting on a show and there was going to be something about people in black bags, and it was going to be a bit of a happening. So I went down to a preview, the night before it opened. I went in and I was looking at it and I was astounded. I thought it was fantastic. I got the humour in her work immediately. There was a fresh apple on a stand — this was before Apple — and it was 200 quid to watch the apple decompose.

Near the door when you went in, there was a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling — a blank canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. I climbed the ladder. You look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says “YES”. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say “no” or “f**k you” or something. It said “YES”.

Yoko: It was almost like a Zen meeting. My idea was for people to climb up a long, long ladder and just go on climbing up and then finally reach the ceiling and you look at the painting with the magnifying glass, and it says “YES” in tiny little letters. That “YES” was like an answer to him.

John: Because it was positive, it said “YES”; I thought, okay, it’s the first show I’ve been to that’s said something warm to me. So then I decided to see the rest of the show, and that’s when we met. If it had said “NO” I would have walked out.

Poster included with the ‘Imagine’ album. John photographed while recording ‘Imagine’ on Yoko’s white piano in the White Room, Tittenhurst Park, May 27 1971 © Yoko Ono Lennon

Yoko: I [had] heard about the Beatles and I knew the name Ringo, and nobody’s going to believe me but still that’s exactly how it was. Ringo hit me because Ringo is “apple” in Japanese. Yes, I knew the Beatles as a social phenomenon, but rock ’n’ roll had passed me by.

But I met John and I felt he was an incredibly interesting man without knowing so much about pop and rock and all that. As a guy I thought he was a very interesting guy, immediately. Love at first sight? Sort of, yes. The first meeting was a very intense one.

John: I didn’t see her again for a few weeks. It was 18 months or a year before we got near to each other physically. When I met Yoko (before I realised that I was going to live with her and become that involved), I was interested in her as an artist.

Yoko: In person, John was a much more attractive man than the one you saw in photos and films. He had very fair, delicate skin and soft, sandy hair with a touch of red in it when the light hit a certain way. I would kid him and say, “You’re a redhead!” He would say, “Never!” But the way he laughed, I knew that had been suggested before. When he grew his beard, it was very definitely predominantly red.

He was in his twenties when I met him. I was eight years older. But I never thought of him as somebody younger than me. When you were near him, the strong mental vibe he sent out was too heavy for a young person. Some people are born old. That was John. His slumming, clowning and acting the entertainer was just a kind of play-acting he enjoyed. But it was obvious to anybody around him that he was actually a very heavy dude; not a prince but a king.

John on the idea for ‘Imagine’

The original handwritten lyrics of ‘Imagine’ © Yoko Ono Lennon

“Imagine” is a song conceived in my head without melody. The first verse came to me very quickly in the form of a childlike street chant “da da da da da dee dee da dee da ee a eeeh”. The piano intro I’ve had hanging around in my head for a few years — the chords and melody followed naturally from this. The middle eight was “conceived” to finish off the song. I think it works as a song. Of course, there is always room for improvement — otherwise I wouldn’t make any more. The third verse came to me in an eight-seater plane. It’s a song for children.

In the studio

John: George’s best guitar solo to date on “How Do You Sleep?” is as good as anything I’ve heard from anyone, anywhere. Would you believe that George wasn’t happy with these solos? He wanted to do them again! I told him that he’d never get them any better if he tried for years. It’s the best he’s played in his life, but he’d go on for ever if you let him.

Yoko: George was technically so proficient. Of the four of them, he could really make it in that sense. In rock ’n’ roll music, you don’t need that so much — you go more for the “feel”. George knew that too, of course. He played on love tracks on the album — all subtly different styles — from delicate and classical on “Oh My Love” to the country slide in “Crippled Inside” to that amazing guitar solo in “How Do You Sleep?” — on all of them he used his incredible talent really beautifully, precisely and with so much soul.

George, we miss you! I hope you are hearing all this — in an Indian sense or in an Asian sense you are still with us, and you must be laughing about us!

Recording ‘How Do You Sleep?’: George Harrison (electric guitar), Ted Turner and Rod Lynton (12-string acoustic guitars), Klaus Voormann (bass), Alan White (drums), John Lennon (electric guitar and vocals), Nicky Hopkins (Wurlitzer electric piano), John Tout (upright piano), Ascot Sound Studios, May 26 1971 © Yoko Ono Lennon

Phil Spector as co-producer

John: I think it was [Beatles’ business manager] Allen Klein’s suggestion . . . I was pleased with the result of Spector’s work and anyone who can make a record like “River Deep, Mountain High” must be good.

Yoko: We had [a lot of] musicians and they were all incredibly talented and we didn’t want them to get upset by Phil’s working methods, where he would sometimes treat musicians like paid staff to be ordered around, as they used to do in the studios in the 1950s.

John: He’s got a tremendous ego. He considers the artist like a film director considers actors, just pieces of garbage . . . canned goods that you bring on and wheel off. He’d like to bury the artist and so the production is the main thing. But we didn’t allow him to do that to us. So on that level it was very good, because we used what we considered is his amazing ear for pop music and sound, without letting it become [deep voice] “Spector”, you know — thousands of castanets, “The Wall”. We didn’t want “The Wall of Sound” but we wanted the outside input.

John on the album cover

Polaroids by Yoko; June 29 and July 1971 © Yoko Ono Lennon

My album front and back is taken by Yoko as a Polaroid. It’s a new one called a Polaroid close-up. It’s fantastic. She took a photo of me, and then we had this painting off a guy called Geoff Hendricks who only paints sky. And I was standing in front of it, in the hotel room and she superimposed the picture of it on me after, so I was in the cloud with my head. And then I lay down on the window sill to get a lying down picture for the backside, which she wanted with the cloud above my head. And I’m sort of “imagining”.

Being in love and public disapproval

John: I always had this dream of meeting an artist woman I would fall in love with. Even from art school. And when we met and were talking, I just realised that she knew everything I knew. And more, probably. And it was coming out of a woman’s head. It just sort of bowled me over. It was like finding gold or something. To have exactly the same relationship with any male you’d ever had, but also you could go to bed with it, and it could stroke your head when you felt tired or sick or depressed. Could also be Mother. And all of the intellect is there; well, it’s just like winning the pools. So that’s why when people ask me for a precis of my story, I put, “Born, lived, met Yoko.” Because that’s what it’s been about.

Yoko: London then was a gathering place of the new aristocrats in music, art and films. They exuded new energy with a certain elegance of self-made people who would change the class structure in England, and would go on to change the world in a big way.

John and I got together in that atmosphere. So we were very surprised that the so-called hip society of the times, to which we both belonged, turned against us as soon as we announced our unity. It seemed as though they had a separate standard for John, or shall we say that their hipness ended at the point where John, their ringleader, chose an Oriental woman as his partner. This was in the Sixties in “Swinging London”! It made us feel as though, suddenly, the wind of the Middle Ages was blowing around us.

John on black music

Apart from meeting Yoko, the biggest experience of my life was hearing rock ’n’ roll and black rock ’n’ roll. Liverpool was a port where there were many black people and they still have the slave rings on the front of the docks there. But one thing about being a port is that it’s usually a bit hipper. The next biggest town is Manchester — big industrial town — they ain’t half as hip as us. The music — the sailors would bring it in. We were hearing old funky blues records in Liverpool that people across Britain or Europe had never even heard because they didn’t know about them.

The first thing that amazed us about America was — when we came over here in ’64 — all the reporters said, “Where’s your influences from? What kind of music do you like?” Everything we said was black except for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. And they didn’t know what it was and we didn’t know about all this race record business. We had no idea there was a separate division. Music was music. It comes off the record. That’s it. It’s music, man.

People talk about the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper and all that jazz. It doesn’t mean a thing. All I talk about is 1958 when I heard “Long Tall Sally”, when I heard “Johnny B Goode”, when I heard Bo Diddley. That changed my life completely. I dropped my art, I dropped out of school, I got me guitar and that was the end of it. I dropped everything. And my auntie who brought me up all my life, all the time she was saying, “The guitar is all right as a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” So I got that on a plaque for her and sent it to her in the house I bought her.

Black music was my life and still is. Of course, there’s lots of good white music these days and they’ve learnt a lot. One of the black guys said, one of the black leaders, “We blacks loosened them young middle-class white kids, we gave them back their bodies.” And I was given back my body in the Fifties and I appreciate it, and I never stop acknowledging it. I met Chuck Berry for the first time in my life and it was a beautiful experience. It was like meeting a Soul Brother. It was like we’d known each other forever. And I was nearly crying meeting him because he’d been my idol all my life.

‘Jealous Guy’

Filming the ‘Mrs Lennon’ and ‘Mind Train’ sequences for ‘Imagine’, Tittenhurst, July 20 1971 © Yoko Ono Lennon

Yoko: “Jealous Guy” was a totally different song with the lyrics “on the road to Marrakesh” and I said to John, “That’s a beautiful melody, but you have to think about something more sensitive. It’s in you.” So whenever I hear “Jealous Guy” I think “Oh my god!” because he really did that.

John: I was a very jealous, possessive guy. And the lyrics explained that pretty clearly. Not just jealous towards Yoko, but towards everything male and female. Incredibly possessive. It’s partly to do with childhood. A very insecure male who wants to put his woman in a little box and lock the key and just bring her out when he feels like playing with her and put her back in. And she’s not to communicate with the world outside of me, you see? Because it makes me feel insecure. And that’s not allowed, you know? So this is facing up to it.

I don’t believe these tight-skinned people who are “never jealous”. When you are in love with somebody, you tend to be jealous and want to own them and possess them one hundred per cent, which I do. I love Yoko. I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her — that’s the danger — that you want to possess them to death.

All that “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved” was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically. Any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learnt not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.

Interview with Michael Parkinson, July 1971

Parkinson: Can I put something to you, about the sort of crazy phase that you’re both going through? I think you’ve got to accept, John, that it’s alienated you from the people who originally loved you in this country.

John: When I left Liverpool with the group, a lot of Liverpool people dropped us and said, “Now you’ve let us down.” When we left England to go to America, we lost a lot of fans because they began to feel that they own you. So we fell in love and we married and Yoko just happens to be Japanese, which didn’t help much, and so everybody had the impression that John’s just gone crazy. But all I did was fall in love like a lot of people do. The British press actually called her ugly. I’ve never seen that about any woman or man, even if the person is ugly. You don’t normally say that in the papers. She’s not ugly and if she were, you wouldn’t be so mean! They even say “attractive” about the most awful-looking people, to be kind.

Parkinson: Recently, another reason for people taking a dislike to you is because you’re known again through the newspapers, as the woman who broke up the Beatles . . . 

John: But that’s not true! Listen, I tell you, people on the streets and kids do not dislike us. It’s the media; I’m telling you. We go on the streets and the lorry drivers wave, “Hello John, hello Yoko,” all that jazz and I judge it by that.

John on songwriting

I think my greatest pleasure is writing a song — words and lyrics — that will last longer than a couple of years. Songs that anybody could sing. Songs that will outlive me, probably. And that gives me my greatest pleasure. That’s where I get my kicks.

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