"A very different song"

A possible expert walks us through the evolution of a song you might have heard

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Since its initial release in 1971, there’s arguably been no song more run into the ground than John Lennon’s “Imagine.” To some, it is a vague ode to world peace and humanism, to others a vague attack on religion and capitalism. Either way, it has kept Yoko Ono more than comfortable these last 50 years and—presumably—paid for Sean and Julian Lennon’s college educations. Today we continue the proud tradition of obsessing over the Anti-Ringo with musicologist Dennis Krause.

Dennis Krause, self-described musicologist

OnlySky: Dennis, thank you for joining us.

Dennis Krause: Thank you.

OS: We were hoping you would help us… imagine what John Lennon’s “Imagine” might have been. We’d like to talk about the ideas he had as he was writing the song and drafts he may have written or lines he may have cut out before the final recording. I suppose we should have asked this before, but do you know anything about that subject? 

DK: Oh, sure.

OS: Thank God.

DK: Ah! 

OS: So talk to us about the creative process, what inspired Lennon to write what became arguably his signature song?

DK: Well, not many people are aware of this, but John Lennon was in a group in the 1960s called “The Beatles.” They had a number of hits, most of them about love and peace and drugged-out gibberish. People—especially teenagers—just ate it up. Particularly their aquatic-themed numbers about walruses and submarines and so on, which were very popular. And, naturally, John Lennon—who played what was known as the “guitar” in the group—immediately went on TV and said they were bigger than Jesus. And that caused quite a stir.

OS: Right.

DK: There was pressure on Lennon to apologize and recant his statement and some even wanted him to make Ringo play his drums with crucifixes to make up for the slight. I mean, it was a major misstep for a group that, up to that time, had generally been considered fun and harmless. People were burning Beatles records. Paul McCartney said at the time, “I know how many motherf—ers hate us. ‘I’m never going to buy another Beatles record again.’ F—I care? If you never bought another record we made in our lives, I’m not going to lose any money. I already cashed that check. F— you. Burn up our records. I don’t give a f—.” Paul was known as the Sweary One.

OS: Uh… huh.

DK: But eventually John “came down off his cross” so to speak and helped Jesus back up on it. Metaphorically. 

OS: Metaphorically.

DK: But, you know, John was not one to just let things go. In fact, he wrote an answer song to Paul’s “Let It Be” called “You’re Not the Boss of Me, McCartney” which, in many ways—most notably the words and sentiment—foreshadowed the controversy over “Imagine.”

OS: So we’ve set the stage now, let’s talk a little about “Imagine.” Lennon said in the seventies that the song was about, and I quote, “The concept of positive prayer…If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion, but without this ‘my god is bigger than your god’ thing—then it can be true.”

DK: Well, he said that, but the lyrics clearly say “imagine no religion.” And for a man who said he was against the “my god is bigger than your god” argument, he certainly had no problems pepper-spraying George Harrison at the airport.

OS: George Harrison, the–

DK: Lead guitarist for the Beatles who was also a Hare Krishna and—if I’m not mistaken—star of Doctor Doolittle.

OS: Wasn’t that Rex Harrison?

DK: It was one of them. Another big inspiration came from John’s wife, Yoko Ono, who had published a book of poetry in 1964 called Grapefruit. In that book, Ono had a poem titled “Cloud Piece” which read: “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”

OS: I don’t see how the two connect beyond the word “imagine.”

DK: Well, “Imagine” is the title of the song.

OS: …Let’s talk about specific lyrics. Maybe you can tell us how some lines changed and evolved.

DK: Sure. In an early draft, the song was much more pro-religion.

OS: Really?

DK: Oh yes. John needed money and so he wanted to reposition himself as an ally of religion. In fact, the opening couplet, “Imagine there’s no Heaven/it’s easy if you try,” was, “Imagine tea in Heaven/me and Jesus eating pie.”

OS: Wow. Okay.

DK: That same draft also presaged the evangelical backlash against homosexuality with the line, “Imagine all the people/choosin’ not to be gay.”

OS: That’s a very different song.

DK: Same tune, though. Do-do-dee-da-dee-do or however it goes.

OS: Conservative critics have long had a problem with that first verse, obviously the lines you talked about which clearly changed a lot before it was finally released, but also the part that goes, “Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”

DK: Right. In an earlier draft, that line was much more pro-military-industrial complex. It went, “Plenty to kill or die for/Do as we say, ooh.”

OS: Wow, that’s…very aggressive.

DK: I mean, by 1966, John had really had enough of the “peace and love, peace and love” thing that was the Beatles’ bread and butter. The Beatles started out in Germany with a much harder edge and the Rolling Stones just took that and ran with it while the Beatles were flashing peace signs and laying around in bed and palling around with Peter Sellers.

Yoko Ono and unidentified man. Editorial credit: rath ruangaram / Shutterstock.com

OS: The line that says “no Hell below us,” was that in reference to the Stones?

DK: No, that was in reference to Hell, which Christians believe to be the opposite of Heaven.

OS: …Yes, but the Rolling Stones had gone the full circle around from John saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus to outright releasing an album called Their Satanic Majesties’ Request and songs like “Sympathy for the Devil.”

DK: Yes, and that’s not to mention the Grateful Dead’s releasing a song called “Friends with the Devil” or the existence of Jim Morrison. John was not pleased with the fact that so many people got away with so much more later. I don’t know that “no Hell below us” was meant to be a swipe at the Stones—as if to say that their mythological character of choice was also fictitious—but it certainly fits John’s profile. I mean, this is the same guy who wrote the song “(I’m Not Interested In) Help(ing Those Who Won’t Help Themselves)!”.

OS: Let’s move on to the parts of the song that most people really seem to resonate with—where Lennon talks about living in peace and harmony with all of the world.

DK: There’s not really much to say. That entire section is the equivalent of the “na-na-na-na’s” Paul McCartney used to run out the tape on “Hey Jude.”

OS: Oh. …Alright. Then Lennon says, “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can.” Was that the original line there?

DK: That’s the original line, but many people misconstrued his meaning. That was meant as a threat. “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can.” He was saying he was going to rob you in the night if you didn’t buy this record. John had bills to pay.

OS: “No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of man”?

DK: Originally, “I’m getting pretty hungry/I hope we have some flan.”

OS: You’re saying that line was originally about flan.

DK: John liked his flan.

OS: Are you really a musicologist?

DK: In the sense that anyone is. I’m not the only one.

OS: Get out.

As a comedy writer, the details of my life are depressing at best and sketchy at worst. I have written for all of the best comedy sites and none of the bad ones, resulting in a net gain of half a ham sandwich....