Imagining all the people

Posted on November 17, 2010

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After delving back into the record box for some long-since John Lennon, after falling way deep for ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Instant Karma’ again, and getting all misty-eyed about the death of a man and not a “prophet of peace”; still one thing stands, ‘Imagine’ is well irritating.

It may be the fashionable thing to say now, re-appraising the unquestioned canon and barbecuing old dinosaurs – I’ve heard it from the laziest of lazy Sunday columnists, Robert Crampton, who normally prefers to tell us how his Saturday trip to B&Q with “the wife” went; well-observed humour with a tight sign-off, etc. – and though the purest Top 40 purists amongst us still recoil in horror to hear such hubris, it’s true.

The lyrics are well known to us all, having become mantras in assembly halls, placards and coursework cover pages all over the world. ‘Imagine’ is a document in pop politics, but one sung from the same mouth that produced ‘Attica State’, a song that supposedly had one FBI agent scurrilously taking notes at a Lennon-Ono gig in New York in the early ’70s, as part of The Organisation’s monitoring of Lennon the émigré stoner pinko.

Imagine there’s no countries
It’s not hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

No religion, imagine that!

The problem with the song is that, since Lennon’s death in 1980, it has been hijacked. Hijacked by the hordes of Beatles fans, nu-mods and Tony Blackburn-“musos” with no interest in politics other than that we should all come together and just, be cool. (That or they’re gladly conservative and their iTunes is a wealth of one song by Lennon, one by The Stones, one by The Killers.) The faint suggestion of eradicating religion is a far-out thing to be sung so coolly, but also in this case, successful commercially. These are two things that don’t always match up.

It is very radical, though! John Lennon? From The Beatles? Shakespeares of our national pop culture?

Moreover, ‘Imagine’ was hijacked by sentimentality.

John Lennon’s death is rightly viewed as tragic, but then what other epitaph could the media and the weeping millions muster than ‘Imagine’. It is simple, political but also nice. Simplicity often goes hand in hand with sentimentality, it is easy to remember, and as such easy to remember Lennon within the frame of this one song. And so political and nice are two things we generally want to think Lennon was in his absence, since he was taken from “us” so cruelly and unjustly, so young. Such a shame!

The reality is of course far different. Lennon was such a complex person – his career an often blistering mix of pop (“I-love-you-you-love-me” as he called it in 1968) along with all that rock’n’roll, an earnest political spirit, the lost weekend and a fair amount of familial indiscretion; wife-beating and the like. ‘Imagine’ just does not do the man justice. The song also has the convenient power of preserving him in our minds, some misty-eyed while others keen to impress where their loyalties lie, that Lennon was a radical and we were with him the whole time, man.
People did say Lennon was a dreamer, after all, didn’t they. The view that his post-Beatles work was avant-garde and pretentious rubbish still prevails – in bed for peace now, John? – coaxed away by an avant-garde, tricksy and most importantly, ugly, Japanese artist who ruined the fun for the rest of us while The Beatles were busy getting back together. There’s truth to some of it (a close friend of the couple says Yoko dissuaded John from meeting up with Paul, and was re-considering all that 1969 mess before that), but by the by.

A song like ‘Mind Games’ or ‘Watching the Wheels’ is how Lennon should be remembered. Just one verse of ‘Mind Games’ seems like an appropriate epitaph:

We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers, planting seeds
Playing the mind guerrilla
Chanting the mantra, peace on earth
We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil
Doing the mind guerrilla
Some call it magic, the search for the grail

It’s imperfect, with his paranoia and hope combined; idealistic and ever so beautiful. And all amid the timeless swirling strings and slide guitar.

I’d pass to the grandeur of that song – Lennon should have.

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Posted in: Music, Politics