Features Australia

Imagine no ‘Imagine’ (I wonder if you can?)

It’s nearly 50 years since the world’s greatest ‘woke’ anthem was released. But who’s listening to it now?

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

When I heard about the recent suicide bombing at Kabul Airport, my first impulse was to do what right-thinking people have been doing in response to atrocities such as these for the past twenty years. In order to send the strongest message of resolve possible from the Antipodes to the theological militants, I immediately thought about taking to the streets with a bunch of celebrity friends for a spontaneous kerbside performance of ‘Imagine’.

Almost as quickly, I dismissed the idea as sadly impractical. For one thing, I have no celebrity friends. Come to think of it, I have no friends at all right now, at least not in Australia and New Zealand where most of us are under national house arrest. Also, owing to the usual lockdown panic-buying, my local store appears to be out of the necessary candles we would be required to hold aloft for the television cameras.

The timing would therefore appear to be bad. But the timing also couldn’t be better, because the celebrated track itself is about to celebrate an auspicious musical milestone.

Imagine there’s no ‘Imagine’ — it isn’t easy if you try, especially not with the tune’s fiftieth birthday drawing nigh.

Along with the album of the same name, John Lennon’s famous song — certainly it was his most acclaimed since the demise of the Beatles — will have been with us for a half-century on 11 October. With its clever string arrangements, memorably monotonous piano and featherweight imaginings of a world shorn of ‘possessions’, anything to kill or die for, and no religion, too, it’s every bit as recognisable today as it was then.

Clearly, though, it’s not to everyone’s taste. A while back, the British music fan Edward Carter and some friends were casually discussing the tracks they most hated when he decided to extend the conversation to social media, inviting Twitter users to chime in with their own ‘favourite’ most-hated songs.

Within 48 hours, the bemused Brit, who boasted only around 1,000 Twitter followers, had received several thousand nominations from all over the world. To nobody’s great surprise, perhaps, the celebrated ballad by He Who Wondered If We Could Imagine No Possessions won comfortably on points.


But this itself was old news. Some years earlier, the website Breitbart passed a similar verdict: ‘Many feel this ballad is a touching hymn that gives voice to man’s yearning for a better world. They are wrong. “Imagine” is a cloying, boggy, sonic swamp of numb-skulled sentiments that sound like they were recycled from a bong-fueled, 2 a.m. bull session between a couple of pampered, credulous UC Berkeley lit. majors. It’s the national anthem of the hopey/changey crowd — all at once pretentious, smug, tiresome and intellectually bankrupt’.

Okay, so we all have our bad moments. I myself have written stuff so dubious that, if recalled unexpectedly, it can cause me to writhe physically and groan aloud (which can be embarrassing if I’m chatting at a bar with somebody I’ve never met before). On the other hand, nobody has ever mistaken me for the biggest thing in the music business.

Unlikely as it seems in 2021, there was a brief period when the title track of John Lennon’s second solo album received less attention than the record’s other items. There was the singer’s highly unresolved relationship with his former bandmate, Paul McCartney (subject of one not-terribly-great track oozing with sarcasm and spite called ‘How Do You Sleep?’), and the matter of his highly resolved relationship with Yoko Ono (subject of a slightly better track called — somewhat unimaginatively — ‘Oh Yoko!’).

Not to mention the presence of producer Phil Spector making much sonic syrup in the background.

Pretty soon, though, ‘Imagine’ acquired a life of its own, serving impressively well as both a high-rotate item for classic rock stations or else the funeral playlists for the recently departed of a certain age.

But the much bigger story over the past twenty years — certainly since the night Neil Young first performed ‘Imagine’ at a memorial concert in New York for the victims of 9/11 — is in how the track has become the selection of choice in the wake of all manner of terrorist attacks, a ubiquitous musical cliché to be pressed into service by pretty much anybody with a guitar and waiting television crew at their disposal.

You’ve probably seen the images. On one end of the street — maybe along a glamorous boulevard in Paris nearly six years ago, perhaps somewhere in downtown Sydney a year earlier, or else in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 — the doctors are still scraping bodies from off the pavement. The cops remain on the scene looking for clues. Already a makeshift shrine to the dead and injured will have been built. Nearby, sorrowful bystanders tilt their heads while holding signs declaring they are not afraid and, no matter how many times you blow us up, we will not change.

Whereupon a guitar player, often bearded, will almost inevitably appear on the scene strumming out ‘Imagine’. The crowd shuffles together, heads a-tilt and eyes misted, to ‘send a message’ to the terrorists while clutching their candles. Rinse and repeat.

Oh, well. Perhaps it would have been harder to turn the same trick with Kabul. As an online friend points out, we would have needed to do the lyrics in Pashto and set to the boilerplate soundtracks favoured by Al-Qaeda and Hamas (stalwart friends of the Taliban) in their propaganda videos. That would required an all-male a capella chorus, possibly accompanied by tambourine or hand drum in the case of Al-Qaeda.

All in all, a big ask. In any event, it may be too late now — and not just because the Taliban has already banned music in Afghanistan.

At a news conference, the group’s leaders outlined what the new order will probably look like. No personal possessions for the foreseeable future. Also, now that the infidels have left, nothing to kill or die for. And unless one subscribes to a particularly stringent form of Islam, there’ll be no religion, too.

So never mind ‘Imagine’. This is more like ‘instant karma’.

Nearly fifty years to the week he first brought his indestructibly imaginative tidings to the world, what was always the flip-side to Lennon’s vision may finally be coming to pass.

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