On this day: 1970 , US single release: ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’/’Who Has Seen The Wind’.
Released as a single on Apple Records in February 1970. The lyric focuses on a concept in which the causality of one’s actions is immediate rather than borne out over a lifetime. The single was credited to “Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band”, apart from in the US, where the credit was “John Ono Lennon”. The song reached the top five in the British and American singles charts, competing with the Beatles’ “Let It Be” in the US, where it became the first solo single by a member of the band to sell a million copies.
“Instant Karma!” was conceived, written, recorded and released within a period of ten days, making it one of the fastest-released songs in pop music history. The recording was produced by Phil Spector, marking a comeback for the American producer after his self-imposed retirement in 1966, and leading to him being offered the producer’s role on the Beatles’ Let It Be album. Recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios, “Instant Karma!” employs Spector’s signature Wall of Sound technique and features contributions from George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Billy Preston. The B-side was “Who Has Seen the Wind?”, a song composed and performed by Yoko Ono. When released in the US, the single was given a minor remix by Spector.
Recently shorn of the long hair synonymous with their 1969 campaign for world peace, Lennon and Ono promoted the single with an appearance on Britain’s Top of the Pops five days after its release. The song received positive reviews and is considered by some music critics to be among the finest recordings from Lennon’s solo career. A live performance recorded at his and Ono’s “One to One” concerts in August 1972 was included on the posthumously released Live in New York City (1986). Paul Weller, Duran Duran and U2 are among the acts who have covered “Instant Karma!” Its chorus also inspired the title to Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining.
Although still officially a member of the Beatles, Lennon had privately announced his departure from the band in September 1969. He was keen to issue “Instant Karma!” immediately as a single, the third under his and Ono’s Plastic Ono Band moniker. The recording session took place at Abbey Road Studios in north-west London, on the evening of 27 January. Lennon’s fellow musicians at the session were Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Billy Preston– all of whom had performed at the December 1969 Peace for Christmas Concert, as part of the Plastic Ono Supergroup. The recording engineer for “Instant Karma!” was EMI mainstay Phil McDonald. Spector produced the session, arriving late after Harrison had found him at Apple’s office and persuaded him to attend.
According to author Bruce Spizer, the line-up for the basic track, before overdubs, was Lennon (vocals, acoustic guitar), Harrison (electric guitar), Preston (organ), Voormann (bass) and White (drums). Lennon later recalled of the recording: “Phil (Spector) came in and said, ‘How do you want it?’ And I said, ‘1950s’ and he said ‘Right’ and BOOM! … he played it back and there it was.” The song uses a similar amount of echo to 1950s Sun Records recordings.
[T]here was this little guy walking around with “PS” on his shirt, and I was thinking, “Who is this guy?” … When he turned on the playback [after recording], it was just incredible. First, it was ridiculously loud, but also there was the ring of all these instruments and the way the song had such motion. As a first experience of the difference from the way you played it to the sound in the control room, it was overwhelming. And I knew immediately who he was – Phil Spector.
– Klaus Voormann, describing his first experience of working with Spector and his Wall of Sound technique
The musicians recorded ten takes, the last of which was selected for overdubbing. To create what Spector biographer Mark Ribowsky terms a “four-man Wall of Sound” production, Lennon added grand piano onto the basic track, while Harrison and White shared another piano and Voormann played electric piano. In addition, Beatles aide Mal Evans overdubbed chimes (or tubular bells) and White added a second, muffled drum part. Rather than an instrumental solo over the third verse, Lennon vocalised a series of what Urish and Bielen term “grunts and moan” Lennon felt that the chorus was missing something, and so Preston and Evans were sent to a nearby nightclub to bring in a group of people to provide backing vocals. These newcomers and all the musicians, along with Allen Klein, then added chorus vocals, with Harrison directing the singing.
Although Lennon and Spector disagreed over the bass sound, Lennon was delighted with the producer’s work on “Instant Karma”. White’s drums assumed the role of a lead instrument, positioned prominently in the mix. Spector biographer Richard Williams wrote in 1972: “No Beatles record had ever possessed such a unique sound; Spector had used echo to make the drums reverberate like someone slapping a wet fish on a marble slab, and the voices sounded hollow and decayed.” Spector wanted to add a string section to the track in Los Angeles, but Lennon insisted that the recording was complete.
Having only recently returned to producing, after the commercial failure of Ike & Tina Turner’s 1966 single “River Deep – Mountain High” in America, Spector had “passed the audition”, according to Beatles Forever author Nicholas Schaffner. “Instant Karma!” was the first of many Beatles-related recordings that Spector worked on during the early 1970s. Lennon and Harrison were sufficiently impressed with his production on the song that they asked Spector to work on the tapes for the Beatles’ final album release, Let It Be, and then to produce their respective 1970 solo albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass.