It is the ultimate peace anthem; an ode to idealism. But Imagine is also a song about love. When it was composed, in 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had been together for three years. She was lambasted by some as the ‘dragon lady’ who had broken up Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia – and, in the process, The Beatles. Yet, as a new book from Thames & Hudson suggests, Ono was misrepresented – even when it came to being credited for a song’s creation. In a 1980 interview reprinted in Imagine John Yoko, Lennon admits that Ono was equally responsible for Imagine; in 2017, Ono was formally recognised as co-writer of the iconic song.
As the book shows, through a collection of rarely seen photos and archive interviews along with insider accounts detailing the making of the album, Lennon and Ono inspired each other from their first meeting.
In 1966, Lennon went to a preview of Ono’s show at the Indica gallery in London, and wanted to contribute to a piece called Hammer a Nail in. But Ono was reluctant to let him, as she recalls in an archive interview in the book. “I said, ‘All right, if he pays five shillings, it’s okay,’ because I decided that my painting will never sell anyway.”
Lennon had another idea, adding in the interview: “I said, ‘Listen I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in, is that okay?’ And her whole trip is this: ‘Imagine this, imagine that.’”
Ono replies: “Imagine, imagine. So I was thinking, ‘Oh, here’s a guy who’s playing the same game I’m playing.’ And I was really shocked you know, I thought, ‘Who is it?’”
She didn’t recognise John. “I 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.”
Ono offered John a way back into art. “I always had this dream of meeting an artist woman I would fall in love with. Even from art school… It was like finding gold or something.” Seeing her show unlocked something in him. “There was a sense of humour in her work, you know? It was funny,” he said in the interview. “Her work really made me laugh, some of it. So that’s when I got interested in art again, just through her work.”
One 1964 work, in particular, would help to create Imagine. Yoko’s book Grapefruit includes several ‘event scores’ that went on to influence Lennon. They feature the lines “Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” (Cloud Piece); “Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky” (Drinking Piece for Orchestra); “Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time.” (Tunafish Sandwich Piece).
John acknowledged that debt. “There’s a lot of pieces in it saying like ‘imagine this’ or ‘imagine that’,” he said about Grapefruit. “Imagine could never have been written without her. And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. So that song was actually written by John and Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it. The song itself expresses what I’d learned through being with Yoko and my own feelings on it. It should really have said ‘Lennon/Ono’ on that song, because she contributed to a lot of that song.”
In the book, Ono reveals how they had to face a negative reaction as a couple, despite what appeared to be a radical, free-thinking culture in London. “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,” she said. “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… their hipness ended at the point where John, their ringleader, chose an Oriental woman as his partner.
“We didn’t realise there was so much racism… I would not say it was easy, but it was an education for us. A good experience. We always tried to deal with a lot of difficult situations, John and I, with a bit of a sense of humour and a sense of fun.”
Ono recognised this was also a part of Imagine. “John and I met – he comes from the West and I come from the East – and still we are together,” she said in 1980. “We have this oneness and ‘the whole world would eventually become one’ is the sense that we will all be café-au-lait colour and we will all be very happy together.”
The song, in a way, deals with imagining another world on the level of two people – as well as in a larger sense. “George Orwell and all these guys have projected very negative views of the future. And imagining a projection is a very strong magic power,” said Ono. “I mean that. That’s the way society was created. And so, because they’re setting up all these negative images, that’s gonna create the society. So we were trying to create a more positive image, which is, of course, gonna set up another kind of society.”
Lennon referenced humans’ desire to fly – “which might’ve taken us a long time, but it took somebody to imagine it first”. He explained his reasoning. “People said, ‘You’re naive, you’re dumb, you’re stupid.’ It might have hurt us on a personal level to be called names, but what we were doing – you can call it magic, meditation, projection of goal – which business people do, they have courses on it. The footballers do it. They pray, they meditate before the game… People project their own future. So, what we wanted to do was to say, ‘Let’s imagine a nice future.’” Ono describes how they felt about Imagine at the time: “We both liked the song a lot but we honestly didn’t realise it would turn into the powerful song it has, all over the world… We just did it because we believed in the words and it just reflected how we were feeling.” According to Lennon, “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.”