JOHN LENNON – ” Imagine ” Box Set

Posted: August 23, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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The news that John Lennon‘s 1971 album Imagine is to be reissued as a six-disc super deluxe edition box set, with outtakes, sessions, quad mix, demos etc., is exciting for a number of reasons.

First off, it’s one of only a handful of albums from ex-Beatles that truly approach ‘classic’ status. Lennon’s own John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is another and Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and the RAM albums could also probably be included.

Secondly, it sounds as if Imagine is getting a proper, almost forensic, examination. McCartney has reissued both albums mentioned above (Band on the Run twice) but he’s very stingy with bonus material (no ‘sessions’) and hasn’t bothered at all with surround sound, since the start of his long-running ‘archive collection’ campaign in 2010.

Being so close to the break-up of The Beatles and with Lennon and McCartney still exchanging jibes at each other through their music (‘Too Many People’/’How Do You Sleep?’) and beyond (early editions ofImagineincluded a postcard featuring Lennon holding a pig, mocking the cover of the RAM cover) John’s second solo studio album still feels part of the tail end of a Beatles narrative, rather than the start of his solo career.

Imagineset to be released on October 5th. The new John Lennon Imagine box set will include 140 tracks spread over four CDs and two Blu-rays including rare outtake recordings, previously unreleased demos, isolated recording track elements, and much more. In addition to the deluxe box set’s audio element, Imagine — The Ultimate Collection will include a lengthy book about the making of the album.

The deluxe box set, whose creation was overseen by Lennon’s widow and musical collaborator, Yoko Ono, aims to paint the complete picture of John’s creative process on the monumental LP. As engineer Paul Hicks explains in the accompanying book,

When John Lennon headed into the studio in 1971 to make his solo classic Imagine, wth Yoko Ono and Phil Spector, he had a lot to prove. He wanted to shake off the shadow of the Beatles, yet also build on the band’s legacy. He was itching to leave his ex-bandmates in the dust — Imagine has his notorious attack on Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” But he also wanted to come to terms with his past and embrace his future with Yoko. He wanted both raging protest songs and tender love ballads. He wanted it all. As he explained at the time, “I was still full of wanting my own space after being in the room with four guys, and always having to share everything, share shirts, share the same dry cleaner, the same everything.”

A previously unheard “raw studio mix” of John Lennon recording ‘How Do You Sleep?’ has been released. Stripped to the raw recording, with no effects like reverb or echo, it brings the listener into the studio during the recording of a classic Imagine track.

The “raw studio mix” captures all the intimacy of the recording session at Tittenhurt Park in Ascot, England. Present at the session were George Harrison, playing electric slide on Lennon’s pale blue Fender Strat; Rod Lynton with Ted Turner from Wishbone Ash, on twelve string acoustic guitars; Lennon and Harrison’s old friend Klaus Voormann on his hand-painted Fender Precision bass; Alan White on drums; John Tout, from Renaissance, on the Steinway upright piano; and Nicky Hopkins improvising on the red-top Wurlitzer Electric Piano, literally days before he leaves for Nellcôte to play on Exile On Main St with The Rolling Stones. Listening to the outtake is like being in the room as the track is captured.

Yoko was very keen that these Ultimate Mixes should achieve three things – to be totally faithful and respectful to the originals, be generally sonically clearer overall and should increase the clarity of John’s vocals. It’s about John’ she said. And she was right. His voice brings the biggest emotional impact to the album.

Here’s our pick of the eight most revelatory moments on Imagine: The Ultimate Collection.

“Imagine” (The Evolution Mix)
John’s most famous solo song expands on “Evolution Mix,” from the raw piano demo he taped in his bedroom to a polished studio confection. One fantastic version has John Tout’s vibes, John Barham’s harmonium and Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano for a droning feel. John marveled that such a politically outspoken song became a hit. As John says here, “The idea came like a child’s song, you know, and I wanted to keep it that way so a child could understand it. I sort of think of it as ‘Working Class Hero,’ only in child language … It’s the same story in a way, but it’s just sort of say it with, you know, powder paints.”

“Gimme Some Truth” (Take 4)
A gentle folk-rock approach, with John’s chiming guitar. At the end, John says defiantly, “This is the truth.” Phil Spector sneers dismissively: “It’s gettin’ there.” John replies, “Oh — wasn’t that it?”

“Jealous Guy” (Take 9)
A powerful version with acoustic guitar from Joey Molland and Tom Evans of Badfinger. Basing it on the White Album outtake “Child of Nature,” written in India with the Maharishi, John saw “Jealous Guy” as his anti-sentimental love song. “I think, ‘Get away from this romantic knight on horseback galloping in,’” John says in his commentary. “The parents, they were fed this guff about the knight in shining armor. And what happened was they got Sid and his braces and it wasn’t the same. He didn’t get Veronica Lake, he got Maggie and her hair curlers. That’s just as beautiful to me — that is love, too.”

“It’s So Hard” (Take 6)
An early bash with a raw guitar solo from John — “well, that was not bad” he admits at the end. The complete studio jam has soul legend King Curtis on sax — one of the Beatles’ Fifties rock & roll heroes — just before his tragic death. King Curtis was murdered on the streets of New York, a month after playing his sax solo. Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder sang at his funeral.

“Oh Yoko!” (Bahamas, 1969)
This may be most emotionally affecting moment in this collection. John and Yoko were in the Bahamas, en route to Montreal to stage their famous Bed-In for Peace. He busks the brand-new song for his friend and publicist Derek Taylor, just strumming his acoustic guitar with Yoko improvising harmonies. John toys with the song as he goes along, adding a bridge (“I want youuuu, baby!”) and lines that got cut, including “In the middle of the sea,” a touching in-joke given the ocean-child double meaning of Yoko Ono’s name. Halfway through the song, he explodes into a shout from his idol Little Richard: “A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!”

“How Do You Sleep?” (Takes 5 & 6)
A looser, funkier slink through John’s attack on his longtime songwriter partner, although John admits it’s more a song about conflicts within himself. “If I can’t have a fight with my best friend I don’t know who I can have a fight with.”

“I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” (Take 11)
A reggae jam, with Bobby Keys honkin’ on sax while Jim Keltner and Klaus Voorman sink into the groove. In one take, John apologizes in formal tones: “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I’m incapable of following my own head.”

“Oh My Love” (Take 6)
A stripped-down early version of the album’s most intimate love ballad, co-written with Yoko, featuring George Harrison on guitar. John’s voice cracks as he gets to the line “I see the clouds.” It’s a moment that sums up the songwriting collaboration between John and Yoko at full blast — and the joy of John discovering his own strength as a solo artist. Imagine remains as fresh and timely as it was in 1971 — all over this box set, you can hear why.

John Lennon

Back in 1971, Jim Keltner closed his eyes as he laid down the drums to John Lennon’s bittersweet ballad “Jealous Guy.” He knew he shouldn’t do it blind — the song was just so mesmerizing. He almost forgot that he was collaborating with the former Beatle.

“But when I opened my eyes and saw John singing on the microphone…” he trails off, recalling the moment . “That’s something I’ll never forget. It still gives me that same feeling today.” Beatles fans may know these songs by heart, but over the course of six discs, this box set dives deep into Lennon’s No. 1 solo album and brings listeners right into the studio. Throughout it all, however, one element stands the test of time and studio trickery: Lennon’s voice.

It all started at Ascot Studios, the London recording space built by Lennon and Yoko Ono on the grounds near their country home, Tittenhurst Park. Finally freed from public pressure, bureaucracy and bad vibes, the newly emancipated Beatle could work on his own terms.

Ono sees the studio as a mini-rebellion against the trappings of a mainstream pop band — and for a holistic “us.” “Both of us understood that it was very important to be honest and open,” she remembers. “Not for other people, but for ourselves.”

John Lennon photographed circa 1970.

Lennon’s first solo album,John Lennon/Plastic Ono Bandwas tortured, didactic and consumed with grief. With its follow-up, Imagine, he was ready to deliver similar messages in a more accessible package. The result was Lennon’s most commercially successful album, hung on its startling title track, which became a modern standard by earnestly depicting a world without hierarchy or dogma.

And its satellite songs were nearly as good: the elegant ballad “How?”, the apologetic “Jealous Guy,” and the bile-filled indictment of manipulative political figures “Gimme Some Truth.”

But even as those songs have saturated the public consciousness over nearly five decades, it turns out there were still ways to flatter the sound. Specifically, Lennon was notoriously insecure about his vocal ability, leading to lots of double-tracking and tape delay on the 1971 mixes.

And Phil Spector’s production, while forward-thinking, sometimes bore his mark a little too much; “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama,” in particular, swims in reverb and buries its powerful live-in-the-studio performance between Lennon, Keltner and bassist Klaus Voormann.

Engineers Paul Hicks and Rob Stevens took a unique, double-faced perspective to The Ultimate Collection. Hicks, a long-time Beatle comrade who worked on projects like Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, the remix album Let It Be… Naked and the Beatles’ 2009 remaster campaign, handled Disc 1’s Ultimate Mixes. He simply shone the original 1971 mix to a 2018 clarity without making it overly slick or modernized.

Stevens, who co-produced 1998’s The John Lennon Anthology with Ono, took Disc 3, called Raw Studio Mixes, which feature no strings, overdubs or decoration: simply the barest, driest version of the music, as if the listener was sitting in with the band. According to Stevens, the only way to access this ultra-pure version of Imagine was to drop his own ego.

“Let’s bring up these faders, let’s forget who it is, let’s forget it’s a legend,” he remembers of the process behind Raw Studio Mixes. “Otherwise, you’re listening through a filter of ‘This is freaking John from the Beatles. This is John who sang ‘No one, I think, is in my tree,’ and made me sit there with my jaw dropped.’”

While Hicks’ presentation of Imagine is simmering and subtle, recommended for acolytes of the original mix, it’s by design that Stevens would go deepest into what actually happened in the room. Lennon’s living bandmates on Imagine — Keltner, Voormann and drummer Alan White — all hear John’s sweet-and-sour voice, accompanied by guitar or piano, as all you need from the man.

“It was always a mistake,” says Voormann, now one of John’s oldest friends and collaborators in the visual and musical realms. “He hated his voice. He told me he didn’t like his voice. But you can get much more into John’s feelings when you don’t have those effects.”

Keltner, who drummed on “Jealous Guy” and “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” agrees that less is more with Lennon: “He had one of the greatest voices ever. But he was a searcher. He loved to have things not how they were.” Voormann, who’s perhaps known Lennon the longest of the Imagine crew, agrees. “You can get much more into John’s feelings when you don’t have those effects.”

Despite being apprehensive about his voice, Lennon was, by all accounts, more relaxed than ever at Ascot. Alan White, who drums on most of Imagine, recalls a “homey” atmosphere where all involved shared meals around a big wooden table. “It was informal,” White says, “But there was a sense of the meaningfulness of the songs. John would give us the lyrics beforehand to make sure we knew what they meant and what we were saying to the world.”

The Ultimate Collection is not the first re-release of Imagine, but it is by far the most extensive, spanning four CDs and two Blu-Ray discs in a visually arresting, Ono-curated package. “This is it for Imagine, as far as I can… imagine,” Hicks says with a chuckle. “There’s nothing else. We’ve gone through all the tapes.”

Stevens also sees this box set as the logical finish line for an album that has continued to ensnare new fans over the last several decades. “The reason the word ‘ultimate’ was used was because that was the intention,” he says. “If you wanted to put out an Imagine that was more comprehensive and artistic than this one, good luck.”

In addition to the announcement of the box set, John Lennon’s camp is revisiting the video components of the album’s initial release. The Imagine film and its companion documentary, Gimme Some Truth, were re-mastered frame-by-frame from the original film negative and completely remixed from the ground up from the original audio multi-tracks in stunning Dolby Atmos and 7.1 Surround Sound, this collage of colour, sound, dream and reality and star John Lennon and Yoko Ono with George Harrison, Fred Astaire, Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Dick Cavett, and many more.

The ground-breaking music film directed by John and Yoko is coming to cinemas on September 17th

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