Imagine by John Lennon - an Analysis of the Song
The Song, not the Singer
The idea was to write about John Lennon's song, Imagine, not about John himself, the Beatles, Liverpool, Yoko Ono, New York, his assassination, or anything else. So I'll try to do exactly that. I will even restrict myself to the lyrical and musical aspects of the song, not its popularity, sources, later influence, and so on. Here goes...
This song, as conceived and as first recorded, is deceptively simple. It consists of a short intro on piano, two verses, a chorus, a third verse, and a repeat of the chorus, followed by a brief 'playout' which is more or less a recap of the intro, turned to close on the tonic chord.
But the song has inner strength. The simplicity is indeed deceptive. There are subtleties in the structure and execution. Also, the lyric, though superficially platitudinous, never oversteps itself, and is in fact genuinely challenging to the open mind.
Imagine is in the key of C Major, the simplest key in western music.
The four bar intro is alternate bars of C (the tonic) and F (the subdominant). Guitar transcriptions usually put Cmaj7 on beat four of bars 1 & 3, but that is only to recognise the passing note B in the piano right hand melody.
The verse harmony is simple in that it changes only on beat one of each bar:
C / / / :F / / / :C / / / :F / / / :
C / / / :F / / / :C / / / :F / / / :
Am / / /:Dm / / /:G / / /:G7 / / /:
But the first surprise is that the verse is 12 bars long and ends on the dominant seventh. Verse two immediately follows verse one, with exactly the same harmonic structure.
The chorus follows - You may say I'm a dreamer...
F / G / :C / E7 / : F / G / :C / E7 / :
F / G / :C / E7 / : F / G / :C / C / :
And the chorus, though moving at the same tempo, changes harmony twice as fast, on beats one and three. Also, the E7 chord, with its G#, which invariably falls on a vocal silence, gives an optimistic brightness to the progression, which, till now has been firmly rooted in the C-major scale. This is a standard 'Dixieland' progression, but not commonplace in rock-derivative music.
One last observation. The song has this structure:
Find me another that does this before telling me Imagine is ordinary.
There is some elegant structuring here. Each of the three verses begins "Imagine" and answers with an empathetic comment. And each verse is more challenging than the one before. So, we have:
- Imagine there's no Heaven - It's easy if you try
- Imagine there's no countries - It's not so hard to do
- Imagine no possession - I wonder if you can
Let's just look again. There can be nothing greater than Heaven, but John saw that it is easy if you try to imagine it away. And so it is. Countries - much lesser than Heaven, yet much harder to get rid of, though, to an open mind, not so hard to do. Finally possessions - as petty as we can get, but John realised that most of us could not imagine a world with no possession - I wonder if you can - excellent writing, John!
This crescendo of challenges that forms the opening of each verse is answered by a similar set of three imaginings to close each verse. This time, we have:
Imagine all the people...
- living for today
- living life in peace
- sharing all the world
These are also fascinating. In context, living for today is not an apology for Hedonism. It is not 'living for the moment' in a selfish way. It is in fact very much an echo of the Sermon on the Mount - 'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin'. Then, living life in peace - here is the realisation that most people merely want to live out their lives peacefully. John had previously written Give Peace a Chance, a protest song for peace. But in Imagine there is no protest, no blame, only hope. Finally, sharing all the world is not about dividing out the spoils. It follows naturally from an opening of borders, a geographical sharing, the consequence of living at peace, without countries. This song stands up on every level.
Now the chorus - You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one - Look how he doesn't instruct. He merely acknowledges that you, the listener, might not yet have considered these things, but others have. I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one - only 'I hope', no unrealistic expectation, no instruction.
And throughout the whole lyric, there is no anger, no frustration. Nothing but patience, hope and concern for humanity at large.
(This equanimity does not pervade every song on the Imagine album, but John Lennon was always a complex character. He gave us Imagine, as the title track of his signature solo album, and we can be sure it was no accident).