John Lennon’s “Imagine”

Album cover for John Lennon's Imagine

This week, I’ve been listening to John Lennon’sImagine” from 1971. “Imagine” was Lennon’s second solo album after leaving The Beatles. My friend Mike Frost in High School listen to this CD a lot. He frequently played “Oh Yoko” for me, because it was my favorite. That was a couple decades ago, so I’d actually forgotten much of the album.

I was at first excited to get back into it, but on the first day I was underwhelmed. It seemed this album was overrated just because it was by John Lennon. The overly long “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier” and the generic blues of the cheeky “It’s So Hard” failed to impress me. I mostly skipped the song “Imagine” simply because I’ve heard it a million times. Shame actually, because it’s an amazing song.

At the end of the week I was still saying the album was overrated, but realized upon reflection that I was wrong. The majority of the album is very good, even if there are some duds. It was actually difficult to narrow down which song I would focus on here. I opted to exclude “Jealous Guy” even though it is a beautiful tune; I also did not include Oh Yoko!” despite that fact I’ve loved it for years. Much of what I’d have to say about it can also be said about “Crippled Inside”

“Crippled Inside” dances like a jaunty country-western pace on a vaudevillian stage. The song opens with finger-picked dobro guitar with slap-back delay, somewhat consistent with the delay Lennon often uses on his vocals. After that melodic intro, the guitar is joined by drums, honky-tonk piano, upright basses, acoustic guitar and slide dobro.

The verses follow a I-I7-IV-IV7-I-VI7-II7-V-I progression; simplified this is a I-IV-I-VI-II-V-I. The bass walks down that VI7 – II7 change to descend with the lines “One thing you can’t hide”, which is answered with the gently ascending “Is when you’re crippled inside.”

Each verse has the couplet refrain rhyming “hide” and “inside”. The first two lines of both verses rhyme “hymn/skin” and “face/race” and the third line has a long I vowel (“tie” and “die”) for a slant-rhyme with the refrain “hide/inside” rhyme.

The melody lines of the vocals are continued by trills on the piano and slide guitar. These keeps a constant flow going through the track while maintaining that country-western feel. I really love the sound of that dobro and piano combination.

The vitrolic track “All I Want Is Some Truth” jumps into Lennon protesting hypocrisy, politicians, critics, and bigotry. Or really, just about anything that grinding his gears. They’re well-written, pointed, lyrics; though, I can imagine an on-the-street interview with a young person on the streets in 1971: “Why you are gathered here today?” ” I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians. All I want is the truth; just give me some truth.” And that’s part of why the song is so perfect for it’s time. I also really like Lennon’s vocal delivery, which has the same bitterness to it as the words.

The music however gets tiresome as it repeats the same short phrases over and over. The vocals are really what carry this song, with the accompaniment providing a beat and mood. That’s the basic job of accompaniment, but I feel it should provide more. The best part is the slide guitar, which was played by former Beatles bandmate George Harrison.

George Harrison also plays on the best song on the album that’s not “Jealous Guy”: “How Do You Sleep.” It seems odd to me that Harrison would play on a McCartney diss track. While it’s wholly inline with Lennon’s personality, it doesn’t seem like Harrison’s style.

As with the rest of the album, we’re hearing traditional rock instruments: drum, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric piano, and vocals. There’s also some unobtrusive strings providing background padding, and occasionally between vocals lines giving some Indian motifs. For the most part, these instruments are with very minimal effects. There’s a little overdrive and reverb, plus some tight delay, but otherwise a very clean sound.

Again, one of the best parts of the song is Harrison’s guitar playing. You can watch him play in recently released outtake footage on Youtube. The bass played by Klaus Voorman, especially during the chorus, gives the song great movement and bounce. Each of these instruments are interacting with each other in a united conversation. The conversation goes back and forth, each reacting to the other.

There are some incredible tracks on this album, but overall I think it is a little week, especially in the middle. It opens with three great songs and closes with three great song, then there’s four songs in the middle that I could mostly do without. Oh well.

The Beatles’ “The Beatles”

The Beatles: The Beatles

This week, I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 “white album” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Such a variety of fantastic songs fill this double LP that I find it difficult to generalize or say only a few things. A week was not enough. This is probably my second favorite Beatles album. It opens with the rocking “Back in the U.S.S.R.“, closes with the gentle “Goodnight”, and journeys through a spectrum of Beatles styles on the way.

The noisy chaos of “Helter Skelter” makes it one of my favorites. The song nearly gets away from The Beatles, as if they’ve created a monster that they can’t keep up with. I believe they were inspired by The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” and you can certainly hear the influence. The drummer pounds on the snare and cymbals as if he’s afraid nobody will hear him over the other instruments. There’s brilliantly fuzzed guitar constantly provides an atmospheric noise in the background; A raw punk bass angrily struggles to keep up with the drums; A lead guitar plays a descending riff after the vocals in an attempt to keep things grounded. The vocals too are strained. Even though they are playing together, all of the elements are fighting to be up-front and the loudest. It’s the greatest. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” enters has a similar feel, but with less chaos. I love them both.

I didn’t care for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when I was younger, but I actually like it quite a bit now. The rhythm puts unusual emphasis on the first and second beat. There’s a kick on the first and second beat of most measures and a snare on the third. This gives an almost trudging sense to the song, because this is a typical drum pattern played half speed. The muted fuzz electric guitar drives along on the first and second beats also, resting for the second half of each bar. The beautiful lead guitar solos sometimes melt into the organ, while a syncopated piano plays in the background. The way the instruments play against and with each other throughout the song really grew on my throughout the week.

“Dear Prudence” opens with a what sounds like finger-picking on an electric guitar and a quieter acoustic guitar. The arpeggios spin like a carousel; a glissando-filled bass-line in the next verse enhances that spinning sensation. At the end of each section, there is a rest before the the next begins. Each section adds layers of instruments building up to the final section. Another electric guitar joins about halfway, during the “look around, round, round” bridge, letting us know that the big finish is coming: an optimistic coda “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you.”

I’ll also add that I’ve always loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Dear Prudence. I don’t know if Robert Smith of The Cure played in the song, but he does show up in the music video.

The Beatles’ “Revolver”

Revolver album cover

I’ve spent the past week with The Beatles’ 1966 album “Revolver“, listening for what I take away from this album as a songwriter to improve my craft? I went in and out of feeling underwhelmed by the album, but there were some songs that I particularly enjoyed. For me, this is not one of the Beatles better albums. Sure, some tracks are great with very good songwriting. But musically, some of the songs seem rather thin on ideas and I got tired of them after a few days. The first song provides a good example.

The opener “Taxman” starts with a lead-in count, “1. 2. 3. 4.”, appropriate given the often rough raw feel of the album. The complaints about tax collectors, “if you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet”, is not particularly interesting to me. The song reminds me of The Fall with its repetitive punk sound, but lacks the colorful attitude of Mark E. Smith. In contrast, sophisticated-sounding strings provide the only accompaniment in the second track “Eleanor Rigby“. This contrast between songs keeps the whole engaging.

My favorite track, “For No One” features some particularly good songwriting. Engaging imagery draws the tale of a relationship’s end. There’s some exposition, but there’s a delicate subtlety in the telling; This is why it’s so heartbreaking. In addition, the lyrics utilize an unusual second-person perspective to put the listener in the story. A sense of detached going through the process of a breakup runs through the lyrics and it’s emphasized by the rhythm of the piano and vocals during the verses. They read like “step 1.. step 2..”. I particularly enjoy the faraway sound of the piano. This combined with the french horn solo creates a poignant atmosphere of nostalgia that is suits the lyric perfectly. Some days I could not stop listening to this one.

It’s followed by the fairly fun romp “Doctor Robert”, but I often found I skipped it like “Taxman”. I think it could do with a few less “Doctor Robert”s.

I also love the fuzz guitar and rambunctious drums in “She Said She Said”. An annoying high-pitched note plays on the organ through much of the song like tinnitus. Thankfully a song this good can withstand the attempts of one instrument to ruin it. Reversed drums add an almost-but-not-quite psychedelic feel as well as contribute to the forward motion of the song. It’s interesting that different sections of the song have similar accompaniment but different vocals.. and then some sections have much different accompaniment.

Overall, I think there are some interesting tracks on this album that are well worth a songwriter’s time to study. There’s several weaker tracks. Even though “Yellow Submarine” has a playful childish quality that makes it fun, it also makes it so that after a few listens I’ve had enough.

The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover

This week I’ve listened to the 1967 album by The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“. I’ve noticed how simple many of the instruments’ individual parts are. A lead guitar will appear, play a few notes, and then disappear for a few bars; While underneath there may be this constant bed of chords played rhythmically on the piano, almost as if some krautrock or Velvet Underground is being played on a radio in the other room. I was reminded frequently by this album of the importance of letting an instrument rest. Also, of how the bass line can be provide interest. In contrast to most rock music, the bass guitar frequently provides melodic counterpoint. Even though much of the individual parts are simple, the accompaniment is made interesting by the way they are layered. They’ve pieced together something fairly complex from mostly simple elements. Ultimately, it became apparent to me the real focus of these songs, musically. The melodies drive every songs. Most of the rest serves to support the vocals.

“Within You Without You” is the only track I do not like. I appreciate what Harrison was doing, but it bores me quickly. Musically, the song sounds nice yet goes nowhere. Lyrically, the song sounds like a hippie neophyte getting excited about Hinduism and I just don’t think it holds up well. I skip the song every time and it improves the album on a whole. It’s not really a Beatles song and it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album; which is definitely something since there’s so much variety on the album otherwise.

A Day in the Life” is absolutely my favorite track. Some very simple instrumentation opens the song with a single acoustic guitar. Piano and bass soon join in. All of these are gently played, especially coming out of the noise and applause from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”. Congas, shaker, and then the drum kit soon join. On top of this accompaniment, John sings beautifully at a relaxed pace. Each line of the lyrics are observational, but end with a sense of questions unanswered that makes the following line welcome. A vague thread of narrative holds these lines together, like old news footage re-filmed through the lens of Godard.

Then the song transitions into McCartney’s section. I’ve always though the transition was too long and dramatic, but the jaunty mid-section makes it worth it. Lyrically, the play between the two sections is interesting. Lennon’s lines are observational of vague events in the outside world with a sense of distant helpless; McCartney’s are very personal events on a smaller scale with a sense of immediate urgency. And that contrast leads to further unanswered questions. The lyrics are descriptive while leaving room for the listener to drop in and find their own interpretations. This is completely a great song and provides much to learn for songwriters.

Some call this the greatest album of all time. I can understand recognizing the importance of the album’s influence, but I wouldn’t go that call it the greatest. I wouldn’t even say it’s the Beatles’ best album, it’s certainly not my favorite. That honor would probably go to “Abbey Road”. There are some great songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, though. In addition to “A Day in the Life”, I also love “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Fixing a Hole”, “When I’m 64”, and “Lovely Rita”. Good stuff.