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Imagine John Lennon at 70

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This weekend, Yoko Ono unveiled an English Heritage blue plaque at the first home she shared with John Lennon in London. This adds yet another tribute to celebrate the music legend’s 70th anniversary of his birth this month (born: 9 October 1940).  In fact, 2010 has steadily glimmered with “in remembrances of” the much-adored former Beatle too many to count: from movies (Nowhere Boy) to benefit concerts, museum exhibits to walking tours, and even time capsules.

All these efforts stem from, and are directed towards, a common desire: to re-create the magic of Lennon’s troubled soul, or to scratch the surface to inch oneself closer to the wild and woolly genius of a man who still pervades the music landscape today.  No doubt, any such Lennon-inspired endeavor is an ambitious, formidable calling to embark on; and with “Imagine” widely helmed as one of the greatest songs of this generation (with even an ice cream to commemorate its spirit) there is much that could go wrong or fall flat in a cover of the 1971 classic. Not many singers could dabble with such an iconic song without making the most innocent of radio listeners cringe.

Bed-In for Chocolate Peace

So imagine my surprise to chance upon a recently released, and so hauntingly appropriate, cover of “Imagine” from Antony & The Johnsons.  Sung from a first-person perspective and also a futuristic perspective, Antony Hegarty breathes — and then evaporates — a much-yearned for freshness into the overexposed chart-topper.  And just like that, “Imagine” is reborn: what a delicately explosive way to bring back Lennon from the future, right-hippy-centre into our memories.

With its spine chilling tone, Hegarty admits that his cover of “Imagine” is bleaker than Lennon’s original, and supposes that it is “not the most hopeful version of the song you can imagine.” But on the contrary, its as hopeful as it could ever be; for in reminding us that as talented singers as Antony Hegarty are living among us today, it gives us pint-fulls to cheer about.

Bed-In for Swirled Toffee Fudge Peace anyone? 

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About Pamela Qiu

  • An interesting interpretation of what is quite possibly the most overrated song in pop music history.

    I like the sense of failure Hegarty conveys through his delivery…that the dream didn’t come true – never will come true.

  • Pamela, I have always seen “Imagine” as an anthem in many ways, and this is interesting because I didn’t know about a “new” version. Why tinker with a classic?

    Anyway, if you listen to Lennon’s version, I’m not sure it is as hopeful as people tend to think it is. It is actually very wistful, and there is a tinge of sadness in Lennon’s voice. It echoes in the words and reminds me of someone wanting something but knowing it could never be.

  • Victor, I have to ask – why not tinker with a classic? After all, Lennon himself did so on numerous occasions by reinterpreting classic songs, both during and after the Beatles.

    I agree with you about Lennon’s original not being as hopeful as it’s often thought to be. I would go a step further and suggest that Lennon didn’t truly want to see his “vision” in Imagine become reality. He was a self-acknowledged violent person, who seemed to realize that provocation, confrontation, and struggle are all part of human nature.

    Speaking of tinkering with a classic, remember that Lennon revised the lyrics in a couple of subtle but revealing ways after releasing his original version. “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can” became less finger-wagging in live versions as “I wonder if WE can.” Less effective was switching “A brotherhood of man” to “A brotherhood/sisterhood of man” – my point being, these alterations suggest Lennon may not have thought of his song as a final thesis statement.

  • Thanks both for your comments, do very much appreciate them because they (a) made me think harder the meaning behind covers (and the many different motivations for them); as well as (b) reminded me of how any given song can be perceived by each individual quite differently.

    To Victor’s simple question on why tinker with a classic?, i think there are many reasons, of which one is the desire to put oneself in another’s shoes (i.e. that of the original singer) and to feel the same depth of emotion as one sings it. To know, and draw some degree of comfort, that we as fellow humans/people do share certain common emotional experiences and/or yearnings — despite the fact that everyone’s life histories and stories are completely different.

    Given each one’s personal experiences, relationships and perceptions of the world, everybody will interpret and relate to a particular song quite differently. And I think one reason why a particular song can be considered evergreen or classic – or as you say, an anthem – is because it touches many people from all walks of life; many can relate to it, albeit to each his/her own way.

    It is a classic song precisely because it speaks to many people. People want to sing it because they feel it represents what they feel, what they could not express in their own words or melodies before, for whatever reason. But in “re-producing” this classic song, it is almost always inevitable that one personalises it (i.e. tinkers with it), bringing one’s own experiences back into life through the song.

    I think there are other reasons why covers are important. I would like to take some time to structure and pen these thoughts down, I think it would make for an interesting new post =)

  • To The Other Chad: I was in the midst of typing down my comments and only just saw your most recent post (pointing out Lennon’s own revisions to his song). Thanks for that! Reminded me also that Lennon was still evolving as an artist at the time of his premature death, and to feel a sense of loss on never being able to find out what path he would take.

    Like many others, I was not even born when Lennon was shot, so I really missed out on following his music in real-time, and only appreciated his music far later than I should have.

  • Pamela, I agree with your take on the importance of covers – I hope you do write an article exploring that subject.

    After hearing Antony Hegarty’s version of “Imagine,” I was reminded of a couple other stellar Lennon songs that were brilliantly covered, both at Lennon tribute concerts. If you haven’t heard them you might find them interesting.

    1990 Terrence Trent D’Arby: “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”

    2001 Lou Reed: “Jealous Guy”