You May Say I’m a Dreamer
Much like the artist who created it, John Lennon’s Imagine has always been an album of contradictions. While its dreamy, idealized title track has become an anthem for generations, the same LP veers from heartbreaking vulnerability (“Jealous Guy”) and expressions of romance (“Oh My Love,” “Oh Yoko!”) to a withering, personal jab at a friend (“How Do You Sleep”) to powerfully pointed social commentary (“Crippled Inside,” “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die,” “Gimme Some Truth”). With 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the artist had offered a visceral illustration of his mental and emotional state, inspired by the “primal scream” teachings of Dr. Arthur Janov to strip his songs down to their bare, bold essence. On its 1971 follow-up Imagine, Lennon nudged the eclectic compositions in a more pop-oriented vein (even dipping back to the Beatles days for a couple of tracks) without sacrificing the raw honesty and powerful immediacy that characterized Plastic Ono Band.
In 2018, Imagine isn’t celebrating a significant anniversary, but its messages and observations are more relevant than ever. It’s no wonder, then, that the new box set celebrating its legacy is so compelling today. Imagine: The Ultimate Collection [Super Deluxe Box], curated by original album co-producer Yoko Ono and Simon Hilton, explores the making of Lennon’s classic album via every imaginable (no pun intended) angle over the course of four CDs and two Blu-rays. These discs retrace the trajectory of the album from basic instrumental elements to alternate takes, extended versions, and new mixes of both the album and its related singles in stereo and surround sound. An audio documentary adds further context. The result is an immersive, expansive journey with Lennon, Ono, and their eclectic collaborators including George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Nicky Hopkins, King Curtis, Alan White, Joey Molland and Tom Evans of Badfinger, string group The Flux Fiddlers, Broadway orchestrator Torrie Zito, and co-producer Phil Spector.
How Can I Go Forward?
The box set can be divided into primarily eight “chapters”: The Album, Singles & Extras, The Quadrasonic Mixes, The Out-takes, The Raw Studio Mixes – Extended Studio Versions, The Raw Studio Mixes – Out-takes, The Elements Mixes, and The Evolution Documentary. Each one of these chapters is sequenced just like the album, from “Imagine” to “Oh Yoko!” plus extras. So, in essence, the listener is getting eight different versions of the album (actually more, because every sequence other than the mono documentary and one section of Out-takes is playable in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround). Elliot Mintz’s interviews with John and Yoko serve as a bonus feature, or ninth chapter.
Unlike some packages in which the Blu-ray discs are mere afterthoughts echoing of the CD contents, the two Blu-rays here are an integral part of the package, with additional content not on the CDs. (It’s no accident that they’re housed first in the folder containing all six discs.) The first BD presents Paul Hicks’ newly-remixed album in both high-resolution stereo (24/96) and 5.1 surround. The stereo remix successfully adds “air,” or additional dimension, to the original recordings while remaining largely faithful to the vision of John, Yoko and Phil Spector. The surround version, naturally, takes more liberties but is a fascinating alternative if perhaps not as adventurous as it could have been with vocal and instrumental placement. (An exception is the harmonica at the end of “Oh Yoko!,” gleefully moving from channel to channel.) Excitingly, all of the assorted extras (including non-LP singles like “Power to the People” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”) have also been remixed into stereo and surround. Additionally, BD 1 has the original quadraphonic mix mastered at 24/96 resolution plus stereo mixes of sixteen outtakes. The quad mix opens up the soundstage in a wholly different, but still tasteful, manner than the new 5.1 mix.
Lastly, this disc boasts 16 studio “Out-takes” (really, alternate takes, as there are no unheard songs here). These comprise the first peeks behind the curtain of the making of Imagine. The original piano and voice demo and first take of “Imagine” both reveal the song as fully-formed while still markedly rawer than the final version. The original instrumentation (including electric piano, harmonium, and vibes) was subsequently stripped back; the vibes and harmonium were gone by Take 2, while Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano survived through Take 7. (Those takes aren’t included, however.) “Crippled Inside” similarly had its rollicking feel from the get-go; on Take 6, we hear a tasty, alternate George Harrison dobro solo.
Take 11 of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is taut and funky, while Take 6 of the tender “Oh My Love” is beautifully sensitive. John famously double-tracked his vocals, but this take has his simple, unadorned voice at its most charming. Whereas “How Do You Sleep” is lean and lacks the strings heard in the final version, Take 31 of “How?” has additional instrumentation from a vibraphone. The non-album bonus tracks are also explored here in their embryonic states. A raw, boogie-ing take of “Power to the People” showcases Bobby Keys’ honking saxophone, lending the song a sense of swing not entirely present in the final track. The alternate, stripped-down mix of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is without the children’s chorus, lending greater clarity to Yoko’s voice and the guitar parts.
The first two album sequences on Blu-ray 2 are under the umbrella of The Raw Studio Mixes. How do these tracks differ from the alternates on the first disc? Those were mixed in the style of the original album despite their differences in vocals and instrumentation. As mixed by Rob Stevens and mastered by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound, the Raw Studio Mixes are, crucially, stripped of all production techniques like reverb or tape delays. The performances are exactly as you might hear them if you were present at John and Yoko’s Ascot Sound Studios during the recording sessions. While these tracks sound crystalline in stereo, the surround versions are the ones to hear. The 5.1 tracks haven’t been mixed in traditional semicircle mode with the performers up front and ambiance in the rear channels. Instead, the listener is placed in the middle of the soundstage. In other words, the listener could walk channel to channel as it’s playing to hone in on a particular instrument. Such striking placement puts each component of the song into sharp focus.
The Raw Studio Mixes, divided into Extended Album Versions and Out-takes, underscore just how radically Spector, Lennon, and Ono produced Imagine. These mixes aren’t merely “de-Spectorized,” but rather make for a “live” alternative album. This includes plenty of false starts and spontaneous chat from the artist, whether his expressive and specific instructions to the band before and during Take 1 of the searing “How Do You Sleep,” his goofing around before calling “Fade!” on Take 1 of “Oh Yoko!” or his endearing whistling of “Jealous Guy” on Take 29. Spector is heard in a testy exchange with Yoko prior to another take of that ebullient tune. Jim Keltner is on fire playing percussion on Take 21 from the first recording of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier;” a subsequent version (for which another eleven takes were made) appeared on Imagine.
The most daring album sequence is presented under the banner of The Elements Mixes. For these primarily instrumental versions, the producers have selected key elements from the original multitrack tapes and created a mix emphasizing one element previously “buried” in the mix. Torrie Zito’s string arrangement for “Imagine” now stands on its own as a piece of beautiful music. His dramatic scores for The Flux Fiddlers are also heard on “It’s So Hard,” “How Do You Sleep,” and “How.” (The strings for “How Do You Sleep” approach ominous territory!)
Naturally, the evocative piano is isolated in “Jealous Guy” along with just bass and drums. “Crippled Inside,” with just upright bass and drums, is almost unrecognizable as the song (you’ll hear faint bleed of John’s vocal, however). “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” is heard, power-trio style, with just guitar, bass and drums plus a bit of King Curtis’ wailing sax. A couple of Elements Mixes concentrate on the vocals. “Oh My Love” becomes stunning a cappella with just John’s double-tracked vocals, while “Oh Yoko!” is mixed as an acoustic version.
The box set further distinguishes itself with the presence of The Evolution Documentary. This audio documentary (created and edited by Sam Gannon, and presented in mono due to the varying sources) traces the development of each song on the album through John and Yoko’s own words and audio snippets from early takes to the finished masters. In one sense, The Evolution Documentary is a mini-box set itself with its snippets of demos, rehearsals, extensive studio chatter, and various takes.
Most of the material here is not on the box proper, however, including impromptu jams on Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and Chuck Willis’ “What Am I Living For?” as well as John exaggeratedly warbling “Crippled Inside” (describing it as “very corny country-and-western”) and trying out “Oh My Love” quietly as if for himself only, George noodling on his dobro, the isolated background singers passionately tackling “Power to the People,” and other fly-on-the-wall moments (“George Martin used to let us play around,” John observes at one point during the “Jealous Guy” sessions). The old Harrison/Lennon camaraderie evinces, too, as they interact recording “How Do You Sleep.” Lennon’s sense of humor shines through brightly, as well as flashes of anger and frustration when a take is interrupted. These tastes are all very tantalizing, leaving one to wonder what a complete sessions set might have been like. The second Blu-ray is rounded out by Imagine John & Yoko – The Elliot Mintz Interviews, narrated by the present-day Mintz and culled from his candid, revealing, and often funny interviews with the duo over the years.
Four CDs supplement the two Blu-ray discs, reprising the new stereo mix of the album, singles, and extras; the full Raw Studio Mixes – Extended Album Versions; and truncated versions of The Out-takes, The Raw Studio Mixes – The Out-takes, The Elements Mixes, and The Evolution Documentary. Though the Blu-rays offer about seventeen more tracks, the selection on CD is nonetheless generous.
I Was Dreaming of the Past
In every aspect, Imagine: The Ultimate Collection is a class act. Its sturdy slipcase contains a folder with the discs as well as a lavish 120-page hardcover book. This copiously illustrated volume features a preface by Ono, original album art and full lyrics, and chapters on every song with Kevin Howlett’s detailed text plus full credits and recording information (personnel, number of takes, etc.). There are notes on all of the different listening experiences, including surround sound placement maps and a printed version of the Elliot Mintz interviews (for those not equipped to listen on Blu-ray). This is a truly exhaustive text, and an essential component of the box set’s deep dive into the Lennon/Ono archives. (A separate, oversized Imagine coffee table book also released this fall is designed in a similarly arresting fashion and fills in more details of Lennon and Ono’s lives during the Imagine period. Newly restored versions of the films Imagine and Gimme Some Truth with bonus content have also been released on Blu-ray and DVD.)
The sonics throughout the set are also top-notch. The CD sound is exemplary but those equipped for Blu-ray should take advantage of the high-resolution audio and surround formats. Unfortunately, the audio or color buttons on a Blu-ray remote control do not allow the listener to switch between stereo and surround, and navigation of the Blu-rays may not easy for those whose players aren’t connected to a screen.
That the music of Imagine is still vital goes without saying; within the past month alone, Yoko Ono, Barbra Streisand, and 2 Cellos have all recorded “Imagine” on high-profile new releases. On the original album, John Lennon held a mirror to both himself and society, and in doing so, created an enduring masterwork that has never lost its universal appeal. Persuasively curated and vibrantly presented with unique components not common to most archival boxes, Imagine: The Ultimate Collection offers a rare and valuable opportunity to explore it anew, in all its beautiful contradictions.
Imagine is available from Apple/UMe in a variety of formats:
Imagine: Ultimate Collection Super Deluxe Box (4CD/2BD): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Imagine: Ultimate Collection Deluxe Edition (2CD): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Imagine: Ultimate Mixes Deluxe Vinyl (2LP): 2LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Imagine: Ultimate Mixes (1CD): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada