This month, a new book commemorates the making of John Lennon’s album, imagine. In this exclusive extract, we go behind the scenes of those recording sessions to bring you revelatory photos and eyewitness accounts of Lennon — accompanied by some old frien
Revelatory photos and eyewitness accounts – an exclusive extract from a new book commemorating the making of Imagine
On June 23, 1971, John Lennon entered Ascot Park Studios – in the grounds of his home at Tittenhurst Park – to begin recording a new album.
exploratory sessions had taken place in New York and also at Abbey Road, but in his own studio at tittenhurst the work assumed shape, structure and significance. Lennon and Yoko Ono enlisted the help of old friends George Harrison and Klaus Voormann, as well as pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummers Jim Keltner and Alan White, who had played with Lennon and Voormann in the Plastic Ono Band, plus assorted members of Apple signings Badfinger. to produce the album, he brought back Phil Spector, who’d overseen the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album the previous year. the album they made together, Imagine, was released in the UK that October. this month, this fabled album is celebrated with a new six-disc boxset, Imagine –
The Ultimate Collection, restored versions of the accompanying Imagine and Gimme Some Truth films and a new photo book, Imagine John Yoko by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In this exclusive extract from the book, we find Lennon and his co-conspirators at work in Ascot Park Studios, while Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Jim Keltner share their memories of those legendary recording sessions…
KLAUS VOORMANN (bass)
“I met John for the first time in Hamburg in 1960 and I was scared of him. I wasn’t sure if he was going to hit me. I went into the Kaiserkeller Club and he was playing in a band called the Beatles. they were all rockers. I got all the people from my art college down to the club. I said, ‘You have to see this band! You have to see this band!’
“We went night after night and in the end they said, ‘Klaus, you have to talk to them, you can speak english.’ I walked up to John, showed him a record cover I had made and said, ‘Look at this! I did this cover for you. What do you think of it?’ And he said, ‘talk to Stuart [Sutcliffe] – he’s the arty one in the band.’ We all became great friends and some years later in 1966, I designed the cover for the Beatles’ Revolver album.
“Later, in 1969, I had just finished touring in a band called manfred mann. John suddenly called me and said, ‘Do you wanna join the Plastic Ono Band?’ It was perfect timing.
“On the Imagine album, I played an old Fender Precision electric bass and an Ampeg Portaflex B-15N valve amplifier with a 15-inch speaker. It was one of the suitcase ones; when you travel, you take the whole top off, turn it round 180 degrees and put it in the box.
“On ‘Crippled Inside’, John said he wanted an upright bass. I had never played one before, but he said, ‘No, you can play it!’ So John sent me to London with [Lennon’s assistant] mal evans and we rockers went into this classical music store, full of very neat people wearing bow ties! mal bought a really good, huge, full-size upright bass. John realised he wanted it played like a slap bass, and I couldn’t do it so I played the notes on the bass with my left hand and Alan White played the strings like drums, with his sticks.
“When we were rehearsing, John would play the song on guitar or piano, and then we would start contributing what we thought was right. He was singing all the time. It was a great help and really made those songs work. If you pick the right people who can really play, they find their own way through. there’s not that much said or manipulated. It’s instinctive. everyone is clever in his own way. You listen to everybody. You listen to the whole thing. And for me in particular, I always listened to the song and the words. John had printed out the sheets with the lyrics on it really big, so you knew what the song was about.
“When I think of those sessions, I always think of ‘Jealous Guy’. I’m sitting there. I don’t even know what key I’m in. I have no idea. I just play. It just goes like a dream, you know? It’s such a beautiful song and it just flows. I close my eyes and listen to John, and just play. And then those notes come where there is space for them, or when I think they should be played at that particular moment.
“Phil Spector was very thoughtful, patient and subdued. He was giving good comments. He was really, really right. He was not being a producer who was pushing anything on you. He let things go and happen, and was just perfect. mostly I’d say, ‘Is that OK, what I’m laying down?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s fine.’ He never told me what to play. He and John communicated well together.
“When we played ‘Imagine’ and heard the lyrics, the possibility that this was going to be
“I am proud to have played on ‘Imagine’, because its message is for the world” ALAN WHITE
such a big song was apparent. It definitely was. I even thought I didn’t want to play on it because it was so amazing with just John playing piano. It was so true and honest. That would have been enough.”
ALAN WHITE (drums, Tibetan cymbals, good vibes)
“T he first time I spoke to John Lennon was in September 1969. he called me on the phone and asked me to play drums with him at a live show in Toronto. I thought it was a friend playing a joke, so I hung up. Thankfully, he called back a few minutes later and convinced me it really was John Lennon.
“John was a very nice, accommodating guy. I always felt he kind of took me under his wing. I was only 20 years old, a little bit naive, and jumped in the deep end. he made me feel very comfortable, and so did Yoko. She was extremely nice. She spoke in a very quiet voice and adored John. You could tell they were madly in love. It was a great experience.
“Following Live Peace in Toronto, the first thing I was asked to record with John & Yoko was ‘Instant Karma!’ Then along came Imagine and we went down to Tittenhurst to rehearse the music. every song we did on Imagine, John would make us read the lyrics and insist that we understood the meaning of the song before we started playing it. That had quite an impact for me.
“John worked fast. he knew when something was right and was definite about his ideas. he knew what he wanted – and he knew when he had it. I remember him saying to me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.’ he didn’t try to control what I was playing; he seemed to trust my musical interpretation and allowed me the freedom to play what I felt. I got on with the job, listening to a song and then translating it into my style. Once we had a great take, it gave us all such a great feeling.
“Yoko was always at John’s side, giving him advice and ideas to make it better. She was very much part of the whole thing. Phil Spector was a bit of a strange guy. he seemed extremely paranoid, but he was totally into the project. John would talk to him and, gaining confidence, say, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’
“I had never met Klaus Voormann before we played Live Peace in Toronto, but we got to be really good friends. While playing ‘Crippled Inside’, there was an unusual situation where Klaus was playing upright bass and I sat on a chair beside him and played the drumsticks on his bass strings. It produced the unique ‘slap’ sound effect for the song.
“When we did ‘Jealous Guy’, Jim Keltner played the drums and I ended up playing vibraphone in the toilet in the corner of the studio. It had a little door, with a four- or five-inch crack, and I could see everybody through there. It was, ‘One, two, three, four…’ and then we were playing. John gave me a great credit on the album. On the sleeve notes inside the record, he wrote, ‘Alan White:
Good Vibes’, which meant a lot to me. It was all good vibes when we were making Imagine. everybody was really happy. And when everybody is happy in a studio, the happiness comes through the music – and there is a lot of great music on that album.
“One of my favourite moments was when we cut the track ‘Imagine’. There seemed to be a feeling in the room that the first recorded track was a good one. We didn’t need to do any more – that was as good as we were ever going to play that song. It was a mutual feeling; something I recall and stood out in my mind.
“I am proud to have played on ‘Imagine’, because its message is for the world, has been played worldwide and is well understood. It is a song of hope – for then, for now, for the future. The message is still so relevant. For me, it’s the most important piece of music I’ve ever recorded.”
JIM KELTNER (drums, tabla)
“IFIrST met Yoko at Tittenhurst on 16 February 1971. I was playing drums and tablas on a session for her Fly LP – with her, Klaus Voormann, Jim Gordon and Bobby Keys. She was an avant-garde New York beatnik, dressed in a black turtleneck, and I was a bit of a beatnik myself. I wasn’t a rocker like the rest of John’s friends. I came from the jazz world, and I had known about Yoko’s New York days as an artist. She hung out with a lot of the great jazz guys. There we were at the Ascot mansion and Yoko was describing to Bobby Keys the sound that she wanted him to play with his mouthpiece out of his saxophone – which was ‘the sound of the wind rushing over the back of a frog sitting on top of the world’. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I know exactly what that sound is.’ I got on with Yoko really well.
“Later that evening, I met John. he was recording ‘It’s So hard’ and an early version of ‘I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier’, with Jim Gordon on drums. Jim was struggling a bit, trying to find his way into the suggestions that John and Phil were giving him. The following week, John invited me to come back to redo the track.
“John was so strong a personality and so charismatic. I was floored to meet him. he was so smart, and always so beautifully in charge, in a really practised way. his songs were always so well written. You didn’t need a chart. There was always a funny bar, like a little 5/4 bar. Great songs by great artists play themselves. First, he would play you a new song on the guitar, or piano. he would mostly work on telling the guitar players what to do – play this here, play that there – but with the bass and the drums, he left us pretty much alone. I really loved that he had that kind of faith in us.
“Playing on ‘Jealous Guy’ was like being in a dream. Nobody in the world ever played piano like Nicky hopkins, and Klaus has such a tremendous deep feel on the bass. having John’s voice in your headphones, glancing up and seeing him at the microphone – 1971 – fresh from The Beatles and such a tremendous musician and songwriter – singing this beautiful, haunting little song. You only have a few of those moments in your life as a musician and that was one of them.
“I’ve always believed in the genius of Phil Spector. I got to see it first hand, in his prime, with John and George; and also with Leonard Cohen, the ramones and Celine Dion. I’ve done nothing but make records since I was a kid, and the producer and the arranger are the most important people – other than the artists. I consider it one of the great good fortunes of my life to have worked with Phil Spector as a producer.
“I loved ‘Imagine’ from the moment I heard it. But when I first heard John sing, ‘Imagine
there’s no heaven’ and ‘no hell’, it made me feel uncomfortable. Now I realise what he’s saying is the way mankind has put together our consciousness of God has become a ‘yours against mine’ situation, like a big footbal match. I believe John meant the words to ‘Imagine’ to be healing words.” This is an edited extract from Imagine John Yoko by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with contributions from the people who were there, Thames & Hudson, £35
• UNCUT • NOVEMBER 2018
• UNCUT • NOVEMBER 2018 George Harrison tuning up before recording “How Do You Sleep?” with Phil Spector (co-producer). Ascot Sound Studios, May 26, 1971
Lennon at the bespoke Ascot Sound Studios console built by Eddie Veale and David Dearden, August 3, 1971 Photo by Tom Hanley © Yoko Ono Lennon Inset left: Imagine master tape box. Photo by Sam Gannon and Beth Walsh © Yoko Ono Lennon
Recording “How Do You Sleep?”: (l–r) George Harrison, Ted Turner, Rod Lynton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, John Lennon, Nicky Hopkins and John Tout, May 26, 1971 • UNCUT • NOVEMBER 2018
(From left) Alan White, Klaus Voormann, George Harrison and John Lennon at the Tittenhurst kitchen table, May 26, 1971 Photo by Kieron Murphy © Yoko Ono Lennon Inset left: brown card tape boxes Photo by Sam Gannon © Yoko Ono Lennon
Filming the Imagine promo in the White Room at Tittenhurst Park, July 21, 1971 Photo by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono Lennon Inset right: “Imagine”, lyrics by John Lennon © Yoko Ono Lennon Recording the backing vocals for “Oh Yoko!”, May 29, 1971 Photo by Kieron Murphy © Yoko Ono Lennon