Arts: Muzak of the Millennium

John Lennon's `Imagine' will soon be unavoidable as the soundtrack to the next century. How did a Marxist utopian dirge become so famous?
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One of the most curious cultural bunfights in recent history is about to come to its conclusion. Any day now, a specially-appointed panel will decide which song should be played in the Millennium Dome, 15 minutes before the Queen declares it officially open. The shortlist is largely as you'd expect: Pulp's "Disco 2000", Robbie Williams's "Millennium", Prince's "1999", the rather baffling choice of The Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" - and two songs by John Lennon. Predictably, they are "All You Need Is Love" and "Imagine".

The dome aside, the ever-crafty Yoko Ono clearly wants "Imagine" to act as the soundtrack to both Christmas and our passage into a new century. "Imagine" is being released as a single on 13 December, and is widely tipped to be the yuletide Number One. Thus, the century that saw the death of old-school socialism may end to the strains of a song advocating the abolition of property, religion and national boundaries, written in the midst of Lennon's short-lived Red period.

The song lays its cards on the table within seconds of its opening. "Imagine there's no heaven," croons Lennon. "It's easy if you try/ No hell below us, above us only sky." Soon after, we're invited to picture a world free of countries, with "nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too". The song's last passage imagines no possessions, and "all the people, sharing all the world".

The sentiments of "Imagine", for all its somnolent loveliness, are flatly Marxist: not for nothing has it been called "The Communist Manifesto set to music".

By 1971, The Beatles had been defunct for two years, and Lennon was laying rather spurious claim to a lifelong radicalism. "I've always been against the status quo," he explained. "It's pretty basic when you're brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army.

"I was always very conscious of class, people would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about class oppression."

In fact, Lennon was raised in a neat suburban semi by his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George - both deeply traditional, lower-middle-class Liverpudlians who were hardly likely to have encouraged any insurrectionary pretensions. During his first five years as a Beatle, he was happily complicit in all manner of distinctly bourgeois rituals: embassy receptions, the group's acceptance of MBEs, and the 1963 Royal Variety Performance. During the latter, a controlled kind of class awareness reared its head in Lennon's celebrated aside: "Those of you in the cheap seats clap your hands - and if the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery."

Lennon spent the psychedelic era gobbling LSD and revelling in flower power platitudes (witness "All You Need Is Love"), but when Love-fests morphed into student sit-ins and Parisian riots, he felt duty-bound to ally himself with the burgeoning youth revolt. To call Yoko Ono a catalyst in all this would be a gross understatement: following their decisive get-together in 1968, it was she who nudged Lennon towards his rather hare-brained kind of radicalism. In tandem with the return of his MBE, the ludicrous "Bed-Ins" - two seven-day spells spent lying in international hotels, aimed at nothing less than world peace - were their first stab at activism.

Such absurdity quickly gave way to more orthodox tactics: Lennon bankrolled Tariq Ali's Red Mole magazine, granted the magazine an interview in which he espoused the world view of the New Left, and quickly embraced any cause he fancied. Indeed, on 1972's "Sometime In New York City", he sings about Bloody Sunday, the Nixon administration, the imprisonment of black power activist Angela Davis, the women's movement and conditions in American prisons.

The same year, Paul McCartney released a single called "Give Ireland Back To The Irish" - in comparison to Lennon's catch-all polemicising, it sounded like the very essence of economy and grace.

In truth, "Imagine" - released in September 1971 - is one of the few examples of Lennon's politics successfully fusing with his music.

As he would later admit, its lyrics take their lead from Grapefruit, a book of Yoko Ono's poems published in 1964, which makes much use of the "I" word ("Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time"). Musically, the song was as straightforward as could be imagined: a three- chord ballad founded on an intro and verse of almost banal simplicity. Never an expert pianist, Lennon fancied playing the song himself - until Yoko, acting in her role as maternal artistic adviser, insisted that the session musician Nicky Hopkins was brought in. He can't have found the song too demanding: a passable pub version of "Imagine" can be played using only the piano's white notes.

One further irony surrounds the song. It was recorded in Tittenhurst Park, the vast mansion where the Lennons lived between 1970 and 1972. Tittenhurst was also the location for the song's now-famous video clip: the borderline hilarity of a rock millionaire singing "Imagine No Possessions" at a white baby grand while his wife opens the curtains of their country pile hardly needs mentioning. Still, any incongruity was lost on Lennon's left-wing friends: the feature-length Imagine movie finds Tariq Ali visiting Tittenhurst and seemingly giving his approval to the song's lyrics.

Inexplicably, "Imagine" wasn't initially released as a single in Britain: although it reached Number Three in America in 1971, its collision with the UK's singles charts only came with the release of Lennon's Greatest Hits in 1975. It was his murder, however, that finally brought the song its just desserts. New Year 1981 saw it finally reaching Number One. Thus began the deluge of "Imagine" cover versions. All told, it has been sung by over 100 artists - from Nana Mouskouri, through Roger Whittaker and Des O'Connor to Peters and Lee. Inevitably, its intended political potency has long been blunted (predictably, a handful of versions skip the lines about religion altogether).

Final confirmation of its castration arrived in the early Eighties, when the Conservative Party were treated to a rousing pre-conference version by ex-Hot Chocolate singer Errol Brown. Thankfully, its claim to era-defining gravitas was partly rescued by its tear-jerking use in the closing moments of The Killing Fields. Still, we shouldn't forget that the song's author once said: "we're all Christ and we're all Hitler" - so maybe the open- endedness of "Imagine" was the whole point all along. Indeed, come midnight in the dome, the scene could be heartwarmingly consensual. The chorus of "Imagine" goes "You may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one/I hope some day you'll join us/ And the world will live as one".

For entirely different reasons, Tony Blair, the Queen, William Hague and whoever else turns up should have no problem bellowing along with that.