They were John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ (the Lords Prayer sang to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’).
As we approach the 31st anniversary of John Lennon’s untimely death, I thought it might be worth looking at again.
Both songs were saying very different things to very different people – or were they?
Both are very simplistic musically and lyrically, presenting quite complex ideas with enormous consequences in straightforward everyday language.
‘Imagine’ is John Lennon’s most famous song, but by no means his best selling (that honour goes to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’). It was composed a year after the Beatles split, at his house in Ascot in 1971, becoming the title track of his second solo album. Some of the lyric came from his wife, Yoko’s book ‘Grapefruit’. The song stands out on the album like a healthy thumb on a sore fist – its plea for world peace is at odds with the bitter and cynical songs that follow it. It was not released as a single at the time and had to wait until 1975 when it was released to promote a Lennon greatest hits compilation (reaching number 6). It was re-released following his death in 1980, taking the number 1 slot for four weeks in January 1981.
In April 1970 Lennon had walked out on the most successful and popular entertainment phenomena in history. After leaving the Beatles, he began the process of deconstructing his cheeky, friendly mop-top image, much to the disappointment of his fans. John had married Yoko One, an avant guard Japanese American artist in 1969 – from then on the two were never seen apart. John began his new role of dressing in white and parading around the world outraging his fans and critics alike by proclaiming peace and ‘War is Over – If You Want it’.
His message, like the lyric to ‘Imagine’ was simple and by his own admission, childish. If everyone stayed in bed for a week, there’d be no more war – Lennon knew he was no politician (who he described as ‘all insane’) but he knew he had a presence and the attention of the world’s youth. Outraged by the crisis of the late sixties and Britain and America’s involvement in Biafra and Vietnam he began his bed-in for peace campaign.
Born out of clownish stupidity John described himself and Yoko as the ‘Laurel and Hardy of the peace movement’ seeing their role as drawing the world’s attention to the issues then allowing the serious peacemakers who lacked his public appeal to take over. John wanted to fight the enemies of peace with humour, vowing he would never take himself seriously, because he said, ‘all the serious people like Ghandi, Kennedy and Martin Luther King got shot’.
After ‘Imagine’ was released, the World Church approached Lennon to ask to use the song as their theme. Initially he was interested until they asked to change the line, ‘Imaging no religion’ to ‘Imagine one religion’. Lennon flew into a rage saying that they had misunderstood the whole point of the song. But what was ‘the point of the song’?
John refers to himself as being regarded by the world as a dreamer. He knows that the sentiment of ‘peace’ sounds idealistic and even foolish. He then informs us that he’s not the only one and that someday hopes that we, the listener will join with him and all the ‘dreamers’ so that the world will live as one, in peace. To me that’s the most important part of the song. A personal request for us all, when we’re ready, to join those who dream of world peace.
The Beatles had been involved with religion before. In 1967 they attended a talk by the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ringo never really got stuck into the eastern philosophy (he didn’t like the food) and Paul’s Catholic upbringing made him feel uncomfortable with it. George and John however dived in head first. George was the first to renounce drugs in late ’67 in favour of meditation. John’s affair with the Hindu mystic was short lived, pulling out of their stay in India after discovering that the Marharishi had urges that were certainly very human.
A year earlier had come the first sign of Beatlemania turning against them. John had mentioned in an article in a British magazine interview that he believed the Beatles were now more popular than Jesus. In Britain no-one took any notice, but the southern states of America went into a frenzy of burning Beatle records in numerous bonfire points culminating in the Beatles receiving a death threat from the Klu Klux Klan. In a very uncomfortable interview, John had to explain to a press conference what he had meant, and apologise. He said, ‘I didn’t mean that we were better, or greater than Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong and now it’s all this. I use the term Beatles as I see them…If I has said television was more popular than Jesus I might have got away with it.’
John’s involvement with the peace movement was always from a common sense point of view. He was attacked by critics for seemingly criticising protestors involved in the riots in 1968. His Beatles song ‘Revolution’ says that instead of violence, ‘You’d better free your minds instead’. In an interview around that time he said, ‘Ok, so you bring down the government, what then? You assassinate the leaders, what then?’ Lennon’s view was that it was the system that needed attacking, not the people and to attack the system people’s minds needed changing on an individual basis, a personal belief that he had found lacking in eastern mysticism.
Lennon gave up his peace protests in 1975 after the birth of his son Sean. Now living in America, he had been threatened by the CIA who had been bugging his telephone and had agents following him around over a period of two years. With the risk of him losing his permit to stay in America, he wrote to all the movements that he had been involved with, including his record company, saying that he was withdrawing from public life to bring up his son.
Lennon said in 1970, ‘Jesus was all right. It’s his disciples twisting it that ruins it for me.’ At that time he was surprised to hear that his close friend Bob Dylan had become a Christian. And yet in his last interview (two days before his death in 1980) he talked about studying early Christian gnosticism and had become an avid viewer of television evangelism.
Taken alone, ‘Imagine’ appears to describe a humanist utopia, but in the context of Lennon’s life and his other, rather large, body of work, it proves to be a reductionistic prose that, like the Lord’s Prayer, hints at a greater goodness. It would take many more words to explain fully but through gentle well chosen passages, stirring strings and a haunting piano, it manages to capture the attention of today’s impatient minds, perhaps just long enough for them to consider the message.
Lennon’s work alternately switched from proclaiming peace and love to proclaiming his own humanity and frailty. The line in the song, ‘Image there’s no heaven’ is presented as though he believes that it exists, like he believes there are countries and possessions. What he wants to achieve from the song is the removal of obstacles that prevent world peace and that prevent us living for today, the same message as ‘give us today our daily bread’ – we cannot eat yesterday’s or tomorrow’s bread, only today’s.
The message of ‘Imagine’ is the same as of most of the Beatles songs, essentially the same as the Lord’s Prayer, that of universal, eternal love.
In 1967 the Beatles were chosen to open the first satellite broadcast around the world to 300 million viewers. John wrote a special song for the occasion called ‘All You Need is Love’. George Harrison said of the song and the broadcast as ‘an opportunity to do PR for… God’. It wasn’t that he really thought that you don’t need food or water, only love, but instead that we actually do have everything already, but what we really need, the thing that is missing, is love.
What would Lennon make of his song being used for the Millennium? From his reaction to other things in his life we can safely assume that his reaction would not be the one we’d expect. Having his song used for a bland aimless celebration of nothing he would certainly have disapproved. But if in minds of the hedonistic aimless revellers at the white elephant of the £789 million Millennium Dome, it it stirred some thoughts on peace, he would have been pleased.
Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ was released by an independent record label, Papillon Records, after Richard’s own label EMI refused to release it. Proceeds of the single went to aid charity Children’s Promise. It was panned by the critics and many radio stations refused to play it. A 2004 VH1 poll labeled it the worst number one record of all time. (Imagine had been ranked by Rolling Stone as the third greatest song of all time)
The Millennium Prayer won the Ivor Novello award for the best selling single of 1999. It was Richard’s fourteenth number 1 hit, hitting the top spot on 4th December 1999 and was the third highest-selling single of his career. The re-release of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ sat behind it at number 3. Both singles were beaten to the Christmas and new millennium number 1 spot by Westlife with their ‘I Have A Dream’/’Seasons in the Sun’.
This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.
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