recording the imagine album
John at the bespoke console built by Eddie Veale
and David Dearden; Ascot Sound Studios, 3 August 1971.
From the book Imagine John Yoko
Using the name Plastic Ono Band, John had three hit singles before The Beatles broke up: ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’, and also released the live album Live Peace In Toronto 1969
John: I have a group called Plastic Ono Band, which means anybody that comes to the session. I don’t want to be trapped again with the same musicians making the same sound. Just whoever I like at the moment or whoever visits me. I always have the tune and the words. I like to just play it and just teach the group the basic song and then we play it.
We recorded it at home in our studio, Phil Spector produces with Yoko and I, so as we don’t go overboard and he doesn’t go overboard – we get a balance between the three of us. It was better than the first time, because now we know each other and we’ve done quite a lot of work together and we understand each other, so we know how to work better. That’s why it’s been quicker. We did the last one in ten days and we did this one in nine.
Recording ‘How Do You Sleep?’ – Nicky Hopkins, John Lennon
and George Harrison; Ascot Sound Studios, 26 May 1971.
From the book Imagine John Yoko – Collector’s Edition
The brief was exactly that: very brief. The request from Neil Aspinall was, ‘Please build a studio for John as good as Apple.’ It was the first professional home studio in the UK.
I had studied acoustics at university, and then worked at de Havilland on aircraft noise control. After that, I went to Advision Studios for five years, to refurbish and then relocate their studios. They had the first eight-track in London. As new machines and effects were invented, I designed lots of black boxes to make them all work together.
When I remodelled the control rooms at Lansdowne Studios, Clive Green did the console. He had created the CADAC modules, replacing the valve parts of the desk with transistors, and readying them for eight-track. He also created the Gyrator EQ. When Clive put the desk in at Apple, he asked me to design and install the monitoring speakers above the window. I fixed a few other things in George Peckham’s vinyl cutting room, and then Neil Aspinall asked me in for that chat.
We started at Tittenhurst in August 1970. John and I looked around various rooms that would fit the larger equipment like the Studer eight-tracks and the mixing desk. We converted a photographic studio near the kitchen into the music studio, and we took a wall out to make the control room large enough. Although John was anxious to have the studio done in three to four months, there was a lot of building work involved, and the single-storey roof section had some serious damp rot. We built in sound isolation – to keep the sound in – with an isolated sub-ceiling under the roof we had to refurbish. There wasn’t much needed to keep external sound out, apart from the lawnmower and the occasional aircraft flying overhead.
John was spending more and more time at Ascot. He was extracting himself from the Beatles’ emporium and he was anxious to get into the studio rather than have to go into London. I don’t think a day went by without him visiting and saying, ‘Well how’s it going? Can I get in yet?’
I found that, instead of getting on with things that I had intended to do, I was often spending time before everyone showed up, helping John to plug in mics, make things happen, or play tape back to him, so he could listen back to what he had done. I hadn’t done that before. It was fun and I always like a new challenge. Later in the day, John would try to do something – or Phil would want a particular effect – or something wouldn’t work – and we engineers would have to technically solve it. The engineers were very easy to work with. Good guys, with clear ideas. They had a very good understanding of what John wanted to do, because they had worked with him on so many Beatles recordings. It was a really good time.
Phil was very forthright. He quickly assembled, in his mind, a picture of what he wanted to achieve, and was very much on top of everything that went on. He was used to working in big, professional studios – not one that was in the middle of being built. So he expected everything to be there, ready. It was already a case of, ‘Why haven’t you plugged it up yet?’ I very much liked his production ideas, and his approach. I thought from his influence and control on the musical work, he was right at the top of his profession.
John was a very competent musician. Very astute with his ideas. He would start talking, verbalising something he wanted. And by the time he had finished talking, he had rationalised it and knew exactly what he wanted. So you could just go and do it.
At the time, I had no concept of what Imagine might turn into. It was a departure for John. When I heard the final product, I was very impressed. Imagine reminds me of some very happy times – I get quite emotional about some of it, where we all worked together so well.
Original plan of recording studio by Eddie Veale Associates, September 1969.
The newly built studio control room with speakers, console, 8-track and
quarter-inch tape machines and turntable; Ascot Sound Studios, January 1971.
From the book Imagine John Yoko
John: You can see the vast difference from when he works with George or he works with me or he works alone – I just take what I need from him and it doesn’t get completely ‘Spector-ised’. Spector produced ‘River Deep Mountain High’, which is one of the all-time class records ever, and that’s completely ‘Spector-ised’, and that’s great. There’s one or two where we just let him go.
Yoko: Not really.
John: Aren’t there?
Yoko: Well even on ‘Soldier’ it’s completely you, really.
John: Yoko’s there completely. She never lets up, you know? You’ll see in the film where there’s dialogue between them, if we all three agree, then it’s all right. We usually do, too. I don’t know how we do, you’ll probably see on the film – it’s just sort of done. I’ll get the arrangement – Phil doesn’t arrange or anything like that – and she and Phil will just sit in the other room and shout comments like, ‘Why don’t you try this sound’ or you’re not playing the piano too well, try that,’ something like that. I’ll get the initial idea and say, ‘Nicky, you get on piano, and someone else get on that’ and then Phil will suggest three acoustic guitars strumming somewhere, and we’ll just find a sound from it. It’s quite easy working with him, isn’t it?
Yoko: I think the funniest thing is that we’re all three very strong personalities, but somehow it doesn’t clash at all. It works in a very quick way and somehow we bring out each other’s sensitivity rather that the aggressiveness. It’s very nice, we all take different parts in a way.
John and Phil Spector rehearsing ‘How Do You Sleep?’;
Ascot Sound Studios, 26 May 1971.
From the book Imagine John Yoko
Yoko: There are a lot of delicate things happening inside them musically that didn’t happen so much in the last one.
John: We’ve bothered with it more this time. It was intense, that last one, it was just like getting it down like a shorthand message, and although this was fast, this was a more musical trip, really. You know, I’d bother to overdub Tibetan cymbals just to have it on with the real cymbals, or whatever, whereas on the last one I wouldn’t bother. I like to use different people on each track so that it doesn’t get stilted. There’s Jim Gordon on drums, Alan White on drums, Jim Keltner on drums, and they’re fantastic.
Jim Keltner, like Jim Gordon, was a studio player who had also been associated with Delaney and Bonnie.
In addition to working with John on several albums, he would play on post-Beatles records by George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
At the age of 20, Alan White had received a call from John inviting him to join a hastily convened Plastic Ono Band for a performance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in September 1969. Their set was released as Live Peace In Toronto 1969. A few months later, he played drums on the single ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’. In 1972, he joined Yes.
John: I would have used Ringo on drums, but he was away filming in Spain. George is on a good five or six tracks. Yoko’s on whip, and that’s very good; whip and mirror, actually.
John: Nicky Hopkins is a fantastic guy. It’s just amazing how he lifts a whole track.
Nicky Hopkins became a professional musician in 1960 at the age of 16. As a session keyboard player, he had contributed to many hits by British groups, including The Kinks, The Move, The Rolling Stones and The Who. He played the electric piano solo on The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ on the B-side of ‘Hey Jude’. Before the Imagine sessions, he had been a member of The Jeff Beck Group and Quick Silver Messenger Service.
John first met Klaus Voormann when The Beatles played the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg in 1960. Trained as an artist, Klaus designed and drew the cover of The Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver. He was a member of Manfred Mann from 1966 to 1969. He played in the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in September 1969, and on ‘Instant Karma!’ and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970. In the first half of 1971, he had played bass on Nilsson Schmilsson.
Kevin Howlett’s session notes and recording information for ‘It’s So Hard’,
as shown exclusively in the book accompanying Imagine – The Ultimate Collection
King Curtis played on many classic R&B records, including hits by The Coasters.
Allan Steckler (A&R, Apple NY): John knew he wanted a sax player and it was his idea to use King Curtis. He asked me to get him. I found his agent and booked him. John played him the tracks and told him the kind of feel he wanted. He went into the studio and played his ass off. John loved it, as did Phil Spector and all of us.
John: I put strings on in America. I used some of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the violins. I just tried to get the best players. On ‘Imagine’ and on ‘Jealous Guy’ it’s very straight, and a bit sort of funky on ‘It’s So Hard’ in the solo in the last verse. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ has also got the violins on. Everyone calls them ‘eastern’ – they’re just violins playing guitar parts! We called them The Flux Fiddlers – there’s a group [of artists] that Yoko used to be with called Fluxus.
John played Torrie the mixes from the recording sessions at Tittenhurst and started describing and singing the arrangements that were in his head: ‘This is where I want the strings to go, and this is basically how I want them to go, here and here.’ Torrie made a load of notes, and returned with those beautiful orchestrations based on John’s arrangements.
After the meeting with John, Torrie and I went for a coffee and discussed who we would use. I said I would try to get the best ‘studio’ fiddlers available. These are the guys who did almost all of the recording work in the New York City area. Torrie was extremely pleased with my choices.
Yoko, John, Phil Spector and Roy Cicala at the console mixing
‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. Record Plant, New York, 31 October 1971.
From the book Imagine John Yoko – Collector’s Edition
Torrie Zito (orchestrations, conductor): I was born in upstate New York in 1933. When I was twenty I moved to New York City. As a player, I stopped performing publicly about 1969, went into the writing side, and stayed with it, which led to my working with a lot of people.
In 1961 I did an album with James Moody; then some work with Herbie Mann – these were strictly instrumental kind of things. Others I worked on backgrounds for in the record field: Morgana King, Frank Sinatra, André Kostelanetz.
Aaron Rosand: In those days, some of the top New York musicians were doing recordings of this kind We made the highest rates of that particular time for jingles and things like that. I was doing it in between my touring as a concert violinist. We did so many of them! We played the sheets in front of us. That was all. It was all prepared. The players would have been in a ‘C’ shape. Violins usually on the left-hand side and cellos on the right-hand side with basses to the farther right or behind the cellos; the violas more towards the centre.
John: It’s not a personal thing like the last album [John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band], but I’ve learned a lot and this is better in every way, technique and so on. It’s lighter, too. I was feeling happy. It’s a lighter and happier album than the last, and I’ve tentatively titled it Imagine, which is the title of one of the songs.
Yoko co-wrote one of the tracks (‘Oh My Love’). It’s one of the best on the album, and she designed the album.
I did eighty per cent in the studio here [at Tittenhurst]. It took seven days, then I spent two days putting the violins on in New York. We’d already mixed everything and we just did it again over there, down to another stereo or whatever you call it, like they used to do it in the old days.
It took me nine days to make this album and ten to make the last one. So I’m getting faster. There are ten tracks on it. I had more, but Phil suddenly said that I had no more room, so we stopped.
Compared to the last one it’s less introspective, in a way, and it’s a bit light. There’s some heavy stuff, but I call it commercial with no compromise.
Music from Imagine The Ultimate Collection
Film and film stills from Imagine/Gimme Some Truth BluRay/DVD