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Inside John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ with Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner and Joey Molland
John Lennon photo by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono
Having channeled the searing pain and primal scream angst of his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon’s follow-up release, Imagine, was infused with glittering Beatles magic; it was a much more accessible and commercially palatable release culling some of Lennon’s strongest solo songs, namely “Jealous Guy,” “Oh My Love,” “Gimme Some Truth,” “How?” and the title track.
47 years since its initial release comes Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, a lavish 6-disc box set (4 CDs and 2 Blu-ray discs, available at this link) culling a newly remixed version of the record, revelatory outtakes, demos and more. We spoke to a few of the key principals involved in the recording of Imagine, bassist Klaus Voormann, drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Joey Molland of Badfinger to provide their own first-hand recollections of working on that historic album.
Rock Cellar: Klaus, how did the “Imagine” sessions differ from the sessions for John’s first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band”?
Klaus Voormann: There was a definite difference. For all of us, even for Ringo, it was pretty new to have Yoko on John’s side. It was very sad for Ringo; he felt sad to see that. Later on, John explained to Ringo he was now with Yoko and they were together and whatever he does, he does with Yoko. He said to him, “We are like one,” and then he understood. But first, it was difficult for him to get used to that. On those sessions for the Plastic Ono LP that was still there. But from our point of view, Ringo and I, that album was fantastic. We loved playing on it. I loved playing with Ringo and Ringo loved playing with me. He even said, “This band, just John, you and myself is the best band I’ve ever played in apart from The Beatles.”
So working on the Imagine album, we took more time. On The Plastic Ono Band LP John conveyed this feeling of, “here’s the song, let’s sit down and play it really quick.” We did most of the songs on that album in just two takes. John showed up the songs on the piano and showed us how it went. It was really simple stuff. There’s a lot of mistakes on the album but it just doesn’t matter, he wanted to get those songs out of his system. I love that LP, I still think it’s fantastic.
On Imagine it was different because we did more takes and tried a few more things and experimented more. George would be working out his guitar solos, which always took some time for him to get his fingers ion the right place. The nice thing was Phil Spector was there all the time and he was like a catalyst. He was so easy to work with. People say “he’s crazy” but he was fantastic. He was funny, he was really good with Yoko. It was really good.
Rock Cellar: Jim, how did you get enlisted to work on the Imagine sessions?
Jim Keltner: I was over in London with Eric Clapton and staying at his place in Surrey. We were driving in every day to meet Stevie Winwood. They were in a writing mode so he wanted me to be there just in case they decided to record. Eric slept in very late and I usually slept in late too, but I didn’t sleep as late as he did. I was up in the kitchen making breakfast and the phone rang and it was (Phil) Spector. He wanted to talk to Eric but I said, “I can’t go in his bedroom and wake him up. I don’t want to do that.” So he said, “Well, how about you, do you want to go and play on John’s record?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I think so!” So I got my buddy, Colin Allen, the drummer with Stone The Crows who I’d met on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. He drove me to Tittenhurst Park and Ascot Studio, the big house they had out there. The little studio was in one of the bedrooms downstairs.
Rock Cellar: Jim, what was the first track you cut for the album?
Jim Keltner: Well, I think it was the day I’d recorded with Yoko for her Fly record. Jimmy Gordon was playing drums on John’s song “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” and I was in the control room. Jimmy was one of my idols at the time, I looked up to him the same way I looked up to Hal Blaine. Jimmy was kind of coming up behind Hal and I always admired Jimmy’s playing. So I’m there watching Jimmy struggle trying to play with the song. It was a pre-recorded track somehow, or maybe they had him replacing the drums; I don’t know exactly the specific circumstances. I kept hearing them talk because I was sitting in the control room with John and Phil. Finally, Phil turned to me and said “Can you do that?” which was what they were talking about and I said, “Yeah, I can,” So he said, “Well, go out and do it,” and I said “No, I can’t do that right now.” It was just too awkward for me to do that. So I said I’d do it another time.
It could have been the next day or a few days later. I have it listed in my book as May 24th of ‘71. So anyhow I came in expecting to play drums on “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama” and instead the first track I cut with John was “Jealous Guy.” I’d never heard that song before but it was just so pretty. To have heard it for the first time was amazing.
Rock Cellar: How was the song presented to you?
Jim Keltner: He didn’t play anything on that, he was just singing. It was me and Nicky (Hopkins) and Klaus (Voormann). Nicky was like full orchestra on his own. He was one of the most amazing keyboard players I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with. He was so brilliant. So it was him and Klaus and myself backing John. John was at the mic and he was behind a little baffle but we could see him clearly. It was just surreal for me. John laid down his vocals while we were playing, although I don’t know if he overdubbed his vocal later. The track came together pretty quickly. I don’t know how many takes we did but it seemed to come together quickly. Then the only other track I played on the record was “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama.” I don’t know whether we cut it that day or another day. My book I’ve compiled on my session looks like “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama” it was cut on the same day. But in my mind’s eye I know where the drums were for “Jealous Guy”; I can remember that like you can’t imagine, that was amazing.
Rock Cellar: Jim, was “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama” a new version that you played with John and the rest of the band?
Jim Keltner: No we played the track live and John was playing on that one. If we recorded that the same day as “Jealous Guy” then somebody had moved the drums to the back of the room.
Rock Cellar: George Harrison is listed as playing on “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier, Mama.”
Jim Keltner: Actually, he didn’t play with us live on that; his part was added as an overdub.
Rock Cellar: Klaus, there is a beautiful sense of space and simplicity in your bass playing on the album; you always seemed to play the exact right parts.
Klaus Voormann: Thank you for saying that. With The Beatles, John always had Paul playing and his bass playing is a completely different style of bass playing. The anchor into rhythm and blues and this real simplicity was something John really liked. Paul did that on some songs too. For me I felt that’s the way that John wanted the bass to be. I had moments on the album where I didn’t really know what I was gonna play.
Like on “Jealous Guy” I had no idea of what key I was playing in or what the next chord was. I was just floating along and closing my eyes. It was like meditating. That’s what it was really like.
Rock Cellar: Klaus, you were staying at George’s home during this period, did he discuss his impressions of the sessions and the songs?
Klaus Voormann: He loved it. I was amazed too. George and I often went to the sessions together. George lived in Friar Park and then we drove in his car to Ascot Studios to Tittenhurst Park. Lots of times we went tougher and talked about the album. George and John locked well as players on the album. George always wanted to be able play like Eric Clapton or some great guitar player, but that wasn’t his thing. Eric himself said about his playing, “those little lines and little melodies that George creates, they’re little gems, they’re just beautiful.”
George was not really a fast guitar player but he was able to create these beautiful sounds and solos that to me are really, really great. Then he started playing more slide stuff; he didn’t that so much in the Beatle time. The slide stuff he was doing fitted so well with John’s playing on the Imagine album. You can’t really compare what George and John were doing with the early Hamburg days than with that they were doing on Imagine. In the Hamburg days that was them just copying the songs, you know the American stuff and they tried to do the best to work out parts, which were played by one of the other.
John is a fantastic rhythm guitar player, there’s no doubt about that. When I played rhythm guitar he taught me so much. He showed me how to do it with muscling the strings with your hand. He’d say, “Don’t play too many strings, just play two.” So John was a great guitar player, and that is perfect because George is a great guitar player too — but when the solo came that’s when he invented his solos. In the Hamburg days he mostly copied what was on the actual records, whether it was Carl Perkins or if it was an Elvis song; he tried to do the same sort of style and copied as much as he could. Later on he was really inventing new solos.
Rock Cellar: Jim, you later worked on sessions for a number of artists, most notably George Harrison. How was working with George a different experience than working with John?
Jim Keltner: John left me alone and he left the bass player alone but he was always on the guitar players, “don’t do this, don’t do this, yeah, I like that,” that kind of stuff. He would leave the keyboard guys alone, pretty much, but he’d make sure that they didn’t do some inversion on a chord that was too hip or something. But George was mostly looking to capture the overall feel. George’s feedback to me was references. He referenced a lot. For me he would reference (Ry) Cooder and a lot of Motown, He loved Motown.
Rock Cellar: How about you Klaus?
Klaus Voormann: It’s interesting that you ask that. One of the reasons the Imagine sessions have more detail and a little more experiments has to do with George. That’s George’s influence ‘cause he was messing around on his guitar and trying to come up with different things. That is something John was used from Beatle times. On the Plastic Ono Band LP he wanted to strip it all back and said, “I don’t want all that Beatle stuff. All I want is for the songs to be out there as quick as possible.” He didn‘t care what we were playing. It was fun when he heard us and got the rock and roll feel like on “I Found Out.” He just enjoyed playing his guitar and playing with Ringo and me.
That was another Beatles connection. Ringo and John and of course me together, that was half of the Beatles. Then with the Imagine sessions you had George and John and it had a different attitude, which had to do very much with George. Working in the studio with George on his albums was a completely different experience. George would come into the studio and put the joss sticks up, he’d light those and make a little altar. He made everybody feel very subdued and nice and good. He played us the songs and we took a lot more time and a lot more care to get the tracks together.
That’s the great thing about Phil Spector that people do underestimate. He kind of dives into this situation with the artist. When he was working with George on his All Things Must Pass album he was really getting into George’s mood. If a session was becoming too long or too deep into it then he would just leave. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Jim, you later worked with John on the albums Sometime In New York City, Mind Games and Walls & Bridges. Did the atmosphere, creative electricity and working process change as the years went on?
Jim Keltner: No, it was always the same with John. He would play the song for you and then we’d start playing, he always left me alone and the bass player alone, which was mostly Klaus but sometimes it was the great Gordon Edwards from New York. He liked moving quickly in the studio. He liked to get it going and not dilly dally and not spend too much time on things that didn’t make sense. He never lost his way in the studio. I never saw him get confused and try to figure out, “Hey, what’s wrong here?” We didn’t have any of those moments. He was the ideal artist to work for. Him and Dylan. Those two guys were amazing songwriters and they both played their butts off when they sang their songs, and there was nothing to do except for just rise to that for the musicians.
Rock Cellar: With the Imagine album, did John discuss wanting to make this a more commercial album than Plastic Ono Band?
Klaus Voormann: I’ll tell you what, whatever a song is, I don’t think John or anybody else was thinking, “Ah, this is a single! I have to do this because the public wants to hear that.” John never did that. With The Beatles or John by himself or George by himself, they’d do the song the way they wanted to hear it themselves.
They do it for themselves. It’s the same when I do graphics, I do it for the cover I do or whatever. John never said, “I’m gonna do this song because the public wants to hear that.” He never did that. There are lots of artists who do things because that’s what they think the public wants but not John, he would never do that. He was a real authentic artist.
Rock Cellar: Jim, as a drummer, how did you approach playing on the songs?
Jim Keltner: It was just tapping into the vibe of the song that John was delivering. I didn’t pay much attention to the early Beatles right when they came out like most people did, as at that time I didn’t pay any attention to any popular music, but when John would do an interview or make a quote it always jarred me somehow, like “Wow!” It was always a little revelation of some kind. He just seemed to be one of those kind of people. Then later on when I got to meet him I realized that’s who he is. He was not precious with any of that or offered any advice, it’s just the way his mind worked he was just the opposite of Dylan.
They both had these brilliant minds and Bob keeps it close to the vest and John just let it all hang out.
Rock Cellar: Klaus, do you recall the first time John played you the song “Imagine”?
Klaus Voormann: Yes, it was beautiful. It was so simple and so direct. You can hear every word and you get the meaning and you feel so good about it. With the words he just wanted everybody to imagine what it would be like. That’s such a clever way of getting his message across. Nobody ever tells me what to do on a song. I was given the freedom to play what I felt would fit and work on a particular song. To this day I know the song “Imagine” would have been just as big if John would have just played it on the piano with no other instruments. That song is unbeatable.
Rock Cellar: What were the things that most impressed you about John as an artist, both professionally and personally?
Jim Keltner: Well, he was John Lennon. He always found it interesting and funny when I told him I never liked rock and roll. When he was a young guy, we were all around the same age, Ringo’s a little bit older than me, Klaus is a little bit older too — John was older than me by just a little bit. As we were coming up he was a rocker. Along with Paul and George and Ringo, he loved American blues and rock more than anything, it affected their lives big time.
They dedicated their whole lives to that, and we know what happened. But for me, over here during that same time I was just listening to Miles (Davis) and (John) Coltrane; I didn’t want to have anything to do with any rock and roll. I hated it. John just thought that was so funny. And then when I started playing with him I could tell that he liked my feel. I could feel it because we shared the same kind of attitude about feel. By the time I had gotten with him I made a commitment to understand this rock and roll thing. So I was doing it from my gut, plus I had listened to Ringo so much.
Whether you wanted to or not, if you were a drummer you were influenced by Ringo. Whether you even knew it or not you definitely were influenced by Ringo because any Beatles music you listened to it was all about Ringo’s feel.
John and George both told me, John especially, that Ringo was his very favorite drummer. I loved hearing him say that, because he was my favorite drummer too. John was the easiest person to play with. It’s interesting for me because John and Bob Dylan and were on my radar right at the same time. I played with Bob right around that same time with Leon (Russell) and Carl Radle and Jesse Ed (Davis) in New York. I got the same feeling from both of them. They were so strong in the way they played and sang and of course when you’re talking about rising to the level of a good song, if you’re talking about John Lennon or Bob Dylan it’s a no-brainer. You knew the songs were gonna make you wanna play at your best.
Rock Cellar: How did you assess John as a guitar player?
Jim Keltner: Well, let me tell you this, he told me more than once that he was the greatest rhythm guitar player in the world. I mean he said that with the same conviction that he said Ringo was his favorite drummer, and I’m not gonna argue with that. If somebody wrote a song and is playing it for you and you sit there and play it in such a way that it doesn’t need anything else and that it’s killer on its own, then you have something to play to. If you play something for the musicians and you’re expecting them to make it come alive chances are it’s not gonna work out as well, although there are some exceptions.
Rock Cellar: The members of Badfinger were involved in some creative capacity with all four members of the Beatles. How did you and Tom Evans get involved with the Imagine sessions?
Joey Molland: Tommy and I just happened to be at the house and John Lennon’s driver, Joe, called us and said, “John’s recording tonight and he was wondering if you’d come down and play some guitar for him.” It’s amazing he even thought to ask us. When we got down there George Harrison and Phil Spector were at the house. I’m not sure, but maybe George suggested to John, “You’re gonna do this ‘Jealous Guy’ song, it might be cool to bring down the Badfinger guys and have a bit of acoustic on it and see how it works.”
So we arrived at John’s home, Tittenhurst Park, and John wasn’t around; he might have been in bed or out. We got lost in the house — it was a big mansion — and we wound up in the library, which had a huge Indian snooker table in it. We found the Dr. Pepper room; the room was full of cases and cases of Dr. Pepper. He loved to drink that. We ended up in the studio and everybody was there except for John and Yoko. Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins and Jim Keltner were all there, and George and Phil were in the control room. We were there for about a half an hour and then John came in and he was really nice and sweet and really friendly: “Hello, everybody, thanks for coming.”
He started talking about the tune that he wanted us to record called “Jealous Guy.” John sang and played “Jealous Guy” to us on a little acoustic guitar. John was singing a rough vocal when we recorded it. It’s one of the great treats in my life to remember John Lennon sitting on that stool singing that song. He was only about four or five feet from Tommy and I. We had a little cubicle made up of studio baffles. I think it took no more than an hour to record “Jealous Guy” from the part where he said, ‘This is a song called ‘Jealous Guy’ and it goes like this,’ to finishing it. I think we did two or three takes. He started to talk about the next song, which was “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” and described it as “more of a Bo Diddley kind of song.” He was saying he didn’t know whether we needed the acoustics on this one and that we could “fuck off now” if we liked. (laughs) But we stuck around and played on that song too.
Rock Cellar: Jim, you played on two songs on Imagine. If you had your druthers, is there a track that you wish you had played on?
Jim Keltner: Yeah, I would loved to have played on “Imagine” but then so would have every other drummer in the world. Testament to Alan’s (White) brilliance on playing drums on that song, the discipline to stick with that thing to go all the way with it. It’s brilliant in every way. I always loved that song so much. I also would loved to have played on “Crippled Inside.”
Rock Cellar: Listening back to the Imagine: The Ultimate Collection box set, what were the greatest revelations for you?
Klaus Voormann: I think the way it’s done is good and the way they looked for the right material is really good. But in general, now John is dead and somebody puts out an early take. You can’t go and ask John, “Do you want people to hear that?” But of course Yoko is there, and she checks it out and the people that did this box set really did a great job. A few things are amazing for me like where I’m playing a certain thing on bass and John copies it. I think those things are fun to hear.
But in general it’s not fair if an artist works on a song for a long time and he tried to get it together with a band and then in the end he finds out, this is the take I want. I don’t like when somebody comes along later and takes another version and put it out. I personally don’t like that. Even when I hear “How Do You Sleep” on the DVD, to me it’s okay but it’s not what it was in the end.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about the “How Do You Sleep” session. Were you taken aback by John’s vitriol in the lyrics directed towards Paul McCartney?
Klaus Voormann: I know it was pretty heavy (laughs). I knew the situation and I found it perfectly right for him to do that because Paul was taking shots at him on his record so John said, “Fuck it, I’ll do the same for Paul.” (laughs) Even though John said later about the song the lyrics could have just as well been about me. But you can’t take that song that seriously because John’s songs are mostly so strong as he wrote it about a particular situation and that situation was bad between them. It really was. That’s why he felt like that that day. The next week he could have felt differently. I think John underestimated how people were gonna react to the song and say, “How could you do that to Paul? That’s not nice.”
He definitely underestimated the reaction of the people to “How Do You Sleep.” It was the same when he said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
Rock Cellar: The song “Gimme Some Truth” carries a message as timely today as when it was written.
Klaus Voormann: Yes, I love it. The way John sings “Gimme Some Truth” is great. I remember we recorded and Phil mixed some stuff down and went to New York and was putting strings on and saxophones on various songs. Then he suddenly realized the bass is too quiet. They said, “Klaus, come over to New York, you have to play the bass part again.” So I flew over and I had double exactly that same bass part. Phil felt it needed to be louder ‘cause it was important to have the bass driving through the song.
Rock Cellar: “How?” sounds like it could have been on the Plastic Ono Band album sans strings. There’s so much space in that track akin to the others on that album.
Klaus Voormann: That song shows off John’s versatility as a writer. He can do a rocker or do something bluesy or at the same time he can be very simple with nice major chords and have it floating along. It was fun to work it out. You said before that I always seemed to be finding the right notes on bass. Sometimes I’d even suggest something and we’d try it and see if it works. I think “Imagine” could have been on the Plastic Ono Band LP with just him playing it on the piano. I think there’s a song on Imagine” (“Oh My Love”) that has Phil Spector just playing the piano, so simple but it works. The whole concept of the Imagine LP was “let’s do a little more, let’s do a little more.” So we tried stuff or went back and said, “Let’s do it later.” So the mood was a different one than on the Plastic Ono Band. We went in and John decided, “here’s the song and let’s do it now so play” (laughs) and we just stated playing.
Rock Cellar: Klaus, this is going off on a quick tangent but you took part in the “I’m The Greatest” Session for Ringo Starr’s Ringo album, which featured you paying in the studio with three of the four Beatles, John, George and Ringo. What are your recollections of that session?
Klaus Voorman: That was a lot of fun. We had a great time working together. But from my point of view, if you have Nicky Hopkins or some other great session musician who might not be well known in the studio, there’s no difference to me if it’s George Harrison or Ringo Starr or John Lennon. I don’t get starstruck or act in awe. That has to do with the fact that I know those boys and we’ve done work together in the studio. The only time that I had a little bit of that sense of awe was when I hadn’t seen them for a long time. That very first moment you see one of them and shake their hands or embrace them is always sort of a star shiver like “Oh, there’s Paul McCartney!” But that goes away quickly after the first few words between us. I admire those boys from the first time I saw them play in Hamburg and thought, what a great band. I loved their humor and I loved everything about them. I admired them.
I was a real fan of The Beatles and he moment you become friends it’s a different situation.