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Imagine: Most Important Anti-war Protest Songs by John Lennon

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Nearing what would be the end of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), English musician John Lennon produced and co-wrote with his wife Yoko Ono “Imagine” in 1971. Released in 1975, the song encourages listeners to imagine a peaceful world lacking borders, barriers, racial and religious divides. The lyrics emphasize the possibility of living unencumbered by material possessions in a world where every human being is accepted as they are. This paper will discuss the contextual history of the song, its lyrics and artists, and its impact on society upon its release and in current times.

Born during the second world war, on October 9th, 1940, John Lennon was a singer, songwriter and a peace activist who, along with Paul McCartney, founded the Beatles in 1960. The Beatles are regarded as the “foremost and most influential band in history”. As a member of the band, Lennon wrote many of the Beatles most famous songs including Help!, In my life, Tomorrow Never Knows.

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After the bands disbandment in 1970, Lennon went on to become a solo artist continuing to produce and write masterpieces, as he did during the Beatles period. Many of his songs have had a huge impact on the music world generating criticism and admiration for his work. Collaborating with his wife, Yoko Ono they co-wrote songs dedicated to peace activism as they spoke of how a better world could be built; such as Imagine, Working Class Hero and Happy Xmas (War is Over).

The Vietnam War lasted approximately 20 years from 1955 to 1975, making it one of the longest wars in history. The war was between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies such as the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States of America and other anti-communist countries. The conflict resulted in millions of deaths, ranging from one to four million, including civilians and soldiers from Vietnam and from external countries and allies.

Throughout the duration of the war, between the 1960’s and 1970’s, people took to the streets and mounted campaigns against the involvement of outside forces in what was seen as a civil war. More protests arose when The United States declared their participation in the Vietnam War in 1964 and placed their troops in Vietnam in support of South Vietnam. Protests started with hundreds of participants and rose quickly reaching hundreds thousands of participants uniting to raise empathy for the war.

Composed in 1971, during the era of the Vietnam war, Imagine is one of the strongest and most important anti-war protest songs written by John Lennon. Before Imagine, Lennon had released with the Beatles anti-war songs such as Revolution, and during his solo Career like Give Peace a Chance but these songs did not have the same impact or resounding influence on people that Imagine did. The song is considered as one of the most sensational anti-war songs extremely meaningful and beautiful.

The song’s basic concept is about a peaceful world uniting all the people as one. The song touches upon all aspects that separate humans including having different beliefs, nationalities or countries, possessions, having food or being hungry. No matter how good someone is, no matter how many differences exist between humans, greed and pride exist and certain differences can be the root causes of conflicts and fights potentially leading to the outbreak of wars.

With the song being simple, it pushes the listener an uplifting feeling of the inner strength, where the simplicity playing a fundamental role in making the song very catchy, drawing you in to feel what the singer feels through the melody of the song. Melodic wise, the majority of the song has a narrow range, every now and then getting wider in range during the advancement from the verse to the bridge. The rising of pitches occasionally throughout the piece catches the listeners’ attention bringing in the focus on the song.

Due to its simplicity, harmony is present only in the background music, where the verse harmony is stable with only the change of chord at every fourth beat and present in a simple structure. As the song relates to the singer grieving about the imperfections of the world and the differences that exist, while picturing his perfect ideal world, the song expresses sadness in it thus having a minor tonality. Additionally, the song also contains major chords as it hints to the happiness the singer obtained while seeing through his mind’s eye this perfect peaceful world. Therefore, a mixture of minor tonality and major tonality is used.

Lennon longed for a peaceful world, without killing or, or discrimination. A place where everyone was equal, where there were no stereotypes or judgement, this is what his world would look like and in simpler terms, Lennon longed for universal love. Not only mentioning the concepts of religions and countries or nationalities, Lennon also wrote about possessions which usually leads people to greed

“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world…”

According to Lennon, if private possessions such as goods, property or money didn’t exist then all things could be shared without fighting to possess them. There would be no greed for objects and all people could have access to basic and primary necessities. There would be no hunger or starvation as they exist today. Without no possessions, there would be no monopoly on certain goods, there wouldn’t be a gap between the rich and the poor and no conflicts would arise.

Once more, at the end of the song, Lennon reiterated his message to emphasize what he wanted, which was to communicate to the listener’s minds and heart. Moreover Lennon wanted to make sure that his message was understood by the listeners, which was to focus on Peace and Anti-War Protests,nothing else and nothing more.

“You, you may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will live as one”

In 1965, John Lennon was made a member of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire. His protest of Britain’s involvement in the Vietnam war and the support they provided to the United State’s involvement in the war resulted in him rejecting this honor. As seen in his explanation to the Queen was as follows :

“Your Majesty,

I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.

With love. John Lennon of Bag”

Lennon believed that it is the differences of beliefs, religions, countries and nationalities that are the root causes of the wars all around the world. For example, the Vietnam war as mentioned in the quote above and in Imagine with the lyrics “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do Nothing to /Kill or die for, And no religion too” as the conflicts result in death and killing for their countries and their beliefs, fighting for their religion.

After their marriage on March 20, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to publicly promote world peace through the publicity that would arise from the wedding. The Bed-Ins For Peace was the newly married couple spending their honeymoon in bed, wearing pajamas, with signs above their bed that read ‘Hair Peace’ and ‘Bed Peace’. This act reflects their dedication and how the song Imagine came to be through their work as peace and anti-war activists and called to attention peace and unity.

At the time of its release, Lennon said that the world is too focused on trivialities and that “the thing we should be talking about is the violence that goes on in this society. Imagine reached the No.1 of the UK charts following Lennon’s murder in December 1980 and reentered the charts in 2012 when Emeli Sandé recorded a cover of the song for the 2012 London Olympics. Still to date, it is played every year at the New Year’s ceremony that takes place in Time Square, New York.

Imagine may be considered a peaceful song, but when you take the orchestration away, the underlying concept remains radical and anti-establishment – or, as Lennon put it, “It’s ‘Working Class Hero’ with sugar on it.” Yoko’s assertion that, “All these instructions are for people on how to spend eternity, because we have lots of time,” has, however, proved prescient. Even decades after its release, the song Imagine remains a popular music masterpiece that is a model of simplicity that inspires people all around the world of all races and religions giving them hope for a better world that thrives on peace and the unity of all beings.

When released, the song sparked some controversy with its lyrics and ideas. Accepted almost all over the world, critics said that it was as if it asks us to embrace anarchy and “communism”. Lyrics such as ‘Imagine there’s no heaven…. Imagine there’s no countries…. Imagine no possessions…. And no religion, too.’ were deemed anti-American, anti-British, anti-establishment despite its message of a peaceful world where all are accepted. Feelings of peace are entangled with lyrics suggesting we abolish some of the things people treasure.

Even listeners who claimed to accept the message struggle with its meaning. Lennon was asked by the World Church if they could use Imagine but change the lyrics to ‘one religion’ instead of “no religion.” Lennon said no, explaining that it would defeat the whole purpose of the song. Since his death, Ono has been approached many times by groups whose intention were similar to the World Church’s, and she consistently refuses. All the world’s activists are imagining one religion, but that’s the opposite of what he was singing about.

Additional lyrics in the song sparked controversy, such as the following “Imagine no possessions” sung by a man who owned a custom painted Rolls Royce even though he did not drive it often.

Conclusion

Imagine has been on the most important and popular song used to communicate and send the message of a peaceful world to people and an anti-war protest between humans since 1975 to date. It has been covered by many famous artists such as Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, Diana Ross and many more. The song is so well written and conveys a beautiful message of peace for all and one world for all without discrimination. It is considered revolutionary and has no less relevance today than it did the year it was written. 

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