John Lennon: Imagine — The Ultimate Collection

It's an understatement to say this ultimate edition lives up to its boastful name.

John Lennon
Imagine — The Ultimate Collection

(Geffen/UME)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Imagine/Gimme Some Truth — DVD
(Eagle Vision)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Overwhelming.

That’ll be your initial reaction seeing the 140-cut listing and flipping through the associated 120-page hardback book comprising a comprehensive revisiting of John Lennon’s landmark 1971 release. Everything about this screams lavish, including its approximate $80 price tag (a cheaper, two disc edited version is available). Clearly, this is not geared to the casual fan. But for those with an intense interest in either Lennon and/or arguably his finest work, it’s an understatement to say this ultimate edition lives up to its boastful name.

After the primal-scream intensity of 1970’s Plastic Ono Band solo debut, Lennon lightens the mood somewhat on this 10 track follow-up. He’s still the acerbic songwriter, especially evident in the “Yer Blues”-styled rocking “It’s So Hard,” the thudding slow-burn intensity of “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” and his nightmarish/dreamy McCartney kiss-off  “How Do You Sleep?” Interestingly, the insistent, caustic “Gimme Some Truth” is as pertinent today, perhaps more so, than in 1971.

But the approach is generally softer, less tense and taut, with a greater love-togetherness-quiet introspection. That’s epitomized by the iconic title cut, along with reflections of his affection for Yoko in the sweet if haunted “Jealous Guy,” the peppy near country “Oh Yoko!” and the lovely “Oh My Love,” one of Lennon’s most poignant performances. His always expressive voice, newly remixed, shifts from vitriolic to gentle, flawlessly reflecting the songs’ eclectic vibe.

The expanded box adds singles recorded around the same time such as the annual holiday chestnut “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Those along with a John & Yoko interview, dozens of fascinating demos, alternate takes, extended versions edited for the final album, and raw recordings, mono, Quadrophonic and 5.1 surround mixes justify the price and time you’ll need to absorb it all. The elegant book explores each track in detail from audio, lyrical and instrumental angles bringing even more clarity to a reissue that more than does this classic justice.

The DVD, which combines two approximately hour long films, both long out of print, onto a single disc is more problematic. John & Yoko collaborated on both with Gimme Some Truth, created by director Andrew Solt, about a decade after Imagine.

The former creates a mini-movie for every track on Lennon’s album, adding some for Ono’s double Fly set, also released in 1971. Most listeners are familiar with the by-now archetypal clip for “Imagine” with Lennon in the all-white room at his similarly white piano, but fewer have seen those for the other tracks. Lennon, at a handsome 31, was in his infatuation stage with Ono at the time, so she is very present in these short films. Even if there is an overly artsy approach and the visuals generally have little or nothing to do with the music, it’s interesting to see the couple in action, romping with friends like Miles Davis, Dick Cavett, Fred Astaire(!) and Andy Warhol, expressing their love, playing kissy-face and looking longingly at each other. It’s all innocent enough, even if the incessant calling of “John” by Yoko and “Yoko” by John over the closing credits is at best annoying. And the few Ono selections are, like much of her work, an acquired taste.

The Gimme Some Truth documentary is subtitled “the making of the Imagine album.” While some of the visuals— particularly home movies — are repeated from Imagine, the 109-minute film captures many revealing moments in and out of the studio. Lennon occasionally loses patience with the recording process, and is especially annoyed at co-producer Phil Spector who seems to be wandering around in a shell-shocked haze. It’s enlightening to get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the songs and players (like George Harrison — in full All Things Must Pass beard) as they are worked up or recorded. The quite raw footage is often as unfiltered as the most wince-inducing parts of Let It Be, another instance where Lennon allowed cameras to capture art as it was created. Some might not enjoy seeing the sausage being made, to coin a term, and Lennon’s anger when trying to nail down the jaunty, jovial “Oh Yoko!” is at odds with the song’s intent.

But the content, with newly buffed visuals and remastered audio combined with the elaborate Imagine package (both released on the same day, although sold separately), provides a window into the creation of one of rock’s finest albums. It’s a goldmine for Lennon hardcores; together they create a historically vital experience few albums deserve and even less receive.