The Story and Meaning Behind “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On),” John Lennon’s Impulsive Post-Beatles Smash

John Lennon felt the urge to not just write a song, but also record it in a hurry when he churned out “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” in early 1970. It was a message of positivity and accountability from Lennon, who, for all the world knew, was still a Beatle, although that was just a matter of keeping up appearances.

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What is the song about? How did Lennon pull it all together so quickly? And what was his status with The Beatles at the time it was released? Let’s shine on a light and find out all there is to know about “Instant Karma!”

A Rapid Recording

In the book All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Lennon explained what he had in mind when we wrote “Instant Karma!” one morning in January 1970:

“It just came to me. Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the Sixties. But it occurred to me that karma is instant as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form. I just liked it.”

Lennon decided the instant part should also apply to the recording and, in an ingenious move, decided to record the song the same night he wrote it. He had to quickly assemble a band so he could record the song at Abbey Road. Thus, he called George Harrison, which might have been a bit strange considering where Lennon was at the time in terms of his status as a Beatle.

In Beatles Limbo

As far as the rest of the world knew, The Beatles were still very much an ongoing entity in January 1970, perhaps even plotting their next move to conquer the new decade much as they had done the previous one. But they were, in reality, already defunct. Lennon had announced he was leaving the group at a band meeting in September 1969.

Because there was still Beatles product in the pipeline (namely the unfinished Let It Be album and film), it was agreed Lennon would keep his decision a secret. Paul McCartney turned out to be the one to finally let the cat out of the bag when promoting his debut solo album in April 1970.

Even with the impending breakup, Lennon and Harrison were still on good terms since they were on the same side in the fight with McCartney over Beatles management. Harrison agreed to play on “Instant Karma!,” and he brought along Phil Spector, who would co-produce the song with Lennon and Yoko Ono. Spector would soon play a much bigger part in the Beatles story when Lennon and Harrison called upon him to produce Let It Be.

What is the Meaning of “Instant Karma!”?

Lennon’s main message with “Instant Karma!” is there’s no better time than right now to start thinking about your cosmic well-being. Identifying what’s truly important is the first step in this process: What in the world you thinking of? / Laughing in the face of love.

He varies between questioning his listeners and advising them throughout the song. On the latter front, he stresses inclusivity instead of isolation: Better recognize your brothers / Every one you meet. Meanwhile, his questions are pointed enough to steer people in the direction he wants them to go: Why in the world are we here? / Surely not to live in pain and fear.

All roads in the song lead to that shout-along chorus: And we all shine on / Like the moon and the stars and the sun. John Lennon was certainly shining on “Instant Karma!” a song that came out just a week-and-a-half after it was first written. Lennon was in a hurry to get the song out to the world, even if he wasn’t nearly as hasty in letting his fans know he was suddenly a solo act.

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Photo by George Stroud/Express/Getty Images

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