Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in Billboard, HuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.
John Lennon’s voice is one of the most significant sounds in my life. I heard it in the womb. I hope to hear it when I take my last breath. His sweet-and-sour tenor, soothing in the center yet acrid around the edges, seems to contain every shade of his turbulent mind and colorful life. My life, too.
In my family home, a Lennon self-portrait hung prominently in my dad’s study. As a child, I mixed up that friendly face with other familiar figures in my young mind. Was that my father? My music teacher? Lennon had been gone for over a decade at that point, but something in that picture convinced me that he was a friend of the family.
That’s why Imagine: Raw Studio Mixes, out tomorrow, April 13, for Record Store Day, feels like communing with a loved one. It’s a new version of his 1971 album Imagine, remixed to remove the vocal effects and studio trickery that Lennon insecurely used to mask his voice. The resulting music touches the tenderest part of my mind.
In 2019, the song “Imagine” has been reduced to wallpaper. It’s probably being piped in with the Muzak at your local Walgreens. In a time of border walls and tweetstorms, its earnest call for a division-free world can feel more out of reach than ever. By the time the strings waft in, a Beatle agnostic may have checked out.
But Raw Studio Mixes does the impossible; it lets you hear an old classic with fresh ears. Free of reverb, echo and strings, “Imagine” sounds like it came from a man who’s never been more alone. It begins with John sharply breathing in, then out. Silence. Then the iconic opening notes waft into the studio air.
Coming from a wealthy man prone to violent behavior, “Imagine” has sometimes gotten pushback as hypocritical. (Elvis Costello summed it up in his 1991 song “The Other Side of Summer”: “Was it a millionaire who sang ‘Imagine no possessions?’”) It was, no doubt. But in this stripped-down setting, “Imagine” finally sounds like a plea made to himself.
That inward-looking vibe goes for the rest of Imagine: Raw Studio Mixes. Sans strings, “Jealous Guy” and “How?” sound less like sentimental show-stoppers than confessions from a therapist’s couch. Without a canyon of reverb, “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” reveals its killer groove between bassist Klaus Voormann and drummer Jim Keltner.
Hearing Lennon unadorned wasn’t just revelatory on its own; it led me to interact with almost every living soul involved with Imagine. Last year, I was invited to cover Imagine: The Ultimate Collection for Billboard — and to hear Raw Studio Mixes before the public did.
I walked into the press event at a Manhattan studio and was led to a giant mixing board and 5.1 sound system. Rob Stevens, the engineer behind the Raw Studio Mixes disc, was present. I closed my eyes and heard Lennon’s voice, clear as day, like he was in the room with us. First that breath. Then “Imagine.”
The experience didn’t stop there. It’s surreal to think about today, but I got the opportunity to speak with Yoko Ono, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Alan White and engineers Stevens and Paul Hicks for the Billboard piece.
Voormann cracked me up with the story of “Crippled Inside” and how White helped him bang out the hokey rhythm on an upright bass. Keltner kept me on the line for almost an hour as he flipped through his studio notes and compared them with mine. White told me about the whole scene at Ascot Sound Studios during the Imagine sessions. The long, wooden table they shared. Lennon passing around the lyrics of “Imagine” to every player so they understood what they were saying to the world.
I’m aware that this is typical music-writing fare, thanks. But I can’t help but be gobsmacked. In fifth grade, my English class was instructed to pick songs they liked and to deconstruct the lyrics on a posterboard. I didn’t know of any music I liked myself; my dad insisted I do “Imagine.” I did my report red-faced, like it was the lamest song ever sung. The kid who did “Youth of the Nation” by P.O.D. got an A. I got a C+.
Still, I knew Imagine would be a big part of my life. I grew up to cackle at “Crippled Inside,” seethe to “Gimme Some Truth” and navigate my own adolescent feelings to “How?”. I never thought I’d do it in a thousand years, but now, I’ve interacted with the people who created Imagine. And I can hear Lennon’s voice exactly as it should sound. As a green music writer but a lifelong fan, it feels like coming home.