There are a few recordings out there that are so iconic, so well-known and beloved, that the very thought of attempting to take them on brings fear and panic to nearly every artist (those with excessive hubris being the exception). When I watch reality singing competitions on TV, I often find these songs are huge missteps and often the end of the line for singers.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” is one of those songs for me. When I asked for requests of songs to cover, I was dismayed to see this song suggested. Of course, I immediately threw myself into working on the Beethoven for five months, but I couldn’t keep the request from niggling in the back of my brain. With the Beethoven complete (for the moment), I was ready for a new song to record and a new challenge to tackle.
With many of these iconic songs, approaching it as an homage to the original often ends up with a performance that by any comparison to the original is lackluster. The alternative is to try to make it your own, but then you alienate people and make them nostalgic for the original. Basically, it’s a choose your own adventure that always ends in disappointment. With “Imagine,” homages often turn into saccharine, uninspired bores that suck all life and energy from a room. The song is so simple and straightforward that trying to make it your own often ends up destroying everything about the construction of the song that makes it great…it’s simplicity and economy in music delivering a simple truth.
For me, the solution was an attempt at threading the needle. I left the lyrics and the melody nearly untouched. On the other hand, the accompaniment and harmony has been totally reworked. The concept behind “Imagine” is so dreamlike, and I drew on the meme of whole-tone inspired harmonies to create a floating harmonic world for the verses. But for the chorus, I come back to the simpler driving chords of the original. My hope is that it gives the “imagining” a sense of daydream, but emphasizes the real world roots in the chorus. I also feel like the simplification of harmony and return of driving chords in the chorus keep the energy from waning.
So did a manage to thread the needle? You decide.