by Aleksander Zielinski
Finding a pop song that everyone knows to use as a paradigm for an easy and practical introduction to listening has not been easy. I didn't think any old well-known song would do: I needed one that's carved into the DNA of humankind, one so well known that it has prompted many world-renowned artists to record their own versions. And it would be even better if this second version were very well known too — enough that both tracks have found eternal fame despite being the same song.
Convoluted? Maybe. But when I tell you that we're talking about Imagine, written by John Lennon in 1971 and revisited (amongst many others) by Ray Charles in 2002, perhaps everything will become a bit clearer.
This analysis will start with Lennon's historical version, followed by the (evocative) version sung by Ray Charles (2002, "Ray Charles Sings for America") together with the Harlem Gospel Singers. Imagine is a song that's deeply rooted in the collective consciousness for three main reasons. Firstly, for its pacifist yet secular, anti-capitalist and almost anti-religious message. Secondly, because it was written in the Seventies, considered by many to be the golden age of pop and rock music. And thirdly, owing to the charisma and high-profile personal lives of its two performers.
There's little left to say that has not already been said about the first version by Lennon—a utopia of global harmony and a pop music icon—except maybe to briefly examine what pop music really is.
Pop music, also known as musica leggera ("light music") in Italian, is music that's relatively simple and quick to understand. Its main purpose is to entertain its listeners and make them sing or dance. By its very nature, it must be accessible to the general public — meaning it must be enjoyable and preferably have a catchy melody and engaging rhythm too. In its most basic form, pop music is further distinguished by its straightforward and highly recognizable refrains. This means that pop songs are usually based on the verse-refrain structure. I don't think I need to explain what a refrain is here; but I will say, perhaps too simplistically, that the refrain is the part that sticks in your mind if written well. This is helped by the fact that it's repeated several times to "punctuate" the telling of the story (almost always a romantic one in pop music) in the verses, of which there are usually three.
Pop music has stayed more or less the same over the decades, with just a few small variations or influences from other musical genres. It has been enriched in terms of instrumentation, however, drawing more and more from electronics, with effects and sounds so diverse that they have become synonymous with specific artists. In particular, in the evolution of pop, it's often the performer who becomes the nucleus of the song, moving the focus away from the music and towards their particular "image". Recently, this image has come to prevail over the content of the songs, which have progressively emptied of lyrical and musical content.
Imagine, however, has many things to "tell" in its disarming simplicity. Perhaps because it was written almost 50 years ago, it has crystallised all the iconic features of original pop music that are still largely applicable today.
Even today, it's easy to distinguish between the verses and refrain (no one can forget Imagine's refrain) in Lennon's piece. Imagine is a soft ballad in four quarters, which means it has a relaxed rhythm similar to the rhythmic pace of a walk. The song's "soft" rather than "rock" atmosphere is also down to the instruments used (the piano immediately evokes a classical aspect) and the arrangement (which/how many instruments are used, how and when). In Imagine, the arrangement is so simple as to be almost bare: the piano, to which the bass part is also entrusted (see below), and then percussion and strings (i.e. all the instruments that, like the violin, use strings). Identifying the instruments used and understanding where in the track they appear can be an excellent workout for any ear. In more recent pop songs, the general rule is "from a little to a lot": You start with a voice and a few instruments, then you introduce the bass, then percussion, and so on. Then at the end, as it usually goes, all the instruments are played together.
The arrangement is like a suit that's tailored to each track and says a lot about the "atmosphere" of the song itself, becoming an added value. To give a pictorial comparison, it would be like the frame that you want to put a painting in, but it's part of the painting itself. But we'll talk about this again in a moment.
Let's go back to Imagine, but this time to see what's missing: the bass. By bass, I mean the electric guitar with four strings that makes the sound of the lower notes you hear in a song. The bass is also the foundation for all the chords and the guitar (with its effects and solos). The absence of these elements must be seen as a choice, aimed at emphasising the subtle, almost suspended atmosphere of the song. There are also no romantic lyrics in the strict sense; there's no modulation, i.e. repeating the same part (almost always the refrain) in a higher tone, as though the melody suddenly "rises" one step higher to avoid "boring" the listener (there are many types of "rise", but this is the most recognisable one). There is also no bridge — the bridge is a part that appears just once, usually before the last refrain, with lyrics and music that do not appear elsewhere in the song.
Compared to many other more recent pop hits, Imagine is also "missing" something else, which conversely gives it another feature: It is built on very few chords — a total of ten. This simplicity should be seen as a richness rather than a deficiency or oversight.
Lastly, unlike most of today's pop music, there are no vocalists or choristers to accompany the solo voice with backing vocals or choral elements.
It is precisely this last "missing" feature that must have moved Ray Charles, the inventor of soul music, in some way, for he sewed his new arrangement of Imagine onto himself like a treasured suit. Soul is a mixture of jazz, gospel and pop; it is a very expressive and intimate musical genre that focuses on universal themes and lends itself to voicing to a wide range of emotions. Soul songs have simple lyrics interwoven with jazz rhythms, vocals that are difficult to sing and full of flourishes, and instrumental blues backgrounds.
In Imagine by Ray Charles, the intimate soul aspect that takes inspiration from Lennon's lyrics is evident in the elaborate and twisted vocals that sound almost like the result of complex inner reflection.
He also changes the time signature — Imagine is no longer a 4/4 ballad, but a 6/8 ballad, i.e. a tempo at which you count faster up to six. The change of pace compared to the Lennon version is evident right from the introduction.
As for the arrangement, the piano and strings are there, as they are in the original; but in this version they are accompanied by a Hammond organ, guitar and bass. But perhaps the most distinctive element of this version are the vocals. On one hand, the gospel choir amplifies and "illuminates" some of the soloist's words, mitigating their contortions; on the other, the backing vocals (here entrusted to R. Studdard) are a countermelody to the soloist. These elements have the effect of a refined dialogue. You don't need to be a musician to feel—and not only with your ears—the effects of emotional tension and easing, which are certainly less simple than Lennon's original version and by no means insignificant.
I mentioned above how the arrangement and the use of instruments make a frame for the emotional picture drawn by the lyrics. In the case of Ray Charles, this soul picture would be incomplete if we didn't mention the intrinsic religiousness of African-American music and the omnipresence of the spiritual dimension to it. Even when the piece in question is not a sacred hymn, spiritual song or gospel, the aspect of spiritual exaltation often features in soul music. Perhaps, in this reimagining of Imagine, we find that vein of religiousness that John Lennon's version lacks — indeed Lennon specifically says "Imagine there's no Heaven (...) and no religion too"?
I believe this is quite possibly the case, but this is just my opinion and remains open for discussion. Faced with two great (and indisputable) giants of music, it is instead time for me to stop talking and, like you, to start listening.