By Damian Fanelli
In mid-1971, more than a year after the Beatles officially split, John Lennon started recording what would become his second proper solo album, Imagine.
The album, which was released later that year, was a critical and commercial success, not to mention a perennial fan favorite.
It also marks one of the only times Lennon recorded with his former Beatles bandmate, guitarist George Harrison, after the dissolution of the Fab Four in 1970. Harrison’s fretwork can be heard on several Imagine tracks, including “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” “Gimme Some Truth” and “Oh My Love.” He even plays a mean dobro on “Crippled Inside.”
However, from a six-string perspective, there’s just something special, and maybe a bit chilling, about Harrison’s slide work on “How Do You Sleep?,” which also happens to be the most “anti-Paul McCartney” song ever written. In fact, it’s downright mean. Lennon was getting back at McCartney for what he perceived were some anti-John-and-Yoko lyrics on McCartney’s Ram album, which was released earlier that year.
Here are some choice lyrics from Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?,” plus some commentary from yours truly:
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead / The one mistake you made was in your head
(He’s referring to the “Paul is dead” rumors.)
You live with straights who tell you you was king / Jump when your momma tell you anything
(We assume Paul’s “momma” is his wife, Linda; this is very funny coming from Lennon, who actually took musical advice from Yoko Ono.)
The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you’re gone you’re just another day
(This refers to two commercially successful McCartney compositions: 1965’s “Yesterday” and 1971’s “Another Day.”)
A pretty face may last a year or two / But pretty soon they’ll see what you can do
(Paul’s 21st-century albums and live shows are still pretty impressive.)
The sound you make is muzak to my ears / You must have learned something in all those years
(John must’ve forgotten that Paul wrote “Helter Skelter.”)
Anyway, for Harrison to have taken part in the session, he probably wasn’t expecting any immediate dinner invitations from Paul and Linda. (Ringo Starr reportedly visited the studio during the recording of the song and said, “That’s enough, John.”)
But if we look past the bitchiness, what we hear on the track is some of Harrison’s finest slide-guitar work. As always, Harrison wasn’t a speed demon; his talent lay in his note choices, phrasing and emotional delivery (a trait shared by David Gilmour); in this song, he uses the slide to achieve a sustained, singing tone.
OK, he wasn’t Jeff Beck, Steve Howe or Ritchie Blackmore, but Harrison, who, as a Beatle, influenced millions of humans to play guitar, suddenly started playing slide in 1969, inventing an entirely new “guitar persona” for himself. What he came up with was a distinctive, non-blues-based style that incorporated hints of Indian music, some pointers he picked up while learning sitar and other Beatles-esque odds and ends.
For some fine slide work on his own songs, check out “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” “Cheer Down,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Cloud Nine,” “Maya Love” and “Marwa Blues.” And don’t miss Starr’s “Back Off Boogaloo” and Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” both of which feature Harrison on slide.
The top video shows the initial “How Do You Sleep?” recording session. Besides Lennon (who’s playing his trusty Epiphone Casino), Ono and Harrison, some faces you might or might not recognize belong to producer Phil Spector (who looks very much like he did in that classic I Dream of Jeannie episode), keyboardist Nicky Hopkins (who also can be heard on the Beatles’ “Revolution”), bassist Klaus Voormann, former Beatles roadie Mal Evans and drummer Alan White, who would go on to join Yes in 1972. The clip is interesting because it shows Lennon taking some (aforementioned) musical advice from Ono; it also shows Ono giving the musicians pointers. I can only “imagine” what was going through Nicky Hopkins’ head.
The middle video features the finished product (“How Do You Sleep?”). Harrison’s solo starts at 2:39.
By the way, for another spine-tingling slide solo by Harrison, be sure to check out “Gimme Some Truth,” another Imagine track (bottom video). Harrison’s solo starts at :49. Enjoy!