KEYS WEEK 2023: Imagine is, of course, the ultimate John Lennon song. It has won accolade after accolade, entered every hall of fame and won most ‘best single’ polls.
But to many fans, it’s just the peace-loving ‘politics with honey’ of John Lennon and fellow songwriter Yoko Ono in just over three glorious minutes. Not to mention one of the best and most iconic acoustic piano parts of all time.
And watching the equally memorable video, you might well think that Yoko Ono’s white grand piano – a gift from Lennon that featured so prominently in it – was the one that created that piano part. But this is not the case, and the story of the Imagine piano actually involves a couple more uprights, one of which looks like it’s straight out of a ‘very underfunded school’.
The Imagine video was filmed at Tittenhurst Park, Lennon’s home at the time, and one in which he'd also installed a separate recording studio. Rather than the white baby grand as shown, Lennon apparently wrote the music for Imagine on a much more weather-worn upright piano in an upstairs bedroom.
The composition of the song was almost completed in a single morning, probably the most historic songwriter session of all time, especially given that Imagine has now been covered over 200 times.
When it came to the song’s recording, Lennon and co-producer Phil Spector initially turned to the white baby grand and recorded an earlier take of the song – now known as ‘Imagine (Take 1)’ – which featured different instruments than those on the final released version.
Lennon wasn’t happy with the arrangement, preferring the piano to have more prominence, so they tried again with pianist Nicky Hopkins also playing alongside Lennon but an octave higher.
This time Phil Spector wasn’t happy with the sound that the room was imparting on the recording, so they abandoned the white grand piano in the living room, and went to Lennon’s studio instead.
Here, they used an upright Steinway Z piano on which the recording of Imagine was finally completed. Obviously that wouldn’t have looked quite as good as a white grand piano in the video, so that was chosen for the shoot over the upright.
As to the battered piano that helped give rise to the song in the first place – who knows where that is? But we do know what happened to the other two. The baby grand is still owned by Yoko, and the Steinway? Well, this is where a certain George Michael gets involved.
In 2000 George Michael bought the Steinway Z in an auction for £1.45 million – apparently outbidding the Gallagher brothers and Robbie Williams.
He told NJ.com at the time, "I mean, it’s a funny-looking thing – it’s the cheapest-looking piano you’ve ever seen. I wasn’t expecting the big white one – I knew it wasn’t the big white one, but I didn’t expect something you’d get in a very, very underfunded school."
In a slightly odd, not to say off-colour, Sunday Times column bemoaning the death of British pop - during which, amongst other things, he dismissed Radiohead's new album, Kid A, as "patronising, won't sell much once people hear it" - Michael wrote that he'd partly bought the piano because "I wanted to keep it out of tiny hands in Tokyo (xenophobic but true)". Less worryingly, he also wrote "I know that when my fingers touch the keys of that Steinway, I will feel truly blessed."
While he owned it, Michael wrote and recorded the track Patience, from the album of the same name.
He also toured with the piano in 2007, using it as he said 'as a symbol of peace'. On Michael's death in 2016 the piano stayed in his estate, and in 2020 they loaned the piano to the Strawberry Field museum in Liverpool where it remains.
Lennon's sister, Julia Baird (pictured below), said at the time: “Bringing John’s piano to Strawberry Field for the first time to mark what would have been his 80th birthday is a wonderful gesture – one that will bring joy to the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Liverpool every year to get closer to the history of The Beatles and John’s legacy."
So there you have it. The Imagine piano is actually three: the upright in Liverpool (now with an estimated value of $12million), the baby grand that Yoko Ono still owns (estimated value of $even more million), and a battered upright whose location is unknown.
Want to get that 'Imagine' sound today? Grab yourself a Steinway Z upright secondhand for a few grand or any decent piano library. Or maybe wait until either Orchestral Tool or Spitfire Audio release a new library called 'the battered piano upstairs at Tittenhurst park'. They'll have to find it first, mind.
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