Alas, the never-ending battle between ideologues and utilitarianism pervades every bit of our world. Do we strive for an unattainable utopia or should we let go and find a happy ‘complacence’ in our dark world? Perhaps these are over simplified, out-moded strains of thought but the question remains: Can we achieve a perfect world or do we just make a happy collective sigh and say ‘fuck it’. Well, in my silly head, Lennon and McCartney were discussing these polemics in Let it be and Imagine. The dichotomy of their thinking is not only indicative of their ideological differences but their personal turmoil as well.
The two songs were written just a year apart during and after the tumultuous break-up of the Beatles that was preceded by the conflicted Get Back/Let it Be sessions. Let it Be, written during these sessions in 1970, and Imagine, written on Lennon first solo album in 1971, could easily be interpreted as a dialogue between the two on their diametrically opposing worldviews.
Imagine is a treatise of optimism for a quixotic, illusory world void of war, famine, religious strife, and probably void of McCartney as well. Lennon personally described the song as “virtually the Communist Manifesto.” The song is ardently anti-religious, anti-capitalist, anti-nationalistic, and have course, anti-McCartney. It is very easily interpreted as an extension of Plato’s Republic where the beauties of society reign supreme and there are perfect social, political, and spiritual orders. . Nonetheless, others would argue that the song does not advocate an ‘answer’ or ‘solution’ yet merely encourages the listener to ‘imagine’ these things.
Critics of the song characterize it as nothing more than the grandiose ramblings of an insulated rock star that was sitting on nearly 100 million dollars. English journalist Robert Elms said “Imagine” was written by a “multi-millionaire with one temperature-controlled room in his Manhattan mansion just to store his fur coats.” Deluded or not, Imagine has had an enormous influence and impact on modern culture that reaches beyond shitty classic rock radio. President Jimmy Carter once joked that the song is played about equally with national anthems around the world
Let it Be has had a profound cultural impact but in a very different way. Many Catholic’s have adopted the song as an anthem based on a misinterpretation of the intro lyrics “ When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.” The reference is not an ode to the Christ’s Mother but rather to McCartney’s mother who died of cancer when he was 14 years old. Stress over infighting among the Beatle’s during album sessions, McCartney had a dream where his mother visited and told him “It will be alright, just let it be.” Nonetheless, there is no denying the theistic elements of the song. Let it Be pictures a flawed world where we exercise little control other than to find acceptance and resignation. We are told “there will be answer” yet are not told what that answer may be. Just wait. It will fall from the sky. Oddly enough, the English translation to the word ‘Amen’ is ‘let it be.’ Paul bemoans that “When all the broken hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer.” Does this mean that the ‘answer’ manifest itself once and for all upon the moment of all ‘broken hearted people’ finding some kind of consensus. This, however, leaves me ultimately with more questions than answers. Let it Be also does a surreptitious job of capturing the spirit of The Serenity Prayer where one is encouraged to ask the Lord to “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. “ However, Let it Be relies heavily on not only Judeo Christian thought but has Buddhist tendencies as well. The song espouses detachment just as many Buddhist and Hindu doctrines prescribe release from worldly desires and expectations. Critics would call this viewpoint apathetic or even dissassociative, Lennon was not a fan of Let it Be either. He once said that McCartney was “ just trying to re-write Bridge over Troubled Waters” and that Wings as should have recorded the song opposed to the Beatles. Harsh words indeed.
Ultimately, Lennon and McCartney present strong cases for their particular world-views. Lennon typifies an idealistic yet naïve hope for a world that lacks the presence of all the stratifying differences that cause us so much strife and turmoil. We can no doubt ‘imagine’ such a place but must conscious of what are immoveable forces in our universe. Personally, I more readily subscribe to the McCartney-esque detachment put forth in Let it Be but hope the world fills up with more Imagine sympathizers. There are just way too many jaded pragmatists like myself.
Editors Note: Dating and chronology are open to dispute as journalists and Beatle’s themselves rarely share consensus of what is factual and what is merely mental residue from LSD.