British folksinger Frank Turner on why he hates John Lennon’s “Imagine”

British folksinger Frank Turner on why he hates John Lennon’s “Imagine”

In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world. 

The hater: Frank Turner once played small rock clubs throughout his native England as the vocalist for post-hardcore band Million Dead. After cutting his shaggy hair and picking up an acoustic guitar, he began releasing albums of folk-punk songs and started playing on bigger stages. This year, he sold out the 12,500-seat Wembley Arena, and director Danny Boyle tapped him to play the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. He has amassed a dedicated army of followers, among whom he’s earned a reputation as the nicest guy in music today, which is why it was so much fun to have him contribute to HateSong.

The hated: John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971)

The A.V. Club: “Imagine” is a pretty bold choice for HateSong, given that it’s a song about universal peace. 

Frank Turner: It’s always grated on me as a song for a whole host of reasons: the production, the lyrics, the sappiness, its popularity, the knowledge that Lennon was so much better than this one song, and yet it’s the one most people know.

AVC: So you’re otherwise a fan of Lennon and The Beatles?

FT: Very much so. I think the Beatles were uncontestedly amazing. I mean, do I really need to say that? And that Lennon was, on balance, the best songwriter in the group. Some of his stuff is transcendental. As I said, that’s one of the things that annoys me about the song. By his standards, it seems almost lazy to me.

AVC: What would you say was the height of Lennon’s songwriting?

FT: There’s so much to choose from, and of course a lot of it was tied in with Paul McCartney. Personally, I love “A Day In The Life,” “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” “In My Life.” The list is pretty long.

AVC: You come from a punk background. That seems to fit in with the anti-nationalism, anti-corporate, and anti-religious messages of “Imagine,” no?

FT: Yes, but that’s one of the things that’s so fucking annoying about it. Compared to, say, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” or indeed anything by Crass or The Clash or Propagandhi, it’s so utterly vacuous. It’s a Hallmark card set to music. There’s a pretty high dose of hypocrisy in here as well. For a man who had a dedicated, refrigerated room in his New York penthouse apartment for storing his fur-coat collection to sing “Imagine no possessions” takes a fair amount of chutzpah. I mean, I have no problem with the man collecting fur coats. Whatever floats your boat. But there’s a certain strain of material disdain that can only result from being really fucking rich, which is intensely patronizing. Aside from that, well, the ’60s revolutionaries had some interesting things to say and valid criticisms to make, but it’s an insult, in my opinion, to boil it all down to this soupy mush. Listen to Phil Ochs instead.

AVC: The lyrics to “Imagine” are said to have been inspired by a three-line poem from one of Yoko Ono’s books. Are you adopting the common practice of throwing her under the bus for John’s shortcomings?

FT: I don’t want to get too into the whole Yoko-bashing thing. A fair amount of it, to me, seems to be pretty sexist in origin and motive. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of her art personally, but I guess I respect her creativity. I didn’t know this little factoid, but it makes me think it wasn’t the best poem anyone’s ever written.

AVC: What about the video with John and Yoko?

FT: I was not aware there was one until you asked. [Pauses to watch it.] Ha! Not good. I mean, it wasn’t so much an era of great videos, but still… The main message I got from it was “Check out my massive house! Also, my wife is uncomfortable on camera.” 

AVC: There’s a good 30 seconds where she doesn’t blink.

FT: She looks like she wants the earth to swallow her up. Maybe she’d twigged the song sucked as well.

AVC: The song is pretty widely well-regarded. Rolling Stone named it #3 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, behind The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Does its acclaim make you hate it more?

FT: I don’t really care either way about polls like that. I think one of the things that grinds for me, though, is the way it’s a kind of fall-back “favorite song” for people who don’t have any interest in music. It’s a default setting for the tasteless. I’d respect people much more if they just said, “You know what? I don’t really care about music,” rather than pick this song as a favorite. It’s so beige.

AVC: How vocal are you about hating this largely beloved song? Do you just keep quiet when it comes on, or what?

FT: It’s not a mission I’m on, not something I’m trying to proselytize or anything, but then if it comes up, I’ll speak my mind.

AVC: Everyone from Lady Gaga to A Perfect Circle to Avril Lavigne has covered this song. Is there anyone in your mind that could salvage it? Or is it beyond saving?

FT: No, I think someone could probably do something cool with this song—interpretation is a wide-open field. I can’t say I’ve heard it yet myself, but you never know.

AVC: You recently played the opening ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Did you know “Imagine” was featured in the closing ceremony? How do you feel about being in the same company?

FT: If I was being pedantic, I’d point out that the opening and closing things were totally separate. But whatever. I know a lot of people like the song, and at the end of the day, that’s none of my business anyway. Good luck to them.

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