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The journey to re-'Imagine' John Lennon's iconic 1971 solo album

The journey to re-'Imagine' John Lennon's iconic 1971 solo album
From left during work on John Lennon's 1971 album "Imagine": bassist Klaus Voormann, guitarist George Harrison, Lennon and Yoko Ono. (Spud Murphy / Yoko Ono)

In the control room of Abbey Road Studios, chief archive engineer Matthew Cocker digitally queued up a plethora of new mixes of John Lennon’s 1971 solo album “Imagine.”

Among the choices at his fingertips were new stereo and multi-channel mixes of the album’s 10 songs, each seeking to bring new vibrancy to the original recordings, which include the globally beloved title track, hard-hitting cuts such as “Gimme Some Truth” and “Crippled Inside,” and disarming love songs such as “Oh My Love,” “How?” and “Oh Yoko!”

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There also were a bevy of alternate takes and other songs the ex-Beatle wrote and recorded shortly after the breakup that left millions of Fab Four fans in mourning.

Along with the six-disc box set due Friday, Lennon’s widow and creative partner, Yoko Ono, is overseeing release of newly restored films they made the same year as well as an elaborate coffee-table book.

All this activity, however, can essentially be traced to a primary motivational force: Ono’s love of her husband’s voice. “I myself like how his voice sounds on its own, because he was a Liverpudlian, you know,” Ono, 85, told The Times recently by email.

So for the last two years she has been working with veteran recording engineers Paul Hicks, Rob Stevens and others on the expanded iteration of Lennon’s first solo No. 1 album in several editions crowned by what’s being titled “Imagine — the Ultimate Collection,” a six-disc set with four CDs, two Blu-ray discs and a 120-page book allowing listeners to delve into the genesis, evolution and flowering of the album that Rolling Stone ranked No. 80 on its 2012 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

It’s being accompanied by a coffee-table book filled with photos and explanatory text, “Imagine John Yoko” (Grand Central Publishing, due Oct. 9, what would have been Lennon’s 78th birthday).

“These songs must be heard, not just musically, but for what they say,” Ono said of her rationale for revisiting the album 47 years after it was released.

She’s referring of course to the open-hearted wish for global peace and brotherhood expressed in the title track, not to mention Lennon’s impassioned cry for honesty in “Gimme Some Truth,” his protest against militarism in the raucous “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier (I Don’t Wanna Die),” his disarming self-doubt in “How?” and the ebullient ode to Ono, “Oh Yoko!”

Collectively, they’re passionate and political works that still feel topical. And Ono wants fans to hear Lennon the way she did.

A new stereo remix boosts Lennon’s vocals, bringing his voice front and center whereas the original album balanced vocals and instrumental accompaniment as determined in 1971 by Lennon, Ono and the album’s co-producer, Phil Spector.

Beatles producer George Martin previously observed that Lennon frequently asked for his vocals to be doubled and enhanced with reverb and echo because the famously acerbic Beatle was uncomfortable with the sound of his unadorned voice.

“He did his best,” Ono said, recalling that Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him through much of his youth in Liverpool, was intently attuned to voices and accents. “A journalist came to interview Mimi, and when that was over, Mimi said, ‘You’re Manchester aren’t you?’ It was not a kind remark, it was not meant to be a kind remark, but it was interesting that she immediately caught that he came from Manchester.”

In the new set, Ono and her team have scoured the archival tapes to find illuminating bonus takes that strip away any studio effects on Lennon’s voice as well as the backing he got from guitarist George Harrison, bassist Klaus Voormann, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and drummers Alan White and Jim Keltner.

Much of the album was recorded in their Tittenhurst Park estate outside of London rather than at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles did most of their recordings. Strings and other overdubs, including solos and accompaniment from the great R&B sax player King Curtis, were layered on later in New York.

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The sound of Lennon’s voice was always the key for Elliot Mintz, the veteran radio personality and DJ — now a media consultant — who first interviewed Ono shortly after “Imagine” was released.

“Listening to the songs again is wonderful,” Mintz said during an album playback session held recently at Capitol Studios A in Hollywood, conducted by Hicks, who is overseeing the new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. “But hearing him talk between songs, hearing his voice in the studio — that’s the hard part. It is almost overwhelming.”

Mintz went back to his multiple hours of interviews he conducted and recorded with Lennon and Ono and crafted a new audio feature, titled “Imagine John & Yoko — the Elliot Mintz Interviews,” and included with the “Ultimate” version.

His often poignant interview is transcribed in the accompanying book and lets fans read, or listen to, John a day after he turned 31 in 1971, in which he talks about the future he envisioned: “The first thing I think of is Yoko and I as a nice old couple, right, off the coast of Ireland or something like that, or in Cornwall, where’re it is. That’s the initial dream. I don’t have any fear of age. I’m sort of looking forward to it, you know. I sort of think, well, maybe I won’t be so frantic when I’m older.”

Lennon and Ono moved in earnest on a different musical world starting in 1969, when they formed a group they called the Plastic Ono Band. Named to telegraph its malleable lineup, in various incarnations the group featured Eric Clapton, Harrison, Ringo Starr, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and bassist Voormann, the latter an old friend of the Beatles from their hard-gigging days in Germany before Beatlemania erupted globally. He’s perhaps best known among Beatles fans for creating the cover art of the group’s 1966 album “Revolver.

When Lennon called and asked about reconnecting musically, to perform at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival, Voormann was ending his run playing with the Manfred Mann band.

“I didn’t know what the Plastic Ono Band was supposed to be, and I didn’t know Yoko — I had never met her — so it was a little scary,” Voormann, 80, told The Times, still frequently referring to Lennon in the present tense. “I was a little hesitant, and John gets uptight if you don’t react immediately. He said, ‘I’ve got Eric — how about it?’ So I said yes.”

Voormann stayed around after that festival, handling bass duties on Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” in addition to Ono’s companion album, “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band,” as well as “Imagine” the following year. In between, he also helped pal Harrison on his first solo album after the Beatles disbanded, “All Things Must Pass.”

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Voormann described the experience recording “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” as “very intense” because of the powerfully raw emotions Lennon was channeling after taking part in primal scream therapy with Los Angeles psychiatrist and psychologist Dr. Arthur Janov.

“They were very much taken by their primal scream therapy thing, and most of those songs derive from that,” he said. “The nice thing about the first Plastic Ono Band album is that John wrote the songs and wanted to get them out of his system as quickly as possible. That’s what we felt — Ringo and I — through that whole recording process.”

“Imagine,” however, was an entirely different story, Voormann said. “It was totally relaxed — a very laid-back atmosphere.”

That assertion is fully borne out in newly released film footage from the session in which they recorded “How Do You Sleep?” Lennon’s poison-pen letter targeting his former band mate, Paul McCartney.

“I was quite happy, because George said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do it. I lived with George in those days, at his estate in Friar Park,” Voormann said. “We could drive together to the studio, from Henley-on-Thames to [Lennon’s home studio in] Ascot. It was great fun to be with George anyway, living with him and working his stuff. … We were very close. Maybe that’s part of the reason he said yes to play on ‘Imagine.’ ”

That’s all ancient history to millions of younger music fans, an audience that’s not lost on Hicks and fellow engineer Stevens, who has overseen a batch of “raw” mixes of the “Imagine” and collateral material — also on the box set — that strips away the production touches Spector, Lennon and Ono applied to the original album.

The box set also includes a series of “evolution” mixes — early demos and in-progress versions of songs — and a fascinating “elements” section that breaks out some of the defining string arrangements, vocals or different instrumental parts of various songs.

“There’s always one side that says we shouldn’t ever touch things, and there’s the other side, which is what we’re doing,” Hicks said. “There are so many ways you can look at it. When we started this, with Yoko, we were listening and asking what, if anything, would we want to do with it. This project was more about the fact that there’s a lot of emotions going on with John, and with his singing.

“From our perspective, it wasn’t so much trying to lure in a younger audience, but there were a couple of songs where if you’re doing a focused listening, John’s vocals are pretty quiet,” he said. “Really, we didn’t want to try to make it sound modern; we didn’t want to do any crazy tricks. We just wanted to highlight some of those amazing string arrangements.”

Stevens also has worked extensively with Ono on her own music as well as on other Lennon archival releases, including “The John Lennon Anthology” four-CD set released in 1998. In fact, as part of his preparation for this “Imagine” release, he came across a tape box in their archives marked only “John Lennon — piano, vocal” and the date: May 23, 1971. It turned out to be the first recording of “Imagine,” an intimate recording that’s on the box set.

Ono has been intently involved in the “Imagine” reissue “for obvious sad and unfortunate reasons,” Stevens said. “John is no longer here, and Phil is no longer around. Yoko knew what had happened, what things felt like, what the unadorned tracks felt like when they were being recorded. Her knowledge of that energy — and each song has its own energy, obviously — is what the marching orders were.”

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