These are the songs you hear as your life flashes before your eyes the instant you die. The carpe diem dance – live with all your head, hand and heart, ONE MORE TIME.
“Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead”
Rogue Beatle John Lennon’s “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” challenged, but ultimately was bested by his parent corporation’sLet it Be on pop charts in the grey early days of 1970 – just as the group made public their official divorce.
Both seminal Abbey Road recordings. Both built to be played loud. (Lennon even had “PLAY LOUD” inscribed on the first pressing of his rebellious “out of school” single. Do that on your MP3.)
And both songs can save your soul. But they couldn’t be more different.
I imagine the Paul McCartney-driven anthem of anthems (#1 on those charts) took longer to develop, produce and commercialize as some operas. Not that it ever lost its spontaneous, celebratory feel… don’t get me wrong. It’s a clean production, lushly overdubbed, serenity achieved, if your serenity screams in electric guitar epiphanies and Paul’s Little Richard whoops.
The stripped-down Plastic Ono Band stomper we’re replaying today (#3), on the other hand, was quick and dirty – immediate. Written and recorded in a day. Released still wet less than 2 weeks later.
Lennon quipped it was written for breakfast, recorded for lunch and put out for dinner.
Let it Be is the song you sing along with in Electric Church, but Instant Karma! is pirate radio, under the radar, over the emergency broadcast network… and a wake up call for the soul.
“What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin’ to do
It’s up to you, yeah you”
Producer Phil Spector erected his fabulous Wall Of Sound around Klaus Voorman’s chthonic bass. Three descending chords, booming with maximum sustain and volume, like something out of the 1950s, where the Beatle sound was born copying American R&B in a basement in Germany – but now. Hear echoes of Elvis and his generation of crooners, especially in Lennon’s voice, but don’t be fooled – the black and white world of “Love Me Tender” has crashed and burned, gone forever.
“Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun”
Pounding drums and piano chords chime in to pummel “Seize the day” into every verse. Motown hand claps shuffle swing slightly behind the beat. And ultimately, the military tattoo chorus propels us to… a new place, in spite of the nostalgia.
“Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
You better get yourself together darling
Join the human race”
The recording is stripped down, deliciously full of negative space, no musical wanking; the closest thing to a solo is a careening, near wipe out of a drum fill. It’s urgent.
I use this song as a wake up call for body and soul, “This is your life – don’t waste it!” Lennon would summon up many other primal scream songs in the coming years, trying to wake up the world – and himself. I love them, though I know people who find them self-indulgent.
No time for self-indulgence here. Just three minutes and twenty-one seconds of instant coffee to blow away the cobwebs.
Committing this song to vinyl DIY style was Lennon’s attempt to escape Beatles celebrity and get on with his life. Defiant in creating a new place for himself, he was also willing to give himself over to fate, embracing, with some effort, responsibility for his actions. Like Gandhi, the singer got it – we have to be the change we want to see in our world.
“How in the world you gonna see
Laughing at fools like me
Who on earth d’you think you are?
A superstar? Well right you are”
Of course, with hindsight, we know it took John Lennon a long time to get over himself and grow up. He would eventually make his marriage work. His second marriage. He would eventually be a devoted father. The second time around. And life was taken from him too soon.
But nothing diminishes his transformational songs. And in the best of them, like Instant Karma!, he’s willing to stand naked. I try to have that same courage, the first to acknowledge “fools like me” may not get it right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. John might say, “You don’t want a guru, it’s up to you, yeah you.”
“Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
-Instant Karma! (We All Shine On) – John Lennon
99 SONGS I WANNA HEAR AT MY WAKE will continue. You’re all invited. Shine on.