The classic song John Lennon wrote and recorded in 24 hours

News The classic song John Lennon wrote and recorded in 24 hours

During his decade of co-writing with Paul McCartney for The Beatles, John Lennon developed an innovative and multifarious approach to songwriting. In abstract lyrical contributions like ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ and ‘A Day in the Life’, he strode the fine line between experimentalism and pop. Meanwhile, instrumentally progressive tracks like ‘Revolution 9’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ shone a light towards the future.

Towards the end of his days with The Beatles and the beginning of his solo career, Lennon explored rhetorical, often politically pertinent material. In a spontaneous burst of creativity on January 27th, 1970, he penned ‘Instant Karma!’ with the intention of crafting a song that would convey a profound message of personal accountability. The lyrics hold a spiritual resonance characteristic of the Beatles’ latter material and seem to target political leaders under the Vietnam War climate.

Lennon discussed the innovative idea in his 1980 interview with David Sheff. “It just came to me,” he said. “Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the ’60s. But it occurred to me that karma is instant as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So, the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form. I just liked it.”

After getting the lyrics and progression down with his piano at home, Lennon found himself fixated on the “Instant” aspect of the song’s title. Determined to capture this sense of immediacy, he swiftly arranged for the track’s recording. The former Beatle wasted no time in securing Studio Two at EMI Studios, Abbey Road. The session began promptly at 7pm that evening, with Phil Spector taking production duties on George Harrison’s recommendation.

Harrison recalled the day from his perspective in The Beatles: Anthology. “John phoned me up one morning in January and said, ‘I’ve written this tune, and I’m going to record it tonight and have it pressed up and out tomorrow – that’s the whole point: Instant Karma, you know. So I was in. I said, ‘OK, I’ll see you in town.’ I was in town with Phil Spector, and I said to Phil, ‘Why don’t you come to the session?’ There were just four people: John played piano, I played acoustic guitar, there was Klaus Voormann on bass, and Alan White on drums. We recorded the song and brought it out that week, mixed – instantly – by Phil Spector.”

Lennon continued, discussing how the song came together so quickly in the studio. “It was great, ’cause I wrote it in the morning on the piano like I said many times, and I went to the office and I sang it. I thought, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio. And Phil came in, he said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, 1950, but now.’ And he said, ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in just about three goes. He played it back, and there it was. I said, ‘A bit more bass,’ that’s all. And off we went.”

Lennon praised Spector for his no-nonsense approach to production. “See, Phil doesn’t fuss about with fuckin’ stereo or all the bullshit,” he added. “Just ‘Did it sound alright? Let’s have it.’ It doesn’t matter whether something’s prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or as a human, take it. Don’t bother whether this is like that or the quality of this. That suits me fine.”

On the evening of the 27th, the track was recorded in ten takes between 7pm and midnight. With an air of urgency prevailing, Spector added overdubs until 3am to give the record its final flare and texture. The overdubs consisted of three backing vocal tracks that were also hurriedly (or instantly) produced at the will of Billy Preston, who gathered up anyone who happened to be loitering in the studio and a few people from the local nightclub.

‘Instant Karma! was finally released on February 6th, several days before Lennon and Yoko Ono gave the song its televisual debut on Top Of The Pops. See the video below.

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