Why John Lennon’s Instant Karma! could be his best solo single

When John Lennon put out the single Instant Karma! (We All Shine On) in February 1970, to the outside world he was still a member of The Beatles, despite having unofficially left the previous year, while to the casual observer the group still existed, with McCartney’s headline announcement that he was in fact “quitting the band” still about two months away.

The breakup of the world’s most successful group couldn’t have been too much of a surprise really – Instant Karma! was the not the first, or even second, solo 45 to hit the charts by Lennon.

Certainly, all members of the band had worked on solo recordings or projects since around 1966/67 (or even earlier if you like), so perhaps the idea of The Beatles actually coming to an end AND for it to be officially announced by Paul rather than John or the others was a ‘shock’ to the fans.

In any case, speculation continues to this day as to what really happened to split the group and I suspect we’ll never really know the full story and not because we’re not being told the truth, but rather because it involves four individuals at the centre, two of whom are no longer here, all with their own separate recollections and feelings about it.

If Lennon and McCartney were at loggerheads, how is it they were able to record The Ballad of John and Yoko without the others (who were away)?

How come we now have a recording of them discussing a potential Abbey Road follow-up?

For that matter, how does a group of four men who apparently can’t stand each other manage to record an album as good as Abbey Road?

No doubt enmity between John and Paul and the others developed and contributed to poor relations at the start of the 1970s, but I’ve always suspected it was exaggerated beyond the tit-for-tat references on All Things Must Pass/Ram/Imagine/Wild Life.

Don’t forget, we’re talking about the dynamics between four people, not just Lennon and McCartney and my suspicion, from seeing and reading numerous interviews with all of them over the years is the real story – or something approaching it at least – is that working solo provided each with a degree of liberation which they all craved, to varying degrees.

Suddenly the impossible monster of The Beatles wasn’t there anymore.

McCartney’s famous comparison of the group and a souffle that cannot be reheated makes perfect sense.

The Beatles were a phenomenon, but when the world heard Instant Karma! for the first time, the dream was definitely over – we know that now.

The souffle was cold.

But the great music wasn’t over – not by a long, long, long way.

And so we have Instant Karma! one of the many (as it turned out) ex-Beatles related tunes to appear after the halcyon days of the 1960s.

At the time of writing, I’m thinking the song may well be Lennon’s greatest solo single, though I may change my mind on this point.

My reason for this is that, despite the song being famously “conceived, recorded and released” in just over a week (10 days maybe?), making it one of the fastest by anyone, start-to-finish, it still exudes quality.

Edgy, confrontational words, delivered confidently to a storming tune by a rock legend literally at the top of his game.

Contemporary critics were mostly positive about it too… perhaps they were relieved that Lennon was finally doing something they thought they could understand and therefore comfortably appraise.

Give Peace A Chance had come out of the blue, accompanied by the bed-in and bagism, while Cold Turkey was a million miles away from She Loves You… scary… now we’re back to standard, piano-laden rock, phew… but wait, there’s more to this song than you think.

Instant Karma! is, after all, going “to get you” we are told, so don’t relax yet.

Whether it’s a critique of modern culture, religion or hero-worship (one of his favourite topics around this time), his colleagues, his critics, himself, all of us or… whatever it is, one thing is for sure – it’s a superb sing-along.

Typical Lennon, the mix is almost made to sound deliberately ‘loose’ and rough-and-ready – but I’m not buying that.

I actually think this is an extremely well-crafted song, with thought-provoking words which, if he really did throw together the way it appears he did, in virtually no time, serves only to confirm the genius of the songwriter.

Consider, if you will, the line: “Why on Earth are we here?/ Surely not to live in pain and fear?”

This could be my favourite solo Lennon lyric.

As with all great art, he poses the question… then answers it with another question of sorts, but one which will resonate forever.

Damn right we’re not meant to be living life in pain and fear.

So why are so many of us?

What is wrong with humanity that this is allowed to go on?

He doesn’t know.

Nor do I.

Do you?

I doubt it – and so we have, in just a single line of a song, a topic for discussion which can literally go on and on and on and on…

Lennon, if he were here, would probably dismiss all this high praise as he often did for most of his efforts.

His own most vociferous critic, he would regularly dismiss songs he’d written and that the rest of the world knew and loved as ‘garbage’ or ‘junk’ and he’d probably point out the humorous concept of instant karma being like instant coffee…

A glib line in a hastily-produced pop song or a profound observation?

I’m with the latter description.

It’s got me thinking and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

“It’s up to you… yeah you.”

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