Steely Dan Takes On Lennon And “Imagine”

  by Kevin Burton

One of the few Steely Dan tunes I don’t really like took on more juice recently when I read that the song is an attack on John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I had no idea the song “Only A Fool Would Say That,” from the 1972 album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” casts Lennon as the fool for what Steely Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker thought to be Lennon’s naïve, elitist, misplaced idealism.

“It’s no surprise that the sardonic duo in Steely Dan rolled their eyes when they heard the ‘Smart One’s’ prayer for peace with ‘Imagine’ and a string of pious talk show appearances in the early 1970s wrote Tom Taylor in Far Out magazine.

“Apparently not all fiery, young musicians from the 1960s and 70s were hippyish. For here we have Steely Dan, who were in their early twenties at the time, criticizing the type of idealism that helped define mainstream hippy ideology,” wrote Amanda London on

In his song, Lennon imagines all people living as one and in peace, living for today, having cast aside things such as countries, God and possessions, that are the source of so much of the world’s friction. 

   “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one,” is Lennon’s invitation.

   “While Lennon would argue that he was promoting hope and some much-needed spiritualism to act as a beacon in these dark times, Steely Dan opined that only a fool would say that,” Taylor wrote. 

   “Their 1972 track, “Only A Fool Would Say That” was written in response to Lennon’s parade of peace. It looks at idealism through the practical eyes of folks on the street: “You do his nine-to-five, drag yourself home half alive, and there on the screen, a man with a dream.” 

   “I heard it was you, talkin’ ’bout a world where all is free. It just couldn’t be and only a fool would say that,” Steely Dan sang.

   “And with that, you get a sense of how grating and vacuous they thought Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ campaign had become,” Taylor wrote.

   “In 1971 Lennon appeared on The Dick Cavett Show alongside Yoko Ono. In an army overshirt he spoke of peace and love,” Taylor wrote. “Outside the Regis Hotel where it was filmed, things were falling apart in a rainy New York City.”

   “Between 1969 and 1974 the former bohemian utopia had lost 500,000 manufacturing jobs. Subsequently, a million homes depended on welfare. Rapes and burglaries tripled, drugs ran rampant, and murders hit a high of 1690 a year.”

   “It is, of course, easy cynicism to scoff at Lennon’s pledge for a pristine paradise of borderless dreams, but that’s an open goal that Steely Dan and millions of others were happy to score in. It was their considered opinion that even having your heart in the right place can be a folly if you’ve failed to read the room,” Taylor wrote.

   But wait, it gets worse, much worse.

My problem with “Imagine” has always been its direct attack on God, Christianity, and the gospel message.  In the first verse you get, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today.”

It’s an invitation to shield your eyes and ears from the truth and walk off this terrestrial ball into an eternal hell. 

You can’t wish away the harsh realities on earth, let alone the even harsher realities of the afterlife. A world as one, plunging together into hell, is no improvement.  

   “It seems as though (‘Imagine’) has become the secular humanist hymn for our times, the godless prayer that must be uttered on any occasion – sometimes even by Christian clergy,” writes David Robertson in Christian Today. “It is an appropriate anthem/prayer because it reflects the hubris, hypocrisy and hopelessness of secular humanistic values.”

   “When we pray ‘Imagine’ we are praying to ourselves. We are saying that we are the ‘Bob the Builder’ of the universe. We can fix it. All we have to do is imagine,” Robertson wrote.  

   “John Lennon was an intelligent man. He didn’t write emotional guff,” Robertson wrote. “At the time of ‘Imagine’ he was going through his revolutionary socialist, Mao T-shirt-wearing phase.

   “He knew the teachings of Marcuse, the progressive philosopher who argued that the first step to change is to imagine it. Yoko Ono was a devotee of this kind of thinking. John and Yoko sang ‘Happy Xmas War Is Over’ – ‘if you want it.’ That’s the way to end war apparently – to want it, imagine it.”

   “Singing ‘imagine no possessions’ while living in a grand apartment in one of the most expensive areas in the world, is a fitting image for a hypocritical society.”

   “In the beginning God spoke and the universe came into being. Today our delusion is to imagine that our imagination will change reality,” Robertson wrote.

   “The biblical vision is the direct opposite of the hubristic, hypocritical, hopelessness of ‘Imagine,’ Robertson wrote. “Through Christ we are offered humility, honesty and hope. And it’s reality, not fantasy – from the One who is The Way, The Truth and The Life.”

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