The past few months have seen several artists covering John Lennon from home in quarantine, most recently with Bille Joe Armstrong’s Generation X–inspired rendition of “Gimme Some Truth.” Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck covered “Isolation,” while the Dirty Projectors offered their own take on the song. Gal Gadot also led a group of celebrities through “Imagine,” which, really, no one needed.
Yet no major artist has covered “How Do You Sleep?” — the late Beatle’s bitter Imagine track aimed at Paul McCartney. Things had grown tense between Lennon and his former bandmate before and after the Beatles’ messy breakup in 1970, and McCartney’s “Too Many People,” from his underrated 1971 album Ram, hadn’t helped. “He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit,” McCartney said in 1984. “In one song, I wrote, ‘Too many people preaching practices,’ I think is the line. I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko. There wasn’t anything else on it that was about them. Oh, there was ‘You took your lucky break and broke it in two.’”
On May 26th, 1971, days after Ram was released, Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band headed into Ascot Sound Studios in Tittenhurst Park to record “How Do You Sleep?” Lennon was joined by a different ex-bandmate: George Harrison. It’s the loosest, most relaxed recording session ever. Everyone is sitting down; Harrison plays the slide guitar, while Klaus Voorman leans back and plucks his bass. A lone cigarette is smoking in an ashtray, close to an abandoned can of Dr. Pepper.
Lennon plays his electric guitar as he sings the song’s caustic lines, including “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” and “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’ve gone you’re just another day.”
Nicky Hopkins can also be seen on piano, as well as 21-year-old future Yes member Alan White on the drums. White previously joined the band for the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969, alongside Eric Clapton. “I took myself down to John’s house and the next thing I know I’m in the studio and we’re rehearsing the songs,” White recalled last year. “The whole thing was really like being in a family. Once you get accepted into the Beatles family and friends, it’s very satisfying.”
In one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 1980, Lennon addressed “How Do You Sleep?” and its relation to McCartney. “You know, I wasn’t really feeling that vicious at the time,” he admitted to Playboy. “But I was using my resentment toward Paul to create a song, let’s put it that way. He saw that it pointedly refers to him, and people kept hounding him about it. But, you know, there were a few digs on his album before mine. He’s so obscure other people didn’t notice them, but I heard them. I thought, well, I’m not obscure, I just get right down to the nitty-gritty. So he’d done it his way and I did it mine. But as to the line you quoted, yeah, I think Paul died creatively, in a way.”