Certain Songs #806: John Lennon – “Instant Karma!”

Single, 1970

I’ve never been a huge fan of the first two singles that John Lennon put out as he was escaping the gravitational pull of The Beatles: “Cold Turkey” was too harsh and “Give Peace a Chance” not harsh enough.

But “Instant Karma!” has always been right in my sweet spot.

The first fruit of his collaborations with Phil Spector, “Instant Karma!” is naturally overproduced, but charmingly so, with the huge chorale a minus but the huge handclaps a definite plus.

And besides, given that Karma and Serendipity are basically the only spiritual concepts in which I truly believe, the concept of Karma being instant has always struck me as pretty funny. And still timely, as even the tiniest glance at today’s headlines will show.

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
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

And of course, Spector famously had Lennon, Klaus Voorman and George Harrison overdub multiple pianos over the basic track, not to get a bigger sound, but rather to try to trap future Yes drummer Alan White, who spends the entire song trying to break out of it.

It’s an amazing performance: one moment White’s right there on top of the bouncy beat, and the next second, he’s skittering out ahead of it like his whole drum kit just hit some black ice. But every single time, White steers into the skid, always in time for the anthemic uplifting chorus.

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
On and on and on on and on

With all of the overdubs and the crazy-ass drums and massive massive amounts of echo drenching the whole thing, “Instant Karma!” could have easily been a trainwreck, but it’s always anchored by John Lennon himself. “Instant Karma!” features an emotional yet grounded vocal which somehow allows space for White’s shenanigans on the verses while outshouting the massive football stadium on the chorus.

It’s not quite the greatest vocal performance of his solo career, but he’s definitely building towards it.

“Instant Karma! official video

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2 Responses to “Certain Songs #806: John Lennon – “Instant Karma!””

  1. IOB says:

    Once when I was about 13 I was singing this song to myself at a church function. My Youth Leader, who was generally a fairly cool young woman, overheard me and chided me for liking a song about a non-Christian concept like karma. My defense was, “But it’s by one of the Beatles!” She shook her head and said we were going to have to break me of my Beatles fandom one of these days.

    That right there was the first toppled domino on the path to my eventual atheism.

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    Heh. By the time I was 13, I was definitely sure I wasn’t Catholic, despite having to go to Church every Sunday, but the interesting thing about Karma is that there would seem to have to be some kind of decider . . .

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