I think I begged my first grade school teacher to take me to the record store to get this single. Funnily enough I was unaware at the time that John had shaved his head. At the beginning of that year he and Yoko was vacationing in Aalborg, Denmark to be with Yoko’s daughter Kyoko, which was where the young girl was living with Yoko’s second husband Tony Cox and his new wife Melinde.
For reasons unknown, possibly to keep up the profile with their peace campaign, John and Yoko cropped their hair the shortest it’d ever be in John’s adult life. On February 4th, 1970, they swapped their shorn locks for a pair of Muhammed Ali’s boxing shorts, which they said they intended to auction off to raise money for peace. That’s the crew cut you’ll see in their Top of the Pops gig.
John was mostly quiescent as far as live appearances go in 1970. That’s okay, he’d make up for it in 1971. He was continuing the peace campaign he and Yoko had begun at the Amsterdam bed-in the year before. He was also undergoing primal scream therapy with Dr. Janovich. This would inevitably led to the quality and intensity of his masterpiece John Lennon Plastic Ono Band.
“Instant Karma” was recorded in a single night, January 27, 1970, in a single nine-hour session. The producer was Phil Spector, and this led to a long-standing working relationship between him and John and George as well. This would also lead to Spector invitation to remix the Let It Be album.
“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. See, Phil doesn’t fuss about with fuckin’ stereo or all the bullshit. 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.”
-from Lennon Remembers, Jann S. Wenner
John recruited George Harrison on lead guitar, Billy Preston on electric piano, Alan White driving the thundering drums & Klaus Voorman as bass man. John provided acoustic guitar on the single. The mass chorale and handclaps closing the single was provided by Yoko and the patrons from Hatchetts, a local London nightclub.
On Feb. 11 1970, the Plastic Ono Band taped two versions of “Instant Karma” for an appearance on the BBC program Top of the Pops, for later broadcast on Feb. 12 and 19th, respectively. Technically , this was not a live performance apart from the actual appearance of the band. Actually it wasn’t even the same band.
John sang a new vocal on top of a single-track vocal and instrumentation from the January 27th EMI recording session. The prime difference between the two versions being that in one Yoko would be seen knitting, while in the second she was holding cue cards. John sat in and sang behind piano while Yoko did her things, blindfolded with a sanitary towel, beside it. Neither George nor Preston were present. BBC DJ BP Fallon mimicked sitting in on bass, Mal Evans in a business suit was on tambourine, along with actual bass player Klaus Voorman. The first version with Yoko knitting was broadcast Feb. 11 while the second was transmitted on Feb. 19th, the following week.
For the cue card performance John bangs on the piano in a denim jacket with a “People For Peace” band wrapped on arm while go-go dancers frolic in the background. (By the way, the cards say ‘smile’, ‘peace’, ‘love’ ‘hope’ and ‘breathe’. With reverb over the microphone he delivers a very intense vocal, gritting his teeth for the final verses while Klaus and BP mime on bass.
Available on: It’s hard NOT to find this on home video. The ‘cue card’ version appeared on The John Lennon Video Collection VHS from October 1992. The ‘knitting’ performance shows up most on DVD, first on Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon, a 2003 set accompanying the CD of the same name. Apparently for this collection, they changed the original audio track, replacing the live vocal with the clean studio track. This version was also released on Power to the People: the Hits, the CD/DVD Experience Edition from 2010.
Beatles Bible Instant Karma link: