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Klaus Voormann - Jamming With John

Posted on 22 Nov 2018

Klaus Voormann, designer of album artwork for 'Revolver' and bass player for 'Imagine' recalls the atmosphere on the recording sessions.

Klaus Voormann was one of the first people to befriend The Beatles before they hit the big time. Later, he designed the album artwork for Revolver and went on to play bass guitar for several of Ringo’s, George’s and John’s solo records, including Imagine.He remembers his first encounter with the band in Hamburg and the atmosphere on the Imagine recording sessions.

102-103: Recording ‘How Do You Sleep?’ – George Harrison (electric guitar), Ted Turner and Rod Lynton (twelve-string acoustic guitars), Klaus Voormann (bass), Alan White (drums), John Lennon (electric guitar and vocals), Nicky Hopkins (Wurlitzer electric piano), John Tout (upright piano); Ascot Sound Studios, 26 May 1971. Credit: Stills of footage and outtakes from the 1971 film Imagine, directed by John & Yoko: Cameramen: Nic Knowland, John Metcalfe and Richard Stanley (UK), Bob Fries (USA) © Yoko Ono Lennon

It was an autumn night in 1960 when art college student Klaus Voormann was out roaming Hamburg after an argument with his girlfriend. Strolling the city’s nightlife strip, the Reeperbahn, he heard music rolling out of the underground Kaiserkeller club and walked in. Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring Ringo Starr, were wrapping up their set. Then a new band called The Beatles got on the ramshackle stage. Voormann decided to stay on and listen. The set left him speechless. He had never heard anything like it.

“After that, I got all the people from my art college down to the club, saying ‘You have to see this band! You have to see this band! We went night after night.” During a break in one gig, Voormannn’s friends urgedhim to go up and speak to the group. He timidly approached John Lennon and showed him a record cover he’d designed. “I showed him this cover I had made and said ‘I did this cover for you? What do you think?’ I was scared of him. They were all such rockers. I wasn’t sure if he was going to hit me.”

Alan White, Klaus Voorman, George Harrison and John Lennon at the kitchen table, Tittenhurst, 26 May 1971. Credit: Photo by Kieron Murphy © Yoko Ono Lennon

Lennon pointed Voormann in the direction of Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bass guitarist. Stuart liked what he saw, and gradually Klaus and his friends became part of The Beatles’ circle of friends. In 1966, at the peak of Beatlemania, Voormann designed the award-winning cover art for Revolver. Over time, he adjusted his initial impression of Lennon, recognizing his tough guy act for what it was.  “John was very insecure. He pretended to be this tough rocker but he wasn’t; he was a frustrated young man. On the other hand, his singing and guitar playing was fantastic.”

Three years later, John called Klaus to invite him to join the Plastic Ono Band and then, in 1971, brought him in on bass and upright bass for theImaginerecording sessions at John and Yoko’s country home, Tittenhurst Park in England. The sessions followed an intuitive and improvised path. “Tittenhurst Park was really secluded and peaceful. We felt really relaxed and ready for whatever was coming at us. John would play the song on guitar or piano, and then we would start contributing what we thought was right. We found our own way through. There’s not that much that needed to be said or manipulated. It just flowed.”

110-111: John and Phil Spector rehearsing ‘How Do You Sleep?’, Ascot Sound Studios, 26 May 1971. Credit: Photo by Kieron Murphy © Yoko Ono Lennon

The lyrics were integral to the sessions. “John had printed out these sheets with the lyrics on them really big, so you knew what the song was about. I always really listened to the song and the words.” The concept and lyrics of the title track were largely inspired by the event scores in Ono’s book Grapefruit, a masterpiece of 1960s concept art in its own right. “Yoko was really something long before John Lennon was even in the picture. She had such an important part in everything John was doing.”

As soon as they first played Imagine, Voormannn knew it was unique. “Each song on the album had a different mood, it really hit you in a different part of your body. But when we played Imagine and heard the lyrics, the possibility that this was going to be such a big song was apparent. It definitely was. I even thought I didn’t want to play on it because it was so amazing with just John playing piano. It was so true and honest. It makes you think and it touches you at the same time. And to this day, John’s version is untouchable.”

Klaus Voormann is one of the contributors to Imagine John Yoko, the definitive inside story of the making of the legendary album, personally curated and compiled by Yoko Ono with exclusive, previously unpublished photos and footage as well as testimonies from those who were there.

Words by Eliza Apperly.

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