“Instant Karma!” – sometimes referred to as “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” – is a song written by English musician John Lennon, released as a single on Apple Records in February 1970. In the UK, the single was credited to “Lennon/Ono with the Plastic Ono Band”. The song reached the top five in the British and American singles charts, competing with the Beatles’ “Let It Be” in America, where it became the first solo single by a member of the band to sell a million copies.
“Instant Karma!” was written, recorded and released within a period of ten days, making it one of the fastest-released songs in pop music history. The recording was produced by Phil Spector, marking a comeback for the American producer after his self-imposed retirement in 1966, and leading to him being offered the producer’s role on the Beatles’ Let It Be album (1970). Recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios, “Instant Karma!” employs Spector’s signature Wall of Sound technique and features contributions from George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Billy Preston. The B-side was a song composed and performed by Yoko Ono, titled “Who Has Seen the Wind?” Recently shorn of the long hair synonymous with their 1969 campaign for world peace, Lennon and Ono promoted the single with an appearance on Britain’s Top of the Pops.
“Instant Karma!” has appeared on many Lennon compilations, including Shaved Fish (1975), Lennon Legend (1997) and Power to the People: The Hits (2010). A version recorded at the “One to One” concerts in August 1972 was included on his posthumously released Live in New York City album (1986). The song continues to receive critical praise as one of the finest recordings from Lennon’s solo career. Paul Weller, Duran Duran and U2 are among the acts who have covered “Instant Karma!”, the chorus of which inspired the title to Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining.
Together with his wife, Yoko Ono, John Lennon spent New Year 1970 in Aalborg, Denmark, establishing a relationship with Ono’s former husband, artist Tony Cox, and visiting Cox and Ono’s daughter Kyoko. The visit coincided with the start of what Lennon termed “Year 1 AP (After Peace)”, following his and Ono’s much-publicised Bed-Ins and other peace-campaign activities throughout 1969.
To mark the new era, on 20 January 1970, the couple shaved off their shoulder-length hair, an act that Britain’s Daily Mirror described as “the most sensational scalpings since the Red Indians went out of business”. Lennon and Ono pledged to auction the shorn hair for a charitable cause, having similarly announced on 5 January that they would donate all future royalties from their recordings to the peace movement. Also while in Denmark, the Lennons, Cox and the latter’s current partner, Melinde Kendall, discussed the concept of “instant karma”, whereby the causality of one’s actions is immediate rather than borne out over a lifetime. Author Philip Norman writes of the concept’s appeal: “The idea was quintessential Lennon – the age-old Buddhist law of cause and effect turned into something as modern and synthetic as instant coffee and, simultaneously, into a bogey under the stairs that can get you if you don’t watch out.”
On 27 January 1970, two days after returning to the UK, Lennon woke up with the beginnings of a song inspired by his conversations with Cox and Kendall. Working at home on a piano, Lennon developed the idea and came up with a melody for the composition, which he titled “Instant Karma!”
The song employs a similar chord structure to that of “Three Blind Mice” and “Some Other Guy”,[nb 1] after Lennon had used the same progression in his 1967 composition for the Beatles, “All You Need Is Love”. Later in 1970, he would adopt the melody of “Three Blind Mice”, an English nursery rhyme, for his song “My Mummy’s Dead”.
In their book The Words and Music of John Lennon, Ben Urish and Kenneth Bielen suggest that in the first verse of “Instant Karma!”, Lennon rebukes his listeners with the sarcastic lines: “Get yourself together / Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.” Norman comments on the “hippie catchphrase of the moment” contained in the first of these two lines, which together provide a warning that is “obviously not to be taken literally”. Author Mark Hertsgaard notes the lyric “Why in the world are we here?” as a further example of Lennon “asking what purpose his life on earth was to serve”, after his 1966 composition “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
As with “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” – Lennon singles from 1969 and 1971 respectively – the chorus has an anthem-like quality, as he sings: “We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.” Norman describes the chorus as Lennon restating his message of “peace campaigning and non-violent, optimistic togetherness”. Lennon biographer John Blaney writes that the song is an appeal “for mankind to take responsibility for its fate” and that it was “Lennon developing his own brand of egalitarianism”.
Lennon completed the writing of “Instant Karma!” in an hour. He then telephoned bandmate George Harrison and American producer Phil Spector, who was in London at the invitation of the Beatles’ Apple Corps manager, Allen Klein. According to Lennon’s recollection, he told Spector: “Come over to Apple quick, I’ve just written a monster.”
Although still officially a member of the Beatles, Lennon had privately announced his departure from the group in September 1969. He was now keen to issue “Instant Karma!” immediately as a single, the third under his and Ono’s Plastic Ono Band moniker. The recording session took place at Abbey Road Studios in north-west London, on the evening of 27 January. Lennon’s fellow musicians at the session were Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Billy Preston – all of whom had performed at the December 1969 Peace for Christmas Concert, as part of the Plastic Ono Supergroup. The recording engineer for “Instant Karma!” was EMI mainstay Phil McDonald. Spector produced the session, arriving late after Harrison had found him at Apple’s office and persuaded him to attend.
According to author Bruce Spizer, the line-up for the basic track, before overdubs, was Lennon (vocals, acoustic guitar), Harrison (electric guitar), Preston (organ), Voormann (bass) and White (drums).[nb 2] Lennon later recalled of the recording: “Phil (Spector) came in and said, ‘How do you want it?’ And I said, ‘1950s’ and he said ‘Right’ and BOOM! … he played it back and there it was.” The song uses a similar amount of echo to 1950s Sun Records recordings.
The musicians recorded ten takes, the last of which was selected for overdubbing. To create what Spector biographer Mark Ribowsky terms a “four-man Wall of Sound” production, Lennon added grand piano onto the basic track, while Harrison and White shared another piano and Voormann played electric piano.[nb 3] In addition, Beatles aide Mal Evans overdubbed chimes (or tubular bells) and White added a second, muffled drum part. With Lennon feeling that the chorus was missing something, Preston and Evans were sent to bring in a group of people from a nightclub to provide backing vocals. These newcomers and all the musicians, along with Allen Klein, then added chorus vocals, with Harrison directing the singing.
Although Lennon and Spector disagreed over the bass sound, Lennon was “ecstatic” about the producer’s work on “Instant Karma”, author Peter Doggett writes. White’s drums assumed the role of a lead instrument, positioned prominently in the mix, of which Spector biographer Richard Williams would write in 1972: “No Beatles record had ever possessed such a unique sound; Spector had used echo to make the drums reverberate like someone slapping a wet fish on a marble slab, and the voices sounded hollow and decayed.” Spector wanted to add a string section to the track in Los Angeles, but Lennon insisted that the recording was complete.
Having only recently returned to producing, after the commercial failure of Ike & Tina Turner’s 1966 single “River Deep – Mountain High” in America, Spector had “passed the audition”, according to Beatles Forever author Nicholas Schaffner. “Instant Karma!” was the first of many Beatles-related recordings that Spector worked on during the early 1970s, starting with the band’s final album release, Let It Be (1970).[nb 4]
As with the Plastic Ono Band’s previous singles, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey”, Lennon and Ono recorded an Ono composition as a B-side. Produced by Lennon, “Who Has Seen the Wind?” was recorded at Trident Studios in central London, also in late January 1970. The opening verse, sung a cappella by Ono, is from a work by nineteenth-century English poet Christina Rossetti. The instrumentation on the recording includes Lennon playing acoustic guitar; John Barham, Harrison’s regular collaborator and arranger, on harpsichord; Ono on flute; and various percussion instruments. Spizer suggests that Harrison may also have participated, on acoustic guitar.
“Instant Karma!” ranks as one of the fastest-released songs in pop music history, arriving in UK record stores just ten days after it was written. Lennon remarked to the press that he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner”. Apple Records issued the single on 6 February 1970 in Britain – credited to the Plastic Ono Band – and on 20 February in America, where the A-side was retitled “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” and credited to John Ono Lennon.[nb 5] Spector remixed “Instant Karma!” for the US release without Lennon’s knowledge.
As with “Cold Turkey”, the single’s standard Apple Records A-side face label carried the words “PLAY LOUD”, in both the UK and America. Reflecting the tender sound of “Who Has Seen the Wind?”, the B-side label read “PLAY QUIET” (or “PLAY SOFT” in the US). The front of the US picture sleeve featured a black-and-white photo of Lennon along with a prominent producer’s credit for Spector, while the reverse had a similar picture of Ono.
Following a year of highly publicised peace campaigning by the Lennons in 1969, Apple press officer Derek Taylor was concerned that they had exhausted the media’s interest in their causes. On 4 February 1970, Lennon and Ono donated a large plastic bag full of their hair, along with Apple’s poster for the new single, to north London-based black power activist Michael X, in return for a pair of Muhammad Ali’s bloodstained boxing shorts. The “final proof” of the Lennons’ “overexpose[ure]”, according to Taylor, was that there was a large press turnout for the event yet “nobody printed anything”.[nb 6]
On 11 February, Lennon and Ono filmed an appearance on BBC Television’s Top of the Pops to promote “Instant Karma!”, accompanied by White, Voormann, Evans and BP Fallon. While the other musicians mimed their contributions, Lennon sang a live vocal over a mix of the song’s instrumental track, prepared by EMI engineer Geoff Emerick. This was the first appearance on the program by any member of the Beatles since 1966, as well as the public unveiling of the Lennons’ new cropped look. Two versions of “Instant Karma!” – known as “knitting” and “cue card” – were taped for Top of the Pops, and aired on 12 and 19 February, respectively.
The clips differ from one another in terms of Lennon’s attire and the nature of Ono’s role as, in author Robert Rodriguez’s description, “an onstage focal point around which all activity was staged”;[nb 7] in addition, Lennon’s vocal was treated with echo for the 19 February broadcast. In the “knitting” clip, Lennon is wearing a black polo-neck jumper as Ono sits beside his piano, blindfolded, and knitting throughout. In “cue card”, Lennon wears a flower-pattern shirt under a denim jacket, while Ono holds up a series of cryptically worded cue cards, the messages on which include “Smile”, “Hope” and “Peace”, as she speaks into a microphone. Although Ono appears to have a more active role, she is again blindfolded and the words she speaks cannot be heard. Rodriguez describes both clips as “terrifically engaging, providing suitably dynamic visuals to a powerful song”, yet he considers that the “cue card” performance “captures much more of the ambience, with frequent shots of White’s stellar work and the studio dancers”.
“Instant Karma!” was commercially successful, peaking at number 3 on America’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, number 2 in Canada, and number 5 on the UK Singles Chart.[nb 8] The single also reached the top ten in several other European countries and in Australia. The release took place two months before Paul McCartney announced the break-up of the Beatles, whose penultimate single, the George Martin-produced “Let It Be”, Lennon’s record competed with on the US charts. “Instant Karma!” went on to become the first single by a solo Beatle to achieve US sales of 1 million, earning gold certification by the Recording Industry Association of America on 14 December 1970.[nb 9] Until Lennon’s death in December 1980, “Instant Karma!” remained his sole RIAA-certified gold single.
Despite the stated intentions for Lennon and Ono’s Year 1 AP, the proceeds from the auctioning of their hair benefited Michael X’s Black House commune rather than the peace movement, and, in the words of Beatles Diary author Barry Miles, the pledge to donate their royalties was also “discreetly forgotten”. In March 1970, Lennon publicly split with the organisers of the planned Toronto Peace Festival, as he and Ono began treatment under Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy. Before heading to California in April for intensive therapy through the summer, Lennon accused McCartney of using the Beatles’ break-up to sell his album McCartney, and admitted that he wished that he himself had announced the break-up months before to promote his own solo release.
On release, Chris Welch of Melody Maker declared: “Instant hit! John Lennon is singing better than ever. With a beautiful rock ‘n’ roll echo chamber on his mean but meaningful vocals and some superb drumming, it makes up the Plastics’ best piece of boogie yet.” Writing in the NME in 1975, Charles Shaar Murray wrote of the song’s “volcanically desperate optimism” and rated it “a classic”. Shaar Murray added, with reference to “Cold Turkey” also: “I can’t remember anybody else who put out two such utter killers in a row over the same period of time.”
Village Voice critic Robert Christgau has described “Instant Karma!” as Lennon’s “best political song”, while other reviewers consider it his finest post-Beatles recording. In their 1975 book The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, Roy Carr and Tony Tyler describe “Instant Karma!” as a “snappy little rocker” that “owes as much to the skilful production of Phil Spector as to the vitality of the overall performance”, on which “[d]rummer Alan White excels.” Carr and Tyler remark that “Who Has Seen the Wind?” “would have made a marvellous soundtrack for the movie of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, being a somewhat sinister ditty sung à la Wunderkind”. Bruce Spizer describes Ono’s song as “evok[ing] images of minstrels at a Renaissance fair” and considers the single “a far cry … and welcome relief from the avant-garde discs issued by John and Yoko in 1969”.
Another to highlight White’s drumming amid the “collective genius” of all the participants on “Instant Karma!”, author Robert Rodriguez concludes of Lennon’s activities on 27 January 1970: “Not many days in the history of rock and roll proved as everlastingly fruitful.” In 1981, NME critic Bob Woffinden wrote of the single: “It was excellent. Lennon was characteristically simple and direct, but this time on a song with one of those magically catchy refrains.”
Among Lennon’s biographers, Ben Urish and Kenneth Bielen view “Instant Karma!” as “a chiding though positive message for humanity”, while Jon Wiener praises Lennon’s “rich, deep voice” on a recording where the sound is “irresistible”. Philip Norman describes the song as “similar to ‘Cold Turkey’ in tempo but far more relaxed and humorous”, adding that Spector’s production gave Lennon’s voice “a taut expressiveness it had not had since ‘Norwegian Wood'”. While noting the significance of the session for George Harrison’s career, author Simon Leng praises the recording as being “full of urgency and sheer excitement”.
In 1989, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Instant Karma!” the 79th best single of the previous 25 years. In NME Originals: Beatles – The Solo Years 1970–1980, David Stubbs lists the song second among Lennon’s “ten solo gems” (behind “Cold Turkey”), with the comment: “‘Instant Karma!’ epitomises the Lennon paradox, melding hippie idealism and rock’n’roll primal energy in an exhilarating mix.” Matt Melis of Consequence of Sound placed it third on his 2009 list of “Top Ten Songs by Ex-Beatles”. According to the website Acclaimed Music, “Instant Karma!” has also appeared in the following critics’ best-songs lists and books, among others: Dave Marsh’s The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989; at number 638), 1000 Songs that Rock Your World by Dave Thompson (2011; number 56), the NME’s “The 100 Best Songs of the 1970s” (2012; number 77), and Q magazine’s “The 1001 Best Songs Ever” (2003; number 193). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame includes the track among its “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”.
“Instant Karma!”‘s first appearance on a Lennon album, albeit slightly edited in length, was the 1975 compilation Shaved Fish. Urish and Bielen observe that the “advertising hyperbole” inherent in the song’s title, through the inclusion of an exclamation mark, is given extra emphasis on this album cover.[nb 10] The song has featured – often with the full title “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” – on numerous posthumous compilations, including The John Lennon Collection (1982), the Lennon box set (1990), Lennon Legend (1997), Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon (2005) and Power to the People: The Hits (2010). “Who Has Seen the Wind?” appeared as a bonus track on the 1997 Rykodisc reissue of the couple’s third album of experimental music, Wedding Album (1969).
Lennon played “Instant Karma!” at his last full-length concert performance – the One to One benefit shows held at Madison Square Garden, New York, on 30 August 1972. His backing band comprised the group Elephant’s Memory, in addition to Ono and drummer Jim Keltner. The 1986 album and video Live in New York City contains the afternoon performance of the song.
In July 1992, “Instant Karma!” was re-released as a single in the Netherlands, backed by “Oh My Love”. Originally, copies of it were given away with early editions of The John Lennon Video Collection. When released in the rest of Europe (barring the UK), this single reissue gained two extra B-sides: “Mother” and “Bless You”.
Of the two 1970 Top of the Pops performances, the “cue card” version appeared on The John Lennon Video Collection in October 1992, while the “knitting” performance was remixed and extended for release on the Lennon Legend DVD (2003). The “knitting” version was also included on the 2003 UK single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, released on 8 December that year.
Artists who have covered “Instant Karma!” include Toad the Wet Sprocket, Paul Weller, Duran Duran, Tater Totz with Cherie Currie and Tokio Hotel. In 2007, the song provided the title for Amnesty International’s multi-artist compilation of Lennon compositions, Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, for which U2 recorded a cover version.
The title of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining (1977) came from Lennon’s line “We all shine on …” King has said that he was going to call the book The Shine, before realising that “shine” had been used as a derogatory term for black people.
In 1988, Ono allowed the footwear and apparel company Nike to feature “Instant Karma!” in an advertising campaign, after a public outcry the previous year had forced her to withdraw permission for the use of Lennon’s Beatles composition “Revolution”. Instant Karma Records was named after the song, and the Flaming Lips recorded their track “I Don’t Understand Karma” in 2009 as a reply to “Instant Karma!”
The following musicians contributed to the recording of “Instant Karma!”:
John Lennon – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, backing vocals
George Harrison – electric guitar, piano, backing vocals
Klaus Voormann – bass guitar, electric piano, backing vocals
Alan White – drums, piano, backing vocals
Billy Preston – Hammond organ, backing vocals
Yoko Ono – backing vocals
Mal Evans – chimes, handclaps, backing vocals
uncredited – tambourine
Allen Klein and several dozen revellers from London’s Hatchett Club – backing vocals