John Lennon’s third single with the Plastic Ono Band was written and recorded on the same day, and released just 10 days later. Upon its release he told the press that he “wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner”.
Lennon wrote Instant Karma! in the morning of 27 January 1970. Its lyrical theme suggesting urgency inspired him to record and release it as quickly as possible.
Its title came from Melinde Kendall, the wife of Yoko Ono’s former husband Tony Cox. She had used the phrase in conversation during Lennon and Ono’s stay with them in Denmark during December 1969 and the following month.
Lennon had become familiar with the concept of karma during The Beatles’ spiritual awakening in 1967. The Indian belief features in a number of Eastern religious beliefs and traditions, and is concerned with the free will of humans to choose good or evil and suffer the consequences.
It just came to me. Everybody was going on about karma, especially in the Sixties. But it occurred to me that karma is instant as well as it influences your past life or your future life. There really is a reaction to what you do now. That’s what people ought to be concerned about. Also, I’m fascinated by commercials and promotion as an art form. I enjoy them. So the idea of instant karma was like the idea of instant coffee: presenting something in a new form. I just liked it. - John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon wrote the words as a demand for people to take responsibility for their actions. The lyrics are perhaps the most spiritual of his entire post-Beatles output, and touch upon themes which George Harrison would later explore more fully.
Instant Karma! was recorded with the full Wall Of Sound effect. It’s echo-laden sound, pounding rhythms and insistent piano chords came together triumphantly, and became one of the highlights of Lennon’s solo career. It was based around a sequence of three descending chords, pounded with maximum sustain and volume.
Instant Karma! was recorded in 10 takes between 7pm and midnight. From then until 3am a number of overdubs were added, including three tracks of backing vocals. These were the contribution of anyone who happened to be in the studio, plus people rounded up by Billy Preston from Hatchetts nightclub in London.
Instant Karma! was the first solo single by a former member of The Beatles to sell more than a million copies in America.