It was 43 years ago Sunday night (January 27th, 1970) that John Lennon recorded "Instant Karma." Lennon had already recorded several experimental albums and two singles under the name the Plastic Ono Band. "Instant Karma," however, was released under the name John Ono Lennon, the name he'd created when he legally changed his middle name from Winston to Ono the previous April.
Although the public didn't know it, Lennon had quit the Beatles in September 1969, which is reportedly why he had the single's sleeve featured his name in bold, black letters, to announce himself to the world as a solo artist.
Lennon wrote the song in a single afternoon, recorded it within a week, and originally hoped to release it the following week. At the time, Lennon told Britain's music paper Melody Maker that he wanted to be able to release music as easily as issuing newspapers. Lennon talked about what the song meant, explaining, "Whenever you do something, there's a reaction to it. Even if you cough, you cough germs out all over the place. If you cough love out, out goes love. That's what 'Instant Karma' is."
The song was recorded between 7:00 p.m. on January 27th and 4:00 a.m. the following morning at London's Abbey Road Studios. At the suggestion of George Harrison, legendary "Wall Of Sound" creator Phil Spector produced the song. Harrison also played guitar and piano on the session. There's still some disagreement as to who actually played on the backing track, with several reports listing Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Badfinger's Pete Ham overdubbing parts as well. Future Yes drummer Alan White -- who had made his live debut with Lennon the prior September in Toronto -- handled the drums. At the end of the session, the Beatles' road manager Mal Evans rounded up the patrons of Hatchett's, a nearby nightclub, to help supply backing vocals.
Following his work with Lennon on "Instant Karma," Alan White went on to drum on George Harrison's first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. White revealed to us that Lennon was a regular presence on the 1970 Harrison recording dates: "He showed up quite a few times, he wasn't there every day, but he did show up a few times. I don't think he played on that many things, but he was around."
"Instant Karma" was released to radio on February 22nd, several weeks ahead of the Beatles' "Let It Be" single. The two songs battled each other all the way up the Billboard Hot 100.
On April 10th, 1970, Paul McCartney issued a press release announcing his split from the Beatles, effectively ending the group. The next day "Instant Karma" peaked at Number Three behind the Jackson Five's "ABC," which held the Number Two spot while the Beatles were on top with "Let It Be."
Although 'Instant Karma' was originally only a single-only release, it has turned up on a number of Lennon compilations over the years, including Shaved Fish, Lennon Legend, Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon -- and most recently on the 2010 Lennon collection Power To The People: The Hits.
Lennon's 1972 live version of "Instant Karma" can be found on the posthumously released collection Live In New York City.