Karma is the belief that your actions effect your future lives. Good deeds will have a positive effect while bad deeds bring negative consequences. The concept of Karma is popular in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Lennon's idea of "Instant Karma" refers to a more immediate concept of accountability for your actions. Basically, what comes around, goes around.
John Lennon wrote and recorded this song in one day, which was either January 26 or 27, 1970, depending on the source. It was unusual in the Beatles era for a song to be written and put into tape the same day. Lennon told Rolling Stone in January 1971 about the recording of this song and its quick turnaround: "I wrote it in the morning on the piano. I went to the office and sang it many times. So I said 'Hell, let's do it,' and we booked the studio, and Phil came in, and said, 'How do you want it?' I said, 'You know, 1950's.' He said, 'right,' and boom, I did it in about three goes or something like that. I went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was that I said a bit more bass, that's all; and off we went."
In this song, Lennon addresses critics who are not on board with his message of unity and hope ("You better get yourself together..."), but according to Yoko Ono, the song is really an invitation, not a condemnation. "It's like, 'Let's all be together and anybody who's out there who's not in this game, why don't you join us?,'" she told Uncut in 1998. "And to say that 'We all shine on,' it's a beautiful, beautiful thing, instead of saying some people are shining and some people are not. It's a really uplifting song."
A good indication of Lennon's mindset at the time and inspiration for this song can be seen in the statement he and Yoko released on December 31, 1969, declaring 1970 "Year 1 AP (After Peace)." The statement read: "We believe that the last decade was the end of the old machine crumbling to pieces. And we think we can get it together, with your help. We have great hopes for the new year."
George Harrison played guitar on this and Billy Preston played piano on this track. Preston helped out The Beatles with their Let It Be Album.
According to Philip Norman's book John Lennon: The Life, the chorus was made up of Mal Evans, Yoko, and a small group of strangers Lennon rounded up from a West End pub called Hatchetts.
In 2007 U2, Christina Aguilera, R.E.M. and Black Eyed Peas all contributed to an album of John Lennon cover songs called Instant Karma.
This was the first of many recordings by members of the Beatles that Phil Spector produced in 1970. He helmed three albums in the same year for them, which were Let It Be for The Beatles, All Things Must Pass for George Harrison and Plastic Ono Band for John Lennon. According to the BBC book The Record Producers, John Lennon wanted Spector to produce a single before letting him take on Let It Be. "Instant Karma" proved that Spector could work with sparse instrumentation and still produce a hit, and it won over Lennon.
In 1993, "Instant Karma" was used in a Nike commercial directed by David Fincher. Predictably, many of Lennon's fans did not appreciate his music being used to support a major corporation, and Yoko Ono took some heat for allowing the song's use. Yoko explained her decision in an interview with Option, where she said: "Look, even if we have something against big business, big business is going to thrive. It's going to be there. The way I see it is: I've got an access there for millions of people to hear 'Instant Karma'; and I got $800,000, which went to the United Negro College Fund. That's what I got for that song. You have a problem with that? What's the alternative? Big business is going to be there no matter what we do. So if it's going to be there, why don't we use it for positive things. To say this is wrong is the same kind of snobbery as, like, an avant-garde composer saying, 'Ah, we should not do that commercial deal; it's bad.' I don't buy that. I mean, what is sell-out? What does sell-out mean?"
Alan White played drums on this song. White was a member of the band Yes, and also worked with George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Ginger Baker and The Ventures.
The title of the Stephen King novel The Shining, which was later made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, was inspired by the refrain in this song: "We all shine on."
At first, King called his novel The Shine, but when he found out that "Shine" was an archaic, derogatory term used to describe African-Americans (referring to shoe-shiners), he changed it to The Shining.
Instant Karma is also the title of Mark Swartz' 2002 novel.
In their 2009 "Blue Sky" TV commercial, Chase bank used a version of this song sung by Peter Murphy. While the "We all shine on" chorus is a sensible sentiment for a bank looking to attract new customers, invoking "Karma" at a time when large banks like Chase helped trigger a financial meltdown was a questionable call. Also puzzling was the choice of Murphy, who is the former lead singer of the Goth band Bauhaus.