John & Yoko’s Song of Peace
‘GIVE PEACE A CHANCE’
By Madeline Bocaro ©
“You know, the words, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance’ literally came out of my mouth as a spoken answer to a reporter, after being asked millions of times,
‘What are you doing?”
– John Lennon
“The actual peace events we staged came directly from Yoko…Our actual peace demonstrations were Yoko-style events. They were also pure theater. The Bed-In in Canada was one of the nicest ones, and I participated almost like a spectator because it was Yoko’s way of demonstrating.”
– John Lennon 1975, One Day at a Time by Anthony Fawcett
John and Yoko’s strange and very public two-part honeymoon took place entirely in bed. For one week, beginning on March 25, 1969 – five days after their wedding in Gibraltar – they occupied the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The Lennons invited the world’s media to their hotel room to witness a seven-day Bed-In for Peace. The couple capitalized on their undeserved infamy, utilizing the valuable publicity to promote world peace. The Amsterdam Bed-In was chronicled in a song.
‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’
(recorded April 1969, released May 30th)
“Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton
Talking in our bed for a week
The news people said / hey what you doing in bed
I said we’re only trying to get us some peace…”
Two months later, in May 1969 John and Yoko had their ‘second honeymoon’ (another Bed-In), this time in Montreal, hoping to have many more around the world.
“Eventually we hope to have had more honeymoons than anyone in the world, maybe even 150.”
– Yoko to Rolling Stone
June 28, 1969
In a shimmering atmosphere of hope, possibility and innocent dreams (despite the backdrop of the raging Vietnam war) John composed a worldwide anthem of Peace, ‘Give Peace a Chance’. It had been two years since the Summer of Love. The Beatles, as a band were fracturing. The Woodstock festival was just a few weeks away.
Unfortunately, this was optimism’s last hurrah. The youth had found their voice and felt empowered. However, anger escalated and demonstrations were becoming more aggressive. John and Yoko were trying to calm the frenzy, telling everyone to ‘stay in bed’ and ‘grow your hair’ in peaceful protest. Just three months later (August 1969), the world was shocked and shaken by the Manson murders. The 1960s flower power ideal came to an abrupt end.
The Lennons had originally intended to bring their Bed-In to America but were denied entry due to their October 1968 marijuana bust in London. The couple were welcomed in Montreal Canada where they occupied room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for a week beginning on May 26, 1969, where yet another media circus ensued. Beatles press officer Derek Taylor somehow organized the chaos.
This is where John and Yoko created the song that encouraged the world.
The Montreal Bed-In was even more intimate than the one in Amsterdam. John and Yoko were huddled together on a double bed, especially so when Yoko’s little daughter Kyoko, along with celebrities and members of the media would join them on the mattress.
According to Gerry Deiter who photographed the entire event for LIFE magazine*, the Lennons draped a film of clear yellow gels over the windows to reduce backlight, creating a warm golden glow about the proceedings. The hotel room became their set and the world was their stage.
“I think we kind of made a point there. We thought that we were presenting a thought through an alternative theater setting and that was the platform and the world was the theater.”
– Yoko Ono, Uncut magazine 1998
*(Although the LIFE magazine story never appeared, Deiter’s photos were published for the first time in a posthumous 2009 book, ‘Give Peace a Chance – John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace’).
The Lennons appeared saintly, all in white – surrounded by white bed sheets and flowers. John, with his long hair and beard conjured a messianic image. His muse, the angelic Yoko was always beside him. At times, there were up to fifty people in the room at their feet, with a smattering of celebrities.
“There we were like two angels in bed, with flowers all around us
and peace and love in our heads.”
– John Lennon
A sign of the times: John and Yoko, via telephone from their Montreal bed, moderated a days-long confrontation in Berkeley, California between students and police just short of a riot squad moving in. Their decree was that the crowd should retreat and, “Give Peace a Chance!” Another act of resolution was to re-direct a peaceful crowd of protesters who had descended Mount Royal and infiltrated the hotel hallways. John’s sage pronouncement was that they should all ‘go back to the mountain.’ The crowd obediently heeded his quasi biblical plea.
In the final days of the Montreal Bed-In (May 31, 1969) John wrote out the lyrics of his new song on paper. He then asked a fan, Gail Renard* to transcribe his lyrics onto a large poster board which was hung on the wall so that everyone could read it and sing along.
*Teenager Gail Renard (a teenage fan who snuck up to the Lennons’ hotel room via the fire escape and was given the task of minding Yoko’s young daughter for the week) was given John’s original smaller handwritten sheet of lyrics that day. Gail cherished it for years, but later auctioned the lyrics yielding £350,000 in July 2008, and later selling for $790,000 (£400,000) in 2018.
See Gail’s book ‘Give Me a Chance’ (2010, Walker Books).
Under the banner, ‘Everybodies (sic) Talking About’ John’s lyrics consist of four lists (verses) of words/names to call off and chant. After each of John’s roll calls, everyone in the room joins in for the ultimate sing-along chorus, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance’.
The first is a list of ‘isms’, nonsense words in mockery of obsolete slogans and mantras. John started off with Yoko’s own creation, Bagism* in which the couple had recently given interviews from inside cloth bags to promote non-judgmental ‘total communication’.
*See Bag Piece – John & Yoko’s Viennese Waltz
By Madeline Bocaro ©
Other nonsense words in the first verse are; ‘Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism. John added an unwritten, ‘Ism-ism!’
The second verse lists religious designations, rhyming with nonsense words. John rhymes ministers with sinisters, bishops with fishops and Rabbis (misspelled Rabbies) with American cartoon character Popeye(s). John’s sarcastic meaning behind this nonsense is quite clear!
The third verse presents acts of change (revolution, evolution), of self-gratification (masturbation, flagellation, meditations) and of rules and institutions (regulations, integrations, United Nations). John jokingly caps this list off with ‘Congratulations’.
The final stanza is an attendance list of participants in the room; John & Yoko, LSD guru Timmy Leary, (his wife) Rosemary, Tommy Smothers and publicist Derek Taylor. Writer Norman Mailer, and poet Alan Ginsberg (who were not present) are named. Bobby Dylan’s name is also called out. This list ends with ‘Hare Krishna’.
(John later demystified Dylan, citing Bob’s real surname – Zimmerman – in his song ‘God’ on his first solo album – another song in which John lists people and philosophies that he does not believe in – declaring at the end, ‘The dream is over.’)
The song’s uneven, delayed beat (which could be construed as reggae) was the result of people banging on anything and everything in the room; tabletops, doors, books and the attending Hare Krishnas’ tambourines – out of time.
Music producer Andre Perry was summoned by Capitol Records (distributors of the Beatles’ Apple Records) to record a Lennon song at the hotel. He excitedly lugged heavy recording equipment to the room and did the best he could under the odd circumstances. There were only two takes. Perry mixed additional voices into one version, which is the one that John chose to use for the single. John credited Perry on the record label. Yoko’s acoustic song for the B-Side, the beautifully delicate ‘Remember Love’ was also recorded in the room on the same night, after everyone had gone.
John and Yoko were well aware of the humorous aspect of their event and knew they would appear silly, but they knew it was a very effective way to get their message across.
“Henry Ford knew how to sell cars by advertising. I’m selling peace, and Yoko and I are just one big advertising campaign. It may make people laugh, but it may make them think, too. Really, we’re Mr. and Mrs. Peace.”
The song became the anthem of the anti-war movement. On October 15, 1969, a multi-city demonstration called The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, took place, with 500,000 protesters singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’.
“That’s what it was for. I just remember hearing them all singing… that was a very big moment for me. That’s what the song was about, because I’m shy and aggressive. So I have great hopes for what I do, my work. And I also have great despair that it’s all pointless and shit – how can you top Beethoven or Shakespeare or whatever. And in me secret heart I wanted to write something that would take over ‘We Shall Overcome’. I don’t know why, that’s the one they always sang. I thought, ‘Why isn’t somebody writing one for the people now?’ That’s what my job is. Our job is to write for the people now. So the songs that they go and sing on their buses are not just love songs.”
– John Lennon, Lennon Remembers 1970 – interview with Jann Wenner
Give Peace a Chance’ has reached mythic proportions as a timeless anthem, yet we have yet to achieve world peace. John and Yoko believe that we will. We still need their words today, more than ever.
Decades after John’s violent death, Yoko – still a warrior of peace – continues to dedicate her passionate life force to continue the work they did together – campaigning for peace in every aspect of her work. She always maintains, “John was an old soldier who fought with me.”
“I still remember the beautiful full moon that John and I kept looking at from the bed, after everybody went home. Did anybody think that a man and a woman, a man from Liverpool, and a woman from Tokyo, would do something crazy like that together to change the world? Maybe it was written already on a stone on the moon or something.”
– Yoko Ono, afterward – Give Peace a Chance – John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace, 2009 (Gerry Deiter/Joan Athey
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power…
then the world will be at peace.”
– John Lennon
‘Give Peace a Chance’ / ‘Remember Love’ by Plastic Ono Band was recorded at the Montreal Bed-In on June 1, 1969, and released on Apple Records on July 4, 1969 (UK) and July 7th(USA). As John was still a member of the Beatles at the time, the songwriting was credited to Lennon-McCartney. The only other person besides John playing an actual instrument was Tommy Smothers on acoustic guitar, and the Krishnas on tambourine. To avoid censorship, John relented and changed the lyric ‘masturbation’ to ‘mastication’ on the official lyric sheet.
Despite ‘Give Peace a Chance’ later becoming a worldwide anthem, it only placed at No. 1 in the charts in the Netherlands. It reached No. 2 in Austria, Belgium and in the UK. Otherwise the only other Top 10 positions were No. 4 (Germany), and No. 8 (Canada). The highest position in America was No. 14. The song charted again just after John’s death in January 1981 and rose to No. 33.
“Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic non-violents who died violently. I can never work that out.
We’re pacifists, but I’m not sure what it means when you’re such a pacifist that you get shot.
I can never understand that.”
– John Lennon
Plastic Ono Band:
John and Yoko credited their musical accomplices as the evolving Plastic Ono Band, which endlessly changed members. The POB imagery was Yoko’s idea…
“As I was asked to do a show in Berlin before John and I got together, I wanted to use four plastic stands with tape recorders in each one of them, as my band. I told that story to John and he immediately coined the phrase Plastic Ono Band.
That was the beginning of the Plastic Ono Band. What John built with all sorts of plastic things that were laying around disappeared a long time ago”
On the cover of the ‘Give Peace a Chance’ single (and in the advert), a full-scale POB appears. Lucite encasings and stands are flanked by audiovisual equipment. The ad places the transparent POB ‘members’ over a telephone directory – turned to the page bearing the surname ‘Jones’.
A re-creation of John’s original ‘Plastic Ono Band’ model appeared at Yoko’s exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015 – Yoko Ono – One Woman Show, and also at the exhibition John & Yoko – Double Fantasy– at the Liverpool Museum – through April 2019.
Plastic Ono Band
By Madeline Bocaro ©
‘Give Peace a Chance’
‘Give Peace A Chance’
John Lennon/Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band
- John Lennon -lead vocals, acoustic guitar
- Tommy Smothers – acoustic guitar
- Yoko Ono and others – handclaps, tambourine, backing vocals
- Timothy Leary, Petula Clark – backing vocals
- Andre Perry – percussion, production