50 Years Ago: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In Leads to ‘Give Peace a Chance’
Two months after their Amsterdam “Bed-In for Peace” drew worldwide attention, John Lennon and Yoko Ono chose Montreal as the site for a second event. The Montreal bed-in, which began May 26, 1969, and lasted a week, ended with the recording of one of the most enduring protest songs: "Give Peace a Chance."
New York was the the couple's first choice for the bed-in but Lennon’s 1968 pot conviction kept them barred from the U.S. Plan B was the Bahamas, which proved too hot, expensive and remote for press coverage. Lennon and Ono then headed north to Toronto. On their arrival, they told the Toronto press why they decided to stage a second bed-in.
“The whole effect of our bed-ins has made people talk about peace," Lennon said. "We’re trying to interest young people in doing something about peace. But it must be done by non-violent means -- otherwise there can only be chaos. We're saying to the young people -- and they have always been the hippest ones -- we’re telling them to get the message across to the squares.”
The next day the couple moved into four rooms in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Lying in bed dressed in white pajamas, Lennon and Ono answered questions each day from morning until 6PM. Friends and fans dropped by as radio, print and TV reporters besieged the couple. Handwritten signs posted above the bed read “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace.” Visitors included activist Dick Gregory, poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD advocate Timothy Leary.
Watch Petula Clark Perform 'Downtown'
In 1969 Montreal, the largest city in Quebec, was racked with protests. Demonstrators took to the streets over what should be the official language of Quebec: English or French. Some even wanted Quebec to secede from Canada. Petula Clark, a bilingual star in France years before "Downtown" became a hit in North America, was appearing in Montreal that May.
“I was doing my own show, a one-woman show in French and English,” recalled Clark. “I was having problems with my shows because when I sang in French, the English part of the audience was not happy and vice versa. I was trying to figure out, how do I cope with this?
“I thought what I really need to do is to talk to someone else, someone I don’t know and who has no axe to grind. I knew that John and Yoko were in town. I didn’t know them. So that night after my show, I went over to the hotel. I told him my story.
“‘Well, f--- ‘em!’ is what he said.
"I said, ‘Thank you for that advice.’ He said, ‘Go and have a drink next door.’
"I went into the sitting room and I just had a glass of wine. I noticed vaguely that somebody was filming but I was used to that anyway. And then next thing I knew we were singing ‘Give Peace a Chance.’"
Watch John Lennon Perform 'Give Peace a Chance'
Earlier in the week, Lennon began to write a peace anthem based on something he had said to reporters, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Andre Perry, a local producer and engineer, was asked to come to the hotel on June 1 to record the new song. Lennon and comedian Tommy Smothers played acoustic guitars while other guests sang the chorus.
“It was chaos," Perry remembered. "People were banging on telephone books, on ashtrays, bells, all kinds of crap. The Hare Krishnas were there, laying on the floor. There was Timothy Leary stoned out of his mind. It was like a goddamn circus.
"When came the time to do this, I said, 'Man, I don’t know what this is going to end up like but it’s gonna be really weird.' Don’t forget, 45 years later people see the importance of it. But in the moment itself, it looked like this is gonna be a real f--- up."
Perry said that despite the obstacles, Lennon believed in him. “Never, never told me what to do. He just said, ‘Look, we’re gonna do this song, and I trust you to do what you can.’”
“So they tried it once and he conveyed to Tommy that he wanted him to play a different guitar style, more strumming…He just wanted to go with the rhythm. We made one run-through and then we recorded it.”
Afterwards, the suite was cleared and the b-side, Ono's "Remember Love"' was recorded. Perry returned to his studio by daybreak. As he suspected, the audio quality of "Give Peace a Chance" needed improvement. Perry asked a few singers and a musician to come to his studio.
“I said, ‘Here’s what I want to do. I want to reproduce what should have been. So we’re not gonna sound like a bunch of guys in the studio, we’re not gonna sound slick… we’re gonna sound like we’re having fun.”
Perry then added one more element. “I needed that Beatle-ish thump they used to have in those days. So I went and got my garbage can, which was made of rubber… that thump that you hear that builds up, that was me hitting my rubber garbage can.
"The idea was not to cheat, the idea was to save the event."
Perry mixed the new version and brought it to Lennon that afternoon. “He looks at me and he says, ‘It’s not good, is it?’ I said, ‘Look John, I’ll tell you the truth, it’s difficult but I decided to do something with it.
“So he says ‘Shoot.’ So I played it and he says, ‘Man, this is unbelievable.’ He thanked me, he hugged me.
“The one that I did is the one that’s on the record.”
"Give Peace a Chance," released on July 7, 1969, listed Lennon and Paul McCartney as the songwriters although McCartney had nothing to do with the tune. Lennon later admitted that Ono was really his co-writer.
The single was the first credited to the Plastic Ono Band. “It originally started off as Yoko's idea as a band, a kind of joke, a concert band that didn't exist,” Lennon told Soundscapes. “We built the whole group so we thought why not call it the Plastic Ono Band instead of just John and Yoko for the fact that there were all sorts of people singing on it. It wasn't the Beatles, it was like a rabbi, a hotel waiter, and all things like that. It was a bit of everybody. The whole world is the Plastic Ono Band.”
The song reached No. 14 and has since become a staple of peace demonstrations. At the Vietnam Moratorium Day held Oct. 15, 1969, in Washington, D.C., a half-million people joined Pete Seeger to sing "Give Peace a Chance."
“That was a very big moment for me,” Lennon said in Lennon Remembers. “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.”