by Ken McNab
When the swirling crosscurrents of music and politics collide, a powerful social maelstrom is often left in its wake. In 1969, American rock ‘n’ roll staggered towards the end of an era which the literary critic Lionel Trilling said had transitioned into the “cult of sincerity”.
Earnestness may well have been in vogue post-Woodstock but at its centre lay an anger detonated by the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the assassinations months earlier of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the contentious election of Richard Millhouse Nixon as the country’s 37th President.
Images of American servicemen being flown home from Saigon in bodybags jockeyed for position in the court of public opinion with harrowing newspaper pictures of napalm-covered children running naked down bomb-cratered village streets.
Running parallel with this domestic turmoil was a world embroiled in the Cold War, a situation inflamed by the sight of Soviet tanks having recently rolled into Czechslovakia.
It was a time when the world’s disaffected youth were desperately auditioning for a leader, someone whose voice was powerful enough to reach into every corner of the globe to make a stand for a better world.
And out of central casting emerged a man who would set up a beachhead at rock’s new frontier. As the de facto leader of the Beatles, John Lennon already attracted a huge congregation and had always been a powerful advocate for rock ‘n’ roll as a vehicle for change.
But the Beatles summer of love had long withered on the vine by the time Nixon declared war on America’s youth. Lennon, however, remained closely attuned to the changing mood music pulsing through American campuses especially. The light bulb moment, uncovered during research for my book And In The End: The Last Days of The Beatles, came in February when he received a letter from Peter Watkins, a young, bête-noire film director whose provocative nuclear war film The War Game had been, banned by the BBC for being too graphic. In his letter, Watkins implored Lennon and his soon-to-be-wife, the Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, to use the media for world peace. Lennon said: “We sat on the letter for about three weeks, thinking: ‘Well, we’re doing our best. All you need is love, man.’ That letter just sort of sparked it all off. It was like getting your induction papers for peace!’ Maverick, outspoken, brash and straight-talking, Lennon emerged from a kind of political wilderness as an unlikely pied piper of peace, a messiah trying to convince others that war, especially the one America was waging in south-east Asia, was hateful, destructive and simply wrong. In 1968, he sang about Revolution on the Beatles White Album while advocating non-violent protests. By March 1969, he was on the frontline for peace, determined to do more than Mick Jagger who felt the only way he could act was ‘to sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band”.
Lennon, by contrast, was by now prepared to use his worldwide fame to make a proper stand, albeit in an unconventional fashion. Newly-married to Ono, the couple announced their intention in March, 1969, to turn their honeymoon in Amsterdam into a week-long bed-in for peace. They repeated the stunt in Montreal a couple of months later, refusing to be cowed by the derision their antics attracted.
Their behaviour seemed trite and invited media opprobrium on all fronts, but Lennon was unmoved and insisted there was method in his madness. “If I’m going to get my name in the papers, I might as well do it for peace,” he said. “We’re happy to be the world’s clowns if we can get the message across. And that’s what we’re doing.”
But his most effective contribution to the peace campaign came through music. Written in that Montreal hotel bedroom and recorded sing-along style with a cast of invited friends, Give Peace A Chance swiftly became an anthem for anti-Vietnam campaigners and a global mantra. The song, more a rap really, suddenly made Lennon look like a serious advocate instead of just someone playing politics for his own personal gain. Now his voice carried real weight – a fact noted by Nixon who privately raged at the radical Beatle for helping to foment unrest among American students especially. History has shown he was right to be worried. In the months that followed, Lennon was feted by world leaders, most notably Canada’s Pierre Trudeau, who sought his counsel on not only peace but also reform of the country’s drug laws. His newly elevated profile as leader of the world peace movement even saw him nominated alongside John F. Kennedy as man of the decade in as British TV poll. It was an extraordinarily redemptive journey for a man who began 1969 mired in the grip of heroin amid the implosion of the Beatles, the band that had been at the centre of the musical hurricane that touched all our lives.
And for the cynics who dismissed the notion that music can make a difference, a timely reminder of Lennon’s stature arrived in November 1969. It began as a single voice, just one man singing while gently strumming his acoustic guitar. Before long, however, it had grown into an incredible choir of some half a million people, all of them united under one protest banner and each of them chanting the simple nine-word refrain that crystalised all their thoughts. Young and old, black and white, it was an extraordinary display of solidarity that more than anything summed up the Disunited States of America. Pete Seeger’s impromptu rendition of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ at the Vietnam Moratorium Day march in Washington on 15 November inadvertently brought Lennon’s anti-war campaign right into the heart of the capital and straight to Nixon’s front door. ‘Are you listening Nixon?’ taunted Seeger, the acclaimed American folk singer. In front of him, a sea of faces stretched as far as the eye could see along both sides of the Mall across from the White House, the largest anti-war demonstration in American history. It was held forty-eight hours after 40,000 protesters had walked silently down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the so-called March of Death bearing placards carrying either the name of a dead US soldier or the name of a Vietnamese village bombed out of existence.
This was the day that the anti-war campaign finally found the anthem it was seeking, a song that would replace ‘We Shall Overcome’ and bring the peace movement into proper alignment with the counter-culture. Seeger later admitted he barely knew the song and even then had dismissed it as rank ordinary. Seeger recalled: “When I first heard it I didn’t think much of it. I thought: ‘That’s kind of a nothing of a song, it doesn’t go any place.’ I heard a young woman sing it at a peace rally. I never heard Lennon’s record. I didn’t know if the people there had ever heard it before. But I decided to try singing it over and over again, until they did know it. Well, we started singing, and after a minute or so I realised it was still growing.
Peter, Paul and Mary jumped up onstage and started joining in. A couple of more minutes, and Mitch Miller hops up on the stage and starts waving his arms. I realised it was getting better and better. The people started swaying their bodies and banners and flags in time, several hundred thousand people, parents with their small children on their shoulders. It was a tremendously moving thing.’ In the eyes of most Americans, Lennon and Ono were dismissed as what would today be termed snowflakes, their activism naïve and self-serving. But now, in that one instant, their credibility suddenly benefited from the power of Seeger’s spontaneous and passionate performance that caught the mood of millions. From now on, Give Peace A Chance would serve as the centrepiece for sing-ins at shopping centres planned throughout America and join the list of carols to be sung in proposed nationwide Christmas Eve demonstrations. It became the song of the people. Only last week I heard it sung at a Black Lives Matters protest in Washington. Tragically, of course, Lennon was himself the victim of a violent act, gunned down 40 years ago this December outside his New York home. But the sound of his song, five decades after he wrote it, floating in the air proves that his music also still matters.
Ken McNab is a lifelong Beatles fan and well-respected journalist with Scotland’s Evening Times. He lives in Glasgow with his wife and children.