Friday, June 16, 2006

The recording of Give Peace A Chance

An insider’s view of the Montreal bed-in: PAUL WILLIAMS – journalist and backing singer on Give Peace A Chance (Q, 2000)

I wasn’t there as a journalist or a singer (I’m not a singer) but three months earlier when Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked me to interview Timothy Leary, I had no idea what the end result would be; my four minutes and 49 seconds in rock’n’roll history as an impromptu member of the Plastic Ono Band for the recording of the first ever solo single by a Beatle, John Lennon’s immortal anthem Give Peace A Chance.

The night before, in the Montreal hotel room where John and Yoko were holding their second Bed-In For Peace, John had taught the song to Timothy and Rosemary Leary and me, in the company of Yoko and Beatles spokesman Derek Taylor, both of whom, of course, also sang on the record which was to be recorded next morning. The other singing and hand-clapping people on the recording included comedian Tommy Smothers and close to a dozen people from a local Hare Krishna temple, invited at John’s request. And presumably a recording engineer and someone holding a video camera.

So how did it happen? Well, my little story goes something like this: I did meet and interview Tim Leary in his home in Berkeley, California in February 1969. (The interview went unpublished because Tim and I took the opportunity to tease Jann Wenner within the interview in a manner that he recognised as friendly but regarded as embarrassing. Anyway, my new acquaintance Mr Leary called me in May to tell me he had just won a Supreme Court decision nullifying his previous drug arrest on the grounds that being required to report possession of marijuana for tax purposes amounted to self-incrimination, illegal under the fifth amendment to the Us Constitution. And to tell me he had decided to run for Governor of California and to ask me to serve as his campaign manager.

We departed the next day for lectures at a California university and at a Florida rock festival and then a New York City press conference organised by Jimi Hendrix producer Alan Douglas. In New York we heard about John and Yoko’s Bed-In, planned for Toronto but switched to Montreal. At the time a previous drug bust made it impossible for Lennon to gain entry to the US and John wanted to reach the US public via the media, on behalf of the new Beatles single ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and of course, on behalf of his and Yoko’s peace crusade. Leary had no money but he convinced Playboy to pay for our plane tickets from New York to Montreal, on the grounds that I would record for the magazine a conversation between Leary and Lennon. John himself kindly paid for our hotel rooms – Playboy, not so kindly, refused to run the story.

So, Tim, Rosemary and I arrived at the Bed-in one day before cartoonist Al Capp (who was flown there by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the hope that he would add some controversy and spice to the documentary: he did indeed) and one day before the recording of Give Peace a Chance. The Bed-in was a media circus during the day and, for us very few and very fortunate ones, something surprisingly intimate and magical in the evening.

During the day John did telephone interviews with many American radio stations and petitioners and local newspaper and radio people came and went as John and Yoko chatted with all-comers from the non-privacy of their bed. Around suppertime, Derek Taylor ushered everyone else out of the room and John and Yoko climbed out of bed to share a room service dinner with Derek and Tim and Rosemary [Leary] and me. After dinner, we sat on the floor in a circle while John sang and played his new song for us, his visitors.

The way he shared it was very consistent with the way he recorded it the next day: casual, immediate, spontaneous. He gave the impression that he’d just been fooling around with this chorus phrase and had found some chords that felt right to him and the verses were spontaneously strung-together talk about anything that had recently caught his attention. “Bagism” because that was Yoko’s name for a stunt she and John had pulled in Amsterdam when they addressed a press conference with sheets pulled around them as if they were inside a bag.

He sang to us, charmingly, as though he were a poet just reading some recent notes from his journal. Tim Leary took advantage of the moment to tell John and Yoko that he and Rosemary were running for Governor and Governess of California, and that they wanted John to write them a campaign song.

“Our slogan,” Tim chuckled, “is Come Together! Join the party!”

John did clown with the phrase for half a moment with a strum of his guitar. Of course, he went on to write Come Together with The Beatles, but not as a campaign song. But certainly the song had its tiny beginnings before our eyes and ears that evening. And the next day, as you can hear on the record, he shouted out “Come together” twice, near the end of Give Peace a Chance.

Since then, whenever I ran into Tim Leary he would ask me if I had a copy of that tape, but I don’t have it. Alas, many years ago I lost both the tape and the transcript - so I can’t repeat the things that the four of them said that day. But I do remember two couples’ recent experiences of getting high by spending the night outside, in nature. John and Yoko spoke of their visits to an island they’d fallen in love with just off Scotland, and Tim responded with an enthusiastic account of a private retreat he and Rosemary shared with friends in the high desert of Southern California. A mountain campsite they’d climb up to and stay at for a couple of days at a time, taking acid together and later sleeping there, outside.

John recalled a sea voyage he and Yoko had taken off Greece, and the thrill he’d felt when they slept out on the deck, the first night in his life, he said, that he’d slept outside under the stars. Another subject of conversation was the conviction felt by both couples that the image of the person or the artist as an individual should to some degree be replaced by an acknowledgement of the power and joint personality of a male/female couple. An example which Tim pointed out was the title and cover of John and Yoko’s album ‘Two Virgins’.

After a week travelling with the Learys I was aware that Tim was sincere in his desire to be perceived as part of a “holy partnership, orbiting around each other”. His identification with this first bold statement of John Lennon as a political activist was not being presented as a John Lennon undertaking but as a John-and-Yoko creation. It crossed my mind that there was also something bold about the naming of a Beatles single “The Ballad of John and Yoko”.

Tim and Rosemary were experience at being people in the public spotlight with a ‘message’ and John and Yoko were relatively new to the practice, although John was very skillful and experienced at life-in-public and Yoko an experienced and imaginative creator of ‘messages’. It was definitely fun for me to watch all of them put aside their public images and enjoy getting to know each other as people. Eventually we said goodnight, John letting us know that our presence was requested at the recording of a new song to be held sometime the next morning.

I don’t recall any mention of The Plastic Ono Band – the group publicly came into existence when it was credited as the recording artist on the sleeve and label of the Give Peace A Chance single, first released only five weeks after it’s unrehearsed, spontaneous, one-take recording. John had a gift for moving fast. There we were, in the specified room with other invited participants, including a Montreal rabbi and a group from the local Radha Krishna temple. The words to the chorus were written on a sheet of paper or cloth and hung on the wall for us.

“Sing along,” John instructed us and it was as simple as that. He started playing guitar and singing and we all joined in.

John made it easy and fun to be in the band. We sang, we swayed, we all applauded ourselves at the end, and we dispersed. It was an inspired performance on the part of Lennon and on the part of the co-creators of this bit of performance art.

“The Plastic Ono Band is you,” John Lennon later told the world.

I can testify that, like magicians, John and Yoko did occasionally have the power to make that true. I could also point out that we are still singing the song, which is what an artist like Lennon strives for in the first place. A hit single is forever. John knew it and wanted to use the fact, the opportunity. But that didn’t stop him from making up phrases and verses on the spot, rapping years ahead of his time.

“Keep talking!” the word ‘Rabbis’ slips into one verse, presumably to honour the Rabbi present. Even now, listening to the single, one must marvel at Lennon’s unselfconsciousness as he presented his new hymn to the world. Presumably he knew, aware of such models as “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”, “I want to hold your hand” and “I can’t get no satisfaction” that one phrase can be enough to make a song stick in the memory and carry its message.

So he had the phrase and when he was ready to sing it, and to demonstrate publicly that anyone could sing along, he and Yoko acted quickly and boldly. They even had the foresight to record the session on video as well as audio, perhaps because they wanted the world to see the Plastic Ono Band. “It’s you!”

Later that day Timothy and Rosemary and I had the opportunity to watch Al Capp bait John and Yoko until the apostles of peace lost their tempers (they referred to him after he left as Al Crapp). The Bed-In ended the next day and John and Yoko and Derek flew back to Britain. With the tapes, I suppose. John firmly believed that if you had a pulpit you should use it.

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