Fifty years ago this week, Beatle John Lennon invited the press to come to bed with him and his new bride, the avant garde artist Yoko Ono. Expecting to witness “the century’s most uncensored love-in,” media representatives were surprised to find they merely contracted “hair peace.” No, the musician who popularized the forward comb of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges wasn’t giving away Beatle wigs. He and his wife skipped their honeymoon to become the world’s clowns for peace. Lennon, a sometime satirist and consummate wit, knew he’d been accused of armchair liberalism and went a step further. Leave the sit-in protests to students, he and Ono staged a “bed-in.”
The newlyweds would actually stage two such happenings to promote world peace during the Vietnam War, the first was held from March 25th through the 31st in Amsterdam, then from May 26th to June 2nd at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, the pair gave unprecedented access to anyone who dared ask to see them. All the Beatles were on holiday and this is how he chose to spend his. Major broadcast stations and publications were invited to cover what Lennon called his vacation. But so were the smaller media. Kids from high school papers asked if they could have a word and were rewarded with pictures to go along with them.
Fans brought babies. Rabbis sang with Hare Krishnas. Yoko Ono’s daughter Kyoko played with the crews. The song “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which only has Lennon and Paul McCartney on it, explained they drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton to “get us some peace.” Lennon and Ono’s courtship had been blasted by the press. They were both were married when they first got together. So they imagined matrimonial coverage wouldn’t fare much better. The couple knew the wedding was going to be a press event, so they turned their personal nightmare into an advertising campaign for peace.
“The other side has war on every day, not only on the news but on the old John Wayne movies and every damn movie you see: war, war, war, war, kill, kill, kill, kill,” Lennon told reporters. “We said, ‘Let’s get some peace, peace, peace, peace on the headlines, just for a change!’ So we thought it highly amusing that a lot of the world’s headlines on March 25th 1969 were ‘honeymoon couple in bed.’ Whoopee! Isn’t that great news?”
The press came to the hotel’s presidential suite, room 902, with high hopes for nasty copy. Lennon and Ono were nude on the 1968 Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins album cover, after all. “We sent out a card,” Lennon remembered in Anthology. “You should have seen the faces on the reporters and the cameramen fighting their way through the door! Because whatever it is, is in people’s minds – their minds were full of what they thought was going to happen. They fought their way in, and their faces dropped. There were we like two angels in bed, with flowers all around us, and peace and love on our heads. We were fully clothed; the bed was just an accessory. We were wearing pyjamas, but they don’t look much different from day clothes – nothing showing.”
Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman got married on March 12, 1969. John and Yoko said their vows on March 20, 1969. The couple had a rocky time trying to get married. They couldn’t do it in their dream spot of Southampton because Ono “wasn’t English and she couldn’t get the day visa to go across,” Lennon recounted in Anthology. They couldn’t do it in Paris, because they had not lived in France long enough. Brian Epstein-protégé Peter Brown, who worked for Apple, found Gibraltar, near Spain. A place called The Pillar Of Hercules. After the wedding, John and Yoko stayed at the Plaza Athéné in Paris.
Lennon and Ono branded the protest “Bed Peace,” making it an agitprop artistic happening. It satirizes Ono’s use of the word “piece” to name art projects such as her 1964 Bag Piece or her 1966 Shadow Piece, like Spike Lee calls his films “joints.” Rolling Stone loved it, commenting a “five-hour talk between John Lennon and Richard Nixon would be more significant than any Geneva Summit Conference between the U.S.A. and Russia.”
After the Bed Peace event, Lennon and Ono flew to Vienna, Austria, where they held a Bagism press conference. They also sent “fifty acorns tied in a sack” to heads of state with requests to meet with them. Lennon may have said he was on holiday, but he kept busy. He recorded “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” at Abbey Road Studios on April 14, 1969. That song is just John and Paul. Ringo Starr and George Harrison hadn’t gotten back from their vacations.
Lennon and Ono wanted to hold a second bed-in in New York, but Lennon was denied entry into the United States because of a drug conviction. The couple almost did it in the Bahamas, where the Beatles filmed part of Help!, but the band filmed there during the winter and Lennon and Ono weren’t prepared sit 12 hours a day in one bed in the tropical heat. After one night on May 24, 1969, at the Sheraton Oceanus Hotel they flew to Montreal where Lennon was detained for two hours while immigration officials debated whether he was a desirable alien in Canada, before released on his own recognizance to attend a hearing the next morning. They stayed in the King Edward Sheraton Hotel.
The Montreal Bed Peace was performed the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in rooms 1738, 1740, 1742 and 1744 on the 19th floor. Once again, the couple took in anyone who would see them, including Al Capp. The creator of the Li’l Abner comic strip didn’t get the gag. That’s the trouble with performance art. Some people just don’t get it. Bed Peace was slammed as the kind of protest only a rich rock star could do. Lennon didn’t argue. He admitted they took to “the easiest way of doing it, because we’re lazy” as recounted in Anthology. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t funny. And sometimes a revolution could be started with a joke.
“It’s part of our policy not to be taken seriously,” Lennon told the press at the end of the events. “Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all manifest forms, don’t know how to handle humor. And we are humorous.” This is true. Not only had he recorded satirical songs, and written funny books like In His Own wright and A Spaniard in the Works, Lennon put in comic performances for Dick Lester’s How I Won the War as well as the Beatle films. He also did comedy skits on British TV, and The Beatles were all known for their press conference antics. The song that came out of the Bed Peace bed-ins, “Give Peace a Chance,” had two comedians on it, civil rights activist Dick Gregory and Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers. Lennon even slipped the word “masturbation” into the song.
“Give Peace a Chance” was recorded by André Perry in the hotel room on June 1, 1969. It also featured Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, whose work inspired Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It is an anthem, joining his Beatle contribution “All You Need Is Love,” as one of the generation’s most inspirational songs. Pete Seeger was the first to cover the song during a protest at the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam march in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969.
American sit-Ins were first associated with non-violent civil rights protests such as when four African American North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students sat at a whites-only Woolworth’s and ordered coffee. Mohandas Gandhi, who nonviolently freed India from British rule after being inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” would have been very proud. Students also took to sitting in to protest the war in Vietnam. “No one’s ever given peace a complete chance,” Lennon said at the Bed-In. “Gandhi’s tried it, Martin Luther King tried it, but they were shot.”
The Bed-In lives on in actions like the “occupy” movement, which began as the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zucotti Park in September, 2011, where protestors brought sleeping bags. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and his wife Adrienne performed a “Make Love Not War” protest during the post-9/11 era. On Nov. 27, “Black Friday,” 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters sat down at Seattle’s Westlake Park shopping malls to “disrupt commerce and make economic hardship for those in power.”
The Bed Peace events were filmed, and turned into the 40-minute color film Honeymoon, directed by Peter Goessens. Lennon and Ono put some of the audio onto their third album together, The Wedding Album. In December 1969, the couple put up billboards reading “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas From John and Yoko” in eleven major world cities, and bought full-page ads for peace. Lennon was still a Beatle, not yet the solo artist who wrote “Imagine” and got on the Nixon enemies list. The suite where Lennon and Ono staged the bed-in has been renumbered and is now marketed as the John and Yoko Suite. It can be rented for $2,400 a night. Couples can get married there in a civil ceremony.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.