According to media conglomerate CNN, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s peace crusade began in 1971. CNN’s on-line news group Showbiz on June 22, 1997 frames John and Yoko’s campaign for peace: “Former Beatle John Lennon was honoured posthumously Friday for his contributions to world peace at a star-studded ceremony in London for the 22nd Silver Clef awards. Lennon’s song “Imagine” has been a leading anthem for the peace movement”. This is a rather limited selection that overlooks a number of earlier (and more radical) possibilities in the Lennon-Ono musical arsenal.
A 1969 article in Newsweek entitled “The Peace Anthem” records the phenomenal success of “Give Peace a Chance” in mobilizing the protesting masses against the war in Vietnam. Newsweek relates how “Chance” became the chant for anti-war protestors in Washington on November 15, 1969. On that day, 250,000 marchers demonstrated at the American nation’s capitol for a Moratorium to stop the fighting in Vietnam. Led by folk singer Pete Seeger, the crowd was swept up in the endless repetition of the Lennon dictum, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” When Lennon tuned into the signals from Washington, he dubbed it one of the “biggest moments of my life” (Wiener 97). Dodging the immigration authorities that would not let John and Yoko physically into the United States, John and Yoko’s anti-war signals had been transmitted over the border from the “Bed-in” in Montreal where the song originated, to rally the masses marching on the mall in Washington. The story concluded: “The peace movement had found an anthem” (Newsweek 102).
“Give Peace a Chance”—and the Vietnam War against which it raised its voice—have been deleted from CNN’s selective memory. Its brand of political dissent and anti-war activism does not fit the rubric of a 90’s Showbiz column. Yet, this is how the avant-garde performance artist and the hippie rock and roller conceived their peacemaking efforts—as the invasion and intervention of “showbiz” and media hype into the space of mass politics. In their fight for peace, the newly wed John and Yoko staged a series of art and media events in the form of interviews, songs, ads, concerts, demonstrations and happenings. Many of these media-savvy events took place in Canada in 1969. For example, John and Yoko’s The Plastic Ono Band played Varsity Stadium in Toronto in September at the concert known as “Live Peace” which included performances of “Give Peace a Chance” and Yoko’s intense lament “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace).” With these events, Yoko’s avant-garde strategies of Fluxus and Conceptual art combined forces with John’s energies of rock and roll rebellion to forge a program of media activism and political dissent.
Biographer Jon Wiener recalls that John and Yoko’s anti-war campaign represented a new chapter in New Left politics and its relation to mass media. Rather than reject newspapers and TV as “exclusively instruments of corporate domination,” John and Yoko sought “to work within the mass media, to use them, briefly and sporadically, against the system in which they functioned” (89). Umberto Eco pointed to this in his 1967 essay “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare,” suggesting that “the universe of Technological Communication” (i.e., mass media) be patrolled by “groups of communications guerrillas” who would engage in “future communications guerrilla warfare” to restore a critical dimension involving “the constant correction of perspectives, the checking of codes, and the ever renewed interpretation of mass messages” (143-144). Eco’s formulation provides a possible frame of reference for John and Yoko’s media war and their series of events countering, checking and, to quote Yoko, “criticizing the establishment” and its pro-war propaganda (Giulano 71).
The 1969 “Bed-Ins” were media events that used the publicity around John and Yoko’s honeymoon as a lure for the press to report on their anti-war campaign. The first took place in Amsterdam in late March and John and Yoko staged a second honeymoon in Montreal in late May. As non-stop salespeople for their peace product, John and Yoko gave ten hours of press interviews every day invoking the media maxim that repetition induces belief. Blurring art and life, the “Bed-Ins” illustrate the strategies of happenings and Fluxus performance at the heart of Yoko’s aesthetic. At the Amsterdam press conference, Yoko framed their work as an avant-garde performance piece electrified by mass communications media. “Everything we do is a happening. All of our events are directly connected with society. We would like to communicate with the world. This event is called the ““Bed Peace”, and it’s not p-i-e-c-e, it’s p-e-a-c-e. Let’s just stay in bed and grow hair instead of being violent” (Giulano 46). The word plays of “Bed Peace” and “Hair Peace” pasted above their nuptial bed appealed to both Yoko and John’s punster sensibilities, their express aim being to play the world’s clowns for peace and mobilize the subversive power of laughter.
The “Bed-Ins” must be situated against the background of the sit-ins on American college campuses at that time of anti-Vietnam war protests. Indeed, John referred to the event as “the bed sit-in” showing that this connection was in his mind. The direct links to the student revolt were further underscored in the telephone exchange between John and Yoko in Montreal and the rioters in People’s Park in Berkeley when Lennon played peace guru, encouraging the demonstrators to avoid violence at all costs (Wiener 92-93). Around the same time, John and Yoko also began their playfully named “Nuts for Peace” campaign by sending acorns to fifty heads of state and asking them to plant them as a symbolic gesture for peace.
Another John and Yoko media blitz took over billboards as the sites to wage communications guerrilla warfare. When asked at a press conference to explain the “War is Over Poster Campaign”, the peace PR man stated: “It’s part of our advertising campaign for peace” (Giulano 83). This particular aspect of the media war recalls the international dissemination of the poster “War is Over! If You Want It. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko” in twelve urban centres. Since the mid-sixties, Beatle John had been delivering promotional peace and good will messages on vinyl to his fans at Christmas. In 1969, he and his new partner in art prepared a visual Christmas card using public space to blur the boundaries between art, activism, and advertising. The glaring headline stated the fantasy as if already fulfilled (War is Over!). This was followed by the empowering call to mass action reminding the viewer of what was needed to attain the goal (If You Want It). To kick off the campaign, the international peace politicos gave a “Christmas for Peace” charity concert in London for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
When asked about the costs of the poster, Lennon sidestepped the issue, saying he didn’t want to think about it, but joking, “I’ll have to write a song or two to earn me money back” (Giulano 83). The critics attacked this statement as evasive and not willing to own up to how the promoters were direct beneficiaries of the marketing of peace. Rather than focusing on how this campaign would afford free publicity to John and Yoko and promote further demand for their products, Lennon focused on extensive outlays of capital. This recalls another rather hostile exchange at a November 1969 press conference having the look of an all-out media war on the occasion of Lennon returning his M.B.E. Medal of Honour to the Queen. Lennon’s letter read in part: “Your Majesty, I am returning this M.B.E. in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts” (Wiener 106). Numerous critics sought to deflate Lennon’s claim that this was an act of political protest in the fight for peace, characterising it as a mere self-serving publicity stunt for his latest single.
John: “Well, we use advertising.”
Reporter: “You’re an advertisement.”
John: “Will you shut up a minute!” (Giulano 109)
In the heat of exchange, Lennon breaks his cool at the reporter who underscores that there is no way to differentiate between the use of advertising to promote peace and to promote John and Yoko. This concurs with Graeme Turner’s argument in Fame Games that “the celebrity’s ultimate power is to sell the commodity that is themselves” (Turner 12). At the point that would convert this speaking subject into a walking advertisement, the hippie peacenik snaps and reveals a violent temper not befitting someone who would follow Gandhi’s way of non-violence.
Engaging with the mass media, John and Yoko’s media war packaged and promoted their peace product as art and advertising, as information and entertainment, as a discourse of political dissent and of self-promotion. With a slogan like “War is Over! If You Want It,” these two media warriors supplied youth culture at the end of the 60’s with the peace product and process that was lacking. Their consuming images and anthems anticipated the “collusional critique” of eighties art and its appropriation of media images that function as “both critical manifesto and the very commodity it critiques” (Sussman 15). In this case, John and Yoko’s media war provided a critique of the official war program while capitalizing upon the very commodity against which war had been declared. For if John seriously wanted to “make peace big business for everybody” (Newsweek 102), this could be achieved only in a parasitic relationship with a war economy making John and Yoko both peace prophets and profiteers.
But even if one acknowledges the profit motive in the peace campaign—and this assumes that John was not misappropriated as a “peace capitalist” by the establishment press—there was something else fluxing up the media machine and the war program. John and Yoko understood how their star power and international celebrity gave them a privileged and almost unlimited access to a mass media that wanted to soak up their Pop star aura to satisfy its own instrumentalist agenda. The press and the public wanted John and Yoko, and these two media stars fed this desire and then some. They complied with the pop star demand, but spiked it with the dangerous supplements of political dissent and subversive humour. They fed this desire with a feedback loop and interventionist strategy, with an anti-war army surplus provided at no extra charge.
The year 1969 concluded with another savvy media event that lent John and Yoko’s media war more political credibility and gave the American establishment something they had not bargained for: a photo-op and peace dialogue with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada. Once again, John and Yoko’s media war had added an extra twist and an extra shout that the war programmers would have preferred not to hear, the message “War is Over (If You Want It!)” and “War is Over” whether they wanted it or not.