There aren’t many chapters in The Beatles’ career that I find less than fascinating. It’s such an engrossing journey, both collectively and solo, driven by four charismatic personalities with talent to spare, with so many twists and turns, triumphs and missteps, glories and goofs. Even projects or life choices which are usually heralded as failures are often full of intrigue and hidden depths. But John and Yoko’s peace campaigning in 1969 has long been an aspect of the story which never really captured my imagination. While I agreed with the core purpose, the long hair, all-white outfits, repetitive interviews, silly stunts and slight air of hectoring left me cold. It’s all a bit like the song ‘Give Peace A Chance’ – an important message, which needed to be said (especially as the Vietnam War was raging at the time), a perfect protest tune, all very worthy….but as a piece of music, rather dull. Even the ‘bed-in’ events, an amusing piece of Lennon lunacy, seemed like a joke that went on a little too long. I’ve always preferred John when he’s grappling with personal issues rather than playing mini-messiah on the world stage, as well-intentioned as he undoubtedly was. The fact that the campaign effectively ended by the end of that year also gives the impression that it was another passing fad (although, to be fair, he continued to espouse its sentiments for the rest of his life).
After recently re-watching the documentary which captured the high watermark of their crusade, Bed Peace, however, the whole affair was probably more interesting that I’ve previously given it credit for. Or certainly, this film and its companion piece, 24 Hours: The World of John and Yoko (recently made available for streaming), are. Bed Peace documents their second bed-in for peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal from 26 May – 1 June 1969, where the Lennons invited all and sundry to their bedside for a chat and used the massive media exposure they received to promote world peace. Cameras of course followed their every move, including the now legendary impromptu recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’, and the resulting footage was edited down to 70 minutes and released the following year. It came out on DVD in the 2000s, and was also screened on satellite music channel VH-1, which is when I got to see it. The 35-minute 24 Hours took a similar fly-on-the-wall approach but was more mobile, following the Lennons at work and play in a variety of settings over five days later in 1969. It was screened on the BBC soon afterwards, but wasn’t seen again until John was voted into the top ten of Great Britons during a huge national poll run by the BBC in 2000. It’s been stuck in the vaults ever since, until being made available via Amazon Prime in May as part of promotions for the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album reissue.
So why are they worth a look? Well, taking Bed Peace first, there are a couple of things to recommend it. First, it’s a fascinating time capsule of a very different world. A world just discovering the possibilities of global mass communication, in the throes of a pop culture explosion like no other, a world where social boundaries, norms and values are being questioned like never before. A more idealistic, less cynical world; yes, there’s plenty of cynicism and eye-rolling about what John and Yoko are trying to do, and their motives for doing it, but the division lines between different viewpoints seem more clear cut than they are today (though the lack of tolerance for other people’s opinions remains the same). It all feels less commercialised and commodified, less about virtue signalling and looking good, and more about trying to do something worthwhile, no matter what the approbation and ridicule. Naïve and slightly pretentious, yes, but genuine. As John points out during the film, he could’ve promoted himself more easily and made much more money by doing other things; he was a Beatle, he certainly didn’t need any extra attention. The look and feel of the film reflect that idea of doing things differently – rough, jerky, almost amateurish at times. But the cinema verité approach helps to put you in the room, by the bedside, and gives a real flavour of the madcap goings-on.
Which brings me to Bed Peace’s other main selling point – its intimacy. Contrary to the earnest, confrontational image of the event I had in my head, John is actually relaxed and charming for the most part, happy to take the brickbats as well as the bouquets, and having a laugh wherever he can. Despite being a virtual unknown to the wider public before hooking up with John a year earlier, Yoko too seems very comfortable (and patient) in the intense spotlight, selling the peace message with endless enthusiasm and a quite endearing, child-like daffiness. While the film mostly focuses on the couple’s interactions with guests, there are some more intimate moments when the doors are closed, including a sweet scene of them cuddling and verbally teasing one another in bed. Whatever cynics may say about how their relationship panned out, they certainly seem to be very into each other here, despite – or because of – them spending everyone waking moment together. Their closeness was definitely beginning to impinge on The Beatles at this point and there’s little mention of the band in the final edit, even though John was still an active member at this point (the bulk of the sessions for Abbey Road took place soon after the bed-in). There is one nice moment where local fans present John with a hand-stitched blanket depicting animated versions of the Fabs from the (then-recent) Yellow Submarine film. Lennon seems genuinely touched by their efforts, and it stays on their bed for the remainder of the couple’s hotel stay.
The real meat of the film, though, deals with the parade of visitors to their room and the various discussions about the peace debate. The footage early on of the mass ranks of TV, radio and newspaper reporters crowding their bed to grab some soundbites is eye-popping – it’s inconceivable today that a star of John’s magnitude would grant such unfettered, unfiltered access. It’s also questionable whether it was wise to have Yoko’s young daughter Kyoko at the centre of such a scrum (her father Tony Cox, who would later abscond with the child, may not have been impressed watching it), though she does seem quite unperturbed by all the attention. In this age of Zoom and Skype calls, it’s interesting to watch John and Yoko lending their support to student protesters in Berkeley, California, via shouting down a bad telephone line. There’s a lot of talk in that scene, and throughout the film, about fighting “them” – the authorities, the Establishment – and you can’t help but wonder who Lennon would be railing against in today’s much more blurred culture war battle lines if he were still around.
Various US celebrities of the time drop by, including LSD guru and wannabe politician Timothy Leary, comedy actor Tom Smothers and stand-up comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. The latter proposes The Beatles could help put a stop to capital punishment in the States by urging all their fans to tune into a TV special just before sitting down to eat on Christmas Eve, and then show a film of a Death Row prisoner being executed. John thinks its a “brilliant idea”. But the real stand-out section (much of which was lifted for 1988’s Imagine: John Lennon documentary) was the Lennons’ showdown with cartoonist and humorist Al Capp. Capp is clearly spoiling for a fight from the moment he arrives, and pours scorn and sarcasm on the pair throughout. John surprisingly keeps his cool during the onslaught, raising his voice only once, but must’ve been seething inside. It’s the right tactic, though; while entertaining, Capp comes over as boorish, smug and (especially to Yoko) unforgivably rude.
Musically, there’s not too much to write home about.Yoko’s ‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ makes for an effective bit of background music at the start; we also get a snippet of John running through future Beatles track ‘Because’ on acoustic guitar, and ‘Instant Karma’ plays over the end credits, presumably because it was a more contemporary song when the film was finally released. But the real centrepiece, of course, is the recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’, accompanied by Smothers, Leary, Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, fans, pressmen, a local chapter of the Hare Krishna movement and many more. It goes on a bit, but it’s fun to watch a little bit of history unfold before your eyes.
24 Hours continues the fly-on-the-wall theme over five days (this time in England, during December 1969), but in pacier fashion over different locations. So we get to see the pair larking around at their Tittenhurst Park home, travelling to and from engagements in their Rolls Royce, meeting Japanese journalists at Apple headquarters, waking up in bed (once again), and taking seemingly endless enquiries from reporters tracking their every move (is John going to play Jesus on the London stage? “I don’t know anything about it, I don’t want to do it…and God bless you.”). You get to see John sat spellbound watching film of The Beatles performing at the Cavern in 1962, footage he may never have seen before. There’s also a quite surreal recording session at Abbey Road, and the film ends on a bizarre note with them dressed in monk-like cowls watching a giant hot air balloon take off in Lavenham, Suffolk (a scene set up for one of their short ‘art’ films, Apotheosis).
In the middle of all that is another famous scene (also purloined for the Imagine: John Lennon film) at Apple where they are challenged over their headline-grabbing activities by sceptical New York Times columnist Gloria Emerson. This time, John doesn’t hold back in his responses; when Emerson reveals she admired him in earlier years, he retorts: “I’ve grown up…but you obviously haven’t.” It’s a fiery exchange – again, it’s hard to imagine today’s sycophantic, carefully-briefed media corps even daring to question a celeb’s virtuous, socially-aware credentials. But, while Emerson is somewhat patronising and pompous (and again, unaccountably rude when addressing Yoko), you can kind of see that the likes of her and Al Capp represented a whole swathe of people who were struggling to come to terms with how not just John Lennon, but the whole world, had changed so rapidly since the carefree monochrome days of A Hard Day’s Night just five years earlier.
Watching films like this, many people at the time would have thought John had lost his marbles, and no doubt blamed Yoko as a bad influence. Whether their campaign really advanced the cause of peace is open to debate, though it certainly put the word on the front pages of newspapers around the world and gave the movement an anthem to march behind. It also set a baleful precedent of musicians assuming their views on society are not only automatically the right ones, but also something we need to hear about at every available opportunity. However, few have come close to the impact and iconography of John and Yoko in 1969. If nothing else, they colourfully pointed up a fresh way of thinking, of doing things, and confirmed Lennon as a true one-off. These films capture that crazy moment in time and, more importantly, the people living it. Some of it may leave you shaking your head, but you’ll still be glued to the screen.