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It was 40 years ago today, John and Yoko taught the world to play

John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Bed-In' at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969 was only a part of their broad-ranging commitment to peace campaigning. Colin Robinson looks back at one of the most famous - and media-savvy - protests of all time

May 22, 2009
6 min read

Here’s a joke, of sorts:

Q: What do you call a Scouser who won’t get out of bed?

A: A peacenik.

Forty years ago, on 25 March 1969, a 29-year-old John Lennon and his new wife Yoko Ono travelled from their wedding in Gibraltar and checked into room 702 of the Amsterdam Hilton. From the hotel they announced their honeymoon would be devoted to promoting world peace, something they would achieve … by staying in bed. Pinning hand-drawn posters that declared ‘Hair Peace’ and ‘Bed Peace’ to the walls of their room, they invited the world’s press to join the seven-day slumber party.

It was 1969. The Vietnam War was at full throttle. Richard Nixon had been elected president the previous year on the promise of bringing the conflict to a close. Opinion polls showed percentage support for the war among the American public dropping to the mid 20s. Once in office, though, Nixon only increased the US military presence, extending a murderous aerial bombardment to Laos and Cambodia. Details were just emerging of the previous year’s My Lai massacre, where 350 to 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers, many of them children, were cut down by hopped-up American GIs. It would be another four years before the US pulled out its troops and left Indochina.

Attracting journalistic attention to the Amsterdam sleepover did not prove difficult; more than 50 journalists and cameramen crowded into John and Yoko’s room on the first day. The sleeve of their recently released album, Two Virgins, had portrayed the couple in grainy black and white, stark naked, back and front. The media, ever prurient, surely anticipated more public libertinism. If so, they were to be disappointed: Lennon and Ono, dressed demurely in white pyjamas, cuddled a little but concentrated on promoting their message. Yoko smiled coyly for the photographers and insisted: ‘People should stop fighting wars and just stay in bed.’

Much of the media was contemptuous of the protest. Al Capp, the creator of the cartoon Lil’ Abner and a celebrated scourge of hippiedom everywhere, responded caustically to Lennon’s claim to be speaking on behalf of all humanity: ‘Whatever race you are representative of – I’m not part of it.’

But Lennon took it all in his stride. Referring to the baddies in the recently released Beatles cartoon feature Yellow Submarine, he quipped, ‘The Blue Meanies, or whoever they are, are promoting violence all the time in every newspaper, every TV show, and every magazine. The least Yoko and I can do is hog the headlines and make people laugh. I’d sooner see our faces in a bed than yet another politician smiling at the people and shaking hands.’

Political engagement

This wasn’t Lennon’s first engagement with politics. When the Beatles arrived in the US for their 1966 tour they had shocked their hosts, and ignored the advice of their management, by declaring live on television: ‘We hate the war. War is wrong. We think about it every day.’ Paul McCartney later claimed that it was he, following a visit to Bertrand Russell, a neighbour in Chelsea, who first turned the band on to anti-war politics. In the same year the group was forced to contend with organised burnings of their records by the Christian right following Lennon’s comment to the Evening Standard that the Beatles were now ‘more popular than Jesus’.

But the Bed-In represented a new political tactic. Lennon’s determination to use his public profile to promote peace may have been the catalyst, but it was Ono’s Fluxus performance art that provided the twist, as John acknowledged. ‘The event came directly from Yoko … I participated almost like a spectator,’ he said.

The media savvy and inventiveness of the advertising business was needed to market peace, he remarked: ‘We’re selling it like soap.’ In this recognition of play as a way of getting across a political point, he and Yoko prefigured a wide range of more contemporary protest, from Subcomandante Marcos’s Chiapas communiqués to the street theatre of Billionaires for Bush. In the same spirit, the couple appeared, or rather didn’t, in a black velvet bag at an underground art gathering in London’s Albert Hall. They also sent acorns to various world leaders asking them to plant trees for peace. None replied.

To the disappointment of some on the left, Lennon insisted the peaceful nature of the Bed-In was a better way of opposing war than the battles accompanying recent protests in the streets: ‘We’re sending out a message to the world, especially the youth that’s interested in protesting against any form of violence. The end product of the Grosvenor Square marches was newspaper stories about riots … We did the bed event in Amsterdam to give people an idea that there are many different ways to protest.’

Give peace a chance

A second version of the Bed-In was planned for New York City in May 1969 but the couple was refused entry to the US because of Lennon’s prosecution for marijuana possession a year earlier. Instead they went to Montreal, taking up residence in the Queen Elizabeth hotel. There, again from bed, they recorded the song ‘Give Peace a Chance’. LSD guru Timothy Leary, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and pop singer Petula Clarke joined in making the record, which went to number two in the UK charts (it was kept off the top spot by the Rolling Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Women’). John later said he had wanted to write an anthem for the peace movement in the way that ‘Blowing in the Wind’ had been taken up by a previous generation of civil rights campaigners. In this he succeeded. Led by Pete Seeger, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was sung by half a million anti-war demonstrators in Washington DC later that year.

In the autumn after the Bed-In, Lennon very publicly returned his MBE to the Queen with a note explaining the protest was ‘… against our support for America in Vietnam and against “Cold Turkey” slipping down the charts.’ His and Yoko’s political commitment was becoming more explicit and consuming. Having moved to New York in 1971, the couple appeared, along with Stevie Wonder and Phil Ochs, at a concert to support the imprisoned political activist John Sinclair. Yippie Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers were also present. It wasn’t long before Nixon was instructing the FBI to kick John out of the country.

Today, four decades on, Yoko Ono has put out a call for devotees to stage their own Bed-Ins to mark the anniversary. The first two to be announced were at the Euromast Tower in Rotterdam, and at the What’s Cooking restaurant in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool. A young woman from Belfast has posted her support on the website for the event: ‘Wish I could get the day off to stay in bed. Dead on idea.’

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