"You see I'm shy and aggressive, so I have great hopes for what I do with my work and I also have great despair that it's all pointless and it's shit."
John Lennon, 1970.
By 1969 it was clear that The Beatles, as such, were over; that their impact on music had been felt and refracted so many times that they were living in their very own echo chamber of themselves, and everyone wanted out, one way or another. George Harrison did a solo soundtrack album Wonderwall Music in 1968, and from that moment onwards there was a rather loud ticking clock in the room that was hard to ignore. The Beatles as a myth, a legend, a force, was beginning to override the Beatles as four musicians, and one by one they began to snatch their lives back, however they could. As anyone who has been in a similar situation knows, when there are divorces and weddings and family life in general comes more to the fore, previous strong alliances can sometimes falter. Paul and Linda got married in March 1969, as did John and Yoko Ono. That The Beatles started up Apple in '68 also put another spoke in the wheel, so to speak, as business, not music, took up more of their time.
But still, they were The Beatles, and with Billy Preston had the biggest #1 of '69, and what they did still mattered, on vinyl and celluloid. Try as they did to get away from themselves, the public still wanted and needed them, worldwide. They were the effective spokesmen for the revolution, mainly because of John Lennon's "shy and aggressive" attitude, which is summed up with this song perfectly. Is it a folk song? A protest song? Can it be judged against anything else?
John and Yoko had been in Amsterdam, doing their honeymoon bed-in** for peace; they wanted to do it again in the US but were denied entry, and so went to Montreal to continue their protest, and on June 1st a throwaway statement by Lennon had evolved to the point where everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Murray the K to Petula Clark to the Smothers Brothers showing up at room 1742 at La Reine Elizabeth Hotel to sing along, clapping and banging on whatever was available. It is a simple a song as Lennon, who loved simplicity, wrote; he wanted to write a new popular protest song, and so he did*.
It should not be judged a failure ("pointless") because there is still war in the world; peacemakers are best involved in what the British call "the long game" wherein short-term successes (despite Lennon's claim in the song that peace could come tomorrow if it's demanded- alas the warmongers don't stop that suddenly, and the Vietnam War, to name one, went on pointlessly for years) are just that, short-term. Lennon wins here as he is self-deprecating, using sharp irony to say, hey, isn't peace worth at least a chance? Try it out, you might like it! So apart from the stompy-stompy sing-a-long aspect, easy enough for anyone to join in, there is the weird feeling that this is a no-bullshit country song, with "Everybody's talkin' bout (insert famous people, actions, etc.)" definitely NOT being the point; the point is peace, and celebrity and such is so much hooey. (That celebrity arose to be the point in the 70s is one of the worst things about the 70s, really, and Lennon wanted out of that circus.)
It also doesn't hurt that the song is insanely catchy, that it was recorded with borrowed equipment for a near-indie roughness (not produced as such, but recorded by Andre Perry - as if Phil Spector would ever record anything outside of a studio) that suits the song very well. This is a happening, a protest, a new anthem; it was picked up immediately not just in shops but in protests, which was the real success - not commercially (though that always helps) but as a song that the people sung, that became a phrase for the revolution, plain and simple. That is what Lennon wanted, and if it's not sung that much anymore, it's because other media - including the one you're reading - have been taken up as new mediums for protest. (Ono says Lennon would have used Twitter to protest, and I don't doubt her.)
At this time, only John and Yoko could have pulled off a cross-Atlantic pop hit that was a direct protest record; but then it was what could only be expected, and it was meant to be a hit. The Beatles were disintegrating, the band caught up in too many things to keep up (their cool response to Ono being one aspect), but Lennon's solo career effectively starts here, with Live Peace in Toronto 1969 to come (where "Give Peace a Chance" is performed, this time with Eric Clapton helping out).
The 60s were nearly over, man had walked on the moon***, and the epochal month of August, with its highs and lows, was about to happen. The cover of Abbey Road was taken on the 8th, the Manson family murders happened the next two days in Los Angeles, and a week later in upstate New York, Woodstock gathered the tribes together for a much bigger sing-a-long. The center, as some noted, could not hold; but the American turmoil was not felt so strongly in the UK, where The Beatles were about to disappear, Abbey Road being their last album, one they knew would be their last. By now it must have seemed as if the 70s could not come soon enough, but here are John and Yoko in bed, singing for peace, like two escaped birds of paradise resting on an ordinary tree branch, with other birds chiming in for the dawn chorus. It is a song to remember.
*It is credited, as Beatles songs usually were, to Lennon/McCartney, when in fact McCartney had nothing to do with it; the credit seems to be a thank-you to Paul for helping out with "The Ballad of John and Yoko" on short notice.
**I helplessly always think of this by Eugenius when I think of bed-ins. I like to think Lennon would have loved Eugenius.
***I also cannot help but think Lennon would have loved The Onion.