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The Story Behind The Song: John Lennon's protest anthem 'Mind Games'


Sitting in the studio, awaiting the clock to strike the hour, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, her ex-husband Tony Cox and the rest of the Plastic Ono Band readied themselves to appear on Top of the Pops armed with one of Lennon’s finest works, ‘Instant Karma’. The group was now finding their feet, and the songs that had seemingly dried up while Lennon was still in The Beatles had begun to flow more easily. While waiting to leave, Lennon would give an impromptu rendition of a new song, ‘Make Love Not War’, captured by Cox while he filmed the band.

Like much of Lennon’s rhetoric at the time, the song was steeped in the protestation of war. Peace had become an all-encompassing motif for Lennon and Ono during these weeks, and as they set their sights on the future, they were clear that it would become an ethos of all their work together and apart. As Lennon continued to play, the next few years of their life together would unfurl. Lennon recorded a piano demo at the end of 1970, and the song had begun to take shape.

Of course, looking through the tracklisting of any album, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a song called ‘Make Love Not War’, that’s because the title of the song was quickly changed to ‘Mind Games’, the titular track from the 1973 album. The name change is indicative of the song’s origin itself: “It was originally called ‘Make Love Not War’, but that was such a cliché that you couldn’t say it anymore, so I wrote it obscurely, but it’s all the same story,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980.

The track would find more nuggets of inspiration as Ono and Lennon recorded their experimental short film Clock. During the filming, Lennon played a lot of different songs, including some rock and roll classics and the first iterations of ‘Make Love Not War’. Eventually, he would pull together all the fragments of the song into one consistent piece.

The truth is, Lennon was now a part of the ‘old guard’, the idealist and the hopeful purists of the 1960s. By the time the song had reached the studio in earnest, the 1970s had taken their hold of rock and roll. Peace and love were cast aside for sex and drugs. Things had derailed from the original freeing notions of the counterculture movement. While wars still raged on, idealism had been caught in the crossfire. For Lennon, it was frustrating.

“How many times can you say the same thing over and over? When this came out in the early Seventies, everybody was starting to say the Sixties was a joke; it didn’t mean anything; those love-and-peaceniks were idiots. [Sarcastically] ‘We all have to face the reality of being nasty human beings who are born evil, and everything’s gonna be lousy and rotten so boo-hoo-hoo…’ ‘We had fun in the Sixties,’ they said, ‘but the others took it away from us and spoiled it all for us.'” For Lennon, the message was clear: “And I was trying to say: ‘No, just keep doin’ it.'”

The song got its new name from the book Mind Games by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. The book looked to promote good mental health through a raised consciousness. Many of the themes within the book found their way into the song, making this one of Lennon’s most advisory anthems. Despite an upbeat message of hope and a return to pure pop music sonically, the track failed to land heavily on the charts.

Instead, the track remains one of Lennon’s overlooked gems. It is a song that shares the joys of peace while nourishing the people who can achieve it: you and me.