Written and recorded in support of the defence fund during Oz magazine’s obscenity trial, ‘God Save Oz’ was recorded by John Lennon and the Elastic Oz Band, and released as a single in July 1971.
Oz was part of the British underground press, and featured a mixture of satire, humour, current affairs and political issues. Issue 28, published in May 1970, was known as Schoolkids OZ, and followed an open invitation by editor Richard Neville for people below the age of 18 to take part.
Schoolkids OZ was edited by children and featured a mixture of typically adolescent jokes and drawings. One particularly notorious feature titled ‘Rupert finds gypsy granny’, created by 15-year-old Vivian Berger, had the head of Rupert Bear pasted onto a cartoon figure by Robert Crumb, pulling down the underwear of another and saying: “My curiosity is aroused… I’ll just take a peek an’ then split!”
The Obscene Publications Squad raided the Oz offices, and on 18 August 1970 the magazine was served a summons for “publishing an obscene magazine”. Richard Neville and his co-editors, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, were found guilty at an Old Bailey trial in 1971, given prison sentences but eventually released on bail.
The magazine set up Friends Of Oz to raise money for its legal costs. One of the Friends, Stan Demidjuk, knew Lennon, and asked if he might help the defendants. Lennon agreed to write and record a song, for which all the royalties would be donated to Oz, and attended a march in support of the Oz Three. He recorded a home demo on 13 April 1971, featuring acoustic guitar and congas.
Stan and some people from Oz rang up and said, ‘Will you make us a record?’ and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t,’ because I’m all tied up contractually and I didn’t know how to do it. So then we got down to would I write a song for them? I think we wrote it the same night, didn’t we? We wrote it together and the b-side. First of all we wrote it as ‘God Save Oz’, you know, ‘God save Oz from it all,’ but then we decided they wouldn’t really know what we were talking about in America so we changed it back to ‘us’.
In the studio
Lennon first recorded the song at Ascot Sound Studios, his home recording facility at Tittenhurst Park near Ascot in Berkshire. A demo was recorded on 13 April 1971 in a single take, and featured Lennon on acoustic guitar and vocals, and Steve Brendell on congas.
John and Yoko supported the Oz Three, as they became known – editor Richard Neville and co-editors Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis – even to the point of allowing some of the Oz community to take refuge and live at the Lodge on the Tittenhurst estate, where they continued to run their office. They’d often come by the house for a chat or to use the photocopier and I’d occasionally look in on operations over at the Lodge. We all got on in a communal sort of way during a worrying time for the Oz folk and particularly for its editors.
The editors were eventually acquitted on appeal after being found guilty of publishing obscene material and sentenced to harsh prison sentences. I’m quite sure the publicity from the connection with John and Yoko and John’s song ‘God Save Us’ had a considerable outcome or at the very least gave them a huge helping of moral support.
The demo for ‘God Save Us’ was one of the very first recordings made in Ascot Sound Studios. I entered the studio with John and stood right next to him to play congas. He didn’t play the song until the tape was running, so I had no idea what rhythm to play. I scrambled along on the congas as best I could, a little nervous at first. John strummed an acoustic guitar with vigour and sang out his lyrics very loudly. For a guy of his build I thought how powerful he was when he played. The first take began and John didn’t like something and soon stopped it. On the second take we went all the way through. John only having written some of the verses, improvised with some funny on-the-spot lyrics, ‘pick your nose, and eat it too’ for instance, which still makes me laugh. Dan had successfully taped it, John and Yoko left the studio and Dan gave me the tape to whizz up to Apple to have acetates made for the Oz singers to learn the song from.
Four days later, on 17 April 1971, a recording session for the song was held at Ascot. Twenty takes were recorded, the last of which was selected as the best.
Lennon sang a guide vocal with each take. It was never his intention to sing on the final version, as he didn’t want the song to be the official follow-up to the successful ‘Power To The People’ single.
Track 3 had piano by Tina Jorgensen, and acoustic guitars played by Lennon, Charles Shaar Murray, and Maureen Gray.
Track 4 had lead vocals by ‘Magic Michael’ Ramsden, while 5 had percussion: congas by Brendell, maracas by Mike Dowd and Felix Dennis, and tambourine by Stanislav Demidjuk.
The ‘Oz Crowd’ added vocals as overdubs onto tracks 6 and 7, and track 8 was an echo track.
‘God Save Us’ was re-recorded from scratch at Ascot on 22 May 1971, with Lennon using musicians that would record the Imagine album later that week.
Four takes were recorded, the last of which was chosen as the master. Lennon sang lead vocals on each.
This third version of ‘God Save Us’ had Voormann’s bass on track 1, and Jim Keltner’s drums on 2. Track 3 was initially used as an echo track.
Track 4 was left blank, and 5 had Lennon’s electric guitar. Track 6 had Nicky Hopkins’ electric piano, and Bobby Keys’ saxophone was on 7. Lennon’s lead vocals were recorded on track 8.
The single’s b-side, ‘Do The Oz’ was also taped during the session, as was a version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.
For contractual reasons Lennon needed another singer to replace his part. Bill Elliott was overdubbed onto the master on 16 June 1971, as were vocal parts by Yoko Ono.
We got one singer in [Magic Michael], and he was all right, but he’d never had much experience recording – or singing actually, because he needed some experience singing and holding vaguely around the note. I can’t hold a note – all my songs are all sung out of tune, but I can get fairly near it sometimes. This guy was way off, but it didn’t work, so then I sang it just to show him how to sing it, how it should go, and we got this guy that Mal had found in a group called Half-breed or something, and he sounded like Paul. So I thought, ‘That’s a commercial sound,’ – it would have been nice to have Paul’s voice singing ‘God Save Oz’ – but the guy imitated more my demo, so he sounds like himself because he doesn’t sound like me really, but he doesn’t sound like Paul either.
‘God Save Oz’ was issued as a single by Apple in July 1971, but failed to chart in either the US or UK. It was credited to Bill Elliot & The Elastic Oz Band. Elliot, who appeared on the picture sleeve, later became one half of Splinter, a group signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label in the 1970s.
Various versions of ‘God Save Us’, including the demo and outtakes, were included in the 2018 box set Imagine: The Ultimate Collection.