Released: 2 November 1998
Written and recorded in support of the defence fund during Oz magazine’s obscenity trial, God Save Oz was recorded by 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 John 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’.
Lennon recorded the song at Ascot Sound Studios, his home recording facility at Tittenhurst Park near Ascot in Berkshire. The musicians who had played on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album were joined by members of the Oz team for God Save Oz and its b-side, ‘Do The Oz’.
In the studio, Lennon led a number of live performances of God Save Oz, singing 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’.
An underground musician known as Magic Michael was initially selected to sing, but he was later replaced by Bill Elliot, whose vocals were recorded by Mal Evans after Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York City.
We got one singer in, 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.
Lennon’s guide vocal performance of God Save Oz was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology, and also on the highlights collection Wonsaponatime.