The first-known recording of the song was made on 11 February 1970, the date the Plastic Ono Band appeared on the BBC television show Top Of The Pops to promote ‘Instant Karma’. Yoko Ono’s former husband Tony Cox was documenting events on camera on this and the following three days, and captured a guitar performance of ‘Make Love Not War’ by Lennon.
Lennon recorded a piano demo of the song towards the end of 1970 at his home in Ascot, England. It was released on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology, although it was incorrectly annotated as coming from 1973. The demo went no further than the descending chords of the verses, and the lyrics “Make love not war/I know you’ve heard it before” and “Love is the answer/And you know that it’s true”.
During the same session he worked on ‘I Promise’, which was based on a piano motif similar to Paul McCartney’s song ‘Oh! Darling’. The brief recording also contained the “Love is the answer/And you know that for sure” lines, suggesting Lennon was unsure of what to do with the idea. This recording also appeared on John Lennon Anthology in edited form. In the original tape he commented: “I keep using the same middle eight for every song.”
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. 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.” And I was trying to say: “No, just keep doin’ it.”
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Another version of ‘Make Love Not War’ was filmed during the Imagine project, but was left out when the original 85-minute documentary was cut to 55 minutes. At this time the song was barely any closer to completion than it had been a year earlier.
On 10 September 1971 Lennon and Ono made a film, Clock, in the St Regis Hotel in New York. The hotel was their first home before they were able to arrange more permanent accommodation.
Clock marked the passing of one hour by focusing on the hands of a hotel room clock, but more interesting was the soundtrack. As Ono made arrangements on the telephone for her forthcoming art exhibition This Is Not Here at the Everson Art Museum, Lennon played a number of songs on an acoustic guitar. These included rock ‘n’ roll classics, some songs which appeared on Imagine and Some Time In New York City, and fragments of tunes he was working on. He performed the chorus of ‘Make Love Not War’, but still took it no further.
Eventually Lennon pulled all the song fragments together into ‘Mind Games’. Before entering the studio to record the album he spent a fortnight in pre-production, writing a number of new songs and finishing several others.
In the studio
The Mind Games album was recorded in July and August 1973. Lennon had abandoned most of the anti-war sentiment of the demos, although the fade-out did contain the lines “I want you to make love, not war/I know you’ve heard it before”.
The new lyrics were based on a book, also called Mind Games, by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. The book promoted mental fulfilment through raised consciousness, and several of the key themes found their way into Lennon’s lyrics.
The song was a clear return to upbeat pop music, a departure from the rock ‘n’ roll and radical sloganeering of 1972’s recordings with Elephant’s Memory. On Mind Games Lennon used a selection of New York session musicians who were able to create an appropriately lush sound for the the songs that Lennon wrote and produced.
The seeming orchestra on it is just me playing three notes on a slide guitar. And the middle eight is reggae. Trying to explain to American musicians what reggae was in 1973 was pretty hard, but it’s basically a reggae middle eight if you listen to it.
‘Mind Games’ was the only single released from the album of the same name. It was not a success, peaking at number 18 in the United States and 26 in the United Kingdom.
Despite being Lennon’s most assured song for two years, his commercial standing had taken a hit by the political nature of the Some Time In New York City songs, and the public reception for his new material was less favourable than it had been. Had ‘Mind Games’ being completed and recorded two years earlier, and issued shortly after Imagine, it would most likely have fared better.