What John Lennon Was Singing About on His Hit ‘Mind Games’ Single
If you wanted obscure lyrics, the 1967 work of John Lennon will do. Start with the “looking-glass ties” and “marmalade skies” on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” As John said of a different Beatles song from that year, “Stick a few images together, thread them together, and you call it poetry.”
He was speaking about “I Am the Walrus,” a track that took obscure lyrics to another level. Yet on tracks like “All You Need Is Love,” his message couldn’t be clearer. A few years later, John was singing in the most direct way possible on “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Want You.”
On his first solo album (1970), he dispensed with images entirely, and fans got more of the same on 1971’s Imagine. (“The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday,'” he sang of Paul McCartney.) But Mind Games (1973) found John back to writing at least somewhat obscurely.
Though you didn’t hear about any “newspaper taxis,” the “druid dudes” and “mind guerrilla” of the title track confused many a fan since its release. In later interviews, John cleared up where he was going with “Mind Games.”
The original title was ‘Make Love Not War’
If you start at the chorus of “Mind Games,” the song doesn’t seem vague at all. “Love is the answer,” John sings. “And you know that for sure.” Its simplicity recalls his previous anthems “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.” But John’s verses aren’t as clear.
He sings of “playing those mind games together / Pushing the barriers, planting seeds / Playing the mind guerrilla.” At that point, he loses some listeners, even though he gets to his “mantra” of “peace on earth” in the next line. In 1980, he told Playboy’s David Sheff what he’d set out to do.
“It was originally called ‘Make Love Not War,’ but that was such a cliché that you couldn’t say it anymore,” John said. “So I wrote it obscurely, but it’s all the same story.” Working in the early ’70s, he wanted to counter the idea that the peace movement had failed.
“Everybody was starting to say the Sixties was a joke, it didn’t mean anything, those love-and-peaceniks were idiots,” he told Sheff. “‘We had fun in the Sixties,’ they said, ‘but the others took it away from us and spoiled it all for us.’ I was trying to say, ‘No, just keep doin’ it.'”
John didn’t mean ‘Mind Games’ to have a negative connotation at all
In the 21st century, it’s normal to approach a song called “Mind Games” expecting to hear about people who play with your mind and so forth. (John’s history of political activism would make this approach even more likely.) But he meant the phrase in a positive way.
The “mind games” John sang about were pushing the philosophy of peace and love. He wanted people to continue planting the seeds of this ideal and to be, in a word, warriors (“guerrillas”) for peace. John said to “keep playing the mind games forever” with “faith in the future, outta the now.”
Finally, in the fade-out, he sings the original premise of the song. “I want you to make love, not war / I know you’ve heard it before.” Indeed, listeners of the early ’70s had heard quite a bit of that. And John’s choice to go the obscure route paid off in a big way.
Of course, his powerhouse vocal and arrangement are what make it work. When you hear people doubt the producing talent of John Lennon, refer them to 1973’s “Mind Games.” It hit No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made it even higher (No. 10) on the Cash Box chart that year.
Also see: The 1st Beatles Song to Feature a John Lennon Guitar Solo