"John Lennon and Yoko Ono essentially hijacked the airwaves": The show that brought the counterculture into American homes and the clip that keeps going viral

John Lennon and Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas show with (inset) Yoko Ono
(Image credit: Mike Douglas Show)

Spanning more than 4000 episodes, TV's The Mike Douglas Show played host to rock's great and good over its 21-year run, from Frank Zappa to Sly Stone, Genesis to ELO

Each week, Douglas would share the spotlight with a celebrity co-host, and in February 1972 the producers bagged a big one: a week of shows starring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. 

“It’s become a cliche that Woodstock was the defining moment of the counterculture,” says Erik Nelson, whose Daytime Revolution, a documentary about the five shows, was released last year. 

Speaking with Variety, Nelson added, "This week in 1972, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono essentially hijacked the airwaves and presented the best minds and dreams of their generation to the widest possible mass audience of what was then called ‘Middle America,’ was as far as the counterculture would ever get. Not just music but a prescient blueprint for the future we now live in."

Over the course of the five shows, Lennon and Ono's curated list of guests included pioneering psychedelic soul act The Chamber Brothers, Asian-American folk group Yellow Pearl, comedian George Carlin, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, Runa Uviller (author of Fathers' Rights and Feminism: The Maternal Presumption Revisited), Youth International Party leader Jerry Rubin, improvisational group the Ace Trucking Company, and Joseph Blatchford, director of the United States Peace Corps. Good Morning America, this was not.

The most famous clip from the run of shows – one that goes viral with alarming regularity – features Lennon and Ono performing the 1959 classic Memphis, Tennessee, aided by the song's writer, Chuck Berry.

The musicians quickly slip into a relaxed groove, and everything is fine until Ono unleashes one of her trademark, stuttering screams. Berry, it would appear, is not prepared for this moment, and his eyes widen in shock. 

Some of the circulating clips are edited to emphasise Berry's surprise, but the reaction is genuine (watch from the 1'50" mark in the video below). Lennon, meanwhile, bears the countenance of a man who's just realised that he hasn't warned Berry what's about to transpire.  

Sadly, a sound engineer appears to remove Ono from the mix as the song progresses, thus denying 40 million viewers the opportunity to hear more of her unique vocals (listen to the mind-boggling, 16-minute epic Mind Train, from her 1971 album Fly, for an example of her very real greatness). But, in the grand scheme of things, there were more important things to worry about, and Ono knew it. 

“We wanted to do the shows to show that we are working for peace and love and also to change the world, not with violence, but with love,” she explained. “And everybody that we selected is participating in efforts to change the world.”

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.