“We got this phone call on a Friday night that there was a rock ‘n’ roll revival show in Toronto with a 100,000 audience, or whatever it was, and that Chuck was going to be there and Jerry Lee and all the great rockers that were still living, and Bo Diddly, and supposedly the Doors were top of the bill. They were inviting us as king and queen to preside over it, not play–but I didn’t hear that bit. I said, “Just give me time to get a band together,” and we went the next morning.”
–John Lennon, 1969
Well, almost. Toronto promoter John Brower was the man who made this historic phone call. But while everyone else had convened at Leeds Airport the following morning, John and Yoko were still in bed, and guitarist Eric Clapton apparently was unaware of the plan. He soon received a call from Brower: “Eric, you may not remember me, but I’m the promoter who lost $20,000 on your Blind Faith show last month. Please call John Lennon, and tell him he must do this or I will get on a plane, come to his house, and live with him, because I will be ruined.”
For this show John had collared a handful of people he knew. Eric Clapton had played the classic guitar line on George Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on The White Album the year before, as well as providing lead guitar for John’s performance nine months earlier at the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. Klaus Voormann he’d known since the Beatles’ days rocking Hamburg at the Kaiserkeller club, as well as designing the album cover for Revolver, for which he won a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts. Klaus became an accomplished cover artist and from 1966 to 1969 was bassist for Manfred Mann.
At seventeen years age, Alan White chose music over technical school and toured with Billy Fury’s Gamblers and Griffin, the band where John Lennon saw him in a club. At first White disbelieved the call he got from John, thinking he was a prankster, but luckily chose to accept the invitation to play. In 1972 he joined Yes as their permanent drummer.
(Clapton, Lennon & Voorman on the plane to Toronto, 1969)
John reluctantly crawled out of bed. Long story short, they arrived backstage around 10 p.m. and waited in their dressing room before they were announced by guest emcee Kim Foley at midnight. I can’t imagine the kick this concert must’ve been for John, and nerve wracking, since he’d be following on from the idols who’d inspired him to play rock and roll. Actually, I can imagine, since John said as much to Jann Wenner in his historic Rolling Stone interview in 1970:
“I just threw up for hours until I went on. I nearly threw up in ‘Cold Turkey’–I had a review in Rolling Stone about the film of it–which I haven’t seen yet, and they’re saying, ‘I was this and that’. And I was throwing up nearly in the number. I could hardly sing any of them, I was full of shit.”
The Doors headlined the one-day event at the Varsity Stadium of Toronto University. The Toronto Rock and Roll Festival included an all-star lineup featuring legends Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, plus Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. Among the up-and-comers were relative unknowns like Alice Cooper and Chicago Transit Authority, as well as lesser known acts such as Cat Mothers and the All Night Newsboys, Doug Kershaw, Screaming Lord Sutch, Nucleus, Milkwood, Tony Joe White and Whiskey Howl.
It’s not often noted but the other performers were also having a good time. At this point only fifteen years had passed since the birth of rock and roll, and a lot of these guys were relatively young. While this may sound strange to the young people of today, by the standards of the 1960’s rock crowd, they were ancient. The oldest artist was Bo Diddly at age 41, followed by Little Richard at 37; both Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis clocked in at a youthful 34. Chuck Berry was 43 but he could still play and duckwalk. Yeah, at my age I say people that age are still in diapers. What would that say about John Lennon, who was less than one month away from his 29th birthday?
John stepped in front of a live audience for the first time in three years and said, “We’re just going to do some numbers we know, you know, because we’ve never played together before.” And thar’s how the Plastic Ono Band was born.
While he might have pulled this band out of his ass, and the total rehearsal time encompassed their flight from London to Toronto, they put on a decent performance. They started off with the classics–“Blue Suede Shoes”, “Money” and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy”. This would be the second and last time John would perform “Yer Blues” live, again with Clapton as lead guitar, and boy does he love that fuzz guitar.
Then John cut in and said, “This is a song about pain”, before launching into the live debut of “Cold Turkey”. John had not officially recorded the song yet; that would come eight nights later on September 25 at EMI Studios. And thus began a pattern of performing a song live before he’d committed it to vinyl, as he would with his later song “John Sinclair”. It’s not all that unusual; Pink Floyd auditioned future songs from Dark Side of the Moon for months before sitting down to record that classic album. The band managed to hash their way through, though the moaning and shrieking at the end of the upcoming single would be remarkably abbreviated tonight.
Yoko…ah Yoko does her usual performance art wailing. “This is what we really came here for,” John said as he led the audience through a loose rendition of “Give Peace a Chance.”
Then it was Yoko’s turn. For the first two tunes she’d laid on stage in a white bag. Well, now the cat was out of the bag. “Don’t Worry Kyoko” was mercifully short at 4:18 minutes, though it might have felt longer. For her second number, “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)”, Clapton grooved on a single riff while Yoko inflicted new dimensions of pain for 12:39 minutes. To be fair the keening was at least tolerable while supported by John’s guitar feedback.
“At the end of “John, John”, all the boys placed their guitars against the speakers of their amps and walked to the back of the stage. Because they had already started the feedback process, the sound continued while John, Klaus, Alan and Eric grouped together and lit ciggies. Then I went on and led them off-stage. Finally I walked on again and switched off their amps one by one.”-
(Group photo of the Plastic Ono Band, 1969)
Toronto was a turning point for John. It gave him the confidence to step beyond the outsized shadow of the Beatles. On the plane ride over he’d already confided to Allen Klein that he was leaving the group. A week after the festival, John told the group, “I want a divorce.”
the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera blog:
Beatles Bible entry on the Toronto Festival:
Available on: On September 25, on the eve of the release of Abbey Road, the actual final album by the Beatles, John mixed the tapes of the Toronto concert into stereo at EMI Studios. These were taken to Apple by Geoff Emerick. The album cover was gorgeous in its simplicity, a single puffy cloud on a sky-blue backdrop. Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the first record by the Plastic Ono Band, was released on December 12, 1969.
An early version of “John, John” could be heard at the beginning of “Amsterdam”, which is a collage of musical interludes and dialogue taken from their first bed-in earlier in 1969. That track takes up the entire second side of John & Yoko’s Wedding Album, released October 20, 1969.
Famed filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was on hand to record most of the concert, released in 1971 as Sweet Toronto. Then at one early screening Janis Joplin called out during a song by Chuck Berry, “Keep On Rockin’!”, which became the title of the 1973 version without the John & Yoko sequences. The full film would not be seen again until its re-release in 1988 for television and home video as John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live in Toronto ’69 by Shout Factory.
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