John Lennon woke up regretting having agreed to perform at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival that evening. Eric Clapton, however, was eager to play, and convinced Lennon that it was too late to back out.
Lennon was just in time to catch the flight to Canada. On the aeroplane the hastily-assembled Plastic Ono Band, hitherto a conceptual group with no members, rehearsed some rock ‘n’ roll standards. Clapton was on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and session musician Alan White on drums.
The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival was a one-day festival lasting 12 hours, at the Varsity Stadium of Toronto University. The 20,000 ticket holders were unaware that Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band were to perform until the festival was underway.
The festival was headlined by The Doors, and also featured Bo Diddley, Chicago Transit Authority, Tony Joe White, Alice Cooper, Jerry-Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, Gene Vincent, Junior Walker & The All-Stars, Little Richard, Doug Kershaw, Screaming Lord Sutch, Nucleus, Milkwood, Tony Joe White, and Whiskey Howl.
Alice Cooper’s group was the backing band for Gene Vincent, while local act Nucleus provided support for Chuck Berry. The Doors closed the festival.
At approximately 10pm the Plastic Ono Band’s black limousine arrived in the backstage area, while Cat Mother was onstage. The group was accompanied by festival promotor John Brower, and the car was escorted by 80 motorcycles from the Toronto Vagabonds.
As they arrived photographers scrambled to get a glimpse of the car. Police escorted the Lennons towards the musicians’ dressing room, where they remained until midnight.
John just stood in the dressing room, which was admittedly rather tatty, beforehand saying, ‘What am I doing here? I could have gone to Brighton!’ After all, it was a long way to go for just one concert.
The group was announced by compère Kim Fowley at around midnight.
He did a really great thing. He had all the lights in the stadium turned right down and then asked everyone to strike a match. It was a really unbelievable sight when thousands of little flickering lights suddenly shone all over the huge arena.
Lennon later admitted he was addicted to heroin at the time of the performance.
We were full of junk too. I just threw up for hours till 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.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
The buzz was incredible. I never felt so good in my life. Everybody was with us and leaping up and down doing the peace sign, because they knew most of the numbers anyway, and we did a number called ‘Cold Turkey’ we’d never done before and they dug it like mad.
Lennon confessed from the stage that he couldn’t remember the lyrics to the verses of Give Peace A Chance, and instead improvised words:
Everybody’s talkin’ about
John And Yoko, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann,
‘Penny Lane’, Roosevelt, Nixon,
Tommy Jones and Tommy Cooper and somebody!
All we are saying is give peace a chance
The ridiculous thing was that I didn’t know any of the lyrics. When we did ‘Money’ and ‘Dizzy’ I just made up the words as I went along. The band was bashing it out like hell behind me. Yoko came up on stage with us, but she wasn’t going to do her bit until we’d done our five songs. Then after ‘Money’ there was a stop, and I turned to Eric and said ‘What’s next?’ He just shrugged, so I screamed ‘C’mon!’ and started into something else. We did ‘Yer Blues’ because I’ve done that with Eric before. It blew our minds. Meanwhile Yoko had whipped offstage to get some lyrics out of her white bag. Then we went into ‘Give Peace A Chance’ which was just unbelievable. I was making up the words as we went along. I didn’t have a clue.
Yoko Ono then took lead vocals for ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)’ and ‘John, John (Let’s Hope For Peace)’.
Yoko did a number, which was half rock and half madness, and it really freaked them out. We finished with Yoko’s number, because you can’t go anywhere after you’ve reached that sort of pitch. You can’t go ‘Ji-jing’ like The Beatles and bow at the end of screaming and 50 watts of feedback. So, after Yoko had been on for about a quarter of an hour, we all left our amps on going like the clappers and had a smoke on the stage. Then, when they stopped, the whole crowd was chanting ‘Give Peace A Chance’. It looks like this is going to be the Plastic Ono Band in the future.
The Plastic Ono Band’s set was released on vinyl on 12 December 1969 as Live Peace In Toronto 1969. The rock ‘n’ roll songs featured on side one, with Ono’s songs taking up the second half.
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 feed-back 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.
The event was also filmed by DA Pennebaker, who had previously filmed Lennon while making Eat The Document – the rarely-seen chronicle of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of the United Kingdom.
Pennebaker’s film of the Toronto festival film was released as Sweet Toronto in 1971. It included a song apiece from Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, before the entire set by the Plastic Ono Band.
After the concert, Lennon and Ono stayed at the estate of wealthy Canadian businessman John David Eaton.
When it was over we all piled into four big cars and drove for two hours to a huge estate owned by a Mr Eaton, who is one of the richest men in Canada. His son had actually picked us up after the show so that we could stay overnight at his house.
Also on this day...
- 2010: Lennon handwritten note goes on sale
- 1968: Recording: Glass Onion
- 1967: Filming: Magical Mystery Tour
- 1965: Zak Starkey is born
- 1965: US single release: Yesterday
- 1964: Live: Civic Center, Baltimore
- 1963: Live: Public Hall, Preston
- 1962: Live: Riverpark Ballroom, Chester
- 1962: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (lunchtime)
- 1961: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (evening)
- 1961: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (lunchtime)
- 1960: Live: Indra Club, Hamburg
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.