By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2022)
“After the Plastic Ono Band’s debut in Toronto…John finally brought it to its head. He said, ‘Well, that’s it, lads. Let’s end it. And we all said ‘Yes’.”
-Ringo Starr, from The Beatles Anthology (2000)
In September 1969, scarcely a month after the heady smoke of Woodstock had cleared, another music festival of note took place a little farther up north. While it couldn’t boast a crowd of “half a million strong” (just a scant 20,000) The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival arguably one-upped Woodstock’s stellar roster with its headliner: The Plastic Ono Band.
I say “arguably”, because at the time, no one in the audience had ever heard of The Plastic Ono Band. Hell…even the members of The Plastic Ono Band had never heard of The Plastic Ono Band, because founders John Lennon and Yoko Ono didn’t come up with the name (or the concept) until the day before the group’s debut performance in Toronto. The booking was so last-minute and seat-of-the-pants that their first “rehearsal” occurred (literally) on the fly…while en route to the gig on a chartered jet from England.
Of course, everyone in the audience knew who John Lennon was; the Beatles were still at the height of their success and fame. What the public didn’t know at the time was that the Toronto gig arose at a serendipitous moment, when Lennon found himself at a critical crossroads in his professional life. He was 28 years old. The Beatles had released their swan song Abbey Road earlier that year, and the band was on the verge of disintegrating.
Granted, Lennon had already been quite active outside of the band. He and Yoko had become prominent counterculture figures, known for their political activism and advocacy for peace and social justice. In March 1969, the couple married and held a week-long anti-Vietnam War “Bed-In” protest, garnering much media attention. They released the experimental album “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.” Lennon also published his book of poems and drawings In His Own Write, which became a best-seller.
Meanwhile, in private Lennon struggled with depression and addiction; he later admitted to heavy drug use during this time (he and Yoko were both chasing the dragon). Creative differences with his band mates, as well as increasingly bitter stalemates regarding certain business decisions, were undoubtedly adding to Lennon’s tsuris. In short, things within the Beatles organization weren’t getting better (it can’t get no worse). The Toronto concert turned out to be not only the tonic he needed for regaining his confidence as a performer (he hadn’t played for a large crowd since the Beatles had stopped touring in 1966) but fueled his decision to officially leave the Beatles just a scant 7 days afterwards.
Exactly how John & Yoko, along with the hastily assembled Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voorman (not too shabby for a pickup band) ended up headlining the event makes for a fascinating backstage tale…and it is recounted with much aplomb in a breezy documentary from Rob Chapman called Revival69: The Concert That Rocked the World.
Archival interviews, private audio recordings, present-day recollections by participants like John Brower (festival organizer), Klaus Voorman, Alice Cooper, Rodney Bingenheimer, Geddy Lee (acid-dazed teenage attendee!), Shep Gordon, Robby Kreiger, Robert Christgau, et.al. and original 16mm concert/backstage footage shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (much of it previously unreleased) are all combined to great effect.
While The Plastic Ono Band’s appearance is of undeniable historical import, this was an all-day event, and the roster was impressive: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Chicago, The Doors, and Alice Cooper are hardly what I’d consider “opening acts”. The Pennebaker footage is priceless, capturing electric performances with beautifully restored picture and sound. Unfortunately, Pennebaker’s original 1971 concert doc Sweet Toronto remains woefully scarce on home video; relegated to the odd unauthorized edition of less-than-stellar quality (paging the Criterion Collection).
Brower recalls how he came up with the idea for the festival while working as a promoter for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour. As his (at times hair-raising) narrative unfolds, it appears organizing such an event is easier said than done. At one point, with ticket sales looking dismal and only days to go before the heavily promoted event, he is ready to throw in the towel (at the risk of suffering serious bodily harm from dubious silent partners). However, an unlikely deus ex machina alights in the form of eccentric impresario Kim Fowley, who has a ballsy 11th-hour brainstorm (with 20/20 hindsight, it was a rather brilliant one, actually).
The film is chockablock with fun facts. I had no idea this was the first rock concert where the audience held lit matches aloft (another brainstorm by Fowley, who encouraged the crowd to welcome John & Yoko onstage with their own light show). Alice Cooper and his longtime manager Shep Gordon finally confirm “the truth” behind the infamous “chicken incident” that occurred during his band’s performance (as God is his witness, Alice thought that chickens could fly).
The film is a treat for Lennon completists, and rock and roll fans in general. Currently, the film is only exhibiting in Canada, but hopefully will be distributed in the U.S. (or become available via streaming or physical media) at some point in the near future.
And on behalf of the band here at Hullabaloo…Happy Crimble, and Peace.