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John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto '69

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Cast: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard

(US theatrical: 23 Jun 2009)

The Toronto Rock Revival concert of September 1969 remains a fabled event in the Canadian hip recollection. Stretching to over 12 hours, and boasting performances by some of the biggest American bands of the moment (The Doors, Alice Cooper) alongside local heroes and also-rans (Nucleus, Milkwood), the show attracted in the neighbourhood of 20,000 spectators.


Although legendary for an unannounced set by the newly-formed Plastic Ono Band, perhaps the most interesting thing about the Revival was actually its celebration of ‘50s-era icons who, by the late ‘60s, seemed to belong to another musical universe entirely. In an age in which Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Cream, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and Led Zeppelin had taken the blues-based formulas of their forebears and moulded them into unrecognizable shapes, those original architects of rock’n’roll seemed quaintly archaic.


Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis – the original gangsters of the form were by the end of the ‘60s both as laudable and as generally irrelevant to the current sound as is Melle Mel today. And yet, there they were, sharing the stage with some of the biggest weirdos of the post-psychedelic sound.


Abbey Road, the final Beatles album to be recorded (though not to be released due to the delays accompanying Let it Be), had yet to drop, but the band that defined the musical revolution of the ‘60s was all-but-done. This was widely feared, but not known for certain by the time John Lennon took the stage with his new band to play his first post-Beatles concert. Indeed, this was the first time Lennon had taken any stage, anywhere, for three years.


As he stepped up to the mic, white suited and hugely bearded, he was clearly nervous. “Okay,” he explained, “we’re just gonna do numbers that we know, because we’ve never played together before.”


This was the moment that the Beatles broke up, ending an as-yet unmatched run of exquisite and inimitable masterworks. It was also the beginning of a frustrating and complex post-Beatles age for the Egg Man and his mates. It is tough to watch footage from that night as anything other than the beginning of the long denouement to an epic story.


The Plastic Ono Band – an idea for an art installation that Yoko Ono never put together in which a “band” made of plastic boxes would be set up on a stage – was, in this first incarnation, a veritable supergroup. Comprised of Lennon, a weird and screechy Ono, Eric Clapton (lately of Cream and Blind Faith), Klaus Voorman (bassist for Manfred Mann), and drummer Alan White (soon to join Yes), the band practiced together for the first time on the plane over to Toronto and for a few minutes backstage before stepping in front of Varsity Stadium.


The lack of preparation was apparent – the completely disorganized ending of “Cold Turkey” is awkward to watch, as is Lennon’s frustrated call to the audience to “wake up” when they seem unsure of how to respond to such a gaff – and the first half of the short setlist is comprised of covers (however, in keeping with the Revival theme, these are the early rock’n’roll standards “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and “Blue Suede Shoes”).


The tossed off feel of the first three numbers makes for fun listening and viewing, but is hardly going to light anyone’s fire. Clapton’s guitar is exciting as always, and Lennon is in fairly strong voice, but there isn’t much here beyond a few luminaries flipping through the old playbook. That is, until they offer an extremely satisfying version of Lennon’s “Yer Blues”, easily his darkest Beatles-era composition, providing a few moments of genuine sincerity and enthusiasm.


This is followed by a shambling stab at “Cold Turkey”, the soon-to-be-released single, which no one seems all that sure that they want to be playing. Lennon then exclaims that “this is what we came here for” and launches into the two-chord anthem “Give Peace a Chance”, admitting that “I’ve forgotten all those bits in between, but I know the chorus”. Which means, basically, that it’s not exactly a world-beater version of the already (let’s face it) pretty dull number.


The set closes with a full 18 minutes of Yoko Ono screaming over rhythmic strumming and feedback (which, if you’re keeping score, is almost as long as the non-Yoko part of the set). This bit totally sucks.


D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary footage of the concert is a wonderful opportunity to witness this famous evening – and to catch a glimpse of the sets by Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis (some of which are available on other DVD releases) – but, due to his vérité approach, it doesn’t provide any insights or information beyond the edited construction of the material. The camera tends toward tight close ups – such that it there is little attention paid to the fact that Yoko Ono spends much of the first 20-minutes of the set rolling around in a big white bag at Lennon’s feet, a performance that is wildly out of sync with the straightforward blues-rock played by the band – and there are maddeningly few crowd shots, so it is difficult to get a sense of the scale and tenor of the audience.


However, one can guess at their conversations the next day:


“Did you hear? John Lennon showed up and played a set last night! And he had Eric Clapton playing lead in his band!”


“Far out! That must have been incredible! Was it good?”


“Well…”

Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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