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That time Toronto saved rock and roll

Posted by Chris Bateman / December 22, 2012

toronto plastic ono bandRock and roll was, apparently, dead by the end of the '60s. So much so that legendary performers like John Lennon, Alice Cooper, The Doors, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard needed a special benefit concert to boost its fortunes. Enter "Rock and Roll Revival," a special one-day concert held at Varsity Stadium in the late summer heat of 1969.

The 14-hour extravaganza would see the first public performance by the Plastic Ono Band in the turbulent wake of the Beatles break-up earlier that year. Backed by 1950s-style performances by some of music's biggest names, the concert would generate several live albums, a concert tape by D. A. Pennebaker, the film-maker behind Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back, and go down as a defining moment in popular culture.

toronto rock and roll revivalThe concert was conceived by promoters John Brower and Ken Walker with financial backing from top brass from Eaton's department store, but stymied by poor ticket sales, the venture began to lose support. On a recomendation, Brower called Apple Records in the UK to ask John Lennon to emcee the concert, knowing the ex-Beatle would be tempted by the names of several classic rock and roll performers on the bill.

In something of a curveball, Lennon agreed to appear on the condition he be allowed to perform. "It was late, about 11 o'clock one Friday night, I was in my office at Apple, when we got a phone call from this guy saying, 'Come to Toronto'," he's quoted as recalling on a fan site. "They really were inviting us as King and Queen to preside over the concert and not to play. But I didn't hear that part and I said, 'OK. OK. Just give me time to get a band together.' So, I thought, 'Who could I get to come and play with me?' We left the next morning."

Just like that the Rock and Roll Revival had scored a major coup. Lennon hadn't performed in a large venue since his days with the Beatles and had no established backing band. Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, bass player and designer of the Revolver album cover, future Yes drummer Alan White, and, of course, Yoko Ono at the height of her divisive powers made the trip from London to Toronto a few short months after the famous Give Peace a Chance recording in a Montreal hotel room.

It was such an unbelievable scoop that radio stations in Toronto refused to believe the promoters had landed the band, further stymieing ticket sales. Confirmation shortly after from Ono's assistant to a Detroit radio station caused a stampede for the concert's roughly 20,000 tickets. When wire services confirmed the band had boarded a trans-Atlantic jet, the rush for Revival passes went wild. The tiny sports stadium was sold out in just a few hours.

Meanwhile, in a jet over the ocean, Lennon was having second thoughts. "John was sick from nerves most of the way across the Atlantic," journalist Ritchie Yorke would recall. "'Nerves?' I asked. 'Hell yes,' Lennon replied. 'My God, I haven't performed before a large audience for four years. I mean, I did the Rolling Stones' Circus film with a small audience, and I did the Cambridge '69 gig; but they didn't even know I was coming. So we didn't sleep at all on Friday night, and I was nervous all the way across.'"

Upon landing in Toronto, the band was escorted from the airport by an 80-strong motorcade of bikers from the Vagabonds to Bloor Street. The leather-clad riders had just missed the Doors, who weren't aware they were to be escorted, earlier that day.

At Varsity Stadium, legendary music journalist Robert Christgau was casting his critical eye on the stage set-up. "A bush operation," he called the shabby performance area and stadium floodlights used to provide illumination. Christgau was there to observe D. A. Pennebaker's filming for Show magazine. "Pennebaker is forty-four but looks about thirty-five," the author wrote, "he has recently grown a full red beard and has on an old sweater and his sailing jeans, which are worn to proper sun-bleached blue. Although the natural affability of his boyish face is virtually unchanged, he does appear startled."

Mid-afternoon, as Little Richard jangled away at his piano, The Plastic Ono Band were in a tiny dressing room worrying that this could all be a serious disaster. "I threw up for hours until I went on," remembered Lennon. Eric Clapton told the press later that "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 had reached Varsity Stadium earlier that day to an army of flashbulbs and screaming fans as Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys performed "Good Old Rock and Roll." Kids tried to hop the fence for a better view while police fought to keep the way clear.

After dark, a characteristically wild Alice Cooper set screeched on stage. After a short, heavy intro, the set broke down into mock fighting and drum smashing as Cooper hammered away at a watermelon and tore apart a down pillow in a moment of climax. The most famous chicken in music history appeared from who-knows-where among feathers and fire extinguishing foam for Cooper to toss into the crowd, creating a legend that follows him to this day (the moment is visible for a brief second at 11:37 in the video above.)

And then the band took the stage. The stage announcer ordered that the stadium lights be turned down, and asked the crowd to light a match. A sea of little candles and sparklers filled the playing surface as Lennon and his band emerged on stage. "OK, we're just going to do numbers we know because we've never played before," he told the crowd, launching into a surprisingly lifeless version of Elvis' "Blue Suede Shoes."

It might not have been the barnstorming start the crowd expected but the band soon found their feet. Yoko Ono, dividing her time between backing vocals and music stand duties for Lennon, periodically disappeared into a sack while Clapton and the rest of the band provided a solid backing for the pair.

Versions of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," "Yer Blues," and "Cold Turkey" followed. Several solo Ono numbers didn't go down so well. "Get the fuck off the stage," called one member of the audience. But that was before the concert's most memorable song, "Give Peace a Chance."

toronto john lennonIn July of that year Lennon and Ono had recorded the song live in during their Bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The second of two sensational peace protests, an impromptu band featuring Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, numerous journalists, and well-wishers chanted the now legendary one-line mantra while Lennon egged the crowd on in the background. The piece is still capable of producing chills 43 years later.

The Varisty Stadium version ditched the acoustic guitar in favor of a choppy, improvised riff by Lennon. Clapton, usually a force with the axe, offered little in the background; it was a one man show. When the song closed, so did the group. Lennon apparently comforted a distressed Ono as they left.

The Doors followed with a headline set just after midnight, closing with "The End" around 3am. In the Monday papers, music critics focused on the still controversial presence of certain members of the band. "They revived rock 'n' roll despite John Lennon's wife," wrote Jack Batten in the Toronto Star, calling Ono "excruciating." Painful or not, the concert was ranked "the second most important event in rock history," for Lennon's first major performance since the Beatles.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you too can share in the magic of that night.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.



vic / December 22, 2012 at 03:34 am
great article with some great video to back it all up.
Mark Moore / December 22, 2012 at 11:21 am
Ya - that Alice Cooper clip is . . .
Vic said 'some' and he was right. I saw 'Sweet Toronto', the Pennebaker doc. and I think the Alice Cooper footage was missing. Now I know why.
Ed / December 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm
Awesome article and selection of vids and pics. Great job Chris!
Yantha / December 22, 2012 at 12:19 pm
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Tommy Smothers in 2000. I talked to him for about a 1/2 hour at a bar in Nashville, TN. He was impressed that I even knew that he played guitar on "Give Peace A Chance". We talked about that for a while and when I told him I was from Toronto, he said (paraphrasing here) "I wish I had been at that damn concert that Lennon was at there.". And no... he did not pull out a yo-yo and whistle to himself as he walked out the door.
googajoob / December 22, 2012 at 12:52 pm

An important performance if only for the history.... the playing by a pick up band on a makeshift stage is understandably ragged, but has its moments.... thanks for posting this but I disagree with your statement that Eric Clapton contributes little.... the few adequate licks are courtesy of him (Slowhand at half-speed is better then most other guitarists at their best), and indeed on the plane ride over, Clapton had to steel a terrified Lennon's resolve to go through with the gig, since John had not played live in a long time .... the less said about Yoko the better..
Paul / December 22, 2012 at 02:47 pm
I was fortunate enough to be there. Won my ticket by a late-night phone-in to the old CKFH radio station (anybody else remember the "Electric Egg" show?). Not a pair of tickets mind you...just 1 ticket. The best music of the day came from the old R&R guys...Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard. The Alice Cooper appearance was their 1st I believe. No one had ever heard of them. Pretty insane in those days. The surprise appearance by Lennon & Clapton was a huge bonus of course...although Yoko came close to totally ruining it with her shrieking. The Doors were the supposed headliners and the last act of the day. They were well over an hour late getting on stage...and when they did they were terrible...badly out of tune and Morrison was drunk/stoned and borderline abusive. I walked out on them along with several hundred others who had enough. I was 21 then...64 now...and still rockin'.
Mg replying to a comment from Paul / December 22, 2012 at 04:18 pm
This was Alice Cooper's second visit to Toronto. I saw them earlier that summer at the Toronto Pop Festival (June 21 & 22). I believe they were there on the first day.
gruffman / December 22, 2012 at 06:29 pm
Great article. Love the poster. Does anyone remember John & Yoko hiring a sky writing plane to fly over Toronto (the next day?) and write "War is over" ? I was only 9, but I remember looking up and reading that message.
Mark Moore / December 22, 2012 at 06:49 pm
Yes gruffman I remember that and I was only 10 !
Frances replying to a comment from Paul / January 4, 2013 at 01:30 am
I too was fortunate to attend the Revival
We were seated on the grass about 1 quarter of the way from the stage. What a day & night. There plenty of drugs around that day.
I was lucky to get 2 free tickets from one of the owners of The Penny Farthing on Yorkville.
After the concert we crashed at The Electric Circus. Great Fun.
Don replying to a comment from gruffman / March 15, 2014 at 06:53 pm
Yes, I remember it very well. My wife and I had arrived in Toronto two weeks earlier, having fled the Vietnam War. For us it was almost a personal message.
scott / March 30, 2014 at 08:15 am
so long ago, i was there . I was soooo young thank goodness for the internet where our wonderful memories will live on
Rita / May 31, 2014 at 10:06 pm
Well, it was 1969, so there are parts I don't remember ;-) At one point I'd gone for a drink or to the loo and came back into the crowd at ground level looking for my boyfriend and thought, he's got brown hair and a beard and he's wearing jeans; that narrows it down to 90% of the men there. It was such a hot day. I remember one guy stripping right down to nothing at all, and people laughing and clapping. And unfortunately everyone remembers Yoko Ono and the crowd (including me) spontaneously starting to boo, loudly. It was shocking to us all. This was John Lennon, our divine hero, and Yoko Ono, his divine companion! And in the space of a few minutes it all turned around and we realized she was a total poser. Did any of us realize this was the second most important event in rock history? I still find it hard to believe.
unclebuck001 / April 18, 2015 at 10:07 am
What the hell was Yoko doing there at the end of the Blue Suede Shoes song. That lady truly was messed up.....
justin / April 18, 2015 at 11:33 am
The day Toronto saved rock and roll - when rather than jailing him for 10+ years, they gave Keith Richards the assignment of playing a free show for blind people.
John / November 12, 2015 at 11:43 am
It was so low key in some ways. I went for a breather mid afternoon and was standing in a small entry way when a limo pulls up. A crowd of young girls are ready to pounce but this leg kicks open a door and Jim Morisson steps out, he does this cowboy like stance and glares at the girls. They balked. He sauntered into the stadium untouched, winking at me and laughing and saying 'that's how you do it!'. I was 19 and that was pretty unforgettable. But I have to add that after John Lennon and company the Doors were simply amazing. Morrison said they were truly honored to be a part of the day and, for me the highlight of the show was in their performance of Fire. At the song's climax Morrison screamed 'Fire!' and launched himself horizontally into the air and crashed hard onto the stage. The band continued playing but there was a moment of doubt that Morrison would get up to continue... He did and it was a great performance! What a day.
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