DVD Review: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live In Toronto ’69 (Shout Factory!)

Lennon and Ono at Their Strangest
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Back in the day, I owned the live album (called Live Peace in Toronto) that was culled from John and Yoko’s appearance at the Toronto Rock ’n’ Roll Revival in September 1969, and my hazy memory is that I listened to the “John” side quite a lot and to the “Yoko” side barely at all. Now that I finally have the visual document of that event—a 45-minute film made by D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back) called Sweet Toronto (which is preceded by a couple of minutes of Yoko talking about how she and John originally met in the world of avant-garde art)—I see that my opinions about the music they played in Toronto have not changed in 40 years. John’s stuff is pretty good; Yoko’s is still virtually unlistenable.

Lennon agreed to play this Toronto stadium gig in part to honor his rock ’n’ roll heroes, and also to make a high-profile statement about peace. A scant 15 minutes at the beginning of the film is devoted to performances by Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard (resplendent in a coat covered with small mirrors and sporting an impossibly huge pompadour). All three look surprisingly young and vital still—one forgets that 1969 was a mere 13 years after rock ’n’ roll’s original splash. (The equivalent today would be seeing a band that had hits in 1996!) Yet, the pioneers were already considered “oldies” acts. Diddley’s song is all sex and rhythm; Jerry Lee is shown briefly rockin’ “Hound Dog”; but Little Richard is the best on “Lucille,” unleashing some of the patented “Ooo’s” that so influenced Paul McCartney (and Lennon).

Lennon didn’t make his fine Rock ’N’ Roll album until 1975, and he’d never played live outside The Beatles, so no one had any idea what he might perform that night in Toronto. On short notice (we learned later) he convinced Eric Clapton to join him on lead guitar, Klaus Voorman played bass, and Alan White, drums; they were dubbed the Plastic Ono Band for the occasion (Yoko explains the name in the prelude to the concert film). They reportedly practiced, using acoustic guitars, on the flight across the Atlantic from London on the day of the show. The Plastic Ono Band’s short set starts out with rough and tumble versions of three early rock ’n’ roll classics—“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” The big-bearded Lennon is in good voice, and though he looks nervous, you can still sense his magnetic personality. Clapton looks very uncomfortable, and though he manages to tear off a couple of short solos, he really doesn’t have much to do on these songs. As for Ms. Ono…jeez, it’s hard to know what to say. She spends the first couple of songs under a white sheet at John’s feet, popping up at the end of each number to show John what I presume is a song list or cheat sheet—very odd. The best song of the night comes next—a crunching version of “Yer Blues” (from The Beatles’ “White Album,” their most recent work at the time), and it’s on this song that Yoko first starts unveiling some of her patented screeches, though not offensively. A new song called “Cold Turkey,” about drug withdrawal, was debuted in Toronto, and even in this rough version (Yoko even holds a lyric sheet for John), it’s quite powerful. That is then followed by a brief but spirited attempt at “Give Peace a Chance.”

“Now Yoko’s going to do her thing all over you,” John says ominously, and then the last quarter-hour or so is devoted to a pair of Yoko’s avant-garde ramblings. “Don’t Worry Kyoko” finds the diminutive vocalist howling, moaning and sounding like a cat being strangled, over an incessant progression that closely resembles the opening of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.” That’s followed by an even stranger number: “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)” has no conventional song form. It starts with a capella “singing” and shrieking, and then Lennon (and the others to a lesser degree) join the fray with various feedback squeaks and yowls—it honestly reminded me of one of the Grateful Dead’s show-ending feedback jams from the late ’60s, though I doubt Lennon ever heard any of those. And though I consider myself quite open-minded, and I have nothing against Ono, it’s still a tough slog getting through the noise. Is it art? Sure, why not? It’s definitely an attempt at something. Do I like it? Not at all, and as I watched in silent horror, I couldn’t help imagining what the thousands of people who stuck around a stadium all day to see John Lennon play must have thought when he and the band left the stage in the midst of feedback squall, a little more than half an hour after they went onstage. Not to mention poor Eric Clapton.

The film quality is only so-so (if you know Pennebaker’s oeuvre, this will not surprise you), the sound fair-to-middlin’; not enough Clapton. Toronto certainly wasn’t John Lennon’s finest moment on a stage, by any stretch of the imagination, yet this remains a fascinating document of an artist (and public figure) in transition. After all, it would be the following year when he would declare in the song “God”: “I just believe in me…Yoko and me…and that’s reality.” This one is probably for hardcore Lennon fans only.

Note: This DVD will be released on June 23.

Write me at blair@blairjackson.com.