45 Years Ago: John Lennon Plays First-Ever Solo Concert
by Dave Lifton
September 13, 2014
While the Beatles didn’t officially break up until April 1970, one of the first signs that they were at least starting to think outside the constrictions of a group took place on Sept. 13, 1969, when John Lennon performed with the Plastic Ono Band (featuring Eric Clapton) at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival.
Held at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, the festival itself was a bit of a glorious hodgepodge, with some of rock’s founders (including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis) sharing a stage with some up-and-comers (Alice Cooper, Chicago Transit Authority), with the Doors as the headliners. Part of the intent was to show the continuity in the first 15 years of rock ‘n’ roll, so Cooper’s band backed Gene Vincent, and a Toronto band called Nucleus played behind Berry.
Having Lennon perform was a shock for promoters John Brower and Kenny Walker. Knowing his lover of rock’s progenitors, they contacted him at the last minute to serve as master of ceremonies. “We got this call on a Friday that there was a rock ‘n’ roll revival show in Toronto with a 100,000 audience, or whatever it was,” Lennon recalled in ‘Anthology.’ “They were inviting us as king and queen to preside over it, not play. But I didn’t hear that bit. I said, ‘Just give me time to get a band together,’ and we went the next morning.”
His first call was to George Harrison, who declined because he didn’t want to play avant-garde music. So he called Clapton, who agreed, followed by drummer Alan White and bassist Klaus Voorman, a friend from the Beatles’ Hamburg days who designed the cover for ‘Revolver.’ They flew to Canada the next morning — the day of the show — and rehearsed on the plane.
Plastic Ono Band on the plane to Toronto, 1969 L-R: Klaus, John, Eric Clapton (www.voormann.com)
With so little time to prepare, they started out with three covers: Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ and Larry Williams’ ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy.’ Then came three Lennon originals: ‘Yer Blues,’ — which Clapton had played with Lennon at the Rolling Stones‘ ‘Rock and Roll Circus‘ a year earlier — ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ for which Lennon improvised lyrics when he couldn’t remember the original ones.
Then it was Yoko Ono‘s turn, with ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)’ and the 12-minute ‘John John (Let’s Hope for Peace),’ which consisted of Ono repeatedly screaming over a wall of feedback.
“The buzz was incredible,” Lennon said. “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.”
Critic Robert Christgau, who was at the concert, wrote, “John looked nervous — he hadn’t made such an appearance in three years — but he was in good voice on a program of old rock and roll songs and originals, closing with ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ Clapton’s guitar, which went almost unnoticed, was also superb. A friendly reporter kept fans off the runway — not that many, really — until the group left Yoko, keening, and her amplifiers, humming, alone together on the stage.”
However, Christgau changed his tune three months later when ‘Live Peace in Toronto,’ the album comprised of the performance, was released. Giving it a grade of “C,” he wrote, ” I happened to be there and it wasn’t so hot live. It is worse recorded. The anti-Yoko reaction has long since passed beyond boorishness, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear her keen for 20 minutes, and the rock side is raw and badly recorded, with Clapton’s masterful lead obscured by Lennon’s rhythm. Of value primarily as a document.”