In the fall of 1969, all of western civilization was coming down from the Summer of Love, liberation, and societal transformation. John Lennon played an important part in that, both musically and personally, with his strong and public support of the peace movement including his “bed-ins” in Amsterdam and Montreal. The Beatles were nearing the end of their amazing eight-year run of rock and roll hits and existence as a group. Yoko Ono’s role in the band’s demise has long been debated, but one thing that is clear is Ono’s strong influence on Lennon, his music, and his life from the late ’60s until his death in 1980.
Nowhere is Ono’s influence over Lennon’s music more prominently documented than the performance DVD John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live In Toronto ’69, filmed at the Varsity Stadium, Toronto, in September of 1969. The festival was primarily a blues festival with standard-bearers such as Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard sharing the bill. The Plastic Ono Band had been hastily thrown together because Lennon had only decided to fly over from London a few weeks prior to play the gig; in fact, hadn’t played a live performance of any kind in three years. Many people mark this performance at the turning point in John’s split from the Beatles, feeding the decision that he could make it on his own (or with Yoko, depending on how you look at it).
The performance is a mixed bag. In fact, the whole concept of “bag” was somewhat literal at various times throughout the set, Yoko sitting in a bag onstage and handing John sheets of paper with words to the songs on them. It was supposed to be performance art, part of her influence on his music. The first three tracks on the DVD feature songs by Bo Diddley (“Bo Diddley”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Hound Dog”), and Little Richard (“Lucille”), all doing justice to their tunes and providing the entertaining blues-rocker style for which they had become known. D.A. Pennebaker of Monterey Pops fame filmed the festival and crafted a great montage not just of the performances, but also of some of the opening scenes, segueing into a motorcycle ride and when the performance got really weird in the Lennon set, he ensured the camera was following the players around the stage while Yoko screamed in the microphone.
Lennon’s set includes six songs, and then two more that were more performance art by Yoko, to be extremely generous. Blues numbers like “Blue Suede Shoes” are given an extremely slow and measured treatment, as it seemed like Lennon was just getting his legs and comfortable on stage. “Money” seemes to be in a similar vein, with no backing vocals, leaving the frontman threadbare; later in the set, I found myself wishing there were no other vocals besides his.
One quick point about his bandmates for this show: Eric Clapton does yeoman’s work on guitar, providing a few good licks on the first several numbers and clearly allowing Lennon the spotlight. While music lovers might ponder what could have been if Lennon and Clapton had combined forces to form a permanent band, it seems fairly obvious that the dynamics of the relationship between John and Ono would have made Clapton think twice.
The apex of the Lennon set is a three-song segment of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Cold Turkey,” and the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” from the White Album. On “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” John hits his stride and is most comfortable on stage performing and enjoying his music. “Yer Blues” starts off well, but dissolves into a wailing, discordant background chorus by Ono. In fact, the rest of the set runs downhill from there; what could have been a memorable version of the iconic classic “Give Peace a Chance” is dragged over the coals with extremely loud and painful background vocals (or are they supposed to be lead vocals?).
The last two songs of the set are attributed to Ono and seemed to be the sort of experimental performances that spawned “Revolution No. 9." While there are some interesting psychedelic qualities to "#9" that were toned and tamed within the confines of a recording studio, the performances of “Don’t’ Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)” and “John, John (Let’s Hope For Peace)” do not come across well in a live setting. Perhaps at the time and in the moment, they were interesting and intriguing to a live audience. Forty years later on DVD, they seem to lend more evidence to pundits who claim that Ono was a negative influence on Lennon’s career and at the root of the Beatles break-up.
Overall the DVD does a good job of chronicling an important turning point in the life of John Lennon, foreshadowing the impending breakup of the Beatles. The filming and production by Pennebaker is solid. It is somewhat of a shame that the Plastic Ono Band’s performance wasn’t better or more memorable. Yet, for those with a serious interest in the life and times of John Lennon, it is worth checking out.
John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live in Toronto ’69 is out now on Shout! Factory.