Classic Rock Corner

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

It's a story well-told in Beatles lore. Reeling from the Fab Four's unraveling, a bored John Lennon accepted an invitation to perform at the Toronto Rock 'n Roll Revival show in September 1969. He quickly formed an ad hoc group of friends (wife Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Alan White on drums), dubbed them the Plastic Ono Band, and two days later the ensemble was learning songs in the cramped airplane quarters on the way to the show. Nervous after a three-year absence from live performing, Lennon puked backstage at the thought of facing an audience of 20,000.

This DVD - utilizing footage shot by noted rock-doc maker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) - opens with snippets from performances of rock forefathers Bo Diddley ("Bo Diddley"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Hound Dog") and Little Richard ("Lucille"). The sex-on-fire Diddley and Richard in particular rip it up, making one wish for more footage here from them (much more was actually filmed).

Then it's time for the white-suited, heavily bearded Lennon and group to plow through a mixture of rock classics from the Cavern days ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Money," "Dizzy Miss Lizzy"), a Beatles tune ("Yer Blues") and some of his then-recent offerings (then not-yet released "Cold Turkey," "Give Peace a Chance"). Lennon is clearly having a blast on the oldies-but-goodies delivered with a raw but raucous manner, though the band is less together on the new material.

Things take a bizarre turn during the short set as Ono takes "vocal" lead on two tracks full of nothing but her shrieking and guitar-based feedback noise. As the numbers drone on, a clearly uncomfortable Lennon looks anxious, finally leaning into the Mrs.' ear twice, probably to say "wrap it up." Clapton looks lost. This segment is best reviewed by the comments of my viewing companion and 8-year-old daughter, Emma:

"It sounds like there are sheep onstage."

"She sounds like a girl SpongeBob laughing."

"Her throat is going to get sore."

Given the fact that Lennon would only make a handful of appearances onstage before retiring in 1975 and his assassination five years later, the footage here is of priceless historical importance. Except those last two numbers...

Note: This film was previously released as Sweet Toronto in 1971, and included Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," absent here. This DVD debut features a brief 1988 interview with Ono.

Shout! Factory, $14.98, 56 mins.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero