John Lennon's declaration of independence- Live in Toronto
By most popular accounts, the Fabs' honcho declared his independence from his famous mates on his 1970 album Plastic Ono Band. Not quite though... most fans easily dismiss his first three albums with Yoko, thinking of them as weird anomalies done under her influence. Putting aside that load of crapola (the myth, not the albums) for now, there was another pivotal moment in Lennon's life that changed his relationship with the Beatles.
In fact, the whole event smacked of weird timing. Lennon and Ono were invited as guests of honor for the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival show on Sept. 13, 1969. Just two days before the show, Lennon instead decided that he'd perform there- except for an impromptu improv gig with Yoko at Cambridge University in March '69, it was his first show since the Beatles retired from touring three years earlier (partially at Lennon's insistence). It was also two weeks before the release of the final album that the Beatles recorded together, Abbey Road (Let It Be was recorded several months earlier but came out in 1970).
He made a quick bunch of calls to get a band together. Previously, he and Ono saw the Plastic Ono Band as a conceptual idea rather than a band- robots would stand in for band members (which Kraftwerk would use to good effect years later). For the Toronto show though, he made a call to 'God,' aka Eric Clapton, who at the time was on an exhausting merry-go-round of bands- within the last few years, he'd been in the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith. Within a year of the POB gig, he'd tour with Delaney & Bonnie, form Derek and Dominos and launch his own solo career. In addition he had other previous ties to the Fabs- he did a great cameo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (brought in by Harrison for his song) and appeared as part of Lennon's make-shift band for the Rolling Stones Dec '68 'Rock and Roll Circus' (where they played "Yer Blues" with Keith Richards & Hendrix's drummer Mitch Mitchell). Klaus Voorman was an old Fabs friend from their Hamburg days who worked an artist (he designed the cover for Revolver) and bassist for Manfred Mann and was now drafted into Lennon's new band. Drummer Alan White had been playing with Alan Price (Animals) and Ginger Baker. When he got the call from Lennon, he thought it was a prank. He wisely took up the offer (and would later famously play in Yes). Supposedly, Lennon's fellow guitarist in the Fabs was also invited but declined.
In a way, it was an exciting, last minute jaunt. The band only got to practice on the flight over there and backstage. Lennon, Ono and friends weren't even on the bill. The Doors were the headlining act and the rest of the roster was quite a line-up, including Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent (not to mention Chicago and Alice Cooper). It must have been pretty exciting for Lennon to perform alongside his old idols. It was so exciting that he threw up a lot before the show.
But there was even more exciting news and not the good kind. On the way over, Lennon revealed to Clapton and Voorman that he'd had enough of the Beatles and he was quitting. Mind you, this was even before he told the Fabs themselves. He'd get the chance a week later to their faces when he returned from the show, though they begged him to keep it quiet.
So on the cusp of quitting the Fabs and a last minute show with his favorite rockers, Lennon had a lot on his mind when he stepped out in front of 20,000 fans for the Toronto show. Other than all of the reasons above, there are two other reasons that the band's set is a piece of history- it became an album and a movie. D.A. Pennebaker (who also did Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) filmed the show, which eventually became the feature Sweet Toronto (released in 1971), including single-song performances from Diddley, Lewis and Richard. The Plastic Ono Band's 40-minute set would also be released as an album that December- Live Peace in Toronto 1969. And now, Pennebaker's movie is being re-released as John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band Live in Toronto '69 (Shout Factory). It's a shame that the ol' rock legends become just an after-thought or warm-up here but in the movie, Lennon's band does perform 8 of the 11 songs there.
Music-wise, Lennon's choices were interesting for his new band. Clapton easily creamed his buddy Harrison in terms of string-bending but the rest of the band didn't overpower the Fabs. Voorman is definitely capable but he's no Macca on bass. Ditto for Starr vs. White, who'd prove more versatile in Yes. More on Yoko later.
Lennon himself was in his hassidic-beard phase though some noted that the bushy locks and white outfits made him look like the religious guy he said the Beatles were bigger than a few years before. Performance-wise, he was anything but slack at the Toronto show. Definitely loose and raw but that ain't a bad thing when you're banging out rock and roll.
The band's setlist was curious and revealing too. The first three numbers, all covers done by an already-famous songwriter, go back to the Fab's Hamburg days and would surface again in their pro days. Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" was done during the Let It Be sessions, Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" was on the Help! soundtrack and "Money (That's What I Want)" was on their second album, With the Beatles. After the psychedelic overload of Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon seemed to want to dig back at his roots (as the band would try to do with LIB), much as the Byrds and Dylan were doing then with country music then.
For the next/last three songs he did for the show, Lennon dug back into his own songbook. "Yer Blues" is actually the only Beatles song he does. Thanks to Clapton, this version is a lot frothier but even the original was more of a heavy, plodding Brit version of the blues than what Muddy or Wolf came out with in Chicago. It does follow the AAB structure of 12-bar blues numbers but again, it ain't something that Willie Dixon would have put his name on though it bears more than a passing resemblance to what Led Zeppelin was cooking up then (it's also been suggested that Lennon was making fun of English blues, which is plausible too).
"Cold Turkey" was originally recorded a few days before the Toronto show with the same line-up except that Ringo was playing drums. This harrowing, to-the-bone song about fighting off addiction would come out in October as a Lennon single but here, he was airing it for the public for the first time, complete with Lennon's and Ono's howls and screams.
"This what we really came for," Lennon tells the crowd next before launching into "Give Peace A Chance," which was his first solo single. Ragged as always, Lennon forgets the roll call of names from the original and ad-libs, adding in his new band-mates into the lyrics.
What's interesting about Lennon's half of the band's set is the many sides we see of him: loose but trad rocker, drug addict and peace advocate.
What's more, this is was another chapter in his Beatles-era solo career. He already had out the two singles he performed for the show, plus two albums that he did with Ono (Two Virgins, Life with the Lions) with a third one about to come out (Wedding Album), not to mention Live Peace, which came out at the end of the year. With all of this going on outside of the Beatles, is it any wonder that he was ready to quit that band?
And then there's Yoko. If you're already dead set against her, there's nothing I can say here to sway you. But hear me out on a couple of points. For the 2nd half of the Toronto set, Lennon announces "And now Yoko's gonna do her thing all over you." And that she does with 5 minutes of "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)" (aka the B-side of "Cold Turkey") and 12 minutes of "John, John (Let's Hope for Peace)." I'll definitely grant you that the feedback-laden second song is tough to sit through.
A couple of things to keep in mind about Yoko though:
1) Her background was as a fluxus artist. She was in fact one of the leading lights of the movement. As such, it'd be stupid or weird of her to sing say "Something Stupid" with John or chime along to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
2) Most Beatles fans ain't into avant music. Listen to singers like Leon Thomas or Patty
3) Lennon himself was her biggest fan and booster.
4) Another Fabs songwriter would also rope his wife into his post-Beatles band and she wasn't exactly a singer either (like Yoko, Linda had an arts background, as a quality photographer)
Though Lennon had done three albums with Ono by then, this show was the first time that they were on more equal footing artistically. Two Virgins, Life With the Lions and Wedding Album were definitely products of Ono's background and Lennon's fascination with it. On the live record, they were both represented more equally, as they were on Sometimes in New York and Double Fantasy, though by then, the musical balance had tipped more towards Lennon's rock than Ono's avant territory.
But most of all, Lennon was finding his independence in this collaboration. For years, he'd worked with McCartney, sharing ideas and bouncing ideas off of each other and now he'd found a new partner to work with, who just happened to be the love of his life. As strong and independent as he'd sound in song & interviews, he still needed some sort of partner to work with. On the Beatles (aka the White Album), some of that tension was showing, not only with Yoko actually given a lead line to sing on "Bungalow Bill" but also on the most maligned song in the Fabs' catalog, "Revolution #9," a Lennon creation that could have easily fit on one of his early albums with Yoko. The next year, during the filming of Let It Be, Lennon and Ono are seen as inseperable whenever Lennon wasn't recording.
By the time of the Toronto show, Lennon had made up his mind. The Beatles were his past. He'd rope in Ringo for Plastic Ono Band and George would appear on the subsequent Imagine so that left one member of the group that he needed to break away from. This would be the person he'd engage in pointed attacks soon after the Beatles broke up as well as the other end of the love/hate spectrum where he was also his long-time songwriting partner. It was also the guy who Lennon blew up at during that fateful Apple meeting where he quit the band, accusing his old partner of dominating the group. As such, Live in Toronto was Lennon's coming out party before the Fabs officially split and his declaration of independence from McCartney.
UPDATE: Yoko will be reviving the Plastic Ono Band with son Sean for her Sept album Between My Head and the Sky