At first, no one believed it was really happening. It sounded too good to be true. The Toronto Rock 'N' Rock Revival Show was going to be a massive, thirteen-hour spectacle in tribute to old-timey jukebox rock & roll. The line-up was going to feature some of the greatest rock stars that had ever lived: a mix, mostly, of old greats from the 1950s and up-and-coming young stars. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Alice Cooper. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. Chicago. The Doors. Gene Vincent. Junior Walker & The All-Stars. But tickets for the festival hadn't been selling well at all. People in 1969 weren't really all that interested in rock & roll from the '50s. They were into psychedelic rock now; Woodstock had happened less than a month earlier. So it seemed pretty convenient when the rumour started: that John Lennon was going to show up with Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and The Plastic Ono Band in tow.Bullllllllllshit. No way they got one of The Beatles. John Lennon hadn't performed at a rock show in front of a big crowd in more than three years — not since The Beatles quit touring. When the rumour started, radio stations refused to believe it. And so did everyone else.
Finally, the permission came through. As Diddley came out for an encore, the cameras started rolling. So that's how Pennebaker's movie — Sweet Toronto — starts: with the sound of Bo Diddley's electric guitar playing the iconic chords from his massive, self-titled, 1955 hit. When you finally get a good look at Diddley on stage in the film, he's in a suit, guitar in hand, dancing under the hot sun with his backing band. He calls out the refrain and thousands upon thousands of people roar it back to him: "Heyyyyyyy Bo Diddley!" It's enough to give you chills. And the build up to that moment in the film is even more extraordinary: as those first chords repeat themselves over and over again, the footage cuts away to the airport, where John and Yoko and the rest of The Plastic Ono Band are arriving. They find a limousine waiting for them — along with the surprise of 80 enthusiastic bikers. As afternoon turns to dusk, The Vagabonds escort them down the 401 and into the heart of the city.
When they got to Varsity Stadium, John and Yoko headed into the dressing room; they had a few hours to wait before their turn on stage. Meanwhile, the other acts on the bill — egged on by the cameras of one of the most famous documentarians of all-time — were giving some of the most amazing performances of their entire careers.
Robert Christgau, "Dean of American Rock Critics", was there that day. And since he's one of the greatest rock writers ever, I'll defer to him:
|Chuck Berry at Varsity Stadium|
In fact, as the day wore on, it was clear the show was beginning to be a pretty big deal for all of the older performers. Just a decade earlier, they had been some of the biggest — and first — rock stars the world had ever seen. But now, at the end of the '60s, none of them was as popular as they had once been. Straight-up, hard-rocking rhythm and blues had been replaced by psychedelic jams. Rockers had been replaced by hippies. Now that Lennon and Pennebaker had turned the Toronto Peace Festival into something more than just a revival show, those old jukebox stars were taking full advantage. The crowd danced and laughed and sang along. It makes for remarkable footage in Sweet Toronto: those shaggy, long-haired kids of the late '60s, with their big sleeves and big hats, their vests and bare chests, smoking pot and blowing bubbles to old-timey rock & roll, shaking their hips, doing the twist, singing and clapping along to the songs that kids their age had been listening to more than a decade ago, their faces glowing. All smiles.
Some critics point to that day as the moment the 1950s became cool again. After appearing on stage in Toronto, the old jukebox stars, some of whom were having trouble getting gigs, started being asked to tour again. Soon, Little Richard was back on the charts; he was featured on albums by young bands like Canned Heat and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Bo Diddley was opening for groups like The Clash as late as 1979. Jerry Lee Lewis found himself back on the charts, too. And so did Chuck Berry. In fact, he would get his first ever #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Today, 45 years after the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are all still touring.
And while the festival was reliving the 1950s, it was also heralding the very beginning of the 1970s.
|Alice Cooper's "Chicken Incident"|
|John Lennon at the Toronto Peace Festival|
Some didn't respond well to Ono's avant-garde howling. One fan told Mojo Magazine, "People were polite. They were bewildered, but everybody knew she was an artist, she'd taken photographs of bums and things like that. We figured whatever she was doing, eventually it would end. But it didn't fuckin end." Ronnie Hawkins was there that night, too; he remembered people being a little less polite. "As hip as everyone there tried to be," he says, "Yoko was too much. 'Get the fuck off the stage,' people started to scream." Some people booed. The Star called it "excruciating... a finger nail scratching over a blackboard."
But Lennon claimed he didn't hear any of that. And Ono won some rave reviews. The Montreal Gazette called her performance "extraordinary... full of real emotion... the stunning effect of Yoko's soaring cries [were] like worlds colliding or the universe blowing apart..." The entire set was recorded and released as an album called Live Peace In Toronto 1969. It broke the Top 10 on the Billboard chart and went gold. In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called it, "more fun than anything [Lennon]'s done in a long while, with a great deal more vitality than Abbey Road, in fact."
The set ended with the haunting shrieks of Ono's "John, John, Let's Hope For Peace." As the song came to a close, Lennon leaned his guitar up against an amp, screaming feedback while Clapton coaxed strange noises from his own instrument. They left Yoko on stage, squawking like a bird into the Bloor Street night.
Lennon was thrilled with the way things had gone. "I can't remember when I had such a good time," he said later. "It gave me a great feeling, a feeling I haven't had for a long time." He'd been nervous and uncertain about the next stage in his life. But the show in Toronto had given him confidence. Now, he knew for sure he wanted to return to the stage. And it wouldn't be with the band he'd been part of since he was 15 years old. No less of an authority than Ringo Starr cites the Toronto Peace Festival as the turning point: John Lennon was going to leave The Beatles.
|Fans at the Toronto Peace Festival|
But the band played a mesmerizing set. "When The Music's Over." "Break On Through." "Light My Fire." In the Toronto Daily Star, Jack Batten gushed, "Jim Morrison has so much presence, so much electricity, that he makes his rock contemporaries resemble a collection of wax dummies..." Peter Goddard agreed in the Toronto Telegram: "With [Morrison] there was a sense of melodramatic theatrics, of sensuality and poetry, of sheer power belching electronically... With an icily sleepy stare and a slow amble, he was a force to be reckoned with..."
Before long, there was only one song left to go. As Ray Manzarek's keyboards hummed darkly, the tambourine shook and the bass plucked away. Morrison leaned into the microphone, remembering how his own life had been changed by rock & roll. He shared his memories with the audience between languid, drugged-out pauses. "You know, I can remember when I was... in about the seventh or eighth grade... I can remember when rock & roll first came on the scene... it burst open whole new strange catacombs of wisdom... And that's why for me this evening it's been... really a great honour... to perform on the same stage... with so many illustrious musical geniuses."
And then, Jim Morrison began to sing. It was the only song you could imagine ending the festival with. The only song you could imagine ending the decade with, really:
"This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end, my only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end..."
It was nearly two in the morning by the time the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show finally came to an end. In the thirteen hours since the first act took the stage at Varsity Stadium, a lot of things had changed. The '50s had been revived. The biggest band of the '60s had entered their final days. Shock rock had been born. And so, too, maybe, had the tradition of an audience lifting their matches and lighters — and someday their smartphones — into the air. It's no wonder Rolling Stone once called the Toronto Peace Festival the second most important event in the history of rock & roll.
A week later, John Lennon told The Beatles he was done. The greatest band of all-time was breaking up. The 1960s were over. The 1970s were ready to begin.
More of The Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: the entire set.
More Little Richard at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: "Lucille", "Tutti Frutti", "Rip It Up", "Keep A-Knockin'", "Hound Dog", "Jenny Jenny", "Long Tall Sally".
More Jerry Lee Lewis at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: "Hound Dog", "Mean Woman Blues", "Don't Be Cruel", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Mystery Train", "Jailhouse Rock".
More Chuck Berry at the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival Show: the entire set.
You can listen to the bootleg recording of the full Doors set on YouTube here. You can watch Alice Cooper's interview about the chicken incident here. And some poor-quality footage of the set here.
You can buy the Sweet Toronto film here. A couple of other documentaries were made from Pennebaker's footage, too. You can buy Little Richard: Live At The Toronto Peace Festival 1969 here, and Chuck Berry: Live At The Toronto Peace Festival 1969 here (or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here). You can also buy The Plastic Ono Band's 1969 Live Peace In Toronto album here.
You can read the full review of the show from Robert Christgau here. And Greil Marcus' Rolling Stone review of The Plastic Ono Band's live album from 1970 here. You can also read the full reviews from the Star, Telegram and Gazette thanks to Flickr user TheWizardofAz.
Over at blogTO, Chris Bateman has a post about the festival called "That Time Toronto Saved Rock & Roll".
I got some of the info about the cocaine, Yoko Ono, and Little Richard from the You And What Army blog here. The bit about Rolling Stone calling it the second most important event in rock & roll history came from the Globe and Mail here. Some of the quotes about The Plastic Ono Band set were found thanks to the research by John Whelan for the Ottawa Beatles Site here. You can read more about Little Richard's set on JamBands.com here. Writer Reid Dickie shared his memories of the show on his own site here. The screencap the chicken incident came from here. The screencap of Chuck Berry from here. And of John Lennon from here. The photo of the crowd was found thanks to a post by thecharioteer on UrbanToronto here.
Watching Pennebaker's footage, you can see the Royal Conservatory of Music in the distance. It's right next door to Varsity Stadium and, of course, plays it's own important role in the history of Canadian music. According to Wikipedia, former students include Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Randy Bachman (The Guess Who), Emily Haines (Metric), Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), Richard Reed Perry (Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre), Tegan and Sara, Sara Slean, Rob Baker (Tragically Hip), Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, Shania Twain, Loreena McKennitt, Paul Schaffer, R. Murray Schafer, producer David Foster, Robert Goulet, Jeff Healey, Amanda Marshall and Chantal Kreviazuk. Feist is an Honourary Fellow.