It was a pleasantly warm September afternoon in London circa 1969 when I dropped in at the Apple Corps offices on Savile Row — not knowing that music history was about to unfold.
I'd come in to confirm an interview with George Harrison that had been scheduled after the weekend to discuss the about-to-be-released Abbey Road album. But hearing me chatting in the corridor outside the Bag One offices — I had interviewed him earlier that year in Canada — John Lennon called me in for "some advice." Can you imagine? The honor of being asked by a sage such as John for any kind of advice . . .
Turned out that a Toronto promoter named John Brower was on the phone trying to convince John and Yoko they should attend a September 13 musical event in Canada featuring a host of '50s rock 'n' roll legends. Maybe, suggested the ever-keen and eager Brower, John might even consider a performance piece? I knew Brower and his partner, and I instinctively felt they would try to do right by an inquisitive and frustrated John . . .
Two days later, the Lennons had gathered at Heathrow Airport with guitarist Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann (bass player with Manfred Mann), Alan White (drummer working with Alan Price), Beatles manager Allen Klein and roadie Mal Evans for the flight to Toronto and a show later that evening. Only three first-class tickets were available, so the newly formed Plastic Ono Band gathered in the rear of the 707 jet, vamping their acoustic way through a cluster of classic rock 'n' roll favorites. Songs that the principal players worshipped.
Perhaps this in-flight camaraderie inspired the bout of intense honesty that unfolded en route to the Toronto Rock 'N' Roll Revival concert. Later it came out that John had informed both Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann that he was thinking about starting a new group. It seems he went as far as to enquire about their interest in joining him in this new enterprise . . .
At Varsity Stadium the jet-lagged John was extremely nervous. He hadn't been onstage in three years, and he admitted to throwing up from nervousness before the show — with abundant reason. "Imagine if you were in The Beatles from the beginning, and you were never in any other band?" he postulated. "Then all of a sudden you're going onstage with this group who've never played live together, anywhere. We formed on the plane coming over here, and now we're gonna play in front of 20,000 people."
A quick backstage rehearsal, and guest emcee Kim Fowley urged the audience to fire up their lighters and matches — and in the process light their communal fire, the early uprising of a collective consciousness — to welcome onstage the Plastic Ono Band, in their debut performance.
"It was just getting dark, and the lights were just going down. This was the first time I'd ever seen an audience light candles or lights all together . . . it was incredible!" John would comment.
What a night it was! All faithfully and creatively recorded on camera by award-winning filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, to follow his Monterey Pop and Don't Look Back triumphs. The audio would be released in December of that year as the Plastic Ono Band's Live Peace In Toronto LP.
John bounced out onstage, bedecked in a white tropical suit overpinning a black shirt, and was bedeviling with his new band. The Toronto audience was equally uplifted. After whipping through a number of rock 'n' roll chestnuts, John plunged into "Yer Blues" from the White Album. And then, to take proceedings to another level, he unleashed the debut of a new single that would be released five weeks hence, the hard-edged classic "Cold Turkey."
This was followed by a centerpiece selection that John graphically set up as: "This is what we really came here for . . . Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout Bagism . . . " They plunged into the tune that he and Yoko — and assorted luminaries — had recorded at the historic Bed-In for Peace in a Montreal hotel room some four months earlier, the paean to nonviolence: "Give Peace A Chance." And Yoko added to the street-theatre vibe by performing two tunes in a bag!
Back in London after the momentous weekend in Canada, John was exuberant about the experience of being onstage again.
"I can't remember when I had such a good time," he enthused. "We did all the old things from the Cavern days in Liverpool. Yoko, who you could say was playing 'bag,' was holding a piece of paper with the words to the songs in front of me. But then she suddenly disappeared into her bag in the middle of the performance, and I had to make [the words] up because it's so long since I sang them that I've forgotten most of them. But it didn't seem to matter.''
History has shown it was this concert that finally convinced John there was indeed life beyond The Beatles.