Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Of all the solo Beatles, only John Lennon never toured. Ironically, though Ringo Starr was the last member to hit the road, he’s played the most shows over the last decade. Ringo never toured until he created the “All-Starr Band” in 1989, and he’s been a fixture of many summers ever since that time.
Though Ringo’s lapped him since 1989, Paul McCartney offered the most consistent road presence after the Beatles’ split in 1970. Since 1980, he’s only launched two major tours - in 1989/90 and 1993 - but he spent significant amounts of the Seventies on the road. As I write this in January 2002, he’s also considering another American outing, which hopefully will come to fruition soon.
George Harrison maintained a very low public profile for the last decade of his life, but even he hit the road a few times. His lengthiest tour took place in 1974, when he played America behind the Dark Horse album. Other than a mix of isolated appearances - with the most significant being the 1972 Concerts for the People of Bangladesh - George only played one other semi-extended string of dates, when pal Eric Clapton convinced him to do a short tour of Japan in 1991.
As for Lennon, he may well have launched his first tour on the heels of 1980’s Double Fantasy, but sadly, we’ll never know. While he never undertook a full trek, he did play a few shows over the years, many of which have made commercial appearances. In 1974, Elton John guested on John’s Walls and Bridges album for a couple of songs. One of these - “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” - was the record’s first single, and Elton bet Lennon that if the tune hit number one, then Lennon would have to play with Elton when he came to New York. “Night” indeed topped the charts, so Lennon came on to perform that tune as well as “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” - Elton’s hit remake of the Beatle tune - and “I Saw Her Standing There”; in Lennon’s typically sardonic manner, he dedicated the latter to an “old estranged fiancée of mine named Paul”, since it indeed was McCartney’s tune. (Since I liked Elton before I liked the Beatles, I knew this version of “Standing” before I heard the original. As such, it confused me to no end when I discovered the latter; why was Paul singing Lennon’s tune??!!)
The most significant Lennon concerts occurred on August 30, 1972. On that day, he staged two shows at Madison Square Garden to benefit mentally retarded children. Documented on the video and album called Live In New York City, these 18-song performances (including four Yoko numbers) definitely offer the most extensive airings of live Lennon.
However, that project didn’t get released commercially until after John’s death in 1980; it didn’t hit stores until 1986. For many years, the only live Lennon available to fans came from a September 1969 one-off performance at something called the “rock ‘n’ roll revival” in Toronto. Originally the show was to simply include old-timers Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley; the organizers invited Lennon simply to be in the audience. However, John indicated that he didn’t want to just sit there, so he said he’d come only if he could play.
Lennon nearly chickened out at the last minute, but ultimately he did hit the stage with a cobbled-together group dubbed the Plastic Ono Band. (Among a number of other mistakes, the DVD’s case calls this the only live appearance of the POB, but that’s incorrect; they also did a December 1969 show in London.) This conglomeration included bassist Klaus Voorman - an old friend from the Beatles’ German days, and also the designer of the Revolver album cover - as well as drummer Alan White, both of whom were frequent studio collaborator with Lennon in those days; Voorman and White also appeared on the Imagine album as well as singles like “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma”. On guitar, Lennon recruited Clapton, and wife Yoko Ono came along to sit in a bag and wail. (No, that’s not a joke.)
Whether or not the POB rehearsed remains uncertain. I checked out two Beatles books I own; one claims they practiced on the plane, while the other says that because of his fears, John skipped the first flight with the band and barely made it to the show. Whatever the case may be, one thing seems certain: the POB had little preparation before they hit the stage in front of about 25,000 punters in Toronto.
Lennon’s nervousness seems palpable, and understandable to boot. After all, he hadn’t played before a paying crowd since August 1966, and here all of the pressure was on his head. His lack of security comes through via some of his antics, especially when he tries to loosen up via some Elvis Presley-style hip shakes; instead of presenting jocularity, they look very forced and self-conscious.
Over the years, the Toronto concert - documented here in a DA Pennebaker film called Sweet Toronto - has enjoyed a pretty strong reputation. Most Beatles fans know if via the 1969 album called Live Peace In Toronto, while others will come to it through this project. Many have marveled at the energy and spirit apparent in its vibes.
Unfortunately, I have to disagree with the common perception, at least as the show appears on this DVD. Lennon and the POB put on a sloppy performance that night. Mainly they ran through a roster of old rock chestnuts: “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”, and “Money (That’s What I Want)” led off the set. Not counting “Lizzie” - which they covered on Help! - the only Beatles tune to make the cut was The Beatles’ classic “Yer Blues”, while his set ended with two then-current Lennon songs: “Cold Turkey” - which hadn’t yet been released - and “Give Peace a Chance”.
After that, the POB remained onstage, but Ono took the spotlight. She wailed through renditions of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In the Snow)” and “John John (Let’s Hope For Peace)” for the final 16 or so minutes of the show. That sound you hear is the collective march of thousands as they work their way toward the exit.
Actually, to be fair to Ono, her material isn’t as unlistenable as some might have you believe. Yes, her work remains challenging and unusual, but a lot of subsequent artists incorporated her avant-garde style, and the music makes more sense in a modern context. I’m not saying it’s good - I still skip it when given the chance - but the tracks aren’t as weak and pointless as the common mindset would indicate.
On the other hand, Lennon’s set isn’t as positive as most would have you believe. I’m all for rawness, but this is just shoddy. The musicians rarely seem to be on the same page, and they essentially stumble through the various songs. “Lizzie” worked much better on Help!, and “Yer Blues” is just a pale shadow of its studio self. “Cold Turkey” also seems soft and meandering, especially when compared to the harrowing single version.
In addition to the POB material, Toronto includes a few snippets from the oldies stars. We hear a painfully long version of “Bo Diddley” from Bo Diddley as well as the odd choice of “Hound Dog” from Lewis; why in the world didn’t they include one of Lewis’ own tunes? In addition, Berry rocks through “Johnny B. Goode” while Richard stomps out “Lucille”. All seem competent but unexceptional; Berry probably comes across best.
As for the presentation of the concert, it seems almost as slapdash and amateurish as the POB performance. Filmed by noted documentarian DA Pennebaker - who created the legendary Dylan film Don’t Look Back as well as Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture - the cameras restrict themselves severely. During the daylight shots, we see far too much of the crowd, but the scope gets very conservative after dark. The Lennon segments seem especially plain. For the most part, we simply see medium shots of John. Many of these seem poorly framed; for example, during much of “Lizzie”, the camera cropped about half of John’s head!
Occasionally they cut to Clapton - who simply looks confused and stares at Lennon the whole night, probably because he wasn’t sure where to go in the songs - or to Yoko. She stands next to John and holds up a lyric sheet for him. At first, I thought she needed it for herself, which amused me; she required a lyric sheet to produce unintelligible wails? However, it soon became clear the words were there for John, who openly refers to them much of the time.
Speaking of those Yoko wails, they mar a few of the songs. As I noted, I have no real problem with her solo work, but I wasn’t wild about her presence during the other tunes. Interestingly, the mix used for the DVD makes her “contributions” to tracks like “Yer Blues” much more obvious. I listened to the album version and heard that she’d been almost totally reduced out of the mix. That wasn’t the case for the video edition, which left her wailings obvious.
Speaking of the Live Peace, oddly, I thought that the music evident on the DVD seemed much more appealing when heard and not seen. Prior to my acquisition of Sweet Toronto, I’d listened to the various Lennon tracks many times over the years, and I retained a fairly positive impression of them. As such, it seemed weird that I suddenly thought less of them when I watched the DVD. However, I definitely did. Perhaps the different mix had something to do with it; Ono’s intrusions certainly made some of the tracks less appealing. I also feel that the bland and unsteady visual presentation had a negative impact.
I have to admit that Sweet Toronto remains a very cool document to possess. As noted, Lennon played very few live shows in his life, and after this one, the Plastic Ono Band would perform only once more. (Portions of that show appear on Lennon’s Some Time In New York City album from 1973.) While useful for archival reasons, the concert performance itself simply seems too sloppy and meandering to merit any sort of classic status. Some of the raw energy helps carry the day, but the general confusion and sloppiness make the show less than terrific.