Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Plastic Ono Band—
Live Peace In Toronto 1969


Released 1969 on Apple
The Seth Man, October 2003ce
“Live Peace In Toronto 1969” was not only the first album by The Plastic Ono Band (the infamously loose collective of John Lennon and Yoko Ono with sundry musicians) and their first live appearance but also Lennon’s first live concert performance since The Beatles’ final concert in 1966 at Candlestick Park, San Francisco (excluding his recent Cambridge performance that March with Yoko plus ad-hoc accompanists and the live television studio filming of The Rolling Stones’ “Rock’n’Roll Circus” the previous year.) It was a long three years that led up to The Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival, held over the weekend of September 13, 1969. As luck would have it, it was due to a transatlantic miscommunication that The Plastic Ono Band wound up performing at all. Lennon was asked by the desperate concert promoter if he’d emcee the proceedings in an attempt to bolster dangerously sagging ticket sales, and Lennon misheard thinking he’d been asked to perform. He agreed and now all he had to do was to find a band. Luckily, since Lennon was still in The Beatles and The Plastic Ono Band had already announced in advertisements for their first single that ‘You Are The Plastic Ono Band’ there wasn’t exactly gonna be a dearth of prospective candidates. With all vocals, screaming and feedback guitar covered, he assigned old time mate Klaus Voorman to the bass spot and Eric Clapton with secondary guitar duties. Ex-Alan Price Set/future Yes member Alan White was chosen as drummer and that was it: no keyboards, no horn sections, no backing vocalists and no Phil Spector studio Wall of Reverb net to bounce back on. Their only rehearsal was several hours in the back of the plane heading to Canada on the eve of their performance, and maybe a brief period backstage just prior to hitting the boards. Arguably, it does show in some moments of side one but for the rest of the album, a brazen sense of the moment was captured due to the feel of what some would call ‘under-rehearsed’ or ‘deconstructed’ but I’d just call ‘spontaneous’ and also ‘ramshackled as hell and a psychic drop kick when played at top volume to boot’ because it’s honest Rock’n’Roll and despite the fact the band don’t lock in too well on Lennon’s more recent material, the centre does hold for most of the first (“Rock’n’Roll”) side and exceptionally better on the second (“experimental”) side where all the players had all the space to build and expand. It couldn’t have been more of a one-off event even if they had followed a Yoko-type instructional art card that read: “Form a band and two days later play only one gig.”

Kim Fowley emceed the event with the unlikely lineup of Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, The Doors and Alice Cooper sharing the bill. The album begins with Fowley introducing The Plastic Ono Band and plugging their recent single, “Give Peace A Chance.” He’s so into it, you can practically see his tall, rail-thin figure manically flashing peace signs in the air with both hands while doing so. When The Plastic Ono Band finally take to the stage and plug in, they run through a set of three rock’n’roll standards from the fifties (“Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins, “Money” by Barrett Strong and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” by Larry Williams) and they are all rendered well raucous as they were all songs everybody reasonably had under their belts. Even the version of “Yer Blues” is surprisingly more than a cursory run-through although Lennon and Clapton had performed it the previous December during the filming of “The Rolling Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus.” The band only falter with the preview of the upcoming Plastic Ono Band single, “Cold Turkey” and sound even more on the verge of collapse with an near-exhausted “Give Peace A Chance” although most of the stadium audience seemed too busy singing along to notice.

The Plastic Ono Band more than make up for it on side two, for here is where the freedom of the truly one-off is wielded mightily when Yoko takes centre microphone with a vocal piece backed by the repetition unto exhaustion of roughed-up blues slide guitar repetition that would soon be cut in the studio as the B-side for the “Cold Turkey” 45 with the unwieldy and somber title: “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow).” Once this maternal breast beating of sorrow has curtailed itself into a place of quiet strength and a musical whisper, it slips quietly into “John (Let’s Hope For Peace)” which imperceptibly builds with each cycle of outbursts of whispers, pleading yelps and screams that cut through a backdrop of amplifier feedback squalls. One [guitar+amplifier=feedback] embankment is a smooth cloud formation while a second other keeps on tripping over too near one of the many microphones onstage, thereby causing high pitched squealing, squeaks while Voorman’s bass hides in the midrange shadows somewhere. This thunderhead provides a humming buzz wash for Yoko to phonetically cast her demons out from both ends of the dynamic range: from shrilly stuttering out her mantra-isation of her both husband’s name and the plea “Let’s hope for peace” ringing in the ears of infinity. Soon, she is shrieking like a white cat in heat being whipped against a brick wall by its tail over and over while Alan White remains content just allowing a few rare drum pedal pumps and accents to leak out, letting the wafting noise to course throughout unrestricted by any beat.

The beauty of this track is that it sorts out those who judge it only in terms of its cacophony and not what it captured in terms of free expression flying against the face of all expectations and audience demands. For it is truly the sound of the marble busts of The Beatles being set about with jackhammers and pick axes by the most iconoclastic of that wholesome foursome: The one who’d already outgrew that straight jacket years ago and was now winging it onstage with the woman he loved while simultaneously going through heroin withdrawal as the band he’s currently performing live with had only ONE rehearsal on ol’ terra firma. Soon, The Plastic Ono Band has packed it in but not before turning up the amps and setting their instruments against ‘em to continue in a repeating system of locked signal repetition. This howling feedback tempest will not end until Beatles associate finally Mal Evans walks over and snaps off each heated amplifier one by one... (Evans reported that after it all was all over, Gene Vincent was backstage, tearfully proclaiming their performance “beautiful.”) Even Kim Fowley can barely speak after this (!) He makes his way over to the wrong microphone, and everything he tries to say ends mid-sentence. The record halts with his abruptly cut, final spoken word “Give...” and there it ends.

If you play it, play it loud.