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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

John Lennon: Live Peace In Toronto


1) Blue Suede Shoes; 2) Money; 3) Dizzy Miss Lizzy; 4) Yer Blues; 5) Cold Turkey; 6) Give Peace A Chance; 7) Don't Worry Kyoko; 8) John, John (Let's Hope For Peace).

General verdict: Sloppy, silly, sometimes unlistenable, but still imbued with that odd summer '69 charm.

Blame it all on the ridiculous title of this album and the even more ridiculous sequencing on the D. A. Pennebaker-directed movie version of the Toronto Rock'n'Roll Revival — but the overall event was far more normal than the impression of it that you get from the most commonly available mementos of the show. John's decision to add the word Peace to the title makes you think that it was some sort of anti-Vietnam gathering, when in reality the subject of «peace» was only vividly brought up once, by John and Yoko, over the twelve hours of the festival. And Pen­nebaker's decision to concentrate his filming on performances by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis — and then on John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band — makes you think that this was primarily and exclusively a Fifties' revival event, rudely crashed by John and Yoko who, out of some egotistic hatred, just had to submit the innocent Jack Rabbit Slim's crowd to platters of their bullshit avantgarde art.

In reality, both the Plastic Ono Band and the Fifties' icons were only parts of a much larger project that day — a project that also included several quite modern bands, including Chicago, The Doors, and Alice Cooper (yes, this was the very same event where Alice had his infamous «chicken incident» that pretty much defined the band's — and the man's — entire life), and whose conceptual goal, as drawn up by producers John Brower and Kenny Walker, was inte­gration between generations past, present, and future: the first significant event in the history of rock'n'roll festivals where old heroes would mingle with contemporary ones in a demonstration of mutual respect and friendship. And for the most part, perhaps still under the influence of the Woodstock vibe, everything went well.

Unfortunately, a definitive video and audio presentation of the festival, one that would combine all the high-quality material saved on that day, is still lacking — instead, one has to search out a scattered variety of albums and videos, some of which are still easily available today and some are long out of print. (For that matter, I also long for the day when somebody would get around to making a definitive boxset for the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, not to mention Woodstock). The Live Peace album, containing John and Yoko's performance in its entirety, is just one of these chunks — and being released long before all the others, under John's direct supervision, is also the most commonly known. And also the most befuddling if you ever make the mistake of listening to it completely out of the day's context.

As is well known, the Plastic Ono Band was more of a concept than a real band, and on that par­ticular day — September 13, 1969 — it consisted of John, Yoko, ex-Manfred Mann bass player Klaus Voormann, ex-Blind Faith guitar player Eric Clapton, and future Yes drummer Alan White: a somewhat rag-taggy crowd, especially considering that they were all brought together by John at something like twenty-four hours' notice and only had time to very briefly rehearse a few numbers on the plane flight to Toronto. (Admittedly, John already had the opportunity to play together with Clapton on ʽYer Bluesʼ for The Rolling Stones' Rock'n'Roll Circus, so this was not such a completely blank-slate experiment). Throw in Clapton's psychologically unstable state at the time (he was in the process of crashing his second band in three years), John's «anything goes» mentality, and Yoko in a bag, and it is actually nothing short of amazing that they still made it on to the stage and played a set that was... listenable. Well, up to a certain point.

For all the confusion, the progression in the setlist seems to have been quite logical. The band started out with three rock'n'roll oldies, to match and honor the spirit of the day (two of them from The Beatles' recorded past and ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ probably done to death by John and the boys when Klaus Voormann was still their Hamburg neighbor); continued with ʽYer Bluesʼ, one of the few authentic blues-rock numbers in The Beatles' catalog; from there, they switched on to John's brand new solo career, doing a fairly rock'n'rolly take on ʽCold Turkeyʼ — and then ad­justed the audience to the iron rule of Yoko Ono as mercifully as possible, by running through the blues-based ʽDon't Worry Kyokoʼ first and saving the harshest stuff for latest. Thus, symbolically, the progression from the rockabilly of ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ to the brutal avantgarde of ʽJohn, John (Let's Hope For Peace)ʼ could be regarded as the entire history of musical evolution in the past fifteen years, over a 40-minute long set.

Of course, it all sounds so much cooler in theory than in practice. The rock and roll numbers sound steady enough, but somewhat stiff (out of caution, they slowed down the tempos to avoid any unnecessary accidents), and Eric is occasionally quite sloppy, not to mention that rockabilly soloing was never one of his strong sides. On ʽYer Bluesʼ, I would even say that Lennon delivers a better guitar solo overall than Eric — less technically complex, but more in touch with the overall mood of the song. ʽCold Turkeyʼ is played more like a straight rock number than the proto-industrial nightmare of the studio version, although even that would be more tolerable if John did not forget about half of the lyrics. And ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ... well, if somebody needs to hear ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ with tons of bluesy rhythm guitar, there you have it.

The best news is that Yoko sat out much of this part of the performance in a bag on the stage — no, wait, actually the best news is that after she got out of the bag and began to wail the wail on ʽYer Bluesʼ, John had the gall to go into the studio and edit her out (see, even the most heartless bastards have their moments of mercy). On the other hand, it seems that occasionally he also edited her in — there is at least one blazing goat scream during the solo in ʽDizzy Miss Lizzieʼ when in the movie, at that same moment, Yoko is clearly bag-residing, unless she had a hidden recording mike under the cover, of course. (Anyway, this is all far more merciful than that one time when John brought Yoko to his joint performance with Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas show in 1972... remember that one? Fifty million Chuck Berry fans still complain about Mark Chapman missing the mark up to this day).

The Yoko-dominated side of the album, which has most likely remained in pristine quality for all LP owners, is tolerable as long as the band actually plays — ʽDon't Worry Kyokoʼ, here heard in all of its electric chaos, comes across as a sort of proto-Zeppelinish voodoo ritual, and the menace and madness of the blues riff strangely agrees with Yoko's wailing which, just for this once, actually carries over some of the atmosphere and symbolism that its equivalents may have in traditional Japanese culture (any fan of Kenji Mizoguchi's movies will probably understand what I am talking about here). Once the actual music dies down, however, and the last track becomes ten minutes of screechy-squeaky feedback and «wailing for peace», it is rotten tomato time all over the place, although I do have to tip my hat to John's audacity — it is one thing to conduct such experiments in the studio, or even to play them before a forcefully tolerant group of Cam­bridge University students, and quite another thing to unload the same baggage before thousands of regular fans, most of which came there to headbang and dance to Little Richard, not to mention expecting the greatest Beatle to, you know, lay on some ʽRock And Roll Musicʼ like in the good old days of Candlestick Park. So we also have to tip our hats to the fans who were polite enough to let the Plastic Ono Band off stage without any broken bones or anything.

In the end, Live Peace is what it is — a single, out-of-context, but still intriguing page from a very important historical document, still waiting to be properly re-integrated into its own little book, and barely usable at all for any entertainment-related or enlightenment-related experiences. It did remain the only officially available document of a post-Beatles John Lennon live perfor­mance until the archival release of Live In New York City in 1986; but now that the latter is available, the only reason to come back to Live Peace is to get an extra taste of the all-permeating craziness of the Woodstock era. Which, admittedly, can be quite a bit of a reason.


  1. Side one is fine. Side two...

  2. Actually quite like Eric's playing, including his Yer Blues solo, which in my recording, sounds like it nearly gets unplugged three quarters of the way through