Eric Clapton was a close ally of The Beatles and, somewhat remarkably, once nearly joined the band following George Harrison momentarily quitting the Liverpudlian group. With the personal problems reaching breaking point, John Lennon immediately asked Clapton to join The Fab Four and, before he got chance to return his answer, Harrison had already returned to the fold.
In the years that followed, Clapton grew closer to members of the band and, in 1969, Lennon did get his wish to play live with Eric Clapton. However, when he agreed to give him a helping hand for a performance with The Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, it came at a peculiar time in Lennon’s career when it became obvious that The Beatles were not in a good place. Tensions became untenable and The Plastic Ono Band was about to become his favourite and primary method of expressing himself creatively.
The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival was a one-day, twelve-hour music festival held in Toronto, on September 13, 1969, and it featured a number of popular musical acts from the 1950s and 1960s. Acts who were announced on the bill to appear included the likes of Bo Diddley, Little Richard and The Doors but The Plastic Ono Band’s show-stealing appearance would be one that was kept under wraps until the day of the performance.
Lennon had been asked by the festival organisers if he and Ono would be interested in hosting the event, a topic which they thought would be an incredible coup. Due to his love of Little Richard and Bo Diddley, Lennon wanted to be on the billing and insisted that he would only agree to the hosting duties if he could play live.
“We got this call on a Friday that there was a rock ‘n’ roll revival show in Toronto with a 100,000 audience, or whatever it was,” Lennon later recalled in Anthology. “They were inviting us as king and queen to preside over it, not play. But I didn’t hear that bit. I said, ‘Just give me time to get a band together,’ and we went the next morning.”
On the morning of the scheduled flight, the day before the concert, on 12 September, Lennon, Ono, and Clapton didn’t make it to the airport and Clapton remained unaware of the concert or about Lennon attempting to contact him. Thankfully, festival co-organiser John Brower had managed to get through to Clapton and told him to contact Lennon and Ono, who was still in bed, as you would expect from the couple.
Clapton has said that he got “a phone call on the day we were to leave and he said that someone had asked him to do that concert and it was that night! So I had to make the airport in an hour”. The group managed to squeeze in two rehearsals, somehow, with one coming during the transatlantic flight from London to Toronto and then one more backstage just before they appeared on stage.
“The buzz was incredible,” Lennon added in Anthology. “I never felt so good in my life. Everybody was with us and leaping up and down doing the peace sign, because they knew most of the numbers anyway, and we did a number called ‘Cold Turkey’ we’d never done before and they dug it like mad.”
The audience, who made Lennon feel incredibly welcome, has been rumoured to be the first show in which audience members lit matches and lighters to welcome a performer on stage. The momentous moment arrived after Kim Fowley, who introduced them on stage, instructed the audience to do so to calm Lennon’s stage fright.
The Plastic Ono Band’s set would be released as a live album titled Live Peace in Toronto 1969 just three months after the set, a record which confirmed to Lennon that he no longer wanted to be a part of The Beatles which he told in confidence to Clapton on the flight home.
Check out the historic set, below.