It ain’t the Beatles, but a new DVD of the Plastic Ono Band’s historic 1969 Toronto concert provides a close-up look at a severely bearded John Lennon during a pivotal time in his career, playing raw rock and roll on his Epiphone Casino with primal abandon.
The Beatles were already well in disarray by Sept. 13, 1969, when the concert was filmed. As Lennon later put it in an interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, “We were tired of being sidemen for Paul.” And Lennon was already exploring more daring territory, rebelling against the Beatles polished sound via recordings with his second wife Yoko Ono — the two Unfinished Music projects and Wedding Album.
The new John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto ’69 DVD is the visual corollary to late ’69s Live Peace in Toronto LP, capturing the interplay between Lennon and guitarist Eric Clapton as well as the performance art antics of Ono, who covers herself with a white sheet to dramatize a state of selflessness and to perhaps illustrate “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow),” a tune that translates elements of expressionist free jazz to voice and almost always alienates Beatles fans.
Lennon’s appearance at the concert, which celebrated ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, was a last-minute affair. He finally gave in to the pleas of promoter John Brower and jumped on a plane with Ono, Clapton, bassist Klaus Voorman, and drummer Alan White (who later replaced Bill Bruford in Yes) — and no set list.
What’s most fun is watching Lennon and Clapton — who plays a black Les Paul — tear through songs they half know, with Lennon grinding out nasty chords and Clapton tossing off fleet pentatonic solos on “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the kind of material that fueled the early Beatles.
These are preceded on the DVD by one-song performances culled from the sets of the formative rock legends who appeared before Lennon’s ensemble: Bo Diddly romping through his signature tune, Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out “Hound Dog,” and Little Richard squealing “Lucille” — all aces.
After the early rock numbers at the beginning of the Plastic Ono Band’s set Lennon delves into his own catalog with a rip-up of the Beatles “Yer Blues,” where he bites hard into his Casino’s strings to conjure gravel-throated riffs. And the group feels its way through his then-new “Cold Turkey” and “Give Peace a Chance” before diving into Ono’s improvised numbers, drawing on feedback and slashing chords to make their musical points.
The natural finish Casino Lennon plays for Live in Toronto was paid homage by Epiphone in 1999 as the John Lennon Revolution model, a historic recreation accurate right down to the pole position spacing of its biting P-90s single-coil pickups and the serial number stamped in its neck: #328393. Lennon’s 1965 Casino has the distinction of being one of the few guitars to be reissued in two incarnations, since it was originally acquired by Lennon in 1966 — and used on Revolver — as a sunburst model. The original version of the instrument, a match for George Harrison’s first Casino save for a Bigsby tailpiece, was reissued as the John Lennon Epiphone Casino, with the same exacting details.
For the record, two iconic Gibsons also played a major role in Lennon’s career. He used his acoustic J-160E, which he acquired in 1962, throughout the rest of his life. In 1967 the J-160E got a psychedelic paint job, but by 1969 it was stripped back to its original appearance, albeit with a volume and tone control for its pickup. That version was reissued by Gibson in 2002.
The other classic Lennon instrument is the modified ’50s Les Paul Junior he used for much of the ’70s. When Lennon acquired the guitar it was in original factory condition, with a tobacco sunburst finish, P-90s, and a wraparound tailpiece. Lennon had it sanded down to unfinished mahogany and replaced one of the pickups with a Charlie Christian. He also replaced the wraparound tailpiece with a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece before using the guitar for his classic 1972 Madison Square Garden concert. The Gibson Custom Shop created a painstakingly correct reissue of Lennon’s Junior in 2007.