Music

Klaus Voormann’s Reflects on His ‘Ridiculous’ Concert With John Lennon & Yoko Ono in 1969

In the rock history, the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in 1969 is legendary. But for Klaus Voormann, who played bass in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, it was something of “a joke.”

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The story of the band’s ad hoc first concert on Sept. 13, 1969, at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium has been oft told, and is the subject of a new documentary, Ron Chapman’s Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World, out now via a variety of platforms.

Using footage shot on that day by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, it chronicles how festival organizers, fretting over low tickets sales and indebted to a motorcycle gang financier, put in a last-minute call to England and convinced Lennon to agree to fly from London to Toronto on short notice and play on the same bill as his rock n’ roll heroes — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent and more — as well as the Doors and Chicago.

Lennon, however, had no band, so he rounded up a crew that included Eric Clapton (after Beatles mate George Harrison declined), Voormann — a friend from the Beatles’ early Hamburg days who designed the album cover for Revolver and was playing in Manfred Mann — and fledgling drummer Alan White, whom he saw play in a London club (and who famously hung up on Lennon’s first phone call). With minimal rehearsal — a bit on the plane ride over and backstage — the troupe played a rough and tumble set of covers, The Beatles’ “Yer Blues,” Lennon’s not-yet recorded “Cold Turkey” and “Give Peace a Chance,” as well as two Ono songs, including the lengthy, free-form “John John (Let’s Hope For Peace).”

As Lennon’s first full-scale concert performance since the Beatles’ last show on Aug. 29, 1966, in San Francisco, it was a bit loose, and it’s preserved on the Live Peace in Toronto 1969 album released three months later. With Revival69‘s release, Billboard spoke to Voormann — who also appears in the film and played on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album that followed in 1970 — to recount his memories of the auspicious event.

An Unexpected Call

“John called me, and he never called me before, not so much. He’d seen me play bass and he knew I played for Manfred Mann, but I had never played for him or anything. So out of the blue he called me and said, ‘I’m putting a band together. It’s called the Plastic Ono Band. You want to play bass in the band?’ And I said, sort of, ‘What’s this Plastic Ono Band?’ I had no idea what was gonna happen, and I’d never met Yoko, so it was really very strange.

“So he said, ‘Well, Eric Clapton is going to do it, and we’ve got a little drummer in mind called Alan White.’ I didn’t know who he was, just a kid. ‘That’s it, just the four of us and Yoko and we are the Plastic Ono Band.’ I said ‘OK, let’s do it’ and (Lennon) says, ‘Great. I’ll see you at the airport tomorrow!’ (laughs)

“He just jumped into the cold water, not knowing what was gonna happen, no rehearsal. We didn’t know what we were going to play…but here’s the Plastic Ono Band and we go to Toronto to this festival tomorrow. We didn’t have any stage performance. We didn’t know what songs John was gonna do. He said, ‘Well, there’s Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and all these great (artists) and we are just playing rock n’ roll.’ And I thought it was a little far-fetched. This is John Lennon, who played in the Beatles, and this is the first time he’s gonna be out there and presenting something new, and…we just go on stage and play? How does somebody like John Lennon get out there with a band that never played together?

“So we went to the airport, and before we got onto the plane we stood there and we were waiting for Eric Clapton and nobody could find Eric. It was getting really close to (boarding); John said, ‘Well, if he isn’t here in 10 minutes, we’re gonna go home,’ and then Yoko says, ‘No, no, no, let’s do it. It’s for peace. We’ve got to do it.’ So Terry Doran, who was sort of the road manager, he actually got a hold of Eric. He was asleep. I don’t think he realized that this thing is really going to happen. So he came and we all got on the plane, and the plane was very full. It was packed.”

The Friendly Skies

“We were lucky; they arranged for us to sit in the last row of the plane, which was right next to the engines, and it was really loud back there. John and Yoko were in first class, but he came back and we tried to (rehearse) a little bit. It was just hilarious, just a joke, trying to rehearse the songs. I played an electric bass, no amplifier. John had a semi-acoustic guitar, Eric had a semi-acoustic guitar. It was maybe a little bit of John singing “Money (That’s What I Want)” or something like that. But there was no rehearsal. We all knew the songs, yes, of course. We could play any rock n’ roll — I could, Eric could, Alan White had no idea if he could. (laughs) It was just a joke, really. Just a joke.

“We all didn’t know Yoko at all — Eric didn’t, I didn’t, Alan White didn’t. John did, of course, but I don’t know if he knew exactly what Yoko was gonna do. So when we were on the plane and rehearsing for maybe an hour, Yoko came down the aisle, ‘Can we rehearse my song now?’ And John stood up: ‘Come on, Yoko, let’s have a cup of tea.’ He didn’t even let us hear what she had in mind. He didn’t tell us what song we were gonna do, what noises we were gonna do. We had no idea.

“We came off the plane, got into the cars, the limousines, and the motorbikes were escorting us to the stadium. We went in the stadium and went back into the dressing room, and we had one amplifier for the three of us, and the drummer. There was no bass drum, just a snare and a hi-hat and a cymbal. That’s all there was. So it was another Mickey Mouse attempt to have a rehearsal. So had a bit of rehearsal and one person who came in I recognized — that was Gene Vincent. But apart from him I just walked up to the stage, went up on the stage, did the whole concert, went back to the dressing room, got my clothes, packed the bass into a case and got back into the limousine and we were off. I didn’t see anybody. I can’t tell you about any conversations with other musicians or anything. I didn’t see any of those. John, of course, they were all getting on his case, but I was completely out of that. People were not interested in Klaus Voormann. It wasn’t important to me, either, so I was happy to get out of this place.

“I think (Lennon) only really realized what he was doing when we were there, just about to get up on stage. He had his lovely white suit on and we were walking (to the stage) and he said, ‘Wait a second’ and went in the corner, and he puked. He threw up. He was very, very nervous. He didn’t even have a very good voice. HIs voice was nearly gone. So there we were with a singer, John, going up there and not having a strong voice and we just walked on the stage and played.”

Rock n’ Roll Revived

“I felt sorry for John. He really felt out of place on stage, when I see it now. John never was a frontman on stage. People don’t realize (that) when you’re with a band you may do a little bit of saying, ‘Here’s the next number…’ He was never the frontman who was actually organizing a stage persona. He never had that. He was doing ‘Cold Turkey,’ and it was such a stupid version, the way we played it. When I heard the song I was so excited; ‘We can go in the studio and make a great version of this song!’ And later on we did. I loved the record but what he played on stage was just terrible…and the audience didn’t applaud. John was dreaming, ‘Wake up!’ Telling people to wake up and participate.

“And then, of course, the big surprise came when suddenly…we had no idea if Yoko was singing classic opera or what she was gonna do. Suddenly this screaming started. ‘What’s this?!’ We couldn’t believe it. It was just…ridiculous. John said, ‘Well, when Yoko’s number comes we kind of play an E chord,’ so we played in E and just fiddled around on our instruments. We had no idea what was gonna happen. So we were just improvising, making strange noises on the guitar, on the strings. And I had flat-wound strings, so I couldn’t do many noises. If I would’ve had a flute or any crazy instrument I could’ve improvised something, but with my bass there was not much I can do.

“I knew that Yoko very much wanted to come to spread the message of peace, which is a very nice thing to do. So you had her lying there (on the stage) and she was really like a dying bird. She was croaking, making all these noises. I was standing behind her, and I could really see this woman was really trying as hard as she can out of her little body to let the people know there’s a war going on and people are dying and bombs are falling, and that was the feeling I got out of it. The audience didn’t quite get it, of course. They wanted to see John and they didn’t care about Yoko, and suddenly there was this woman making these noises.

“And Yoko is amazing. She had no…how can I say it? At that particular time she had no feeling for an audience. The charisma that comes across if a Little Richard gets up there or a Chuck Berry, they have their tricks to get the audience, and she had no idea what stage presence really was. She learned that much later, but at the time, no. And of course you had a rock n’ roll audience, not an artistic type of audience. People wanted to hang out and have a party, and then there’s Yoko trying to spread that message. It was really tough. I’m really proud of her that she actually did this. When you see the documentaries you can at least see the effort she was making to tell the people, ‘Please make peace.’ That’s what she was trying to do.”

No Encore

“I think we pretty much soon forgot about it and didn’t even talk much about it. All I remember is after (the show) we drove a long drive in a limousine to a huge mansion of some guy, it must’ve been the guy who put the concert together. He had a golf course in his garden, and I remember Terry Doran driving a golf cart and said, ‘This f–king thing doesn’t pull the d-ck off a chocolate mouse!’ (laughs) It was so slow and he wanted to ride pretty quick on it. I remember sitting at a swimming pool and somebody took some photos. We had fun. We were laughing. But there was no talk about the concert or anything. We were just ready to go back home.”

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