A one-day rock festival was held at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium Sep. 13, 1969, less than a month after the Woodstock Music Festival took place on a farm outside Bethel, New York. One festival quickly became iconic. The other was mostly forgotten.
What became known as Revival 69 featured such legends of rock ’n roll as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. The headliners were The Doors, at the height of their popularity—and notoriety. The international headline grabber, however, was the surprise appearance of John Lennon along with his new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, backed by what became known as the Plastic Ono Band.
I kind of stumbled into it, but was one of the more than twenty thousand people at Varsity Stadium that Saturday—how I helped make rock ’n roll history. I had no idea that anything historic was going on, and neither, I suspect, did most of the crowd in attendance.
The festival for the first time brought together an eclectic group of performers—Chicago was also there, so was Alice Cooper. Most notably, it marked the first time John Lennon performed onstage without the Beatles. A week after he returned to London, he formally quit the group.
Concert footage was shot by D.A. Pennebaker, the renowned documentary filmmaker who did the landmark Bob Dylan film, Dont Look Back. Pennebaker actually put a movie together but despite his towering reputation, apparently no one was interested in a documentary that heavily featured old rockers. The footage languished for years. The concert was all but forgotten. For me, it was a dim memory. Life moved on.
Yet over the years, the festival quietly took on an almost mythical status. It became known as Toronto’s Woodstock. Rolling Stone called it “the second most important event in rock ’roll history.” Who knew?
Now Toronto documentary filmmaker Ron Chapman has tracked down the lost Pennebaker footage, added contemporary interviews with many of the participants, and created Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World, a superb account of the festival, its stars, and how it came to be.
The performance footage is terrific but what makes Revival 69 unique among concert films is the way Chapman weaves in the behind-the-scenes drama of two maverick Toronto promoters, John Brower and Ken Walker, working against all odds to wrestle success out of what initially looked like a disaster.
The story of how at the last possible moment they convinced John Lennon and Yoko Ono to put together a band and come to Toronto, alone is worth the price of admission. Thrown together overnight, the Plastic Ono Band, which included Eric Clapton, rehearsed at the back of the plane on the way to Toronto. The first time they played together was when they stepped on stage at Varsity Stadium.
I spoke with Chapman in connection with the virtual showing of Revival 69 this weekend at the Milton Film Festival. He pointed out that what Brower and Walker were able to pull off with John and Yoko Ono could never happen today considering the layers of security and management surrounding most performers.
My memory of the concert is of great excitement at Lennon’s sudden appearance, followed by disappointment as Yoko Ono took over, keening loudly and then wailing. Not knowing anything about the crazy, unlikely circumstances surrounding how Lennon and company got there, their performance looked pretty ragged. But, hey, it was John Lennon, the first and last time most of us ever saw him in person.
The veterans, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry, in my memory, stole the show. The headliners, The Doors, appeared last, and whether it was the lateness of the hour or the audience’s restless exhaustion, or a combination of both, Jim Morrison and his bandmates more or less bombed.
Somewhat guiltily, I must admit that for the twenty-year-old me attending the second most important event in rock history, my most vivid memory is of the guy in front of me dancing with his girlfriend while the Doors sang “Light My Fire.” Suddenly, the girlfriend literally threw her boyfriend onto the ground and pounced on him, yanking down his jeans. In the midst of the crowd, as Morrison tried “to set the night on fire,” she proceeded to do just that.
As soon as they finished, seemingly unfazed, they jumped to their feet and resumed dancing. If I wasn’t a memorable part of rock ’n roll history, they certainly were.
(Revival 69: The Concert That Rocked the World is available to stream online at the Milton Film Festival, Jan 25 to Jan 31. The festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary, this weekend is presenting a great film lineup both virtually and with in-person screenings at the FirstOntario Arts Centre Milton. For more information click on the link below: