Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Toronto Rock'n'Roll Revival!

Forty years ago today, Toronto saw what was undoubtedly one of its most rocking shows of all time - the Toronto Rock'n'Roll Festival, held at U of T's Varsity Stadium, hosted by the one and only Kim Fowley, with a bill designed to showcase the best of R'n'R both old and new.

Playing the 12-hour concert: Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Junior Walker and the All Stars, Tony Joe White, The Chicago Transit Authority, Alice Cooper, Cat Mother and the All Night News Boys, Doug Kershaw, Screaming Lord Sutch; local acts Whiskey Howl, Nucleus, and Milkwood; and headliner The Doors (their last show in Toronto, they were reportedly led in by the Vagabonds motorcycle gang, one hundred strong).

Aside from being the first show in which all four 'Kings of Rock'n'Roll' (that would be Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis) appeared on the same bill, the show was also where the whole "Alice Cooper kills chickens onstage" rumour got started, and may well have been the first show in which an audience were instructed - by Kim Fowley, remember - to 'hold up your lighters'!

Of course the concert is best known today for its surprise guest -- John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and The Plastic Ono Band (featuring one very doped-up Eric Clapton on lead guitar). Their recorded set went on to be released a few months later as "Live Peace in Toronto 1969", and may well have been responsible for Lennon's break-up of The Beatles.

Interestingly enough, it may have also inspired Lennon to continue the Rock'n'Roll Revival idea. In December 1969, he announced plans to stage a concert at Mosport Park, Barrie, which would include he, Elvis Presley, and possibly all the other Beatles. The concert ultimately didn't happen due to questions of whether it would be free or not. In 2007, it was revealed that the RCMP had been keeping tabs on the concert-planning all along.

But I digress.

Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker came up to Hogtown and shot the show. Unfortunately, his two-hour film Sweet Toronto (aka Keep On Rockin') has suffered a grim fate over the years, and is usually found nowadays cut to ribbons (down to 95 minutes by '73?) - with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis' sets reduced to one song apiece - and presented under some other title as a 50-minute showcase of mainly The Plastic Ono Band.

Oh well. Youtube gives us the majesty that is Bo Diddley performing his signature tune at the festival, footage Pennebaker understandably selected for the film's beginning, intercut with bikes and limos racing along the 401 to the show.

And here's an anecdote from Mr. Fowley about the day I found particularly funny:

Any incidents or problematic performers at the venue?

Kim Fowley:
One thing that happened was Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard all came up to me at the same time backstage, and [said] “We all think all four of us are the king of rock ’n’ roll and how you going to solve that problem in the introduction?” So, one became the king of jungle rock, one became the king of across-the-tracks rock, somebody became the grammar king rock, etc. and suddenly everybody had slightly different items of introductions.

They had concerns about billing since each one wanted to be the king of rock ’n’ roll that night, so I had to amend each mention. The visual of all four of them in front of me … egomaniacs whose time had passed demanding to be kings of rock ’n’ roll. And I was in a purple suit, white shoes and a green shirt and under age 30 and felt superior to all of them.

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