'REVIVAL69' Chronicles the Toronto Festival that Changed Music History

Directed by Ron Chapman

Starring John Brower, Ken Walker, Alice Cooper, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, Danny Seraphine

BY Liam McPhersonPublished Dec 15, 2022

"It was a non-event until, all of a sudden, it was the biggest thing in the world," says John Brower.

Ron Chapman's newest documentary, REVIVAL69: The Concert That Rocked the World, follows John Brower and Ken Walker, two concert promoters in their early 20s, as they organize the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival music festival. Held in September 1969 at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium, the festival featured classic rock 'n' rollers from the 1950s, including Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Gene Vincent, as well as contemporary acts the Doors, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Chicago and Alice Cooper.

Brower remains surprised that Toronto Rock and Roll Revival even happened. REVIVAL69 chronicles the tension-laden events leading up to the festival, including its near-cancellation. By 1969, most of the 1950s rockers Brower and Walker invited were playing on the Las Vegas Strip and had fallen out of contemporary favour. With a week to go and just 2,000 tickets sold, Brower and Walker invited the Doors to perform. Nervous investors weren't convinced, and discussed backing out of the festival.

With the future of the show in doubt, festival MC and American record producer Kim Fowley launched into a hotel room tirade. "If [this festival] was at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, it would be sold out!" he bellowed, cajoling Brower and Walker into inviting John Lennon to perform as a last-ditch effort to save the show. It seemed like a crazy idea, and no one, not even Brower and Walker, believed Lennon would show up, as he had not played a live show since the Beatles's 1966 U.S. tour. Lennon's appearance in Toronto was uncertain until the morning of the festival. After first cancelling, he changed his mind upon hearing that Eric Clapton was on his way to play guitar in his Plastic Ono Band. 

REVIVAL69 highlights the consequential intersection of Toronto Rock and Roll Revival with Lennon's career. Fresh off his "bed-in" demonstrations for peace earlier in the year, including one held in Montreal, Lennon viewed the show as an ideal launchpad for his and Yoko Ono's new material. It was also a chance for Lennon to gain confidence as a solo performer, and his appearance at the festival was a catalyst for the Beatles' breakup. "I told [drummer] Alan [White] I was leaving, I told Eric [Clapton] I was leaving. I announced it to myself and the people around me," reflected Lennon some time after. Indeed, he was so energized by his performance at Rock and Roll Revival that he quit the Beatles a week later.

Some rock historians remember Toronto Rock and Roll Revival as a footnote in John Lennon's career. What REVIVAL69 does so well is demonstrate that the festival was not some obscure historical nugget, but a significant event in music history. In fact, Toronto Rock and Roll Revival served as a critical launchpad for the careers of several new artists: an acid-fired Geddy Lee and future disco queen Claudja Barry were in attendance, and Chicago appeared in the wake of their early hit, "25 or 6 to 4." 

Alice Cooper threw a live chicken into the audience during his set, starting the now-widely-known urban myth that he bit its head off and cementing his reputation as a concert spectacle. Recalls Barry, "I just remember [Cooper] had half a watermelon and I didn't know why. It was just so chaotic. I thought, 'Somebody's gonna die.'" Finally, Lennon made his live debut as a solo artist, backed by future Yes drummer Alan White and guitar phenom Eric Clapton.

Toronto Rock and Roll Revival left a lasting impression on Torontonians, too, including those who were lucky enough to play on stage. Local drummer Danny Taylor's huge smile is prominently featured as he backs Chuck Berry. Hughie Leggat, a local guitarist, remembers playing with Berry as well, and seeing a familiar face off stage: "I look to my right and there's [Doors frontman] Jim Morrison watching us."

REVIVAL69 is at its most effective when it underlines the ephemeral nature of the festival. Held at the end of the 1960s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, with musicians from the past, present and future, Toronto Rock and Roll Revival promoted world peace via rock music. While it's hard to determine whether Brower and Walker's vision succeeded in achieving world peace, it's impossible to ignore the historical significance of that hot summer night in Toronto, where careers came to a close just as others were getting started.
(Photon Films)

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