Cell phone flashlights may have transcended the proverbial torch, but for decades fans attending concerts waved lighters in the air to cheer on their favorite band. It’s a phenomenon seen around the world, but as with the Sphynx cat and insulin, many may not know that the tradition originated right here in Toronto.
Toronto was a changing city in 1969, and so was the world around it. The Vietnam War continued, FLQ terrorists bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange, the Science Center opened in Toronto and the Beatles were on the brink of dissolution.
The looming collapse of what was then the world’s biggest music act was already evident in the form of breakaway solo acts like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band.
Lennon and Ono were among the performers at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival on September 13, 1969. The 12-hour show at Varsity Stadium included artists such as Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alice Cooper, The Doors, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard , a guest list that has since elevated the concert to legendary status among classic rock fans.
But despite all those big names to take the pressure off and the comparatively small 20,000-capacity crowd compared to the massive stadiums the Beatles sold out in on US tours, Lennon suffered from stage fright and needed a little coaxing to get out Stage.
Acclaimed producer and cult icon Kim Fowley was MC that night and had to get the Plastic Ono Band on stage quickly.
Struck by stage fright, the famously cool and collected John Lennon furiously hacked through a pack of darts backstage, but Fowley had an idea.
Fowley took the stage and addressed the audience with a simple request:
“Everyone, please get out your matches and lighters. I’ll be bringing out John Lennon and Eric Clapton in a minute, and when I do that I want you guys to light them up and give them a big reception in Toronto.”
It clearly worked, as the performance that followed went down in history as the live album Live Peace in Toronto 1969. It also introduced many to Yoko Ono’s signature screech, served up by a bag inexplicably placed over her head. Something that still defies explanation more than half a century later.
And with it, a rock ‘n’ roll tradition was born just steps from the St. George Subway Station, on familiar ground for many longtime Toronto residents.