This June marks the 50th anniversary of the release of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Some Time in New York City, both a testament to the city to which they had recently moved and a statement on various political issues and causes they championed as they continued their musical and artistic collaboration with a vast accompanying group, the Plastic Ono Band. The double album contains these songs on its first two sides; meanwhile, the final two sides feature recordings of two concerts that the Plastic Ono Band played before the album’s sessions had started, including an appearance at London’s Lyceum Ballroom on Dec. 15, 1969 in support of UNICEF. For that performance, Lennon and Ono managed to assemble a large group of rock luminaries, including Lennon’s Beatle bandmate George Harrison, guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voorman, drummer Alan White, keyboardist Billy Preston and (later on during the concert) Who drummer Keith Moon to play what Lennon would later refer to as “the most fantastic music I’ve ever heard.”
The set only includes two songs, both released as a Plastic Ono Band single two months before the concert: “Cold Turkey,” excerpted in full at around eight minutes and “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow),” which lasts approximately 16 minutes. These 16 minutes already exude the energy and improvisation of a protracted jam, but they have been edited down from their original form: the full version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” actually lasted over 40 minutes. Even with most of the rendition missing, though, this truncated version still spirals into a discordant yet oddly hypnotic combination of vocals, guitars and horns barreling towards nothing short of utter catharsis. Yet even with all of these elements, what stands out more and more as one listens to the song again is the drumming of Alan White, who passed away on May 26 at the age of 72.
Only 20 years old in December 1969, the Lyceum Ballroom concert marked White’s second performance with the Plastic Ono Band. Before that, he and the rest of the group had performed three months before at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Festival and played the same songs they would play at the Lyceum, albeit with shorter runtimes; intriguingly, his participation almost did not occur when, sure that a call from John Lennon asking him to perform with a new group must be a prank, he immediately hung up. He finally acquiesced once Lennon called again, going to Canada and contributing to the first live solo performance by a member of The Beatles.
Named for Ono’s young daughter, “Don’t Worry Kyoko” combines a heavy rock sound and experimentalism that many audiences reacted to with incredulity and ridicule, especially at the Lyceum. Through the raucous chaos of endlessly repeating blues-tinged guitar riffs devolving into wailing, distorted notes and Ono’s vocalizations and screams weaving around a robust saxophone part, White’s drumming continues doggedly along, joining in the unpredictable soundscape but not surrendering itself to it in the same way some of the other parts do, anchoring the instrumentation while nevertheless providing variations to underscore the rest of the musicians more overtly descending into glorious hysterics.
By all accounts, it was great — but it also kept going for over half an hour. At that point, though, White and fellow drummer Jim Gordon thought of an elegantly simple solution: “We began to speed up to bring it to an end,” he would later recall. “But we just got faster and faster and nobody wanted to stop. It was so fast that our muscles were aching. I was just about thinking, ‘For Christ’s sake, stop it,’ when it just sort of finished.” In those final moments, any and all restraint within the performance vanishes, until the rest of the group finally fails to keep up with White before all collectively deciding to end then and there. With that, he made his mark indelibly on a performance that remains one of the least known pivotal moments in Beatles and rock history. From there, White’s career continued to unfold meteorically; his time with the Plastic Ono Band led to appearances on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Imagine, and soon after that, he was asked to join the band Yes, where he remained until his death and played on songs such as “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” While never becoming as well-known as some of the musicians he played with, his drumming graced some of the most famous songs of the 20th century; that persistence and humility shape his legacy, which, if anything else, contains a strange yet unforgettable concert at the intersection of experimentation and improvisation in rock. His contributions to the popular soundscape of rock and beyond remain for all of us to remember and enjoy, timeless and unlikely to be matched.
John Colie is a rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. He currently serves as Arts & Culture Editor on The Sun’s 140th Editorial board.