1969 - The Year Of The Festival

1969 - The Year Of The Festival
Authored By John Nicholson

1969 was The Year. More rock festivals were staged in 1969 than in any other. From humble alternative community beginnings, 1969 saw the emerging Rock Biz decide to pour it's collective money, energy and belief into Big Events. The trouble was, it was a new industry and so the people who wanted to be promoters hadn't the first clue about how to organise, let alone look after, 150,000 people for 3 days. On top of that, some promoters were major stoners and that doesn't help with organisation, exactly. It was a period of extraordinary naivety but also huge ambition. There was no template to follow. No book on how to do it. You had to make it for yourself.

In America alone, over one million people attended festivals in 1969. It was a tidal wave of long-haired kids, mostly under 25, mostly disaffected with the plastic fantastic American Dream they'd been sold, searching for something to fill the cultural void that not having faith in materialism as both the journey and destination in life had left. That was, really, a beautiful thing.

In a way, it was such a noble period. No-one had a clue what was really going on. Was it revolution? Was it peace and love winning the day? Were the freaks taking over? Was it the dawning of the age of Aquarius or was it just a bunch of kids wanting to get high, get laid and to rock n roll? No-one knew. Not bands, promoters or audiences.

Right-wing reactionaries thought it was communism. It wasn't. Others, even the straights, saw something beautiful in what was going on. Time and again, Mr and Mrs Normal, after being sold the idea that the hippie people was an army of doped degenerates found that, in reality the kids had such nice manners. You can see it in the Woodstock movie which features one touching moment after another, as the older generation, whilst admitting they don't know what is going on, feel that it's important their youth find themselves. Right down to the guy cleaning the toilets, there is little feeling that the festival scene is an evil thing That Must Be Stopped.

Some of the coolest people in the Woodstock movie are the straightest people, from Max Yasgur right down to the nun throwing the peace sign. It's legacy is that we must all dig each other as we find the road we want to walk in life, no matter how different we are and how disparate our dreams. There was a brief moment when most understood this. It looks remarkable now that we live in an age of such divides and cultural wars but it did happen.

Everyone was inventing the scene on the spot, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. In trying to understand and appreciate this short period in history, it's important to appreciate this factor - it was all virgin territory. No rock industry existed. The record companies were run by straight people who'd grown up on Sinatra and dance band orchestras. They hadn't a clue what to do with the someone like the Grateful Dead. It was outside of their cultural universe.

When Warner Brothers exec Joe Smith went to see what the Dead were doing with the $100,000 they'd given the band to make Anthem Of The Sun, he found Phil Lesh in the recording studio trying to record the sound of 'thick air.' Seriously. Smith later reported up the chain that Lesh was probably clinically insane. Well, of course. That's why he's a genius, but corporate America had seen nothing like this. They 100 per cent knew that this could be turned into big bucks but in '69 they were still working out how to do it. By '72, they'd got with the programme, by '74 it was a lock down. But in '69, all bets were off.

One of the reasons this was such a lovely period of time was that these festivals were not brought to you by preferred partners or corporate sponsors. There were no VIP tickets, no grotesque invite to 'party like a rock star'. Your money didn't buy you nuthin' buddy, because, simply, there was nothing to buy. No souvenirs, t-shirts or over-priced vegan soul food served by someone with a henna tattoo.

You paid $10 maybe, or maybe you didn't, you sat in a field and you let the damn thing happen to you. The festival in 1969 was often a physically brutal experience, policed by bad ass bikers on drugs and took place in weather which, one way or another, hurt your body. It was so far from the sanitised version of existence that we know so well in 2023 but you came away knowing one thing for sure: you were alive.

Those who went to these gatherings were warriors on the edge of a new culture, peering over into a new uncharted land. It wouldn't take long for The Man to work it out. It wouldn't take long for capitalism to figure that nothing sells like weekend rebellion. But in '69 that was all still ahead.

The average festival in '69 attracted an incredible 100,000-150,000 people. A small affair was a mere 50,000. Woodstock pulled maybe half a million people into upstate New York and in doing so made history and became a perennial counterculture zeitgeist whose beacon, for good or bad, has never really been extinguished. Those three days on Yasgur's Farm echo down the years still, as each generation sees the footage and is inspired to...well...to live...and not to just exist.

Oh 69, 69, 69, man. It was all going on in 69. As demand grew, so did the performers fees. Rolling Stone reported that Jimi had got $100k for his set at Newport '69 in SoCal. Whether that's true or not is hard to tell but the promoter lashed out $285,000 for bands. So, y'know, maybe. Jimi only got $18,000 for Woodstock, that's pretty much a matter of public record. But even so, this was great economics for bands. You turned up stoned, you played for an hour, hung out with groovy people and you went home rich. Musicians who'd never made a bean were earning bread for the first time.

This had a profound effect on the industry. Why bother to play a small hall or club for a few grand when you could play the festivals and clean up big? It meant venues like the Fillmore East and West would eventually struggle to pull the bands that were once only too happy to play there for the fees they could afford to pay. It was when The Band wanted $50K from the Fillmore East that Bill Graham decided to shut them down. It was out of hand. The economics of rock n roll were changing and changing profoundly and it was the culture of festivals that helped change happen.

And it wasn't just the fees that bands could earn that festivals changed. Record sales would take an uptick every time a big festival happened. After the 69 Texas International Pop Festival, Grand Funk Railroad's sales in Dallas went off the scale. One store alone selling 2,200 copies of their new album in a week and ordering 6,000 more. This, repeated nationwide, helped record sales grow massively. It led to a weird conflict, though. Local Good Folk didn't want dirty hippie and their freaky friends copulating in their yard, but everyone else in town knew it was great for business. Stores sold out of everything.

Record stores would enjoy a sales boom. In America especially, with it's sworn dedication to turning a dollar wherever and when ever it can, it was a gulf that was, in 69, hard to bridge. Woodstock really only got put on because Max Yasgur made a powerful case to the good folk of Bethel that the area would get a huge economic boost. And boy, was he right.

The major festivals just kept on coming starting with SoCal's Newport 69 in June followed by Denver, Newport Jazz on Rhode island, Atlanta, Seattle, Atlantic City, New Orleans, Texas International, Sky River 2, Woodstock and finally the evil that was Altamont. They were the big kahunas, but there were many, many more smaller festivals. Bands like the Dead, Airplane, QMS, Grand Funk Railroad, Johnny Winter, the Allmans and many more basically toured the festival circuit for months on end.

We live in cynical times were everything is repackaged and resold to us as a new wonderful thing. In the 21st century we are weary and we are suspicious. We worry and strongly suspect everyone's motives about everything. Back in 69, man, no-one felt like that about the scene There was the hope of the new, of the different and of the radical. The festival was it's finest expression, for all its many deep flaws. We will never see the like of those days 1969 days again.

It was hopelessly naive and yet beautifully optimistic. It was disastrous in so many ways and yet it brought out the best in people. The Year Of The Festival was a fork in the road; a point of departure. Nothing would be the same afterwards and we can still look to it for inspiration in the 21st century. Sift the good from the bad, the practical from the silly. 69 was the dawning of the age of Aquarius and the sun still hasn't set on it quite yet.

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