Atlantic City Pop Festival, August 1st - 3rd, 1969

Atlantic City Pop Festival, August 1st - 3rd, 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

Held from 1st to 3rd August 1969 in Atlantic City. 110,000 people turned up over 3 days to the Atlantic City racetrack to see a fine, very diverse line-up of bands. It was the first rock fest in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area and as such a really signficant event, even though history doesn't seem to credit it with much cultural heft. Maybe it's because just 40,000 turned up each day and went home at night, slept in their own bed, to return the following day. It was all neat and tidy and not a mass gathering of 400,000 of the best freaks America had to offer, the way Woodstock proved to be.   

Also, being on a racetrack isn't the most romantic of locations really. Hardly shouts counterculture the way being in a natural amphitheatre does. Even so, you paid your money for a ticket to sit in the stands, or you could buy one for the floor - and just roam around the track groovin' baby. If you chose the latter you were lucky as you may have got hosed down by water truck there to literally keep you cool in the hot summer temperatures. Being cool is cool, man, yeah.

The first day featured Joni, Aum, the Chambers Brothers, Iron Butterfly, Dr John, Mother Earth, Chicago and Procol Harum. CSNY and the Moody Blues were set to play, but didn't show. The stage was designed by notable physics and geodesic dome dude, Buckminster Fuller. Pictures show a wee thing really, surrounded by an ocean of people.

At $15 for three days of top flight rock music, it was pretty good value. During her set Joni was performing 'Cactus Tree' and sang one verse twice, then stopped and said, "I sang that verse twice, and no-one noticed" But, as crowds who are distracted by themselves tend to do, they ignored her and were not even paying attention enough to realise what she'd said. 

The sound system was in and out a bit and she blamed their lack of attention on that. But even when the PA was fixed, things were not any better, so she left the stage early in tears. Presumably, the crowd didn't even notice that, either! Playing delicate solo acoustic songs to a festival crowd became less and less easy to do as the gigs got bigger. You needed loud guitars and a sound system as big as a planet to keep people's attention. 

The weekend wasn't without some violence. A couple of thousand people climbed the fences on Saturday night. Getting in free had become a bit of a political statement to some, to other's it music! Security was virtually non-existent, so perhaps it was surprising that more trouble didn't break out. 

Other performers that weekend included regular festival favourites Jefferson Airplane, CCR, Butterfield Blues band, BB King, Janis, Santana (their first east coast appearance and introduced by Janis and Mama Cass), Joe Cocker, Canned Heat and Three Dog Night. Johnny Winter was on the bill but had some unspecified equipment problems so didn't play but Little Richard filled in for him and tore it up. He often played festivals, even though you'd think he was somewhat out of place, the freaks loved his wild performances and he loved their inhibition and predilection to get it on, which doubtless matched his own. And of course, everyone knows his tunes.

CSN had pulled out with Nash claiming he had polyps on his tonsils even though he played Woodstock two weeks later - a case of quick healing polyps, apparently.

None of these sets seems to have been recorded and had official releases, but if you search YouTube you can find Janis's and Chicago's sets. After it was all over, the city fathers and Chambers Of Commerce, who had largely been in favour of the festival seemed to take against the idea of staging another, passing laws to prevent it. Boo, you squares!

Stories in the local papers began to run the usual 'drug orgy' stories (which rarely had much substance - as though a drug orgy was always such a bad thing, anyway, as opposed to Mr & Mrs Straight getting loaded on booze and fighting) ensured no other festival was held in the New Jersey area in that era.

This was a huge festival but it has somehow avoided going down in rock n roll history as a big deal. It’s most likely because it was overshadowed by the events of a couple of weekends later in upstate New York.

Crowds didn’t storm the site to make it a free festival. No freaky hippie girls got naked and went skinny dipping. No-one dropped flowers from helicopters. No nuns flashed the peace sign. No one died. No groovy babies were born. It didn’t close the Interstate due to people trying to get to the fest. It was not declared a disaster area. And Joni Mitchell didn’t write a song about it. But even so, in many ways this was a more diverse festival even than Woodstock. If it had been filmed and recorded then maybe its legend would have gone down in history. 

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