Denver Pop Festival, Mile High Stadium, June 1969

Denver Pop Festival, Mile High Stadium, June 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

Held between 27 - 29 June 1969, this festival went down in festival history as one of the most brutal with pitched battles between cops and kids.

The ALF leaders wanted to get festival-goers to join their ranks, one of the first instances of outright politicisation of the counter culture. City leaders didn't like the idea of this at all, and drew up plans to prevent it happening by enticing festival campers to pitch up at the local baseball ground rather than in the park where the demos were to be held. Free transport would take them to the gig.

Ticket prices were $6 per day, or $15 for all three days on 27th to 29th June.

The Denver Pop Festival was promoted by Barry Fey, the leading dude in the area and a man who had put gigs on at Red Rocks and Denver Auditorium. The festival was to be held in Mile High Stadium; it made sense because all the facilities were already there so all Fey had to do was stage the music and take the tickets. That was the theory anyway.

There were high expectations for the Festival; it was commonly called the "First Annual" Denver Pop Festival. The peak attendance was estimated at 50,000, though on Sunday when it was declared a free festival, that number may have been higher.

The line up was headed by Jimi Hendrix, along with CCR, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Poco, Iron Butterfly, Willie Mae 'Big Mama' Thornton, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter and one of the first appearances by The Mothers Of Invention. Incidentally, Zephyr were also on the bill, a local band featuring a young Tommy Bolin. They turned up unannounced and filled-in when someone didn't show.
Thornton opened the gig on Friday night, followed by The Flock - featuring violinist Jerry Goodman who was to later play with Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Then came Three Dog Night, The Mothers and Iron Butterfly.

Everything seemed cool with only a couple of gate-crashing incidents for the Police to deal with. The music was loud so many ticket-less fans just hung around outside to groove anyway. The ALF passed out literature but there was no hassle. Often not understood many years later is how indifferent a lot of rock crowds were to the political side of things preferring their revolution to be a private one, rather than rising up and taking over. It was a mistake that the authorities made too when they kept banning festivals, scared that hundreds of thousands of crazed dope-smoking revolutionaries would storm the barricades and force respectable people to have sex on the lawn. Maybe, a small part of them, hoped that was true. In truth, most were nice middle-class, well-mannered kids.

The good vibes all changed on Saturday evening. The gig was due to start at 6.30pm. Fans with tickets were let in at 5.30 and while that was happening, a large crowd had gathered at the south end of the stadium. They charged the fence, only to be repelled by Police and security, however several hundred managed to get in. By 7.30pm another large group had gathered by the main gate. Police reinforcements arrived in riot gear which only provoked people more and a hail of bottles and rocks were thrown at the cops, while those who had got in for free began to attack the security from inside the stadium. Bad scene, man.

When one cop was floored by a wine bottle, the tear gas was brought out and fired at the mob who simply threw the canisters back. In what sounds like a scene from the Simpsons, the prevailing wind then took the gas into the stadium which understandably upset the fans who were at the time watching Johnny Winter. Panic broke out and Barry Fey, under pressure from the Denver Police Chief, opened the gates up and let everyone outside in for free.

Barry was understandably not a happy man, and was angry that the Police hadn't kept control, what the hell were they there for? Now a precedent had been set for Sunday night, and another big crowd gathered, demanding to get in free.

This time, the cops, feeling like they'd been humiliated by a bunch of students and long-haired freaks the previous night, were determined not to give in. Retaliation was in the air. Police dogs surrounded the stadium, an extra platoon of cops in riot gear was deployed, and a thing called a pepper-fog machine was on hand to pump tear gas and skin-burning mace into the air. Everything you need for a good night of rock n roll, eh?! Mace me, baby, said no-one.

This provoked the crowd to throw more rocks, which in turn provoked the police to use the pepper-fog like a machine gun, mowing down their enemy. As kids tried to get away they were billy-clubbed and arrested. Violence was rife on all sides. Who was to blame? It wasn't easy to say; one thing was for sure, no one was innocent. However, many in the alternative community felt that the authorities were simply scared of what they saw as the threat of the counter culture and that the 'straight' town officials just totally over-reacted and panicked.

Fey was under pressure from the cops to open the gates again to stop more trouble and again he gave in. Over 3,000 gate-crashed and caught the end of Hendrix's set. He played Purple Haze and legged it as a wave of gatecrashers poured across the field towards the stage. It was to be the Experience's last ever performance, Noel Redding left right after.

The whole festival was a disaster and city fathers said it would be the first and last festival the city ever put on because it was impossible to control such large scale events. However, only 50,000 (at most) had actually attended at any one time so it was far from a big sprawling festival such as Woodstock which would happen a few weeks later.

However, the idea of containing a festival within a stadium was an idea that was not dead and it would be resurrected in the 70s to greater effect because it offered the chance to regulate and control fans with more sensitive policing.

In hindsight, it's easy to see how and why the authorities got this wrong. Left-wing activists, mixed with a bunch of long-haired kids and freaks looked like revolution to some people; the end of the American way. It wasn't, of course, and it was never going to be - most just wanted to have a good time and get their dose of rock n roll.

No one came out of this one with much honour. The set that Hendrix played - which is of course available as a bootleg - is very, very good though. But it must have been hard to dig it when your eyes are streaming with tear gas!

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