Newport Pop Festival, Costa Mesa, California 1968

Newport Pop Festival, Costa Mesa, California 1968
Authored By John Nicholson

Originally scheduled to be held inside the Orange County Fairgrounds in an outdoor pavilion. The fairgrounds are on Newport Boulevard, just a short distance from Newport Beach (hence the name).

Advance ticket sales were triple of what was expected, and it became evident that no area inside the fairgrounds could hold even 25,000 people, let alone the near 100,000 now predicted. In the last three days before the show, it was moved to one of the adjoining parking lots of the fairgrounds. Fencing, staging, sanitation, and food concessions had to be organized within just three days. This must've been very stressful and probably explains some of the failures. 

None of the commercial concessionaires were prepared for the event, and they all ran out of food and drink halfway through the first day, but early August in SoCal is hot and unremittingly sunny, this meant it was a sizzling, shadowless place to sit and watch rock music for two days.

As the crowds came, the site turned into a dust bowl. It was over 90 degrees and by noon on the first day, all the water on the site had been consumed. 

This was classic early festival bad planning by promoters. They just didn't allow for enough supplies of anything - water, food, sanitation. Penny-pinching combined with naivety and downright stupidity made this quickly become a dangerous situation. Worse still, no camping was provided. So people turned up on the Friday and there was nowhere to crash. Consequently, they found their way to the beach in Newport (which I'm sure the good straight, rich folk really didn't like at all), only to be moved on by the police.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. Costa Mesa officials spotted a disaster was about to happen and allowed a 32-acre site on the fair ground to be used for a campsite. They brought in toilets and water. Well, it's just as well someone was playing at being a grown-up, wasn't it?

But still more people arrived, topping out at 100,000, just sitting there in the heat and the dust, surrounded by their own garbage. Lovely. Is this the future, man? I hope not, dude.

Harvey "Humble Harve" Miller, a Top 40 disc jockey for 93 KHJ-AM in Los Angeles, was hired to promote the show and hosted the event with Wavy Gravy. Ah good old Wavy.

A lot of youngsters came and got stoned and generally found it hard to handle the vibe, often crashing in amongst litter on the site or just staring, slack-jawed into the middle distance. It was a really bad scene for a while. Stoned is good. Zombied is not. Over 25% arrested on drugs charges were minors. These were early festival days and no-one, not fans nor officials, knew what was going on and how to handle it. Some in attendance thought this was The Revolution. A gathering of the tribes. But it wasn't. It was just a big field of stoned people. 

The music started on Saturday afternoon and while the facilities at the site may have been shambolic, reports suggest some bands really brought their A game. Canned Heat were there on the first day, as were Country Joe and the Fish, the Electric Flag and the Butterfield Blues Band. Wow! Can you imagine? That's a killer quartet.

OK, Sonny and Cher did their thing too - which seems very weird now, but they were popular in 66 with their big hit 'I Got you Babe'. however, by 1968, flying in by chopper and with Sonny Bono looking like a narc in hippie fancy dress, it didn't go down well. They were booed off and generally regarded as plastic.

Festival faves, the Chambers Brothers also played as did stalwarts, the James Cotton Blues Band. Weirdly though, it was Tiny Tim, the kind of freak who only the late 60s could ever have found a niche for, who was the big festival hit. He performed 'On The Good Ship Lollipop' through a megaphone - as you do. The crowd loved him. Maybe he reflected the messed-up nature of the event. Unthreatening and good-natured, maybe he was ideal for a crowd who were, to say the least, uncomfortable and hassled.

Sunday's show was highlighted by sets by Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly who played the epic, doubtless half-hour-long In-A-Gadda-Da-via to two standing ovations. Eric Burdon and the Animals played and set off a smoke bomb - like the air wasn't polluted enough by the dust. Eric, taken with the moment, poured beer over himself and conducted a dance contest with some women from the audience. You can take the boy out of Newcastle, but you can never take Newcastle out of the boy.

Blue Cheer played and brutalized everyone with their intense proto-heavy metal. As a relief, the Byrds played too, along with early country rockers, the Illinois Speed Press. Quicksilver Messenger Service were also on the bill, as were the usual raft of local bands.

Rolling Stone reported:

"The highlight of the pop fest on the first day (Saturday) seemed to come when Country Joe closed the bill. The hour was late and Orange County officials were threatening to shut off the electricity when the band went on, finally relenting to give the band time for two songs. As they began their first, "1, 2, 3, 4, What Are We Fighting For," the approximately 40,000 young people still on hand rose as if one, cheering, hands held aloft in the "peace sign." During the second number, a long blues, even the cops on stage were grinning and adlibbing a moderate version of the boogaloo."

The second day's climax came when David Crosby started a planned pie fight with Jefferson Airplane. In all, 250 cream pies flew back and forth ... and the thousands of people present stormed the stage to join in."

Helicopters dropped flowers onto the people at one point. How is it raining flowers, dude? I dunno man, God must be a gardener.

Apart from Sky River Rock Festival, north of Seattle, The Newport Pop Festival 1968 the only major festival of the summer and it should have taught promoters a lot of lessons about logistics. It didn't, but it should have. Whilst not being the war zone disaster that some later festivals would become, it was an early warning and showed what could go wrong when a lot of people converge in one place and are not adequately provided for. 1968 was a career highpoint for Tiny Tim who was neither tiny nor called Tim.

Three days afterwards, the Costa Mesa City Council vowed to prevent another Newport Pop Festival. "To say that we would not like it back here would be the understatement of the year," said the wonderfully-named Costa Mesa Mayor, Alvin Pinkley. 

Newport '69 was held, put on by the same people. but was actually in Northridge in San Fernando Valley.

Full line-up:

Alice Cooper, Blue Cheer, Canned Heat, Charles Lloyd Quartet, Country Joe & The Fish, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Grateful Dead, Illinois Speed Press, Iron Butterfly, James Cotton Blues Band, Jefferson Airplane, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Rhinoceros, Sky Pilot, Sonny and Cher, Steppenwolf, Super Chief, The Byrds, The Chambers Brothers, The Electric Flag, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Turtles, Things to Come, Tiny Tim.



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