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This was held in Costa Mesa, California, in the summer of 68 - so why not call it the Costa Mesa Festival? Probably because Newport was more upscale and echoed the famous east coast folk event. It was held on the Orange County Fairgrounds which was little more than a huge, dusty, open field. In early August, this meant it was an unremittingly hot and 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, 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. 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 bad scene for a while. 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. Sadly.
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. They were popular in 66 with their big hit 'I Got you Babe', but how this translated to a rock audience in 68, is anyone's guess. I wonder who played in their band? Was it some session dudes? Mind you, I love 'The Beat Goes On', so maybe it was cool even though Sonny Bono always looked like someone's dad in hippie fancy dress to me.
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.
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.