“Get in your car, brother, and get down with the people in Cincinnati. A gathering of the people. Celebrate the beginning rites of Summer with the spirits of the Sun, Sky, and Stars.”
This was the press release for the Cincinnati Pop Festival, June 1970. Apparently, brother was invited to party, but sister wasn’t. Funny how these people thought of themselves as progressive but forgot to include 52% of their audience.
A flyer advertising the event just compounded the sexist attitude by saying ‘Bring blankets, pillows, watermelon, incense, ozone rice, your old lady, babies, and other assorted goodies and do your own thing’.
Yeah man, don’t forget your old lady. But hey man, I am the old lady, so who do I bring? Errr…oh we didn’t think women could read. Yeah, well, a revolution is coming, brother.
Now, on June 13 1970, something very famous in rock ‘n’ roll happened at this one day festival, something which you’ll have seen many times.
The Cincinnati Pop Festival took place at Crosley Field ball park, home of the Cincinnati Reds since 1912. This was an early one day affair and 14 bands played. The bill was top heavy with new bands that would go on to be big in the 70s such as Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Mountain and Iggy Pop and the Stooges
The main promoters of the event were Mike Quatro (brother of Suzi) and Russ Gibb from Detroit, which explains why so many Michigan bands were invited. However, there were also some British bands on the bill: Mott the Hoople, Ten Years After and headlining the event were Traffic.
Quatro and Gibb had put on a 12 hour gig at Cincinnati Gardens on March 26, 1970, attracting 11,500 people at $5 a head, despite it being on a Thursday and headliner Joe Cocker failing to perform due to a missed flight. The success of the March festival led to the idea of a bigger event at a bigger venue.
What made the June event unique among other festivals at the time was that it brought the Rock festival experience into the living rooms of America. The 14-hour show wasn’t broadcast live but rather edited down to a 90-minute program that aired on national television in late August to good ratings. WLWT (Channel 5) filmed the entire festival with a five-camera crew. Bill Spiegel, a TV producer at the station, remembered how he got in involved in the project.
“Some guy, I think from New York, showed up in a big limo one day and talked up the big money that could be made,” he recalls.
Spiegel and director Bill Health had the lot of experience with music because they both oversaw the production of the long-running TV music program The Midwestern Hayride. Spiegel’s relationship with the Reds secured Crosley Field, and WLWT had been broadcasting the games there for years.
Originally scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., the start time was already delayed to noon by the time the gates opened about 9:30 a.m. People traveled from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other parts of Ohio to camp out overnight by the main gate in the rain, huddled together on blankets and covered by huge plastic tarpaulins. Where would festivals be without plastic tarpaulins?
At 11:30 a.m. the stands were 75 percent full when the police closed all the gates and refused to admit any more people. The shutdown was due to several hundred fans who tried to rush the gate. There was a lot of paranoia about gate-crashing which had, of course, become endemic in the late 60s.
A dozen tried unsuccessfully to scale the right field wall to sneak in. Some kids began throwing rocks and bottles over the fence to the crowd inside. Three were arrested, but inside all was cool and the festival began at noon.
All festivals have events that everyone remembers. At Woodstock it was the rainstorms. At the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival it was the battle for the infield.
With the bandstand erected over second base, the Reds organization was concerned about potential damage to the grass area inside the baselines. There were only a few games left to be played at Crosley, with the Reds scheduled to evacuate the ballpark 11 days later. They were to start playing at the new Riverfront Stadium June 30.
Francis Dale, president of the Reds, insisted the concertgoers on the field be restricted to standing on the base paths.
“The city has an obligation to provide us with a major league field in good repair,” he said before the concert. “They will have to bear the expense of repairs unless the promoter’s contract covered such damage.”
Dale said he was worried that newly-laid turf could be responsible for injuries to ball players. Twenty uniformed policemen guarded the infield grass.
The first rush happened after 3 p.m. when the hard-rocking Grand Funk Railroad were playing. The police were no longer able to restrain the dancing crowd. The officers held their ground, but the young people merely walked around them onto the field. The show was stopped until the infield was cleared, which was accomplished through pleas from the performers. Everything stay cool though and there were no arrests and few hard feelings.
Tom Weschler, as part of Bob Seger’s road crew, remembers the infield conflict well. An avid photographer, he took a photo of the infield situation from the stage.
Another shot he snapped that day was of a smiling Seger on stage at the festival with the crowd behind him, and the photo ended up as the back cover of Seger’s next album, Mongrel, released just a couple of months later in August. Weschler has just put out a book of his Seger photos taken over the decades called Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger, and it contains photos from the Cincinnati festival.
So what about the music? My good buddy Robert, who went to this gig sent me a video of the TV special and it reveals Grand Funk Railroad laying it down hard, man. They were only a couple of years old at this point and Mark Farner gives an incredibly driving, physical performance, playing a guitar that look like it came out of a Sears catalogue. Also loud and magnificent were Mountain. Standing in front of a wall of amps, they knock out their regular set including a fantastic ‘Dreams of Milk and Honey’. Leslie West’s guitar sounds like a motorbike. Another interesting band on the bill were Zephyr, featuring a young Tommy Bolin. Festival regulars Bloodrock were also there, as were Brownsville Station and Savage Grace. And let us not forget, the Damnation of Adam Blessing, nor John Drakes Shakedown. The first a fine and now very collectible acid rock band and the latter a Detroit garage band.
Traffic, who were last on, played a classy, laid back set. This could not be said of Iggy and the Stooges.
Now, you know that famous picture of Iggy standing upright on the hands of the crowd? That happened here. Also him spooning peanut butter from a large jar – that happened here too, because who doesn’t go to a gig without a large jar of peanut butter? The footage shot by WLWT cameras shows Iggy, then 23, performing the songs “T.V. Eye” and “1970.” He dives into the audience, gets lifted by the crowd and then stands upright, held up by a sea of hands. He’s shirtless and has about 4 percent body fat and, lets be honest, he looks insane. Brilliant. It became a defining image for him. Who knew those insurance ads were a mere 40 years away?
Another notorious rock moment happened during Alice Cooper’s performance. Cooper leaned down close to the edge of the stage, holding up a pocket watch to the crowd. He began attempts to “hypnotize” audience members, repeating the phrase “Bodies … need … rest.”
At that moment an accomplished marksman in the crowd lobbed a whole cake at Cooper, hitting him square in the face. Who has a whole cake on their person at a festival And why? Perhaps it was a baker on a day off or maybe it was the same person who had a big jar of peanut butter with them.
There were drugs around but few busts. This wasn’t one of the “hippies go wild on pot” headline grabbing festivals. In fact, unlike so many, it finished on time at midnight. The trouble outside of the stadium was the post-festival focus of attention, which Billboard magazine said was engineered by a “hoodlum element” Yeah daddio, those hoodlums, they’re so beastly.
The Cincinnati Pop Festival is interesting in the history of festivals because as a one-dayer which made money (24,000 people paid $6.50 a head) it was the pre-curser of the big one-day festivals of the 70s. The more political end of the festival scene was still looking at an Aquarian happening for freaks. But this wasn’t that, despite the pre-gig ads suggesting otherwise.
The TV show made out of the festival is hilarious in that the presenters are all self-evidently Mr Straights(no women, of course) in garish polyester jackets, who nonetheless are determined not to appear too unhip, so have collars unfastened. Yeah, take that pigs! They seem to be getting down, in an uptight sort of way. It’s easy to imagine them sipping big glasses of brandy, smoking a Marlbro off-camera and squinting at the stage as another troupe of long-haired musicians play and feeling like it was more akin to a circus than a music show.
The Cincinnati Pop Festival 1970 is available on a DVD called Midsummer Rock and if you’re a connoisseur of this era, you owe to yourself to see it.
Related t-shirt Leslie West
Written with the help of City Beat’s Brian Powers