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Randall’s Island Festival 1970

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In July 1970 on New York’s Randall’s Island, an event billed as “New York’s Pop Festival” was held. It was nothing to do with pop music, of course.  This was to be different to a ‘normal’ festival. For a start it was to be held in Downing Stadium and there’d be no camping. It was billed as a series of concerts rather than a ‘traditional’ festival.

However, three weeks before the shows, groups representing the Black Panthers, yippies and Free Rangers – styling themselves as the RYP/OFF Collective – presented the promoters with a list of frankly bonkers demands. They wanted 10 hand-picked community bands to play at $5,000 per group plus expenses. 10,000 free tickets for them to hand out, bail funds for anyone arrested at the festival, and a portion of the profits from any film of the gigs.

In return for compliance the RYP/Off Collective would promote the festival in their communities and would provide ‘troops to act as security and PR men! Yeah, good luck with that buddy. If the promoters didn’t agree, there would be violence and they would call it a ‘free peoples event’ and no one would buy tickets.

The promoters, doubtless feeling a bit sick, said they’d negotiate. This in turn got the local Young Lords – who were to the Puerto Rican community (who were predominant in the Randall’s Island area) what the Black Panthers were to the black community – a bit cross to say the least. Now they wanted a piece of the action. The RYP/Off people agreed and some of their demands were agreed to by promoters. It was all getting totally out of hand. The politics was killing the spirit of the festival. Everyone wanted a slice of the pie, the plate the pie was on, the table the plate sat on and for good measure, the house that the table was in. No-one was going to win.

By the time people arrived for the Friday show, 8,000 out of the 25,000 did not pay as so-called security looked the other way. Hendrix, Grand Fuck Railroad, John Sebastian, Steppenwolf and Jethro Tull all played on Friday – a really strong line-up. There are recordings of Hendrix’s set out there. There’s even amateur footage of a sizzling version of Ezy Rider and Foxy Lady.

By Saturday, the bands began realising they’d probably not be getting paid since there was so much gate-crashing, so managers wanted paying up front before bands took the stage.

Ravi Shankar refused to go on, and y’know, Ravi was a peaceful dude, so he must’ve been a tad vexed. Delaney & Bonnie, Miles Davis, Richie Havens and Tony Williams’ Lifetime didn’t even bother turning up. Gate-crashing continued with the collective asking people to give them money and get in ‘free’. It was all one big hustle. By Sunday the promoters gave up and called in a free festival, but it had been free since the start in reality. 30,000 had busted in without paying.

Ten Years After and Cactus played without being paid, as did the New York Rock N Roll Ensemble. Dr John, Mountain and Little Richard followed suit but most bands just didn’t turn up at all, much to the punters’ disgust. A reporter asked promoter Don Friedman what he thought about it all.

“The festival spirit is dead, and it happened quickly,” he said. “I don’t know the reasons why. Greed on everyone’s part, I guess. The love-peace thing of Woodstock is out. Anarchy. Complete and total anarchy. That’s what’s replaced it.”

It’s a sad and quietly profound statement. It was a financial disaster; no money was paid to the collective; the bail fund collapsed; most performers were not paid. A move called The Day The Music Died did come out in 1977 and featured some of the performances, as well as highlighting all the problems.

The conflicting demands of all the different groups, the bands, the fans and everybody else just reflected the wider disparities between a disintegrating counter-culture movement in 1970 and a burgeoning rock n roll industry.

But above it all there, was some blisteringly good music played and at the end of the day, the music is really what matters. Then and now. The three day festival had two more years in it, largely due to festivals like this one. It became such a headache and so many people got so uptight about it that it wasn’t worth the hassle for promoters. The goose that had been laying the golden eggs was getting fattened for the table.

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