Sunday, January 19, 2020

Newport Pop - The Forgotten Festivals


In 1968 and 1969 there were two seminal rock festivals that have barely ever gotten coverage; indeed, most people don’t even know that they existed, unless, of course, you were there, and even then… The first Newport Pop was held in Cosa Mesa at the Orange County Fairgrounds. A two-day event that featured a very young Alice Cooper, Canned Heat, the Chambers Brothers, Country Joe and the Fish, Sonny and Cher and Steppenwolf. Day two was Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Quicksilver, Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer. Despite its relative obscurity, the 1968 festival had attendance of over 100,000 during the two days.

Attendee: Day 1: "The opening act was an unheard-of 'chick group' called Alice Cooper. It wasn't till months later that we realized that Alice was a guy. … I recall Tiny Tim or Sonny and Cher, or perhaps both, getting booed off the stage."

Attendee: Day 2: "Blue Cheer destroyed their equipment (ala The Who) and people were getting out of hand. Humble Harve (the promoter) came on stage to ask kids to calm down but he was shouted off the stage with vulgar comments. He was devastated at not being deemed 'cool.'"

Attendee: Day 2: "Just as things were reaching the boiling point, Country Joe came on stage and told everybody to 'sit the fuck down.' It worked. Immediately everybody, from front to back, sat down.”

The next year, at Devonshire Downs in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley, was the follow-up event with a crowd that, for the day, held within Devonshire Downs' confines 1/5 of the Valley's population (200,000 attendees). Many of the same bands were there, particularly the top names, but also Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Spirit, Marvin Gaye, The Rascals, Tiny Tim, Johnny Winter and The Grass Roots. Not bad for a venue and a festival of which no one has ever heard. There is little history about the shows and even fewer photos; Woodstock/Monterey Pop they were not.

It wasn't a haven of peace and love the way Woodstock would turn out; indeed there was minor rioting and a somewhat tense presence by the Hell's Angels (as a security force), and Jimi's performance on day one was lackluster at best: "I think someone spiked Jimi," said Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell in Johnny Black's Eyewitness Hendrix book. "Or maybe he'd taken something of his own and then someone had spiked him on top of that. It was a disaster. I kept thinking, 'This is weird, all this money…' One of the worst gigs we ever played."

Happily, that prompted the band's return for the festival's Sunday night closer, in a two-hour show featuring Eric Burdon, Buddy Miles and others that, conversely, passed into folklore as one of the group's landmarks. Los Angeles Times critic Pete Johnson was moved to write that the audience "may have heard the best performance of their lives."

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