The Faded Festival

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(Pictured: Janis Joplin, 1969.)

The telling of rock-festival history tends to start at Monterey Pop in 1967 before jumping to Woodstock in 1969—but there were festivals in between. I’ve written about the Atlanta Pop Festival over the weekend of July 4, 1969, and the Midwest Rock Festival, held in Milwaukee later that month. The weekend after Milwaukee, the festival focus shifted to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another event now largely forgotten.

The Atlantic City Pop Festival opened on Friday, August 1, 1969, at the Atlantic City Race Course, normally a horse-racing venue. The event featured a rotating stage, supposedly designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The biggest stars of the first day were Iron Butterfly and Procol Harum; Joni Mitchell played too, but only four songs; it’s unclear why she cut her set short, although she said from the stage that she’d sung the same verse of one song twice and nobody noticed, so it’s presumed she thought the audience wasn’t paying attention. Crosby Stills and Nash were billed but didn’t show (Graham Nash had vocal-cord trouble, it was said); Johnny Winter got there but was unable to play due to some sort of equipment problem. Santana, then known as the Santana Blues Band, was introduced by MC Biff Rose as the “Santa Ana Blues Band.” Chicago and Booker T. and the MGs were also scheduled for Friday (but may also have played on Saturday), and the show was closed that night by the Chambers Brothers. On Saturday, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were the top acts; B. B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Tim Buckley were also on the bill. Sunday’s lineup was star-packed: Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, and Three Dog Night were among them (although the Moody Blues were advertised, they didn’t appear). The show was closed on Sunday night by Janis Joplin and Little Richard, jamming together.

Among the reasons why Atlantic City Pop has largely been forgotten is because of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the giant mudhole freakout of a generation; it wasn’t a place where babies were born and legends were made; it wasn’t mythologized by a movie or an album. It was just a show, for $6 per day or $15 for all three. There was no camping on the site (although many attendees slept in their cars in the parking lot). The three-day crowd of over 100,000 came from as far away as Texas and Florida. The weather was hot, and the crowd was occasionally hosed down by water trucks; a pond on the grounds of the track was a popular cooling-off spot as well. At one point, a stage announcement was made that if there were narcs in the crowd, they were unlikely to cause trouble. How anybody could know that isn’t clear, but it was true. Rolling Stone reported that there was so much marijuana smoke that a contact high was nearly guaranteed, at least near the stage.

There was a police presence, however, but according to one of the promoters, none of the cops were armed. Officers patrolled the site on 12-hour shifts, and the track’s owners hired a private security force to make sure nothing would happen that might interfere with the next week’s opening of the racing season. State troopers waited in reserve in case they were needed. Apart from the customary heavy drug use and a few attendees climbing the light towers above the stage on Friday night, the only serious incident occurred when a group of concertgoers ransacked a vendor area on Sunday, making off with about $20,000 in swag.

Approximately 70 vendors were on site, selling art, food, musical instruments, albums, and other merchandise, for Atlantic City Pop seems to have been very well planned in advance. The show was promoted by Electric Factory Concerts of Philadelphia, one of the top promoters on the East Coast. That made it quite different from other festivals, where it was sometimes assumed that quotidian details involving parking and sanitation and concessions would magically work themselves out thanks to the Aquarian spirit, or something.

Another reason why Atlantic City Pop has faded into history is Woodstock’s tendency to overshadow everything in proximity to it. It started on that very weekend 49 years ago: one attendee remembers being handed a flyer on his way out of the race track advertising the upcoming Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

My rock-festival posts often spike in traffic on weekend nights, when old hippies go a-Googling in search of their youth. If you were at Atlantic City, please tell us what you saw and did. I welcome your recollections.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for the stories of those festivals. I was born in ’63 so I only just remember the world they were a part of. It’s an era I love to learn about.

  2. I always wonder if tapes from these second tier festivals exist anywhere.

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