From August 15th-18th, 1969, arguably the most famous music festival in history took place. Woodstock! Just hearing that word is enough to throw up memories of stoned hippies, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who.
Over 400,000 people attended the event – the defining counterculture moment of the era. And a film crew recorded it all, turning the festival into an eponymous Oscar-winning documentary.
Directed by Michael Wadleigh, the documentary follows the efforts of organisers Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, and John P. Roberts.
The initial concept was to make the festival a profitable enterprise. But they changed the event to a free do when waves upon waves of stoned hippies ambled onto the scene.
Held in Bethel, New York, locals were initially told no more than 50,000 people were expected. This still met with much opposition, with many traditionalists fearing the hippies would, like, far out the place into oblivion, man.
For the large part (bit more on that later) everyone was well behaved. And at 5:07 pm on the 15th August guitarist Richie Havens (1941-2013) opened the festival with a vigorous and timely set.
What follows in the documentary are various clips of the acts performing, interspersed with the (mainly) young people of the day and what the event means to them.
This was the Swinging Sixties after all and there are lots of clips of young people revelling in the moment. Getting naked, swimming in a local lake, getting out of it on drugs, discussing promiscuity etc.
There’s a lot of youthful energy going on, as you can see with Santana’s then drummer – 20 year old Michael Shrieve.
After Santana, the acts really ramped up big time. Along with the likes of The Band and the Grateful Dead, there were some major icons of the era.
Conspicuous in their absence, however, were some massive names. Led Zeppelin was invited, but their manager Peter Grant felt the band big enough to be heading its own concerts. Which is correct, the group had already sold out the Royal Albert Hall.
It’s unclear why The Beatles weren’t there – the festival was shortly after the band’s iconic rooftop performance in London. Legends abound about what happened, but it’s not as if the Fab Four lacked opportunities.
Bob Dylan claimed his son was ill, The Rolling Stones backed out as Mick Jagger was in Australia, Joni Mitchell’s manager convinced her not to go, whilst The Doors‘ guitarist Robby Krieger later admitted they were “stupid” and turned it down.
Janis Joplin was, of course, a highlight for many. Her set was from 2-3am on 17th August and it remains a legendary performance.
For us, The Who is the highlight of the festival. Perhaps we’re biased as we’re English, but the explosive (if truncated) set was incredible.
The band had battled for hours to ensure they got paid for their performance. Once the pay was guaranteed, the four members wandered off to keep themselves occupied until their 5 am slot on the morning of 17th August 1969.
During this time they were all spiked with LSD, as the drug was everywhere – including random ice cubes. So it was a slightly stoned band that went on stage to give it everything.
Seconds after Pinball Wizard, activist Abbie Hoffman rushed onto the stage to make a political protest.
In the US, John Sinclair was in jail due to possession of marijuana. Hoffman was eager to point out the festival was missing the point whilst injustices were occurring.
24 year old Pete Townshend, already thoroughly pissed off with the protracted negotiations for pay and event as a whole, whacked Hoffman around the head with his guitar.
Townshend later apologised to Hoffman, but the guitarist had already declared the event a “war zone” due to the amount of mud and medical tents erected to deal with tripping hippies.
But the festival did make superstars of The Who. The band had only just released Tommy and their spectacular performance – and brief inclusion in the documentary – launched them all to the status of legends.
Roger Daltrey, for instance, became a sex symbol due to the bod of a God.
The more negative elements of Woodstock are generally ignored by the myths and legends the festival created.
For those like ourselves, born in 1984 and discovering the event in 2006 via YouTube, it all looks incredible. The music of genuinely brilliant individuals at one peaceful venue.
A celebration of youth counterculture and the defining moment of a generation. The director was clearly eager to pursue the image this was all about peace and love – those well-intentioned, if naive, hippy notions.
The documentary does note there was one death during three days, whilst several babies were also born. But above everything it pursues an ideal – free love, free music, free everything.
Jimi Hendrix wrapped up the festival as the lead performer, he went on stage at 9-11:10am on August 18th. But by that point the crowd was enormously diminished.
If you look at the footage you’ll see a lot of mud, a lot of exhausted looking festival-goers, and an overcast setting.
Hendrix still turned it into one of the defining moments of his career, famously playing the Star-Spangled Banner to what was left of the crowd.
The horrible Vietnam war was raging at the time, of course, so the whole festival (and Hendrix’s efforts) were seen as an anti-war protest.
The Woodstock vibe is very real now it’s the 50th anniversary. Screenings of the documentary are scheduled tomorrow as a one off. One for the inner hippy in all of us.
But what does Woodstock mean – is it peace, love, and music? Not now, no, the hippies have moved on and big business is dominating. The establishment rules.
What it means to us is the music of genius artists revelling in a moment now sadly gone.
And call us cynical (at 34), but Woodstock proves how staggeringly mediocre the vast majority of modern bands are. You’d kill to see the above. You say “Muh…” to Mumford & Sons and The Arctic Monkeys.
On a budget of $600,000 the 1970 documentary went on to gain over $50 million at the box office. A smash hit.
As we mention above, this went on to make the likes of The Who superstars. But all bands involved benefited from the coverage in the film.
We aren’t from that generation, but we can totally dig the message, man. And to celebrate the anniversary there’s Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (2019).
If you want to relive the glory, get a TV or laptop around a campfire and fire these two documentaries up for an evening of believing that it’s still 1969.
As it is somewhere in this far out galaxy, man. Or in an alternate universe. Or somewhere in the deepest reaches of our imaginations, man, there’s Richie Havens and Hendrix and Joplin bopping to the beat, man. Far out. Far out.