Monday, August 18, 2008

History of Festivals 6: The Denver Pop Festival 1969: Free Black Label Society

The Denver Pop Festival 27th -29th June 1969

This mile high festival went down in history as one of the most violent of the era with cops and long-hairs fighting pitched battles.

It seems that the violence was partly the result of radical political activists. The American Liberation Front, a collective of young Socialist, radical clergy, students for a democratic society and anti-war protestors, had got a permit from Denver City Hall to stage a series of protests and demos at City Park culminating with a July 4th march through downtown.

The ALF leaders wanted to get festival goers to join their ranks, one of the first instances of outright politicization of the counter culture. City leaders didn’t like the idea of this at all and drew up plans to prevent it happening by enticing festival campers to pitch up at the local baseball ground rather than in the park where the demos were to be held. Free transport would take them to the gig.

Ticket prices were $6 per day, or $15 for all three days

The Denver Pop Festival was promoted by Barry Fey, the leading dude in the area; a man who had put gigs on at Red Rock and Deniver Auditorium. The festival was to be held in Mile High Stadium; it made sense there was all the facilities needed there so all he had to do was stage the music and take the tickets. That was the theory anyway.

The line up was headed by Jimi Hendrix, along with CCR, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Poco, Iron Butterfly, Big Mamma Willie Mae Thornton, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter and one of the first appearances by The Mothers Of Invention. Incidentally, Zephyr were also on the bill, a local band featuring a young Tommy Bolin – do check out Zephyr’s albums – they’re well worth it.

Thornton opened the gig on Friday night, followed by The Flock – featuring violinist Jerry Goodman who was to later play with Mahavishu Orchestra(wasn’t he also Nash The Slash?)

Then came Three Dog Night, The Mothers and Iron Butterfly.
Everything seemed cool with only a couple of gate-crashing incidents for the Police to deal with. The music was loud so many ticket-less fans just hung around outside to groove anyway. The ALF passed out literature but there was no hassle.

This all changed on Saturday evening. The gig was due to start at 6.30pm. Fans with tickets were let in at 5.30 and while that was happening, a large crowd that had gathered at the south end of the stadium charged the fence, only to be repelled by Police and security, however several hundred managed to get in. By 7.30pm aonther large group had gathered by the main gate. Police reinforcements arrived in riot gear which only provoked people more and a hail of bottles and rocks were thrown at them, those who had got in free began to attack the security from inside the stadium.

When one cop was floored by a wine bottle, the tear gas was brought out and fired at the mob who simply threw the canisters back. In what sounds like a scene from the Simpson, the prevailing wind then took the gas into the stadium which understandably upset the fans who were at the time watching jonny Winter. Bedlam broke out and Barry Fey, under pressure from the Denver Police Chief, opened the gates up and let everyone outside in for free.
Barry was not a happy man, and was angry that the Police hadn’t kept control. Now a precedent had been set for Sunday night. A big crowd gathered demanding to get in free.

This time the cops, feeling like they’d been humiliated by a bunch of student and long-haired freaks the previous night, were determined not to give in. Retaliation was in the air. Police dogs surrounded the stadium, an extra platoon of cops in riot gear was deployed, and a thing called a pepper-fog machine was on hand to pump tear gas and skin-burning mace into the air. Everything you need for a good night of rock n roll eh?!

This provoked the kids to throw more rocks which in turn provoked the police to use the pepper-fog like a machine gun, mowing down their enemy. As kids tried to get away they were billy-clubbed and arrested. Violence was rife on all sides. Who was to blame? It wasn’t easy to say; no one was innocent. Howeverm nany in the alternative community felt that the authorities were simply scared of what they saw as the threat of the counter culture and that the ‘straight’ town officials just totally over-reacted and panicked.

Fey was under pressure from the cops to open the gates again to stop more trouble and again he gave in. Over 3,000 gate-crashed and caught the end of Hendrix’s set. He played Purple Haze and legged it as a wave of gate-crashers poured across the field towards the stage. It was to be the Experience’s last ever performance

The whole festival was a disaster and city fathers said it would be the first and least festival the city ever put on because it was impossible to control such large scale events. However, only 50,000 at most had actually attended at any one time so it was far from a big sprawling festival such as Woodstock which would happen a few weeks later.

However, the idea of containing a festival within a stadium was an idea that was not dead and it would be resurrected in the 70s to greater effect because it offered the chance to regulate and control fans with more sensitive policing.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how and why the authorities got this wrong. The left wing activists mixed up with a bunch of long haired kids and freaks looked like revolution to some people; the end of the American way. It wasn’t of course and it was never going to be – most just wanted to have a good time and get their dose of rock n roll.

No one came out of this one with much honour. The set that Hendrix played – which is of course available as a bootleg – is very, very good though. But it must have been hard to dig it if you’re eyes are streaming with tear gas!


This week we’ve got a very special package of four Black Label Society albums to give away to 6 lucky winners thanks to Rob at Eagle Rock.

Sonic Brew
The Blessed Hellride
Stronger Than Death
Alcohol Fueled Brewtality Live!!(2CD set)

This is a must have quartet of albums for any Zakk Wylde fans and for fans of heavy duty metal everywhere. For a chance to win just email me with Black Label Society in the subject box. I’ll draw out 6 lucky winners next week.


James said...

I was at the festival - but which night I can't remember. I do remember that people rushed out of the stands and onto the field so someone turned on the field sprinklers which started getting the equipment all wet - so roady's picked up garbage cans, emptied them on the ground and put them over the sprinkler heads..

what night was that?

Cavallero said...

I was at the festival a 16yo who hitched out from Hollywood with my bros chanting NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO because we had very little gas and costed into Denver. I remember rushing the gate because i had no ticket or money. the tear gas was everywhere, i was interviewed by a local TV station regarding the situation. Anyone know where i can locate the Video? Frank Zappa and CCR(Bad moon risen) were amazing. Iron butterflie's drum solo(in da godda davida)Jimi casme out in a golf cart, i remember saying " This for the lady in the 4th row with pink underwear" he then launched into foxy lady ( Sunday, the last day)I believe zephyr played in city park in front of the history museum. The Black Panthert party was present.I ended up in Taos at a commune called resurection city and morningstar......Those were the days my friend with owsley of-course
If anybody else was there and would like to chat (, the internal variety!