The Irony of Woodstock : The Celebration of the Age of Aquarius was also the weekend the music turned into money


Janis Joplin was already on her way to becoming a rock legend when she stepped on stage 20 years ago at Woodstock, her trademark bottle of Southern Comfort in hand.

Arguably the most compelling white blues singer of the era, Joplin was an electrifying performer who put so much emotion into each concert that her every night on stage had the feel of a triumphant final stand.

Befitting Joplin’s status in rock, she was paid $7,500 at Woodstock--$1,250 more than the Who in the year of “Tommy” and $2,500 more than the highly regarded new teaming of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.


Concert promoter Bill Graham, who was at Woodstock, smiles today when he thinks of Joplin’s fee and the bottle of Southern Comfort. They underscore for him the way rock ‘n’ roll has moved from the innocence and idealism of the late ‘60s to a $6-billion to $8-billion-a-year industry, complete with corporate sponsorship and its own 24-hour cable TV channels.

He shakes his head and says, “Do you realize that if Woodstock took place now, Southern Comfort would pay her a million dollars for just holding that bottle?”

Echoing the view of most of the more than a dozen top pop industry veterans asked about the event, Graham sees Woodstock not principally as a great musical moment, but as the day corporate America saw the big money to be made in rock. Indeed, Woodstock itself was a grand attempt to escalate the scale of rock.

“People like to talk about Woodstock as changing music, but the music community had already been shown by the Monterey International Pop Festival (in 1967) that a new generation of artists had arrived,” said Joe Smith, president and chief executive officer of Capitol-EMI, Inc.

“Woodstock took rock to the next level--not so much the musicians themselves as the pictures that went around the world of those half a million people standing in the field. Those photos were spectacular, and they made corporate America realize that this youth culture was no longer some freakish, underground scene. Woodstock legitimized rock ‘n’ roll, and it sent out the message that there was a lot of money to be made in it.”

The result was a revolution in rock radio formats, an onslaught of megabuck record contracts and a stampede to vastly larger venues. All this initially celebrated the “underground” rock showcased at Woodstock, but in the end, ironically, it worked to squash the radical or experimental edges that had been associated with the festival.

Graham believes that rock would have eventually been subjected to many of the same commercial compromises, but suggests that Woodstock’s dramatic impact escalated the process by as much as five years.

Lou Adler, who produced the Mamas and the Papas’ hits in ‘60s and later produced Carole King’s “Tapestry” album, perhaps puts it most succinctly: “If Monterey made rock ‘n’ roll an art form, Woodstock made it a business.”

Questions about the importance of Woodstock invariably lead to expositions on the influence of the earlier Monterey festival, held June 16-18, 1967 at the 7,500-capacity Monterey County Fairgrounds, south of San Francisco.

“Monterey didn’t have the numbers of Woodstock, but it was the catalytic force that really took what was an embryonic contemporary music and sounded the clarion call,” says Clive Davis, who as president of Columbia Records signed Joplin after seeing her at Monterey.

“I’ve always felt that Woodstock was more confirmatory and celebratory than a turning point in music. If anything, Woodstock was Monterey II.”

Agreed Capitol-EMI’s Joe Smith: “Monterey introduced many of the acts that headlined Woodstock. . . . Jimi Hendrix, Janis, the Who, Grateful Dead. It was amazing. Anybody who was at Monterey that weekend knew something was happening that would forever do away with Steve and Eydie and Frank and Tony as far as the heart of the record business.”

Lou Adler, co-director of the non-profit festival, said Monterey was aimed at showcasing the brightest and best of rock’s established and emerging stars.

But the impact of Monterey wasn’t just musical. The festival also showcased an emerging life style: hundreds of craftsmen set up booths, offering tie-dyed T-shirts, incense, psychedelic posters and hash pipes. Though the attendance was a small fraction of Woodstock, there was a strong sense of a new-age awakening.

Musicians later spoke about Monterey in wistful terms similar to what fans would say about Woodstock.

Brian Jones, the late Rolling Stones guitarist, spoke about the weekend to a Newsweek reporter: “I saw a community form and live together for three days. It’s so sad it has to break up.”

The impact within the record business was also immediate.

Clive Davis, now president of Arista Records, was still feeling his way as the new head of Columbia Records, a giant in the industry that had been slow to get into the rock scene.

“I went to Monterey because I had a label deal with Lou Adler and he was on the board of directors,” Davis recalls. “I expected to see some of our artists including the Byrds, but I didn’t even know there were going to be new artists there.

“When you got to Monterey, however, and saw the crowds who had come down from Haight-Ashbury--that whole ‘love, peace and flowers’ community--it was most affecting, especially to someone from New York who simply hadn’t seen any of that before. Then, seeing Joplin--who turned out to be my first signing at Columbia--and Electric Flag and the other acts. . . . It was simply amazing. Seeing the changes that were going on in music that weekend was the most influential event of my career.”

The talent lineup at Woodstock was also remarkable: Hendrix, Joplin, the Who, the Grateful Dead--among others from Monterey--plus Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, among others.

But the real star of Woodstock was the audience: the estimated 350,000 to 700,000 people whose odyssey 20 years ago became one of the 20th Century’s most dramatic and widely celebrated symbols of social change. The colorfully garbed hippies and the far larger, sympathetic legion of young people who shared some of the hippie idealism were no longer some wayward fringe; they were the new voice of young America.

Similarly, the key performers on stage were not just entertainers in the traditional pop sense. They were spokesmen and symbols of change.

Joni Mitchell saluted them in the song “Woodstock,” on her “Ladies of the Canyon” album in 1970. Sample lyrics:

I came upon a child of God

He was walking along the road

And I asked him, where are you going

And this is what he told me

I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm

I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

I’m going to camp out on the land

And try an’ get my soul free.

Lou Adler believes the human story of the half a million or so people huddling peacefully together in primitive, rain-swept conditions was the most powerful aspect of the Woodstock story and mystique.

“My feeling has always been that if it hadn’t rained, we may not have heard that much about Woodstock, or at least heard about it in a different way,” he said. “More than the music, it was the story of people pulling together against all these adverse elements. That’s what made it such a dramatic and universal story.”

Gil Friesen, now president of A&M; Records, suggests the 1970 Warner Bros. movie, too, played a crucial part in romanticizing the social and musical messages of Woodstock.

“The movie was seen by people all over the world and I think that really had a rebound effect,” Friesen said. “It allowed others to see what it was and want to be part of it.”

Even more important than the film, most observers agree, was the message being sent out by FM radio stations, which began playing the “underground” sounds that had long been ignored by AM stations.

Radio programmers recognized the increased audience potential right away and lost no time in going after that audience. “Pretty soon, everyone--agents, managers--saw there were opportunities and that meant larger arenas were going to be needed to house them,” Friesen said. “The coliseums suddenly became the new rock ‘n’ roll auditorium. There wouldn’t have been a Live Aid without a Woodstock.”

Rock ‘n’ roll was most certainly a money maker before Woodstock, but even the culture-rattling success of Elvis and the Beatles didn’t convince skeptics that this spirited new music style was more than a passing trend in 1966. Even the Beatles’ stadium tour was widely viewed as simply a single lightning bolt. There was no steady stream of artists who could chalk up big numbers consistently.

The record industry didn’t experience immediate shock waves after Woodstock. Estimated U.S. record sales progressed steadily, but not spectacularly, from $1.36 billion in 1968 to $1.58 billion in 1969 to $1.7 billion in 1971, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.

But sales made dramatic advances in the mid-70s: $2.37 billion in 1975 . . . $2.73 billion in 1976 . . . $3.50 billion in 1977 . . . and $4.13 billion in 1978--leaps made possible, Graham and other industry executives agree, by the ambitions raised by and the machinery put in place by what happened at Woodstock.

The center of that machinery--as it had been for so many years in pop music--was radio.

AM radio was still king in the late ‘60s and its favored format was Top 40--a concentration on the 40 or so best-selling singles of the week. The format worked fine in the ‘50s and in most of the ‘60s because the 45-rpm single was the principal pop format. Top 40 gave us Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Little Richard in the ‘50s, and the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Supremes in the ‘60s.

By the late ‘60s, however, albums--with their longer songs, more sophisticated musical stylings and challenging themes--had become the choice of the young rock audience that was most passionate about music.

For the most part, Top 40 stations did little to reach out to that audience. Bob Dylan, Cream or the Jefferson Airplane would gain occasional airplay for their singles, but the heart of these artists’ work--and the work of such other artists as Hendrix and the Who--was on the albums.

Alan Shaw, in charge of programming for ABC-owned radio stations in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, saw that a few disc jockeys on FM stations, including Tom Donahue in San Francisco, were developing a loyal following for these new sounds. Shortly before Woodstock, Shaw began programming this progressive rock on some of the ABC FM stations, including KABC (now KLOS) in Los Angeles. It was considered a radical move.

“The radio world looked at those FM stations as jokes . . . a bunch of crazed hippies trying to self-indulge in this new bizarre type of rock ‘n’ roll,” Shaw, now executive vice president of Beasley Broadcasting, said recently.

“But I was able to convince my bosses that nearly 20% of the records being sold at the time were these new acts--the Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge--and we had the field all to ourselves because Top 40 radio just wouldn’t touch it.”

Woodstock changed the progressive rock format from an experiment to a boom.

“Woodstock was a major, if not the major event that publicized and legitimized the size of the audience for this kind of music,” Shaw says. “Once we could make advertisers realize the connection between the thousands of bodies up on that farm and the audience that was listening to this progressive rock, the whole FM picture changed.”

But this new interest meant changes in the original, free-form “underground” concept that first characterized FM rock stations. The stations were pumping big bucks into these new formats, so they wanted results.

Instead of allowing disc jockeys to select their own music, ABC and other stations borrowed a page from AM Top 40. In hopes of reaching the widest possible audience, they began in 1971 and 1972 to require disc jockeys to play only the most popular tracks from the best-selling albums. The plan paid off.

“As soon as we adopted that format, our audiences quadrupled and even beyond,” Shaw says today. “That’s when FM album-rock became a big, big business . . . and that audience in turn is what led to the increase in album sales.”

Woodstock’s attendance also sent a message to managers, artists and agents: If rock acts had this much drawing power, why not take advantage of it? Best-selling acts--typically playing 2,000- to 5,000-capacity ballrooms at the time--would be paid a flat fee of, say, $5,000 even though the promoter might be making $25,000 at the box office. Chasing bigger paydays, agents and managers began looking for larger venues and a percentage of the box office rather than a flat fee.

Tom Ross, now president of the powerful Creative Artists Agency, said those in control of the major talent agencies thought rock was “the fluke of the year--just another passing fad” when he started working in the late ‘60s at the Agency for the Performing Arts, one of the few major talent agencies to even bother with a contemporary rock department at the time.

“The promoters were making a killing on the flat-fee arrangement,” he said. “But after Woodstock, people began saying: ‘Hey, wait a minute. What about us?’ ”

If much of the rock world was intoxicated by visions of a seemingly unlimited recording and concert potential in the years after Woodstock, there were others who have long lamented the side effects of that “bigger is better” doctrine.

Aiming for the increased ad revenue that would accompany higher ratings, FM stations began shying away from what program directors felt were grating or extreme sounds. Their fear: Those sounds would alienate mainstream rock listeners. So, the stations leaned toward a conservative style of rock that would appeal to the widest common denominator. Eager for the increasingly important FM airplay, record companies began concentrating on acts that would fit the stations’ homogenized guidelines.

While record sales soared with the added stimulus of the “Saturday Night Fever”-highlighted disco craze and the “Urban Cowboy” trend, the record industry was slowly turning off active pop-rock fans, the ones who felt most passionate about music and the ones, ironically, who held to the Woodstockian ideal that the best music reflects--and even shapes--social values. The industry found itself catering to the “passive” pop-rock fans, who look at music simply as entertainment or background atmosphere.

In his new book, “Rockonomics,” pop observer and writer Marc Eliot summarizes what happened during that period. “Rock and roll had done a 360 turn to become the leading voice of the commercial mainstream,” Eliot maintains. “All that rock had originally represented--social integration, teen-age rebellion, the voice of the working class--had been transmogrified by the calculated manipulation of the corporate machine.

“Rock stars no longer symbolized the rock counterculture. They were, instead, the very icons of material extravagance; their self-indulgent music, dress and style of living in marked contrast to the mass audience they no longer cared to represent. Lyrics preached passivity and conformity rather than assertive individuality. The romantic ideal reverted to the courtly syrup of pre-rock pop.”

The English punk uprising of 1976 and 1977 was, in many ways, a revolt against the record industry’s loss of adventurous will. The rock machinery had become clogged, and the punks overthrew things, starting their own bands and eventually, in a do-it-yourself spirit, their own independent record labels. When an audience grew up around the movement, a few clubs in England and the U.S. began to showcase punk or new wave (the less noisy and aggressive, but aligned reaction to the status quo).

For the most part, radio and record companies in the U.S. sneered at this grass-roots movement. It wasn’t until sales began dropping--from $4.13 billion in 1978 to $3.68 billion in 1979--that companies and stations began to incorporate what was the most dramatic revolution in rock since the Monterey to Woodstock period.

There were other reasons retail sales in the record industry are now at an all-time high ($6.25 billion in 1988). They range from the MTV, the 24-hour rock cable channel, to consumer fascination with the compact disc.

But the health of music in the late ‘80s is also tied to a a return of many of the socially conscious, experimental or simply individualistic undercurrents that were symbolized in the Monterey and Woodstock festivals.

Beneath the ever-present mass of passive, recycled images in pop, those richer strains are championed in the music, messages and manner of such varied artists as U2, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Prince, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Run-D.M.C. There were also echoes of the idealism of the Woodstock era in such international benefits as Live Aid and the 1988 Amnesty International tour.

This adds up today to an uneasy truce between the ‘70s corporate ways and the ‘60s idealism. Case in point: Last year’s five-continent Amnesty International tour was sponsored by Reebok. Or consider this: When Woodstock veterans the Who hit the comeback trail later this summer, it will be under the banner of Miller Lite beer.

Radio executive Alan Shaw believes the changes after Woodstock are what helped give rock ‘n’ roll the power that it unleashed in such events as Live Aid.

“What happened when we came up with the (tightly controlled) album-rock format was we popularized it far beyond what it would ever have been,” he said. “The result is far more people began listening to it and ultimately went out and bought albums because they liked what they heard.

“I think if Woodstock hadn’t come along and the new formats had never evolved, album rock may have always been considered sort of a fringe, minority appeal music form, not unlike jazz . . . a secondary market forever.”

Concert producer Bill Graham, however, has mixed feelings about the changes in rock since Woodstock. He became so disillusioned in 1971 by what he termed the “greed” of the rock industry that he closed the nation’s two most important rock halls, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York.

After a short time on the sidelines, however, Graham returned to the rock business and has been the most celebrated rock producer of the last two decades. He has produced thousands of shows, including hundreds of stadium dates, and he oversees a company that sells concert merchandise, including T-shirts and programs. Graham also helped stage both the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia and the Amnesty International’s landmark “Human Rights Now!” tour last year.

He is intrigued by the power of rock, pointing to the Amnesty tour schedule to demonstrate how rock has become “the international umbilical cord through which a 15-year-old Nigerian is connected to the 15-year-old kid in Detroit by Run-D.M.C or U2.” The itinerary ranged from Budapest and New Delhi to Harare, Zimbabwe and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

At the same time, Graham says he at times wishes all the stadium shows and the “Woodstocks of this era” would disappear so that rock could become a more intimate experience again.

“There’s something sad about the fan today, knowing that if he likes an artist and too many others like that artist, it’s only a matter of time before the fan goes from sitting in a club and seeing this new act until the act is so popular that the fan never sees the act’s face again because the artist will be on a stadium stage, a football field away.”

More importantly, Graham is disappointed that the rock community--artists as well as musicians--haven’t used their collective power more consistently for Wood stockian goals. It’s a power demonstrated by the eagerness with which companies, from auto manufacturers to breweries, throw millions after the use of songs in commercials or for the right to put the company name on ads and tickets for shows.

“A lot of people may have gotten drunk and maybe gotten stoned at Woodstock, but so many people in that era also really hoped for a better future on this planet,” Graham said. “I was one of them. I still have that hope, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen because this is now survival time. The majority of young people now go to a rock ‘n’ roll show to be entertained. They don’t go to partake in some social discussion. . . .”

Lou Adler too, briefly withdrew from the rock business after Woodstock, only to eventually re-enter it. Like Graham, he misses the days when radio formats were less regimented and there was more room for experimentation in music.

“After Woodstock, it was like our business came of age,” Adler said. “I guess I just sometimes would have rather had it remain a teen-ager.”


Woodstock’s significance remains controversial. Part I, Page 1.


Tracking down the 33 acts. Page 54.