Flashback to 1968: ‘Theatricality Mars Newport Pop Festival’
Editor’s note: The 1968 Newport Pop Festival didn’t go over very well with many Costa Mesa residents — nor with Los Angeles Times critic Digby Diehl, who wrote the following review. Eric Burdon and the Animals will be among the performers this week at the city’s 60th-anniversary celebration.
Analogies between the Great Society and the Roman Empire have been made often enough to be tedious, but the recent Newport Pop Festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds did bring to mind the age of Nero rather forcefully. The language had changed, but the shock and sensationalism bespoke a kinship spanning the several centuries.
Greek drama was popular and powerful, suggestive but acceptable. The Romans, adapting, made it at first formal, polite and austere, but at last it turned to the sexually bizarre, to public torture and the killing of slaves.
For analogy, one might turn to the primitive drive and writhings of early Elvis Presley. He was followed by — he inspired, along with others like Chuck Berry — the Beatles, with their more subdued though still exciting musical forms. They didn’t even writhe, or have to.
But the Newport Pop Festival was an outpouring of post-Beatles rock. And as the Blue Cheer pushed heavy amplifier-speaker equipment offstage into the crowd, Eric Burdon thrashed around, falling off the stage, as Country Joe and the Fish led the crowd in an obscenity cheer and the Jefferson Airplane fostered a spirit of riot — as all of this happened, what came to mind was post-Senecan, late Roman drama with its excesses done in the name of entertainment.
Obviously, things aren’t nearly that bad yet, but Newport is one indication of the trend away from music towards sensationalism. Although heavy-handed bits of showmanship have cropped up throughout the history of rock, the roots of violence music are in England. The English have about as much taste in rock as the French do in jazz — which is to say, none. But about three years ago, a group called the Who made a huge reputation for themselves by exploding smoke bombs and smashing their instruments at the end of each performance. (They also happened to be a capable musical group.) Rock performers such as P.J. Proby and Jimi Hendrix caught on quickly, and they smashed their guitars, and Michelangelo Antonioni had the Yardbirds copy the Who in “Blow-Up.” Soon splinters of plastic and guitar strings were flying through the skies everywhere from Liverpool to Manchester.
The situation has now so escalated that Arthur Brown sets his headdress on fire, the Asylum Choir takes nude advertisements, and some rock performers have become sideshow freaks. It is ironic, since similar artless stunts, when performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, are decried as “Establishment” and “middle-class junk.” Just as the juggler who juggled 12 balls last week can only improve by juggling 13 this week, so a Violence Music rock act can only smash up more instruments than the act that preceded them. Sensationalism is only quantitative, not qualitative. Thrills are cheap...and finally unsatisfying.
The issue is more complex still, for when a young singer like John Kay of Steppenwolf wears tight leather pants and ruffled shirts, rocks back on his heels and gestures exaggeratedly while singing, he is indulging in the sensational. But this form of showmanship has respectable precedents from Jim Morrison to Elvis to the early Sinatra. Perhaps even Eric Burdon’s setting off a smoke bomb during performance of “Sky Pilot” is a reasonably amusing gag. But Burdon rolling off the stage, pouring beer over his head, smashing into the electric piano, and dragging girls out of the audience for impromptu dancing as he did at Newport, is another matter.
Country Joe’s obscenity cheer is not a clear case of bad taste either, in the context of the festival. After all, the Liberated Generation is perfectly accustomed to reading underground publications with the full range of free speech expressions, and they discourse with each other in brusquely honest terms which avoid their elders’ euphemisms. Of the 80,000 spectators, only a tiny percentage appeared to be embarrassed or offended, and avoiding the offensive is one of the standards of taste. On the other hand, it was simply a joke done for comic shock and was clearly extra-musical. It was as cheap a way for Country Joe to win the Festival audience as for Wayne Newton singing “Danny Boy” is to win a Vegas audience.
The popularity of violence, stunts and obscenity at the Newport Pop Festival confirms that rock is rebellious and youthful, as well as increasingly sophisticated and enjoyable music. But these attributes attract a fickle audience with dubious taste. There is all the more need for rock performers to eschew those “plastic” theatricalisms more appropriate to professional wrestling than music. Teen-agers who want to be taken seriously might well take themselves and their music more seriously, instead of wallowing in free-for-all and suspect anti-intellectualism.
At the same time, promoters of events like the festival might begin to treat teen-agers like human beings. An adult audience would have stormed the box office at the Fairgrounds upon discovering that they were paying $9 each to sit on hard dirt all weekend, with inadequate facilities for basics such as water, sanitation and even emergency aisles through the huge crowd.
A child-like inability to distinguish forceful emotion from physical violence, is plaguing this new musical form right now. The complaint seems to be: “Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” And no wonder, for in many instances, all the sound and fury is signifying nothing. Rock has to follow the trail blazed by Lennon-McCartney or Bob Dylan by speaking to the point, not shocking. Ultimately, the music must maintain that admittedly unsteady Greek balance of passion and intellect which satisfies, or it will end in the frustration of chaos, as at the Newport Pop Festival.
Published in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 18, 1968