Sunday, August 2, 2009

A.C. Pop Fest Revisited

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Atlantic City Pop Fest - August 1969

From what I remember, the summer of '69 was pretty busy, with the Parkway Murders, moon landings, Chapaquidick, Vietnam, Woodstock and me graduating from high school, living on 8th and Wesley, working at Mack & Manco's on the boardwalk and getting ready for college.

I don't think we had decided to go to Woodstock yet, but Sunday night of that weekend was slow on the boarwalk because it rained, so I got off early and either recruited or was recruited by others to go to the Atlantic City Race Track to check out the final night and last few shows of the Atlantic City Pop Fest.

We had previously, late Friday night, after midnight after work, went to downtown Atlantic City to a hip nightclub that was advertising heavily on the radio saying that all the big acts from the festival would be there. They didn't show and only local bands played in a very, day glow, psychadelic joint.

But on Sunday night we jumped into my CJ 5 jeep without doors and drove up to the front gate and parked somewhere close and walked in as people were walking out.

As we got close we could hear Little Richard singing, "Good Golly Miss Molly!" and as we got closer we could see him clear, wearing a fur coat on a hot summer night, he twerrelled the coat around over his head and threw it into the crowd, that was going crazy.

The rain had cooled them off, but this was the last set of the last act and it was a doozy.

I think it was at that moment that I knew we were going to Woodstock.

Years later, 20 years later, in 1989, I wrote an article on the Atlantic City Pop Fest - "It was 20 Years Ago Today," that ran in the Atlantic City Casino Journal.

Which I had previously posted here:

ATLANTIC CITY POP FEST - Flashback, August 1969.

Two weeks before Woodstock became a household name in the late summer of 1969, 110,000 people converged on the Atlantic City Racetrack for the Atlantic City Pop Festival - which included many of the acts who made Woodstock famous - Joni Mitchell, Canned Heat, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, B.B. King, the Byrds, Little Richard, Three Dog Night, Procol Harem, the Chambers Brothers, Frank Zappa, Rare Earth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chicago and a dozen ther bands.

While Woodstock became a major cultural phenomenon, media event and movie, the Atlantic City Pop Festival was a musical experience of a lifetime for those who were there.

"It was the frist time something of that magnitude hit the Jersey Shore, and nothing like it has happened since," says Robin Young, one of the the many who paid $15 for a ticket for the three day affair. A one day ticket for the August 1st, 2nd or 3rd, 1969 event were $6.

As one of the first major shows, and by far the largest at that time, produced by the Electric Factory, the A.C. Pop Fest had its roots in the 22nd and Arch Street psychedelic warehouse in Philadelphia, where many of the new bands of that era performed.

Larry Magid, along with his partners Herb and Alan Spivak, introduced the Philadelphia audience to many of the West Coast groups that were then in the vanguard of the cultural revolution that was sweeping the country. San Francisco has its Haight Ashbury, New Yourk has Greenwich Village and Philadelphia has Rittenhouse Square, wher all the hippies would congregate to protest the war in Vietnam, play guitars and throw firsbees.

Around the corner on Sanson Street was the Apple Head Shop, owned by Dan and Pam Davis, who also owned the Birdcage Head Shop on the boardwalk in Ocean City. They sold posters, incense, pipes and jewelry, while aroud the corner, the Electric Facory brought in the music that attracted an increasing larger crowd of the psycheldelic generation.

On February 2nd, 1968, Magid and the Spivak brotehrs opened their club with the Chamber Brothers, whose song, "Time Has Come Today," with its cowbell rhythim, was on the pop charts.

"Music is something you can rally around," says Magid today, noting that for the most part, the bands booked for the Atlantic City Pop Festival had previously played the Electirc Factory. "Chicago, then known as the Chicago Transit Authority, still played the Electric factory, but by that time, we had strated doing shows at the Spectrum."

The A.C. Pop Fest however, was the biggest show they had attempted, and they did it right. The acts matched up and were equal to if not better than Woodstock, and the festival itself was much better organized.

Whereas Woodstock was overwhelmed with a flood of counter-culture campers who crashed the gate, threw a party, left a mess for others to clean up, and lost money, at least until the movie came out, the Atlantic City Pop Festival went off without a hitch.

"They had a nice dream for Woodstock," says Magid, "they certainly had the place. People knew Woodstock at the time as the place where Bob Dylan lived. But they forgot to do the most important thing until it was too late - put the gate up. They sold too many tickets. Maybe if they were able to control their ticket sales they would have been able to control it."

On the other hand says Magid, "We had a good show, and I think it was successful mainly because it was a controlled enviroment at the race track, rather than an open field in the country."

Like Woodstock, which actually took place on Max Yasker's farm near Monticello, New York, local Mays Landing officials tried to ban a gathering of such undesirable elements.

Woodstock itself is still much the same small artists' colony it was 20 years ago, with local residents fighting attempts to hold similar large scale festivals.

From his Electirc Factory office in Philadelphia, where he still runs the company that promotes concerts, Larry Magid said, "Any time you have a large influx of people, the township has to be concerned, and rightfully so. People around the country at the time weren't exactly thrilled with kids with long hair. But we thought we attracted a lot of people. We brought additional revenue to the area. We filled a lot of campgrounds and motels. And we ran an orderly show. Any problems we did have, we were able to contend with them quickly."

"We had a birth, we didn't have any deaths," says Magid, "and we had a good mix of progressive bands that were just beginning to get popular radio airplay, so we didn't have just kids, and sold tickets to people of all ages."

"For Dan Fogel, a Margate musician, it was a family outing. "My parents even went dressed up as hippies," Fogel recalls, "with my mom dressed like an Indian and dad as a cowboy. That's as far as hje got with the hippie thing."

"That was a big year for me," says Robin Young, of Ocean City. "It was the year I made the beach patrol and became a lifeguard. It as also the convergence of a lot of things - the anti-war movement, the psychedelic era, and the music."

"The thing that stands out the most in my mind," recalls Somers Point bartender Jonas Alexy, " is the guy I saw with a crewcut and military jacket with 'Cong Killer' scrawed across his back."

Some people confuse the Atlantic City Pop Festival with another Electric Factory show with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young/Santana concert held at the same location a few years later. And for many, the good times of that period blend into one memory bank where its difficult to recall many details. To put all of this in the right time frame, the Atlantic City Pop Fest was held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, August 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 1969. The Vietnam war was raging, the ghettos were burning, Richard Nixon was president and man had just landed on the moon.

The counter-culture movement rallied around music, and it was the music that was the attraction. "It was the first time that people in this area were hooked up with the West Coast music scene," contents Robin Young. The Byrds, with their "Eight Miles High," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn," were there along with the Jefferson Airplane, the Chambers Brothers and Janis Joplin, rounding out the West Coast coningent.

There was also "B.B. King," already familiar to the Atlantic City audience, Dr. John, Iron Butterfly ("In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida"), Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rare Earth, Booker T. and the MGs.

Procol Harum played their classic, "Whiter Shade of Pale," Canned Heat did "Goin' Up the Country," and Author Brown sang a rousing version of his song, "Fire,.....I get you to burn,...," which was then a hit on the pop charts and radio.

While Woodstock was billed as "Three days of Peace and Music," with a schedule of eight acts a day, folk one day, rock the next, Atlantic City had 29 top flight acts. Magid claims that, "while their show developed into that, it was both good and bad for them. It became unmanageable for the people that were running it, yet it was good because of what it became. Perhaps we gave them a little push."

The 110,000 attendence figure is also a little bit misleading. While Woodstock attracted over a half-million (500,000) people, the A.C. Pop Fest had between 30,000 and 40,000 people each day for three days, wit many of the same people returning for each day. They were swimming nude in the Horese Shoe motel pool on the Pike, and when the motels and campgrounds were full they pitched tents in the woods behind the track.

Bill Muller of Ocean City was in boot camp at Fort Dix at the time. "Some guys from down south in my unit got leaves for the weekend and went looking for somebody who knew how to get to McKee City," Muller recalls. "I told them I would show them where it was if tehy would take me along, so I went AWOL. I took them right to the back stretch instead of to the front gate. We hopped the fence and enjoyed the weekend before going to Nam."

Young remembers that the only big problem he saw was when Hugh Maaskela came on and played some soft quiet music after another band had just stirred the crowd into a frenzy with sname dancing in lines up and down the isles. "One guy was so hot and sweaty he decided to take a dip in the infield lake," Young recalls, "and before long all the people were running towards the lak, pushing and shoving, and I think some people got hurt." The only known casuality.

As far as concert security goes, Magid says, "Rock n' Roll is just like any other industry - it matures. You develop different systems to meet different problems. Hopefully there will be even better ways to do things. We'd like to make the audience more comfortable."

Between sets many people mingled among the flea market booths that were set up in the Club House. At the time many people drank cheap wine, like Boone's Farm, out of brown suede flasks. Another guy says, "Me and my buddy didn't see too much of the music, we were really busy trying to score with the hippie chicks."

Dan and Pam Davis, who ran the head shops on Sansom street and the Ocean City Boardwalk, set up a table concession at the track and sold posters and trinkets to the audience. "That was some show," Dan said, reflecting on the Pop Fest. "I'm still into it today, on tour with the Greatful Dead - riding around the country from concert to concert in a mobilhome, selling things in the parking lot before and after the shows." Pam says that "Turquoise is making a comeback, but crystals are the big thing now."

Could the Atlatnic City track be the site of another festival? The Enviromental Response Network wants to put on a seminar and benefit concert for enviromental, non-profit organizations in September, and Magid says the track is still a good venue. "It's just that there are others that are better."

"We had one other show there, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Santana. But it is very expensive to have a show at the track. It's hard to work around the horse race meets, and sometimes in this business, it's not possible to do that. Artists compete for dates or go to the place where they'll do the best. We were happy with the two shows wed did there, but now we have JFK and the Vet, which are less expensive and bigger."

The Atlantic City Pop Festival, it seems, was a once in a lifetime occurence.

I caught the last show on the last night and will never forget it. Having graduated from high school that spring, and getting ready for college, I worked all weekend making pizza at Mack & Manco's on the Ocean City (NJ) boardwalk. My peers were persuasive in convincing me to go along with them after work Sunday night to try to catch the last few acts.

The gates were open and people were starting to leave, but as we made our way towards the stage, through the throngs of people, I could see Little Richard swinging a fur coat around his head while singing, "Good Golly, Miss Molly!" It was starting to drizzle , but the place was going wild. Everone was dancing, their arms flaling when Little Richard took his fur coat and flung it into the crowd.

When he broke into "Tutti Frutti," I suddenly realized what rock n' roll was all about. I looked at my buddies and we all knew the answer to the question we had been asking all week, "Are we going to Woodstock?"

The Atlantic City Pop Fest may not be as famous as Woodstock, but it was a better concert, a more organized show, and changed the lives of a lot of people.

"It was the right place at the right time," says Larry Magid. "It was the timing as much as anything, right smack in the middle of that whole era. It was a good experience for many, and when that movement kept getting bigger and more popular and was not just for the moment, not just a fad, the festival became part of our history and folklore."

[Originally published in part in the August, 1989 edition of the Atlantic City Monthly]

Michele, Heather's auntie said...
I certainly agree with you on that one. As one of the people who attended Woodstock, and has written a story in the book Woodstock Revisited, I have to say that was the best concert by far.

I wish I would have thought to put a call out for stories about that one. Your story brings back more memories.

MARCH 30, 2009 1:46 PM
Ellen Christine Millinery said...
I always looked at the AC Pop Festival as a dry-run for Woodstock. After the fact, of course, since that was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. I made it to both, benign little hippie chick that I was. My crowd always stayed at the shore during the summer, but this was the summer a year later after Senior Week had made it's mark. We were still hanging out at the shore on our at-home visits from college, and music was our touchstone. Electric Factory Concerts had us enthralled, so to AC we went.
Woodstock happened a blink of an eye later that same summer, and because of AC, we were ready. At the track all three of those days, drowning in a sea of music, and high from the experience (no comment, please), we felt part of a new generation making it's stamp on the world. Those concerts solidified our beliefs, our destinies. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces all feeling the same vibe, we revelled in those moments of shared consciousness. It was indeed those moments that created the Woodstock Nation, and helped propel our generation to the front lines of changing the world.

JULY 24, 2009 3:44 PM
Jackie Farg said...
I remember driving down to AC with my two girlfriends. We only had enough money for one night in the hotel on the boardwalk. It seemed to take forever to get to the racetrack, cars and people everywhere. Once there people had little tables set up selling their stuff. I remember a girl climbing up the light pole for a better seat. Great time, fond memories. It would be great if there was a tape of it.

JULY 30, 2009 4:36 PM

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