Worse Than Fyre Festival? This Rock Debacle Claims the Crown
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it turns out you can have a music festival without music. Whether you want to have one is a different story.
By Sean Braswell
It wasn’t something you expected to hear at a rock festival, let alone one billed as a second Woodstock. But in the summer of 1970, around 30,000 concertgoers at the Powder Ridge Rock Festival near Middlefield, Connecticut, were told — from the stage on which acts like Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac were scheduled to perform — that they would have to “create your own show.”
The Powder Ridge Rock Festival has become known as “the greatest rock concert that never happened.” Following the success of Woodstock, promoters were hoping it would be the next big rock festival. But then, just one month before it was scheduled to take place, the mountain town of Middlefield rejected the application for the festival. Unfortunately, word did not get back to all of the attendees and 30,000 turned up anyway for what proved to be a drug-infused debacle.
When the arriving hordes got to the ski area at Powder Ridge they found no music, hardly any food and few bathrooms.
Even before the residents of Middlefield sought a court injunction to stop it, the Powder Ridge Rock Festival was likely never going to be another Woodstock. “Woodstock [in August 1969] was very much the end of the era of festivals, not its beginning,” says Gina Arnold, author of Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power From Woodstock to Coachella. After Woodstock, she says, “there were festivals all over the United States [in 1969] and many of them were extremely crappy.” In fact, Rolling Stone published an article titled “Summer of Bummers” chronicling the epic festival fails, overrun with violence and drugs. In December 1969, at a free concert at Altamont Speedway, in California, there had been a hit-and-run and an LSD-related drowning. Someone had even been murdered near the front of the stage.
After Altamont, 30 of 48 scheduled festivals in 1970 were canceled. So it wasn’t surprising that when faced with the prospect of a three-day, 25-act festival with an expected crowd of 50,000, the town of Middlefield took action to block the event. But, if you bill it, they will come, especially when they’ve already paid $20 a head to do so. And come they did, by the thousands. “Are we going to accept this and leave?” one young concertgoer told reporters. “I’ve got to get my 20 dollars’ worth somehow.”
On Thursday, July 31, many concertgoers abandoned their cars on Highway 65, and when the arriving hordes got to the ski area at Powder Ridge they found no music, hardly any food and few bathrooms. An announcement made from the main stage intoned, “Power to the people. The pigs have run away in their Cadillacs. This is a people’s festival now.”
And, as local news reports documented, the people’s festival got a little crazy. Drugs were everywhere, from LSD to marijuana to mescaline. There was skinny-dipping in a nearby pond. Tents were turned into makeshift (naked) saunas with water and fire-warmed rocks. People wandered around, laughing, singing and having sex in broad daylight. A “free auction” took place in which items were given to the most enthusiastic bidder. There was even a wedding performed onstage. And the one performer who did turn up, the folk singer Melanie, serenaded the crowd from the loudspeaker on an ice cream truck.
Unsurprisingly, things got out of hand. “When there’s no music, people tend to dope more,” one 18-year-old attendee told local reporters. Makeshift “OD tents” were established to calm those experiencing “bad trips.” The volunteer doctors were overwhelmed. Attendees had to be evacuated by paramedics, including a 17-year-old New York woman who went into labor and a 19-year-old woman from New Jersey who was hit by a car.
Eventually, the non-festival sputtered out. Attendees never got their $20 back, but the festival’s promoters were fined $204,000 for the extralegal extravaganza — still a far cry from the washout Fyre Festival fraud of 2017, which landed its CEO in prison for six years. Powder Ridge was certainly a memorable few days, even if no Woodstock. As one festivalgoer put it: “It all goes to show that you can have a rock music festival without rock music.”