Mention the name Woodstock and people’s minds immediately begin to whirr back in time – half a century, to be precise.
They’ll recall Michael Wadleigh’s grainy footage of Jimi Hendrix tearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ a new one, the images of thousands upon thousands of peace-loving hippy folk who gathered for arguably the defining moment of the ’60s counterculture, and the festival’s simple but brilliant promotional imagery which featured a white dove perched on a guitar neck promising “3 days of peace and music”. There is no greater festival presence in rock’n’roll folklore than the ramshackle three-day event, which was held on a rural dairy farm in upstate New York.
We trust that you’re sufficiently prepared for a nostalgic overload later this summer, then. Woodstock’s 50th anniversary falls on August 15, and Michael Lang – a co-founder of the 1969 event – has ambitiously decided to go ahead with plans to hold another festival under the Woodstock name to mark the occasion. You might just have heard about Woodstock 50 recently: how its principal funding partner, Dentsu Aegis, withdrew its backing in April and prompted a messy courtroom back-and-forth between the two parties. Or how The Black Keys became the first act to properly pull out of the event (the band say it was due to a scheduling conflict). Or maybe how tickets for the festival still haven’t gone on sale yet nearly two months after bookings were first meant to be taken. Its proposed location, the Watkins Glen International racetrack, has now fallen through too, while a producer of Woodstock 50, CID Entertainment (who had been tasked with providing “enhanced camping, travel packages and transportation” for the festival), have also backed out.
It’s been a tough few months for the people who’ve put their all into Woodstock 50, but organisers remain adamant that the festival will still be held on August 16-18 at an as-yet-undetermined location. They’ve also found a new set of financial backers for the event, which, it must be said, boasts an impressive and rather diverse bill which includes genuine headline acts (The Killers, Jay-Z), heritage bands (Grateful Dead offshoot Dead & Company, Santana) and, er, Akon. Woodstock 50 have also been keen to stress during these difficult times that a sizeable section of the ticket-buying public (or “The Woodstock Nation”) have apparently been sending them message of support, with one curious entry reading: “Woodstock will always be important to me, and I’m only 21 years old.” Buoyed by those sorts of grand statements, the organisers have remained bullish and declared that their “intention holds firm” in delivering “a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime” festival to honour the original Woodstock.
But here’s the thing: the original Woodstock wasn’t exactly a “world-class” event, nor could its genuine “once-in-a-lifetime” spirit surely ever be repeated (especially if you find yourself being subjected to an Imagine Dragons performance on the final day of the proposed anniversary festival).
The glorious chaos which somehow managed to not turn the 1969 event into a complete disaster zone has been engulfed by both the passing of time and the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Woodstock legend. Plenty of things went wrong for the organisers 50 years ago, from how they were forced to let in thousands of opportunistic people for free to a snarled-up running schedule which saw some acts playing in the middle of the night as festivalgoers slept. You couldn’t imagine Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland getting away with mishaps like that.
While the original festival shook off these troubles in order to pass into music legend, the lingering temptation to shake awake the Woodstock “spirit” from its slumber has already been too great to resist over the years. But rather than thriving off the combination of chaos and misfortune, two anniversary festivals in the 1990s dragged both the Woodstock name and its reputation face-first through the mud.
This was quite literally the case in 1994, where bad weather turned the festival site into, according to The New York Times, “a sea of mud and trash” and ended “amid evidence of anarchy”. Testimonies from some of the more hardened of attendees, meanwhile, essentially saw the idea of making it unscathed to the end of Woodstock ’94 as something of a badge of honour. “Maybe if I could do this, I could do a lot of things,” one punter remarked. Still, at least Green Day’s half-festival set, half-mud fight looked like a laugh (watch out for bassist Mike Dirnt losing his two front teeth in a scuffle with security at the very end).
The 1999 anniversary festival was the moment where the Woodstock dream turned sour, though. Held during the middle of a scorching hot summer on a remote former Air Force Base, 220,000 revellers turned up to supposedly embrace the ideals of peace and love from the original festival by taking in calm and tranquil sets by the likes of Limp Bizkit, Korn and Rage Against The Machine (who burned an American flag onstage during their set).
Things turned rather nasty rather quickly – and not just because of the $4 being charged for a bottle of water or a can of fizzy drink, or the fact that festivalgoers had to walk a mile-and-a-half between the two stages on site. There were horrifying reports of multiple and widespread sexual assaults throughout the weekend, and it’s thought that many of those alleged assaults, which included groping and rape, went unreported to the police. The final night of the festival then infamously descended into anarchy, with the 100,000 candles which were handed out to promote an end to gun violence instead being used to start bonfires which rapidly grew out of control. The flames provided an apt backdrop for the thousands of festivalgoers who rioted, as cars were flipped, food stalls and merch tents were set ablaze and a ‘peace wall’ was torn down. New York State Troopers were finally called in to help put an end to the madness.
Fingers were swiftly pointed at the organisers. “[Festivalgoers are] not rioting on Sunday night because Limp Bizkit told them to break things,” journalist Jeff Stark told Interview Magazine earlier this year. “They’re rioting because they were not taken care of, because they were taken advantage of, because they were commodified, because they were not treated like humans, because they didn’t have drinking water.” No wonder The San Francisco Chronicle branded the 1999 festival “one of the biggest debacles in concert history” in a review they stunningly titled “Woodstock ’99: The day the music died”.
20 years on from the shambles of ’99, another Woodstock-branded event is now ominously veering into view. But, given that it has already been beset with a staggeringly high number of problems before the first note has even been played on stage, you have to wonder whether a curse has been placed on the Woodstock name. Attempting to resurrect the mythical qualities of the 1969 festival once again was always going to be an idea that would raise eyebrows, but the way in which the universe appears to be dead-set against Woodstock 50 happening suggests that, maybe, just maybe, it’d be wise to throw in the towel now before it’s too late.