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47 Years Ago: The Newport Pop Festival Brings Together Diverse Lineup

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The era of the big rock festival is littered with the legendary, the local and the forgotten. Woodstock and Monterey may have the cache, and Altamont the tragedy, but among the ruins of the rock-festival era sits an interesting curiosity known as the Newport Pop Festival. On Aug. 3 and 4,1968, the all-but forgotten festival took place at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, Calif.

One thing the event may be remembered for by those who attended was the heat. People were reportedly passing out from the overwhelming temperatures. To make for some relief, a water tanker was brought in to spray down the crowd and, much like Woodstock a year later, it became a mud fest.

Like so many of these festivals, the lineup was eclectic, gathering many of the era’s notable underground heroes, but along with them a couple of surprises. Spread out over two days, fans were treated to the blues sounds of the James Cotton Blues Band, the Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat and the Electric Flag. Steppenwolf, whose new single, “Born to Be Wild,” was just rising on the chart also made the scene, as did the Chambers Brothers, who had yet to take the country by storm with the psychedelic soul of their signature hit “Time Has Come Today.” A new band on the L.A. scene called Alice Cooper made an appearance, and promptly proceeded to confuse the hippies.

San Francisco was proudly represented by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish, psychedelic pioneers one and all. Eric Burdon and the New Animals did their thing, and so did the Byrds, Blue Cheer, riding high with “Summertime Blues,” and Iron Butterfly, who were about a month away from major success. Throw in a couple of more obscure acts, Things to Come and Illinois Speed Press (both regulars at the Whiskey a Go-Go), and you have quite a feast for rock fans. But two of the festivals biggest names were miles away from the loud, psychedelic sounds of most of the entertainment.

Tiny Tim, who was enjoying much notoriety from his Top 20 hit single “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” was a one-of-a-kind performer, and totally won over the audience. Much more than a novelty act, Tiny Tim was a genuine troubadour, with the history of popular music as his arsenal. Meanwhile, Sonny and Cher, whose star had been fading fast, were truly out of place at the event. They arrived by helicopter and were repeatedly booed by the crowd. “I know we’re not considered the ultimate in hipness anymore,” Sonny Bono told the Los Angeles Times. The duo’s last hit, ‘The Beat Goes On,’ was more than a year old, and though the recently released single “Circus” was an attempt to present them as more, shall we say, psychedelic, it went nowhere. With no disrespect whatsoever to the pop duo, it remains a mystery as to how, or why, they were part of the event.

The two-day romp was attended by more than 100,000 fans, and went off without incident. Minimal arrests were made. Despite the relative success, the Costa Mesa City Council made it clear that they did not want this to become an annual event. “To say that we would not like it back here would be the understatement of the year,” said Mayor Alvin Pinkle.

Others were equally unimpressed. Los Angeles Times writer Digby Diehl recalled the event. “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,” he wrote. “As all of this happened, what came to mind was post-Senecan, late Roman drama with its excesses done in the name of entertainment.”

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