Carter Alan

Carter Alan

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Rock Festivals: Then And Now

This past weekend I attended Boston Calling 2022 at the Harvard Athletic Fields and was blown away by the organization and innovation that led to a smoothly run three-day festival. It caused me to reflect on the pros and cons of the rock fests I’d been at in the past. Some of those presented infrastructures and conditions not much better than what you might experience in a Siberian Gulag…with music, of course. 

My first rock festival was supposed to be a 10-hour event in Pennsylvania at the Pocono International Speedway on July 8, 1972.  We got to the impending disaster on the afternoon before the gates were to open, hoping to beat the other 89,998 people to the site. My buddy and I achieved that goal, but failed to anticipate that 160,000 additional lemmings would soon crash the show, effectively shutting down the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and preventing anyone from even leaving if they wanted to (which we really, really wanted to do after two days). Once the show began, all available facilities were completely overwhelmed. You haven’t lived until you wait an hour in line for a portable outhouse, only to find it awash in…well, enough of that.  


Back in ’72, you got a physical ticket at a record shop or in the brand new Ticketron Outlet in the local Sears. If the show was a high-demand one, you’d line up outside in front of the store the day before and sleep on your feet. Nowadays, its all on the phone or computer. So much easier and no waiting in lines, although the competition to pull the trigger at the right moment to get tickets for those big-demand shows is an art. The fan-club and credit card pre-sales help – but you pay dearly for those perks. Oh yeah, there were none of those added internet and venue handling fees back in the day. Damn nuisances. I know it's hard to believe, but back then you actually used to pay the same price as what was on the ticket!


Here’s where the classic music festival wins hands down. 1972 – for Rod Stewart and the Faces, E.L.P., Edgar Winter, J. Geils Band, Three Dog Night, Humble Pie, and seven others, the ticket price was $11 – less than the cost of an on-site premium beer these days. Boston Calling tickets went for $150 on up for a day with more expensive V.I.P. and 3-day packages available up into the thousands. Not that it wasn’t worth it.


At Boston Calling, the variety of foods available was remarkable! Everything from a rack of ribs to a vegetarian Rueben at the next stand, Mexican to sushi, ice cream cookies to smoothies. Show up with an empty stomach? No biggie – you had your pick of dozens of options. In 1972, however, if you didn’t bring it with you and tailgate in the parking lot, you could be out of luck inside. The number of food stands for a quarter-million people was laughable; the sea of faces surrounded and overran the tiny islands of harried food service employees working feverishly with whatever they had left. That wasn’t much. When the festival ran hours over its time limit and the crowds became unbearable, the last of the food was gobbled up with another day to go. I remember the sight at a besieged hot dog stand where a guy took the final bag of 200 wieners, dumped them in boiling water, and immediately began serving them…without buns, which had run out hours earlier - Hot Dog Tartare!


At music festivals these days, beers, wines, and hard drinks of all kinds are easily available. The only issue is the price, which is considerable. Back in the day, you could sip only whatever you could sneak in. Even then, it was strictly verboten. Getting caught was a quick trip out the front gate. “We don’t care if your friends are inside. They’ll be out in two days!” Gak! 


Now that pot is legal in Massachusetts it’s not uncommon to see folks lighting up openly all over the place. It’s hard to remember that at the original rock festivals, if law enforcement wanted to, they could wade into a crowd and start busting anyone with a joint. I remember going to concerts in the 70’s in South Florida where the police built a barbed wire enclosure next to the entrance of the venue (which was essentially an open airplane hangar on the edge of the Everglades). Folks who were caught with smokables during the pat-down, were tossed into the compound and once the show started, marched into a paddy wagon and driven to jail. Unreasonably hefty fines and time behind bars was a sign of the times.  


In 1972 after an act had finished, you got to watch the road crews break down their band’s stage set and another crew run out to set up the next. And who can forget those endless drum sound checks before every group. At Concert 10 in the Poconos, streamlining that process was already beginning. The stage was extra wide and while the first band played to the left, the following group was being set up to the right. Those changes had begun as far back as Woodstock in 1969, where the crew employed a huge turntable with the performing group up front while the next got ready in the back. Then twenty guys spun the wheel around 180 degrees to get the following group out in front. Nowadays, none of that is needed; they just build more stages. At Boston Calling, there were four and the music never stopped.


I touched on this earlier – rock festivals used to turn turnpikes into parking lots. They still can, but these days urban festivals like Boston Calling simply don’t have parking. You have to use public transport or a ride sharing service or… “Hey mom can I geta ride? Where do I need to go? Well…”


Just as in the past, it is still inevitable that at some point you will get wet. At least with your phone these days, you can figure out when.


Back in the day, the only info you got was from the stage. “Hey everybody, there’s a tornado coming!” Or, our next band is stuck in traffic, so J. Geils will be playing next!”  At Boston Calling they had a friggin’ App you could download with schedules, maps, regular bulletins, and special offers. For a 1972 veteran like myself, this is Futurama! I can get used to this! 


Boston Calling 2022 with MetallicaPhoto: Carter Alan 2022

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