Jun 29, 2017

December 6, 1968: The Spectrum, Philadelphia

ROCK GOING ESTABLISHMENT?

One of the things you start wondering about, while you are sitting in your red-cushioned seat at the Spectrum listening to a guitar player who belongs to a group called the Iron Butterfly playing on his knees, is if this all means that rock music, the curse of the over-25 class, is finally going establishment.
The scene was Friday night, at the Quaker City Rock Festival No. 2, a concert designed to show off the talents - and the massive electronic sound - of five rock groups, including the Iron Butterfly, which also boasted a topless drummer who played what must be the most monotonous 10-minute solo in the history of man, and a fire, lit in a metal pan on the revolving carpeted stage by the guitar fellow who played on his knees.

The funny thing about it is that you would expect the young people who attend rock festivals to really let themselves go, surrounded by 10,000 of their peers and the sound they love being blasted from about a dozen speakers darn near as big as your refrigerator.
But they sit there, talking to each other, clapping politely at the end of each song (Rock compositions are always called songs, just as the people who play them are always called groups, and never combos.), and, occasionally, a few of them would extend aloft an arm topped by the Churchillian "V for victory" sign, although, I have learned, to them it means peace, or Black Power, or groovey, or something like that.
It was, admittedly, not as good as Quaker City Rock Festival No. 1, which had the Chambers Brothers and the Vanilla Fudge and Janis Joplin with her former supporting group, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

No. 2 started off with the Creedence Clearwater Revival, a group that plays something they call folk rock and has one song, a two-parter, really, called "Suzie Q" which most people can stand and is probably the best thing that they will ever do.
Next team on the revolving stage was the Grateful Dead, and they, too, are not in the class with the Beatles or the Doors or the Jefferson Airplane. Only once, in the midst of a song that lasted perhaps 20 minutes, did the Grateful Dead appear really alive, and that was when a guitarist, with the help of enough transistors and other radio insides to build two television sets, wrenched from his instrument a series of high, feedback-augmented chords that could be compared, favorably, with some of the better compositions of Stravinsky.

By now it is 9 p.m., about a third of the way through the night, and the audience, high-schoolers and college types clad in the usual nonconformist's uniform of long hair and slightly exotic clothes, was acting politely bored, much like a solid, upper-middle-class burgher who has been dragged to a symphonic concert by his wife and is trying to appear gracefully interested and still stay awake.
Part of the problem is the time involved changing the stage between acts. Each group plays for about 45 minutes, and it takes almost that long for the speakers, amps, organs, and funny lights to be put into place and wired together, a hiatus punctuated frequently by an announcer with a 19-word, pseudo-hip vocabulary who urges the audience to be patient.
The other problem is acoustics. The Spectrum, better known for ice hockey and basketball, is not really a concert hall, for one thing, and during the first three sets, the auditorium's amplifier was occasionally feuding with the musicians' amps, creating a sound like that of a very cheap transistor playing at full volume under water.

But the Iron Butterfly scored points with a new number, still not available on records, called "Soul Experience," and with their magnum opus, a 27-minute work entitled, I believe, "In-a-Gadda-da-Zida," which sounds better than it reads, except for the solo by the topless drummer.
It was at about this time, while waiting for Sly and the Family Stone, that the announcer said that the Rolling Stones are coming to the Spectrum in March, their first American concert in four years, and the crowd nearly went wild.

The high point of the night, excitement-wise, was the Family Stone, which attempted to turn on the audience and nearly succeeded. Sly Stone was running up and down the aisles, waving the "V" sign and letting the audience help by yelling something that sounded like "hi ya" every so often, and you could see the tension build, but the bubble broke before more than a third of the people were out of their seats, and suddenly it was a little sad, because the audience could not or would not turn on, and Sly Stone and the rest of his group were in a frenzy that had been beautiful but now slightly embarrassing.
And that is when the half-formed thought about the Establishment gobbling up rock music becomes even more intriguing, because any concert that costs $5.50 to attend cannot be considered in the same class as its origins, those cheap dance halls where musicians like the Beatles starved on 5 pounds a week and devised a music form that could appeal to the young, interest the old, and eventually cause some of the world's stuffiest critics to rank them with Beethoven.

The last group was Steppenwolf (the name is stolen from a book by Herman Hesse), and Steppenwolf was almost good enough to wash away those heretical thoughts. But then you remember that "Born to be Wild" is probably the best song that Steppenwolf has done, and notice that the audience is anything but wild, and then you realize that there was probably a time when even Guy Lombardo was considered new and different, a brief shining moment before he, too, became Establishment.

(by W.G. Tudor, from the Morning News (Wilmington DE), 9 December 1968)

http://www.dead.net/show/december-6-1968

Thanks to Dave Davis

2 comments:

  1. The Dead's first show at the Spectrum. Though the Dead are only mentioned in one paragraph, I've posted the full review partly because it's an obscure show, and partly because the article is quite interesting.
    (It was printed in a Wilmington newspaper; I wonder if any Philadelphia papers also ran reviews.)

    The first Quaker City Rock Festival had been on October 19, 1968 (also with five bands) - the "festivals" were put on at the Spectrum by Electric Factory promoter Larry Magid, and there were a couple more in 1969-70.
    Al Kooper was the MC at this event - perhaps the annoying announcer mentioned in the review. The news about the Stones coming to play the Spectrum in March was about eight months premature, but they were eagerly anticipated!

    The Spectrum had a rotating stage (which bands didn't like). One young witness remembered, "Sly and the Family Stone stole the night. Steppenwolf headlined. Stage was in center and rotated. Dead used own PA...so wouldn't let it rotate. Place wasn't full so they encouraged those sitting behind to come around." (The review mentions the Dead on the "revolving stage," a minor discrepancy.)
    The dead.net page has a number of other reminiscences - oddly contradicting the newspaper review, they say Creedence didn't play:
    "There was a round stage in the middle of the floor of the Spectrum that rotated slowly. However the Dead didn't dig the rotating thing, so they set up their own sound, and I was directly behind the band but up in the regular seated area. One thing I do remember is Al Kooper being the MC but also sitting with a local band and jamming blues to fill in for Creedence who did not show up."
    "Kooper was the MC and he covered Donovan's Season of the Witch with the Philly band American Dream who replaced CCR."
    "We really had gone to see 'InAGaddaDaVida' by Iron Butterfly but I personally was awed by Sly and the Family Stone... The Dead played at a different stage while the other bands played 'In The Round'."

    It's possible that the reviewer didn't know or care that the first band appearing wasn't actually Creedence. His sneer that Creedence had one decent song and would never do better was quite unprophetic, as they started turning out one hit after another in '69.
    The kids attending also seem to have been more impressed by Sly & the Family Stone than he was. Iron Butterfly was already a huge success, and along with Steppenwolf were probably the main draws.
    The reviewer was older than most of the audience, accounting for his disenchanted remarks. Much of the crowd was high-school or younger - the age range of the dead.net attendees was from 11 to 15. He notes that the young crowd were fairly reserved and polite, not going wild with enthusiasm, though I wouldn't entirely trust his observations. (Oddly, the review of the 5/5/68 Central Park show also mentioned the "V sign" popular at the time.)

    He wasn't impressed by the Dead, sniffing that they're not in the same class as the Doors or the Airplane (no catchy songs!), and I'm not sure what to make of his reference to transistors and radio parts. On the other hand, he favorably compares Garcia's "high, feedback-augmented chords" with Stravinsky - an unexpected classical comparison! (No telling what the 20-minute song was.)
    It looks like the Dead only got to play 45 minutes or so - the event started at 7, and they played second and were done by 9. Perhaps the audience of kids was "politely bored" - with the poor sound, and the promise of more exciting bands to come, it seems the Dead didn't stand out.

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    1. One attendee said the Dead left "no big impression," another that the stage setup "diminished our first Dead experience," and they didn't become fans til the '70s.
      As the least-known among the bands playing (no hit singles), the Dead may have been a little out of place playing for this teenage audience. However, the Electric Factory promoters must have liked the Dead or thought they had an audience, since they booked them for a "Baltimore Rock Festival" in Feb '69, followed by a weekend at the Electric Factory, just two months after this show. (Then again, the Dead were then on Bill Graham's Millard Agency, which may have aggressively sought east-coast bookings.)
      For more on the Dead's history in Philadelphia, see:
      http://lostlivedead.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-grateful-dead-electric-factory-and.html

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