Music, lights, over-motivated organizers and enthusiastic participants, how could a festival turn into a nightmare, you might ask? Yet it’s far from being a rarity and it almost becomes a classic. Festivals are known to be microcosms on their own, but that doesn’t mean that when a grain of sand enter the mechanics, the disaster doesn’t become a major one.
Woodstock, or how a disaster turned into a myth
First of all, I must destroy what is perhaps inked in your mind as one of the greatest successes of the festival world: Woodstock, August 1969. If the festival is today a true legend, a remnant of the hippie movement and of that period when everything was beautiful, flowery and smiling, it’s partly thanks to its extraordinary programming. We find for example Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, etc.. The list of talented artists is almost too good to be true. The fact is that they all came. That’s not the problem.
To begin with, the weather conditions are no longer a mystery today, the three days took place in pouring rain, forcing artists and spectators to deal with it. Ravi Shankar, who played on Friday had to play literally soaked by the way. Spectators had to wade through mud in torrential rain, mud that was apparently very difficult to get out of. On the other hand, the festival, which was initially a paying event, brought in so many people that it is estimated that only 10% of the spectators had paid their entrance fee, the rest had gotten in by going over the barriers or simply smashing them down. The festival was therefore in the rain, wading through mud and astronomical overcrowding. But even if we forget this kind of consideration, the musical performances were far from being what we are entitled to expect from the artists who showed up. Joan Baez, 6 months pregnant at the time, was exhausted. The Who were interrupted in the middle of their performance by a political activist. Janis Joplin arrived completely drunk on the stage. As for Jimi Hendrix, with his extraordinary and mystical performance and his on fire guitar (we’ll talk about it in a future article), he didn’t play in front of more than a few people on Sunday evening, so exhausted and confused by the conditions, all the spectators had already left.
However, this did not prevent this festival from remaining in the minds of the public as the biggest hippie festival of all time. (Perhaps not in the minds of those who actually attended…).
Concert or riot ?
Barely 6 months after Woodstock, another festival was held, the one in Altamont, of sinister memory. Organized by the Rolling Stones, it should have been the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock (which was held in New York State). It was a thunderous program, with Santana and Jefferson Airplane still part of the adventure. While we think it was drugs that kept the Woodstock audience peaceful, too high up to realize what was going on, we also think it was drugs (another kind certainly) that were responsible for the events that took place in Altamont. Furthermore, the “security” at the festival should have been held by the Hell’s Angels, who were high on LSD, amphetamines, secobarbital and alcohol (yes, yes, all of these at once), and who largely participated in the mess.
Very soon, fights broke out, right in the middle of the performances of the artists, who realized, confusedly, that something was wrong with this festival. In the afternoon, the Rolling Stones, who had planned to cross the crowd to go on stage on foot, find that the stage is overcrowded and leaves them little room. Their concert is therefore delayed until the stage is cleared to give them room to play, which only warms the spirits. Shortly afterwards, while the Stones are playing, a fight breaks out, costing the life of the eerily famous Meredith Hunter (a student from the audience), who is stabbed to death by a member of the orderly, in front of her girlfriend’s eyes. He’s then brought to the ground, beaten and stabbed again by the Hell’s. He was apparently carrying a firearm (pictures would tend to prove it), but this weapon was never found. The Stones will continue to play another eight songs after this event without having any idea of what’s going on in front of their eyes.
This festival is considered by many to be the official end of the hippie movement, in the face of the catastrophe it represented for many. To this will be added the death of important musical figures of the movement a few months later, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (all three at 27 years old, more or less because of their respective addictions).
But then, it’s just a long flood of festivals that go wrong, with more or less media noise. In 1999, for the 30th anniversary of the festival of peace and love (hm, refer to what I wrote above, I would have rather said of high and rain, but hey), we organize what is meant to be a legacy festival. However, the spectators are not allowed to bring their food or water (they can of course buy it on the spot at exhorting prices). And when the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform Jimi Hendrix’s song “Fire”, the spectators simply set fire to everything they find (tents, vehicles, etc.).
However, festivals are also prone to riots with electro music, with the monumental failure of the Bloc festival in 2012, where several thousand people complained of being run over, or of being in very dangerous rushes. Vestiville, a festival with a program that included, among others, Maître Gims, had to be cancelled in catastrophe due to poor organization by its founders. And it could have stayed there, but the disgruntled spectators decided to stay on site to win their case. In response, the authorities were sent to them, accompanied by tear gas, which turned the festival into a pure riot.
Poor organization & messy cancellations
The organizers can sometimes (out of bad faith or clumsiness, I leave it to you to judge) be much worse than their spectators. During the 2008 Zoo8 festival, spectators had to wait hours before entering, no access to drinking water and a camping area as big as a pocket handkerchief for everyone. The artists, who were not paid, therefore refused to play. A tent pole near the stage broke, making access impossible, and several barriers collapsed to make matters worse.
The Maitreya Festival was not to be outdone, as it was cancelled literally the day before, and the organizers refused to reimburse all the spectators (with a ticket that ranged from $100 to $300 anyway). Festivals that cancel for the mere absence of ONE headliner among others (The flying dutch), or that let their festival-goers sleep in ditches, in the rain, without water or food of course (Tomorrowworld 2015).
The palm of disaster in terms of a contemporary failed festival is undoubtedly the Fyre Festival. A festival that promised a lot, but which… promised a lot. The founders wanted to ride the wave of web influencers, make a monstrous publicity and a carefully elaborated communication. However, they hadn’t thought for a moment, it seems, that organizing a festival required more than a nice poster and interesting video teasers. Supposed to take place on a private island that once belonged to Pablo Escobar, festival-goers first arrived by plane.
When they landed, a heavy rain (again) soaked the tents and mattresses that had been awkwardly left outside. Festival-goers are invited to wait more than 5 hours in a restaurant (which mainly offers canned cheese sandwiches) while the organizers try to catch up with their festival and struggle with group cancellations. Soon they realize that the number of festivalgoers is in any case much higher than the number of tents and wet mattresses waiting for them. It’s also not possible in this season to fall back on the hotel complexes on the neighboring islands, as they are all fully booked. On top of that, once night falls, there is no source of light to illuminate and total confusion reigns on the island.
In the meantime, several participants will have their luggage stolen, will realize that there is no network for the telephone and that most of the human constructions on the island are still unfinished construction sites. Desperate, the organizers give up and announce that the festival will be postponed and that the spectators will be flown back to Miami the next morning. Obviously, as the flight schedule is disrupted, the flight will be delayed, and festival-goers will therefore find themselves stuck at the airport, once again without access to water, food, or air conditioning, leading to fainting due to the heat.
Some musical events that went wrong :
- Guns n’roses, July 1991 (riots apparently due to Axl Rose’s pride)
- The Doors, March 1969 (Jim Morrisson is drunk, late, doesn’t sing, and makes exhibitionist threats (the story doesn’t say whether he carried them out before being evacuated by the authorities))
- Frank Zappa, December 1971 (a spectator shoots a flare gun at the ceiling, causing a fire, this will give birth to Deep Purple’s most cult song “Smoke on the water”)
- Deep Purple, April 1974 (total destruction of the instruments, stage and camera that was to film the concert by Richie Blackmore in front of a mesmerized audience and band)
- The Stooges, 1974 (fight between Iggy Pop and some spectators, who will end up putting a contract on his head as a result)
- Ozzy Osbourne, January 1982 (Ozzy is going to decapitate and devour the head of a bat he thought was a fake)
- Mötley Crüe, 1983 (the audience throws bones and animal heads at the band, which is pretty well taken, until one of their technicians is hit by a dart, which Tommy manages to take away without stopping playing, shortly afterwards the smoke machine explodes, and a liquid spreads all over the stage with an atrocious smell, It was not until the last song that the band realized that the technician had been seriously burned and that the smell came from him), although the band collects disastrous concerts, we can also mention the memorable December 2015 (Tommy gets stuck upside down for several long minutes after a drum failure, videos on the internet to support the curious. ..)
- Smith Westerns, 2011 (a torrential storm occurs, sweeps away the stage, which collapses and causes the death of 5 spectators)
- The Who, December 1979 (fans throwing themselves on closed doors, 11 people trampled dead, 26 injured)
As you will have understood, a festival is not a place without risks, on the contrary. If sometimes the reasons for this disaster are purely economic (organizers who make empty promises or who push the lure of gain to the point of selling essential goods such as water at much too high a price), other times they are due to meteorological criteria (and yes, rain is nice but not very suitable for the festival), but above all, in the vast majority of cases, they are due to human errors whether they come from the organizers, the spectators or the artists.
I hope that in the future you will not fail to rethink everything I have just told you and… that you will then go to as many festivals and concerts as you can!
May nothing stop the music & see you soon!