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In the mind of the general public the festivals provided clear evidence of the threat posed by a radical youth movement. It was not just their political rhetoric, nor the widespread use of drugs; it was the sheer weight of numbers.
The sixties largest festival took place at Woodstock in upstate New York on 15-17 August 1969, with an estimated attendance of 450.000. In 1969, the combined forces of artists, activists, and passionate teenagers formed the most famous musical performance concert we can remember.
It lasted three days and attracted spectators from all over the country. Those who went were there for many reasons. Some were there because they believed that the music was a path of expression against the Vietnam conflict. Others believed that the music along with drugs was a spiritual path to “a better place.” Others were there for three days of peace, music, and love.
Woodstock raised hopes of a new beginning. But by the end of the year, the “dream” seemed over. Widespread violence occurred at the Altamont Festival in December, and a youth was knifed to death during a Rolling Stones performance. This was taken as an assault on the very spirit of the counter-culture itself.
But in the course of time idealism re-surfaced. Wedded to political causes with wider popular support it shaped a festival where, with the benefit of global communications hook-ups, frustration with the prevailing ideology of self-interest could find positive expression. In this sense Live Aid, the 1985 trans-world concert to raise money to combat famine in Ethiopia, seemed to many the true inheritor of the spirit of Woodstock.
To others it seemed to have inherited the paradoxes of the festivals, and added new ones. In this view the implausibility of rock stars and the music business displaying genuine altruism was compounded by the belief that rock and pop’s very existence as a capitalist phenomenon made it part of the reason for the famine in the first place.
It was also an enormous financial undertaking, with substantial payments to the performers setting them apart from their “brothers and sisters” in the audience. The organizers claimed Woodstock made them bankrupt, but after all the assets were counted, including film and record rights, it seems likely to have yielded a handsome profit.