‘A Hell of a Time’: Remembering the Atlantic City Pop Festival, 50 Years Later

Two weeks before Woodstock, rock fans descended on the Garden State for their own wet and wild time.

Original program for the AC Pop Fest lists advance pricing at $6 per day or $15 for all three days. Photographs, Erik Rank; program, collection of Ken Schlager; illustration, Andrew Ogilvie

Fifty years ago this month the ground shook with the biggest, baddest rock festival in history. Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival were among the headliners for the three-day event.

Woodstock? No, I’m talking about the Atlantic City Pop Festival, a gathering that occurred two weeks before that better-known event.

Speaking as one of the more than 100,000 sun-baked, half-starved youths who crammed into the Atlantic City Racetrack from August 1-3, 1969, I can affirm it was a hell of a time.

I was a 17-year-old from Norristown, near Philadelphia, dreading summer’s end when I heard about the festival. I was already a music fan, spending every weekend and dollar at Philly venues like the Electric Factory and the Main Point. This was different. For $15, I could see Iron Butterfly, the Byrds, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, the Moody Blues, Crosby, Stills and Nash and tons more.

First, I had to convince my father to let me go. “I’m going camping with Jack,” I lied. He eyed me suspiciously, but the ruse worked—at least for the moment.

I arrived in Atlantic City in time to see emcee Biff Rose warming up the crowd with songs about peace, love and drugs he couldn’t perform on the Johnny Carson show. Interviewed for this piece, Rose recalls cursing out the crowd for booing Joni Mitchell—they caused her to cry—and watching as “an acid-addled freak with a Jesus complex” chased Frank Zappa off the stage.

The music was spectacular. Iron Butterfly played the anthemic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” whatever that means. Grace Slick belted out “Somebody To Love” as fans shouted for her to expose certain parts of her anatomy. (She didn’t.) Janis Joplin killed it with her new band and then introduced her “favorite new performer,” Carlos Santana.

The Moodys and Crosby, Stills and Nash turned out to be no-shows, and the rumored, surprise appearance by Led Zeppelin didn’t materialize. But none of that mattered. Even the more commercial bands, like Chicago and Three Dog Night, were hot.

Actually, everyone was hot—so hot (and smelly) that groundskeepers sprayed the audience with water hoses. That left us hot, smelly and wet. In a hint of what was to come at Woodstock, a couple dozen folks cavorted naked in the track’s duck pond. Security removed them from the grounds.

Once the music stopped each night, thousands looked for a place to sleep. Most stayed at nearby campgrounds. Jack and I slept under the stars, fighting vampiric flies that ate better than we did. We settled for mystery-meat sandwiches sold by a nearby farmer. Aching bellies followed.

When the racetrack closed for the day, the bathrooms did too, forcing people to use overburdened porta-potties, or the woods—thus contributing to the aforementioned odour-du-hippie.

As the festival ended Sunday night, people looted the pop-up shops of hand-made suede jackets, records, bongs and other items. That was the sobering reality. The music had stopped, it was time to go home. As for the track, it never hosted another rock festival.

As I arrived home on Monday, my father greeted me with a local newspaper. He pointed to a story about the festival. “You were there, right?” he accused.

“Yeah, I guess.”

I was grounded, killing any chance of sneaking off to Woodstock. Like I cared. Many of the same bands would be performing there, but I figured there was no way a festival in rural New York could top the one I was recovering from.

And that’s an opinion I hold to this day.

Michael Sangiacomo was so inspired by the Atlantic City Pop Festival he became an award-winning journalist and music critic—now retired—for newspapers around Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland.

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