Stars and Behind-the-Scenesters Trace the Rise of the “Rock Concert” in New Oral History

Like rock music itself, the rock concert has very humble, homegrown origins. It started way back in the later 40s/early 50s when radio DJs and record store owners saw them as a way to generate more bucks from the racy new musical style that was igniting the passions of a new, monied class of teenagers. Over time, rock concerts would explode in size, scope and cultural and revenue impact.  They evolved from quaint “hops” at high school gyms to a circuit of psychedelicized theatres, then onto sports arenas, stadiums and, ultimately, multiday outdoor festivals. In 2019, before COVID-19 blew it to smithereens, the live music business was a $136 billion-a-year global juggernaut.

With his new book Rock Concert (Grove/Atlantic Press), veteran journalist Marc Myers has marshalled an army to tell the free-wheeling story of the growth of this entertainment staple. Like Legs McNeil’s punk history classic, Please Kill Me and Frank Mastropolo’s recent, Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock History,  Myers’ book is a well ordered oral history weaving through decades of fascinating facts and anecdotes. It is told by some of rock’s most iconic stars including Alice Cooper, Ian Anderson, Steve Miller, Roger Walters, Angus Young, Hall & Oates and Bob Weir, as well as an A-list of promoters, managers, songwriters, producers, photographers, sound and lighting techs, filmmakers, fashion designers, roadies and fans.  These are the people who witnessed many watershed concerts firsthand, from the days of L.A.’s proto-rock R&B scene through to 1985’s Live Aid, the final event before the era of corporate sponsorship and out of sight ticket prices took hold. 

Myers goes back 3,400 years to set the stage for his story. In the book’s preamble, he introduces The Hurrian Songs.  This is the world’s oldest known sheet music, tablets from ancient Syria containing tunings and tablature for lyre music meant to be performed before a live audience – the first historical evidence of what would become today’s concert spectaculars.   Also noted in the deep history are two Big Band-era pop concert events – Paul Whiteman’s 1924 performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at NYC’s Aeolian Hall and 1938’s Carnival of Swing on Randall’s Island, the first outdoor jazz fest headlined by Benny “King of Swing” Goodman which drew over 20,000 white and black fans.

As stated earlier, the real genesis of the first era of rock concerts is credited to radio DJs.  In late 1940s Los Angeles, musician/radio host Johnny Otis commenced his Barrelhouse Club shows in Watts featuring R&B stars of the day. This was followed by shows at additional sites on Central Avenue, many headlined by the original “honking” sax man, Big Jay McNeely, including Hunter Hancock’s popular Midnight Concerts.

The true “rock concert” commenced in Cleveland when Rendezvous Record Store owner Leo Mintz partnered with radio DJ Alan Freed, the man who coined the term rock ‘n’ roll, for events like his Moondog Coronation Ball.  With Freed’s move to NYC and radio giant WINS in 1954, he introduced the big concert concept to the Big Apple, with huge shows that ultimately settled at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater.  Myers also quotes the recollections of rockabilly great Wanda Jackson to bring to life the frenzy around Elvis Presley’s early barnstorming tours of the South. 

The modern-day rock festival is traced back to George Wein, who inaugurated his annual Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, which included a performance by bluesman-turned-rocker Chuck Berry in its 1958 edition. Wein followed this with the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in 1959, whose headliners like John Baez and Peter Paul and Mary recall performing at what truly might have been the forerunner of Woodstock, the March of Washington. This event which attracted over 250,000 to D.C. in 1964 to hear the political folkies and, more importantly, civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

The Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein are given their due for pioneering the modern stadium tour, beginning with their August 1964 cross country swing to the Hollywood Bowl and their famed Shea Stadium concert in 1965.  Of the latter, photographer Henry Diltz relates anecdote about him and Lovin’ Spoonful having to be whisked into the dressing room with the Beatles at the frenzied show. This was when the Spoonful’s lead singer, John Sebastian, was mistaken for Beatle John as they sat in the audience of 50,000 plus.  With the help of folks like stage manager-turned-record producer Joe Boyd and folk star Peter Yarrow, Myers clarifies some of the erroneous beliefs around Dylan’s famed,  audience inflaming “going electric” set at the Newport Folk Fest in 1965.

Myers then takes readers through the era of the rock theater. This section chronicles the rise of Fillmore’s West and East, the Boston Tea Party, The Avalon, Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, Philly’s Electric Factory and more, and the many innovations they brought in lighting and stage craft and the role emerging FM radio played in their success.  There are more great details about how the Bay Area’s Beat poets and their “Happenings” helped usher in the hippies, leading to events like the Human Be-In and the first modern rock festival in 1967, Monterey Pop, another offshoot of a jazz fest inaugurated in 1958.  This comes with some great insights from both Monterey Pop filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and Steve Miller, who was inspired by Hendrix’s musicality but turned off by his and The Who’s guitar bashing antics.

Monterey Pop then led to 1968’s Miami Pop Festival, where we meet Michael Lang, a failed headshop entrepreneur who later play a key role in Woodstock.  Myers also relates info about some fests you may have never heard of including Washington’s Skyriver Festival, one promoted by dropping a piano out of a helicopter, along with Atlantic City Pop, which featured 29 acts over three days and drew an audience of 120,000, with no advertising, two weeks before Woodstock ‘69.  The author spends a good deal of time clarifying the history of the Woodstock Fest and some legends about how the crowd narrowly escaped mass electrocution during the torrential rain and the importance of the 1970 film to cementing it in history about all other rock fests.  There are some great firsthand memories from Blondie-to-be Chris Stein about his experiences at Woodstock.  There is also eye-opening details from Abbey Road cover photographer Ethan Russell about his time with the Rolling Stones’ at their disastrous attempt at a Woodstock knockoff, Altamont in December 1969.

After Woodstock, everything changed and escalated and somehow gets more formulaic – less fun but way more profitable.  Myers then traces the move to sporting arenas and stadiums.  There is a great discussion here on band branding with Nick Fasciano, the man who created the Coca-Cola inspired logo and album cover art for rock/jazzers Chicago and with the Rolling Stones’ famed “lips logo” creator John Pasche.  Now technology and spectacle come to the fore, with stars like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Alice Cooper, Roger Waters and Bob Weir going into their need for dazzling props, lasers, confetti canons, wireless guitar packs and having to create and truck their own custom staging, lighting and sound systems – all to have an impact on audiences that could now be a football field away. 

Fashionistas will enjoy the recollections of famed designer Norma Kamali. She is the woman who outfitted everyone from Robert Plant, Keith Richards, Sly Stone and The New York Dolls in their glam looks.  Also notable is the discussion of the charity rock concert, with intriguing backstory on George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, No Nukes in 1979, the various Farm Aid events and 1985’s Live Aid.

Deadheads will enjoy the chapter titled “Concert Maximus.”  In this, Myers chronicles the true rock concert superfans, those of the Grateful Dead.  These all-in devotees would follow the band to all sites on their tours, including July 1973’s Watkins Glen, which attracted over 600,000 to hear the Dead, The Allman Brothers and The Band.  Also included is a discussion of Wattstax, the August 1972 concert/movie/album created by the Memphis-based soul label which drew an audience of 90,000 to the Los Angeles Colosseum. Former label chief Al Bell describes the many obstacles overcome and how this massive event came off peacefully, without a police presence, with a security crew headed by none other than actor Melvin Van Peebles.  The author also touches on the mega-sized ABC-TV broadcast event California Jam, with Deep Purple, ELP and Black Sabbath. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URnQzst6Y1U

The death knell to this era of rock came with a few final factors.  First is the rise of solitary listening with the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979. This was followed by the rise of MTV and the accent on visuals. Lastly is computerized ticketing which only served to rapidly increase the price of entry for music fans. As mentioned earlier, Myers wraps it all up with Live Aid, the August 1985 event spanning stages in London and Philadelphia, with a TV audience of 1.5 billion.  It was the final event where ticket prices were within the reach of everyone ($35.00), before everything was scaled up with the help (or harm?) of massive corporate sponsorship.  It’s an event famed artist manager and Live Aid eyewitness Shep Gordon called “the end of innocence.”

As you can see from this review, Myers is a music journalist who digs deep and tells a tale clearly. If you enjoy this book, check out his regular contributions on music and culture at The Wall Street Journal and his award-winning site, JazzWax.com.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqEVYNTdc3c

benny goodmanChuck Berrygeorge gershwinmarc myers