Jan 10, 2013

December 29, 1968: Miami Pop Festival

(This is an excerpt from a longer review of the Festival.)

....American rock today is in some danger of being subverted by pernicious influences. This is a message I bring back from the Miami festival: The music of groups like the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, Spirit, the whole West Coast style that is spreading rapidly to the East, replete with long solos (often tasteless and meager in content) within a virtually unstructured form, is music of sorts, and under certain conditions it sounds magnificent, but it isn't rock 'n' roll, and so it is forever denied a mass audience.

Rock 'n' roll is the only high-quality mass art form we have today and it would be a ghastly mistake to allow it to degenerate into the middle-class art form that classical music is, or into the cliquish limited-audience music that modern jazz became. It is disturbing to see many of the best musicians in America trying to remold rock in an alien jazz and classical music-inspired cast. [ . . . ]

The Grateful Dead took the field midway through the second day. After much exacting tuning and preparation they began--and played without stopping for 45 long, and sometimes short, minutes. The music was essentially freeform or no-form jamming. If you put any bunch of talented musicians on stage and have them improvise for an hour it is inevitable that they will get it together a few times. For all that, it is clear that progressive rock is not instantly exalting the way supreme unvarnished rock 'n' roll (Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Who, etc.) is. Rather the Grateful Dead came into their own as superb environment musicians--when the environment is right, for example, on the grounds of Columbia for free during the insurrection. In front of a grandstand, however, despite the easy accommodation induced by the open sun and silent clear sky, the mediocrity of conception of the Grateful Dead's music was too apparent for comfort.

I would love to love the Grateful Dead and the other West Coast groups. They are part of the Revolution, they have a social consciousness, they give free concerts and feel with us the injustices and restrictions against free living. By contrast Terry Reid is nothing more than an engaging young hedonist out to carve a niche for himself in swinging London by selling himself to as many Americans as possible. Nevertheless I cannot help but acknowledge that it is Reid who produces the gifted rock and roll and the Grateful Dead the insipid rock.

This paradox can perhaps be resolved if we recognize that rock and roll is basically a working-class, lower-class art form (all the greatest American music has come from blacks while the English groups are, nearly without exception, staffed by urban lower-class kids) and much of the working class is not interested in revolution. In America today the main impetus for social change comes from alienated middle class kids. Some of them, the musically inclined, turn to rock music, but they retain the musical values they were brought up with, those of classical music. No wonder that their rock comes out genteel, and cerebral, framed within long-drawn out set pieces.

The Iron Butterfly discover a pleasant riff and instinctively they begin to give it the full treatment--toying with it pretentiously for about thirteen minutes, padding it with irrelevant organ solos and guitar solos and the mandatory drum solo (with extensive use of the bass drum yet!). This music is very different from, and inferior to, the concentrated, strictly organized, but striking sound of early black rock and roll of the Chuck Berry-Fats Domino-Little Richard variety--a sound which had its greatest impact among the swaggering, brash young British proletariat. When the white working classes in America finally shake off their acquiescence and become rebels against society I will expect to hear them produce rock to equal British rock. Till then we must see to it that music masquerading as rock and roll does not come to dominate the American scene.

Not that we should exaggerate the chances of vigorous rock and roll being submerged under the pseudo-heavy "sound" music of the more pretentious West Coast groups -- the Miami Pop Festival had enough talent on display to keep one's fears tiny. Country Joe and the Fish, say, who came on unprepossessing but grow in stature as they assert their calm and confident rapport with the audience all building up to that staggering moment when they launch into "Fixing to Die"--in such a way does rock and roll gell musical and spiritual elements to produce instants of screaming intensity.
[ . . . . ]

(by Salahuddin Imam, from the Harvard Crimson, January 22 1969)



* * * * *

For those interested in rock criticism of the '60s, here is "The Year of Rock In Review" article from the same issue, covering the albums of 1968:


The author (Ken Emerson) calls Anthem of the Sun "revolutionary" and an "album of genius":

The words are underemphasized to an extreme--rarely can they be deciphered. The music is what distinguishes the album.

Rock in 1968 was dominated by virtuoso solos: Ginger Baker battering away on her drums for twenty minutes while Clapton and Bruce twiddled their thumbs, Canned Heat's bassist doodling by himself for twelve, Jeff Beck soaring for five while his sidemen marked time, the Nice's brilliant organist, Keith Emerson, letting out all the stops for twenty-five. All of us can name the greats: Clapton, Hendrix, Bloomfield, Moon, Baker, Beck.... What has been lost in this is jamming, group playing as opposed to individual performances. The song has become a pretext for a solo, a nonentity in itself. Musicians are playing for themselves, not for one another. Canned Heat released a record consisting of fifteen-minute solos by each of the band's members. And of course we have Cream's Wheels of Fire. It's all becoming a drag. One can only listen to so many drum solos; there are too many great guitarists.

Anthem of the Sun is unique in its group approach to playing. The album is a fluent series of performances, some recorded in the studio, some live, spliced into one another to create a continuous, ever-changing yet always consistent group improvisation. No one musician overshadows the others, though lead guitarist Jerry Garcia is frequently prominent. What amazes the listener upon every hearing is that so many disparate moods, tempos, and rhythms can be contained in one organic structure, and that six musicians can play so many instruments so well together. The Quicksilver Messenger Service, on The Fool, is the only group to have come close to such music....


  1. This is very much a dated, pretentious college student's review...he classifies, theorizes & over-intellectualizes.
    Ironically, much of the rest of the review (not included here) is pretty good, as he talks about his favorite acts at the festival - Chuck Berry, Terry Reid, Richie Havens, Fleetwood Mac, Canned Heat, Procul Harum...
    It's funny that his description of Country Joe could well describe a Dead show from the next couple years. Note that he did like their 5/3/68 Columbia University show - "the Grateful Dead came into their own as superb environment musicians" - though he doesn't say what clicked for him there that didn't click at Miami.

    The second article I recommend (though it's very idiosyncratic & bashes the White Album), as a contemporary look at rock in '68, looking ahead to '69.

  2. Thanks for posting this review. I am writing an article about the two Miami Pop Festivals and enjoyed reading the criticism from someone who was there and of the generation to appreciate the show. Unfortunately he didn't like the Dead's set. His loss and maybe later he grew to regret writing that article. As I write this I am listening to Dark Star from that show and find it to be a great example of late 60's Dead, which I consider to be one of their most innovative periods.

  3. Here is a positive New York Times review of the Miami Pop Festival from 1/12/69, though it barely mentions the Dead:

  4. The Kudzu (an underground Mississippi newspaper) ran a full-page review of the Miami Pop Festival in its 1/14/69 issue. The Dead are only briefly mentioned, lumped in with all the "monotonous" blues groups: "The Grateful Dead were very disappointing."
    However: "Country Joe and the Fish were the highlight of the first day. They're still the standing definition of San Francisco rock."