Retro Heaven

Woodstock on Vinyl

The vinyl recordings of the Woodstock festival…

Until the dual English and American concerts for Live Aid, the Woodstock festival of August 1969 was the unchallenged greatest outdoor musical event of them all. Many would argue it remains so. But undeniably, it was a defining moment of popular music history and the ultimate signing off on an unforgettable decade.

There are so many facets to the Woodstock story; from the concept to the chaos when so many people turned up, to the weather, the drugs, the litter, the dazzling performances mired by long waits and technical issues to the brilliant, yet tainted closing performance by Jimi Hendrix. Each a story in itself. Yet despite all of the difficulties the music triumphed, these were the artists whose voices sang loudest against the Vietnam War, civil rights and a refusal to accept and adhere to conventional social rules.

With very few, regrettable exceptions this was a line-up of the biggest acts in the world; Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Who, John Sebastian, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, Ten Years After and of course, the revamped Hendrix band. It would catapult Carlos Santana and his group into superstardom and cement Richie Havens’ opening performance as one of the great moments in music history.

The concert was both filmed and taped and the first of two albums was released in May 1970. The sound engineer was the legendary Eddie Kramer who had worked closely with The Beatles, Hendrix, Traffic, and a new band called Led Zeppelin before going on to work with Peter Frampton, Kiss, Whitesnake, Derek and the Dominoes and many others. Released on the Atlantic label, it was a three record set with a stunning gatefold photograph by Jim Marshall. The follow-up album, Woodstock Two was released as a double album the following year in March 1971.

The first album is, unsurprisingly, the better, the cream of the set lists are interspersed with chants from the crowds and those legendary announcements over the PA system about the warnings of bad acid, medical facilities, lost friends and oncoming storms. For me, the highlights of the first album are, in no particular order: ‘Freedom’ (Richie Havens) ‘Wooden Ships’ (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), ‘Soul Sacrifice'(Santana), ‘I’m Going Home’ (Ten Years After), ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ (Joe Cocker) ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ (Sly & the Family Stone) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (Jimi Hendrix) and ‘Coming Into Los Angeles’ by Arlo Guthrie (son of Woody Guthrie)

The recordings have their flaws but I love the footnote by the producer, Eric Blackstead: ‘The recording of the music at Woodstock was a challenge of unprecedented scope and complexity requiring a level of endurance from both man and machine previously unheard of in location recording. The music and sounds in this album were selected from 64 reels of 8 track tape recorded over a period of three and a half days in three continuous eighteen hour sessions. Technical flaws resulting in equipment failure as well as human overload are inevitable in a venture of this size. Just as inevitably, some of them occur in the material included in this album. Consider them like the scars in fine leather, proof or the origin and authenticity of the material in which they are found’.

Further reading: Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

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