Almost as soon as the 1969 Woodstock festival was over, its impact began seeping into the cultural memory of America. Having come to represent the glory days of the hippie movement, it’s impossible to talk about the Woodstock festival without going slightly gooey-eyed. After all, if the stories are to be believed, free love abounded, peace proliferated, and music won the day. And yet, to the musicians who were actually there in August 1969, Woodstock was a very different affair. According to The Who’s Roger Daltrey, for example, the whole thing was distinctly un-peace and love.
As he once explained in a particularly revealing interview, The Who frontman hated the whole experience from start to finish. You can’t blame him either.
Memory has a habit of cutting out the boring stuff, but in reality, Woodstock was a much more uncomfortable experience than nostalgia junkies would have us believe. The festival coincided with a period of sporadic thunderstorms and heavy rain, which quickly turned the festival grounds into a quagmire.
As Daltry recalled, The Who arrived at Woodstock determined not to let it beat them. But, as the hours went by, their combative spirit began to wane: “You’ve got to remember, by the time we went on stage, we’d been standing in the mud for hours. Or laying in it, or doing whatever in it. It wasn’t actually that muddy backstage, but it wasn’t comfort, let’s put it that way.”
Daltrey was able to enjoy Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “fantastic” set, but beyond that, there was little to do but wait: “That’s all you could do. Waiting, waiting, waiting. We were young, and life is a lot easier when you’re young. I wouldn’t do that show now. Sod that. I’d walk away from it. I’m joking. No, I’d walk away and come back ten hours later.”
For, Daltrey, Woodstock 1969 was by far the worst show The Who had ever played. As he explained: “It was a particularly hard one for me, because of the state of the equipment. It was all breaking down. I’m standing in the middle of the stage with enormous Marshall 100 watt amps blasting my ears behind me. Moon on the drums in the middle. I could barely hear what I was singing.”
But it wasn’t just technical difficulties that left Daltrey jaded. Despite being remembered as something of a hippie utopia, in his eyes, the festival was much less romantic. “Woodstock wasn’t peace and love. There was an awful lot of shouting and screaming going on. By the time it all ended, the worst sides of our nature had come out. People were screaming at the promoters, people were screaming to get paid. We had to get paid, or we couldn’t get back home.”
Nevertheless, Daltrey did concede that Woodstock showcased some of the best artists from the golden age of rock music: “What was interesting about the music that was being made in those years was how quickly and rapidly it progressed. The sounds, the musicianship, the styles. It plateaued toward the end of the ’70s, and then you can hear the commerciality creeping in, rather than inventiveness.”
It’s true that the artists on the bill at Woodstock seemed completely free from the influence of major labels. Perhaps that’s what people remember so fondly: not Woodstock itself, but the period of innocence that it coincided with.