The First Year of 11 Major Music Festivals

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These days, summer music festivals are massive cultural events and moneymakers, drawing millions to deserts, islands, farms, and any other place stages can be propped up and $5 can be charged for bottled water. But just a few decades ago, most of today’s biggest fests either didn’t exist or were barely recognizable compared to the cultural monoliths they are today. With festival season upon us in all its half-camping, sweaty-dancing glory, here's a look back at the first year of some of the world’s largest major music festivals.


My Morning Jacket in 2012. Image courtesy Weekly Dig, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Chances are if you only know one thing about about Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival, it's this: Newport was where, in 1965, Bob Dylan made the transition from acoustic to electric guitar, forever changing rock music and making serious folk purists very angry. But Newport Folk possesses some other notables. It debuted in 1959, making it one of the longest-running festivals of its kind in America, and introduced the larger folk community to an 18-year-old named Joan Baez, who played alongside legends like Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, and Odetta in its first year. These days, Newport maintains a loosely folksy vibe, with the likes of The Avett Brothers, Sufjan Stevens, and Beck popping up in the lineup over the last few years.

2. AND 3. READING (1961) AND LEEDS (1999)

Festivalgoers in 1974 // Getty Images

Reading and Leeds take place on the same weekend, with all of the same acts shuffling between the two English locales. What would become the Reading Festival kicked off in 1961 as the National Jazz and Blues Festival and featured performances from jazz acts Johnny Dankworth, Tony Russell, and Tubby Hayes. It would shift distinctly toward rock 'n' roll over the years, including a 1963 performance by the upstart Rolling Stones. The fest made a permanent move to Reading in 1971, and Leeds joined the party in 1999 with the kind of radio rock lineup the fests maintain today, featuring headliners like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blur.

4. SUMMERFEST (1968)

Summerfest fireworks, 2008 // by Dori via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

What Milwaukee’s Summerfest lacks in repute and name creativity, it makes up for in sheer mass. Lasting a sprawling 11 days, featuring some 700 acts and drawing over 800,000 people, the mammoth event is (arguably) the biggest music festival in the world, with draws like the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga and Tim McGraw headlining over the past few years. But when the Oktoberfest-inspired festival was born in 1968, it was held at 35 locations throughout the city, instead of the current Henry Maier Festival Park on Lake Michigan, and, in the words of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "had a German accent" and "was more polka than rock 'n' roll."

5. ISLE OF WIGHT (1968)

Bob Dylan in 1969 // Getty Images

Somewhat ironically, England’s Isle of Wight Festival was actually doomed by its massive early success. Originally put on to raise money for a public swimming pool, the counterculture rock fest debuted in 1968 to a relatively modest 15,000 fans, with a lineup that was headlined by Jefferson Airplane and also included slightly lesser-remembered acts like Arthur Brown, The Move, and Smile. By 1970, however, Isle of Wight became, at the time, the largest music festival in the history of music festivals, drawing a crowd of an estimated 600,000 to see living legends like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Sly & the Family Stone. In fact, it was such a draw that the population of the island increased more than sixfold during the festival, creating a logistical nightmare. This led to the passage of the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971, which prevented the festival from taking place for another three decades. The fest, which was revived in 2002, now hovers around a much more reasonable 60,000 in attendance.

6. JAZZ FEST (1970)

Dr. John in 2006 // Getty Images

These days, the music programmers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (a.k.a. Jazz Fest) have a pretty liberal definition of “jazz” (they’re doing fine on “New Orleans,” “Heritage,” and “Festival” so far as we can tell). Major headliners this year included not terribly jazzy acts like Keith Urban, The Who, Elton John, and No Doubt, although in fairness, the Fest’s undercard—and indeed the whole city—was packed with some of the world’s best jazz acts. Now a sprawling 10-day music and food opus, the first-ever Jazz Fest in 1970 was decidedly smaller, and significantly jazzier. The modest five-day affair sold just 350 tickets but featured performances from legends like Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, The Meters, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and hometown gospel queen Mahalia Jackson.


Glastonbury Pyramid Stage in 1971 // Getty Images

These days it’s the biggest music event in England, drawing massive crowds to the idyllic Somerset countryside. But besides its location at Worthy Farm, the first Glastonbury Festival held in 1970—which kicked off the day after Jimi Hendrix died—bears almost no resemblance to the massive, five-day event it is today. Then called the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival (it became “Glastonbury Fair” in 1971), the event was initially set to feature the Kinks, but the group dropped out and ended up being replaced by folk-turned-glam rockers T. Rex (then Tyrannosaurus Rex). They were supported by several other artists of varying notoriety, including Amazing Blondel, Quintessence, and Stackridge. That first event cost just £1 (plus all the free milk you wanted—really!) and was attended by just 1500 people. The 2015 festival is expecting roughly 200,000 people to watch headliners Kanye West and the Foo Fighters, but will also run attendees £225. Inflation! 

7. ROSKILDE (1971)

Festivalgoers resting in hammocks in 2013 // Getty Images

Would you believe the biggest, baddest rock festival in all of Denmark (sorry, upstarts at NorthSide) was started by a couple of high school kids and a concert promoter all the way back in 1971? While Roskilde's second year featured some high-profile acts, including the Kinks and Sha Na Na, the first year was a who’s who of European rock bands you’ve probably never heard of, unless dominating Obscure European Classic Rock Trivia Night is your thing. Acts included Strawbs, Gasolin', Mick Softley, and Sebastian, who played to a decently hearty crowd of 10,000. These days, Northern Europe’s largest music event draws over 100,000. You’ve probably heard of this year’s headliner: his name starts “Sir” and ends with “Paul McCartney.”

8. ROCK IN RIO (1985)

Rihanna performing in Madrid in 2010 // Gianni Ferrari

These days, Rock in Rio is (quite confoundingly) an international affair with iterations taking place in Madrid, Lisbon and, as of this weekend, Las Vegas—an event set to feature radio royalty including Taylor Swift, John Legend, Linkin Park, No Doubt, and Metallica. Unlike the vast majority of festivals on this list, however, Rock in Rio started not with a whimper but with a bang during its inaugural year in 1985, featuring Queen, James Taylor, AC/DC, Rod Stewart, Yes, Ozzy Osbourne and George Benson over its sprawling 11-day run. The fest drew 1.4 million people, who bought a Guinness World Record 58,000 McDonald's hamburgers in one day.


Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro in 2009 // Getty Images

First put on as a tour between 1991 and 1997 and again in 2003, Lollapalooza didn't become a full-fledged three-day Chicago music event until 2005. The roving festival was launched by singer and noted oversized-hat-wearer Perry Farrell as something of a farewell tour for his band, Jane’s Addiction, with its rise (and then subsequent decline) coinciding with the popularity of alternative rock. The 1991 tour had alt-rock bona fides, with Nine Inch Nails, the Violent Femmes, and Fishbone, but it also included Ice-T (debuting his heavy metal band Body Count) and the multimedia performance collective Emergency Broadcast Network.

It wasn’t until the second tour in 1992, however, that Lolla included the Jim Rose Circus sideshow which became synonymous with the Festival. And now? Nothing about the mammoth three-day Grant Park event could really be considered “alternative,” with attendance regularly topping 200,000, acts from every genre attending (Paul McCartney, Metallica, and Florence + The Machine headline this year), and stages that are sponsored by Axe body products and Bud Light. It’s cool, everyone—selling out is the new not selling out.

10. COACHELLA (1999)

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The modern mega music festival so nice they do it twice, Southern California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival kicked off in 1999, helping to give birth to the current generation of mega music festivals that have risen from the ashes of Woodstock '99. The original fest wasn’t actually too far from the Coachella double-weekend lineups today, with a focus on alt-radio rock (Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Beck), electronic (Moby, DJ Shadow, The Chemical Brothers) and some smatterings of hip-hop (Jurassic 5, Rahzel). AC/DC, Jack White and Drake took on headlining duties this year.

11. BONNAROO (2002)

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A relative youngster among major American music festivals, when Bonnaroo sprung up in 2002, drawing an estimated 70,000, it was a bit more of a hippie affair than it is today. The first Bonnaroo was a collection of the most famous rock bands with songs that last over 20 minutes, featuring jam vets Widespread Panic headlining two nights and Trey Anastasio of Phish taking on main stage duties the final night. Other good-vibes-and-long-tunes favorites included Grateful Dead vets Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, the String Cheese Incident, the Disco Biscuits, Gov’t Mule, Umphrey’s McGee and Galactic. While the inaugural year did mix in a dash of hip-hop, electronic music and the utterly genre-less (we’re looking at you, Ween and Les Claypool), it was a while before it fully shed the jam-band fest image, arguably turning the corner when Radiohead took on lead headlining duties in 2006. Fun fact: the event also featured the decidedly non-musical Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy in the cinema tent.