Party like it's 1969: Woodstock forty years on

Four decades on, does Woodstock still define the festival experience? A raft of anniversary DVDs and CDs and a new film aim to keep the mood alive.

Talking about Woodstock is like talking about the Second World War," says Graham Nash, whose recall of the three-day festival which defined the hippie dream for decades, gives the lie to the adage that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren't really there.

In fact, his recollections and those of the rest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the supergroup who played their second-ever gig at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in August 1969, inspired Joni Mitchell's ode to the festival and its "golden" generation. "We were enthused tremendously about what had just gone down. And she, in talking to the four of us, got such a depth of feeling about Woodstock, and she wasn't even there!" marvels Nash who had advised his then girlfriend not to travel to the site because she was due to appear on The Dick Cavett Show in New York the day after the festival ended. "It was such a great song, the whole feeling. As soon as the four of us heard it, we wanted to do that record so bad. And we did."

Nash was there, at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, New York, and literally bought the T-shirt. Indeed, Nash's original 1969 Woodstock T-shirt was on display in the Hard Rock Backstage VIP Tent at Hard Rock Calling last weekend and will now adorn the walls of the Hard Rock Café in London for a fortnight. Another key item from the Hard Rock's Woodstock Collection on show was the Gibson SG Special guitar used by Pete Townshend during The Who's sensational set, not only to manically strum "Pinball Wizard" but also to whack activist Abbie Hoffman on the head after he rushed the stage to make a speech about the imprisonment of MC5 manager John Sinclair. "The most political thing I ever did," later declared Townshend whose experiences at Woodstock planted the seed of "Won't Get Fooled Again".

"What they thought was an alternative society was basically a field full of six-foot-deep mud laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then fuck the lot of them." Canned Heat drummer Fito de la Parra remembers the band's singer Bob "The Bear" Hite commandeering a helicopter to the site and throwing the TV crew already on board out saying: "We're going to make the news". The first sight of Woodstock from the air woke me up," he says. "A small city of a half million people. Tents and sleeping bags and blankets made little patches of blue and yellow and red on the green grass of the rolling hills from horizon to horizon. We had no idea that we were about to play the most famous gig of our lives."

The fact that Woodstock memorabilia and reminiscences, along with a raft of 40th-anniversary releases including the director's cut of Michael Wadleigh's award-winning documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music on DVD, the remastered reissues of the albums Music from the Original Soundtrack and More: Woodstock – a number one in the US for four weeks in 1970 – and Woodstock Two, and Woodstock 40, an upcoming 6-CD box set of performances featuring 38 previously unreleased tracks, can create such an interest is testament to the hold the festival still has over our collective unconscious.

Yet, it so very nearly didn't happen. When Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld set up Woodstock Ventures, they struggled to find a suitable site and eventually settled on their third choice location in New York state, barely a month before the festival was due to take place. Having told local authorities they were planning an event for 50,000 people, they sold around 185,000 three-day tickets in advance – at $18 a pop – and expected 10 per cent more to show up. In fact, close to half-a-million people attended what was eventually declared a free concert, causing gridlock on the roads and monopolising the weekend's news coverage in the US. Amazingly, despite the rain, the lack of food and the absence of basic amenities, the festival was a peaceful, "beautiful" occasion, even if it over-ran so much that when Hendrix closed the proceedings with incendiary versions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hey Joe", it was Monday .

That might well have been it for Woodstock, a hazy memory for the peace and love generation to tell their children and grandchildren about, but for the fact that the whole thing had been filmed and recorded for posterity, mainly as a way of funding the festival in the first place. Kornfeld had had the nous to contact Fred Weintraub at Warner Bros. and asked for an advance of $100,000 to allow the cameras in.

Wadleigh quickly assembled a 100-strong team including Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, and told them to go for the cinéma vérité approach and focus on the hippie audience as much as the musicians. Skilful editing by Schoonmaker – who was nominated for her work – along with the use of freeze frames, split screens and superimpositions turned the documentary into an epic. Shown at Cannes in 1970, the three-hour film was released internationally, made $50m – 100 times its budget – for Warner Bros. in the US alone, and saved the film studio from bankruptcy. It also enabled the organisers to recover their original investment, and ensured the event's cultural impact increased over the years, as festival-goers around the world, at the Isle of Wight in 1970 and beyond, mimicked the behaviour of their American brothers and sisters. Having seen the documentary, Michael Eavis contacted Wadleigh and took a few leaves out of Woodstock's book when he held the first Glastonbury Festival on his farm in 1970 and let the cameras in for Glastonbury Fayre in 1971.

While acts such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Country Joe & The Fish, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and The Who had already played the better-organised Monterey International Pop Music Festival in California in June 1967, Woodstock sealed their status as icons of the counter-culture movement. The 1969 event and 1970 documentary also made stars of Richie Havens, the impromptu opening act, Melanie, who wrote "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" about the experience, Santana – yet to release their debut album and with leader Carlos Santana tripping throughout his set – Arlo Guthrie, Sly & The Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After and even rock'n'roll and doo-wop revivalists Sha Na Na. John Sebastian's "I Had a Dream" and Joan Baez's rendition of "Sweet Sir Galahad" leapt from the screens and the soundtrack speakers and fed the feverish imaginations of teenagers the world over. The band Mountain missed out on the boost to their profile until the release of Woodstock Two in 1971, while Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead and Johnny Winter held out on releasing any of their performance until much later, while a combination of management and record company politics, technical hitches and time restrictions also meant Sweetwater, The Incredible String Band, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Quill, The Keef Hartley Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Band also disappeared from the public's perception of Woodstock, though this will at long last be rectified for most on the Woodstock 40-box-set. Over six CDs, this mammoth endeavour re-establishes the chronological sequence of performances and still finds time for stage announcements from Chip Monck – "the brown acid is not specifically too good" – and other audio curios like the Hoffman vs Townshend incident.

Performers flying in on helicopters – a portentous sight in the Vietnam era – food and drinks spiked with LSD, acts going on 14 hours or a day late, the myth and legend of Woodstock has remained a potent signifier for baby-boomers ever since. It has served as the backdrop to films like A Walk on the Moon, directed by Tony Goldwyn in 1999, and starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen, and Ang Lee's forthcoming comedy Taking Woodstock. It has also inspired several follow-up events, most notoriously an ugly, chaotic 30th anniversary festival with the wrong bands – Limp Bizkit, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers – attracting the wrong kind of crowd, as if the nu-metal generation had been intent on killing off the dream of the flower children.

Best remember the original Woodstock as Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick does. "So much of Woodstock's appeal was the chance to simply come together and touch what we knew had already taken birth. It was our turn", she writes in Somebody to Love?, her autobiography. "We were ready to breathe, ready to celebrate change. I really believed the whole world would look like that in about sixteen years – the different skin colours weaving in and out of the tapestry, the unrestricted language and lack of cultural animosity, and the beautiful power of our main language: rock'n'roll.

"Did the gigantic dream work? It not only worked, it remains a magnificent symbol of an era. We are all accustomed to big outdoor concerts these days; they've become part of our culture. Not so in 1969. Today, the mere name Woodstock immediately conjures an image of a specific point in time where for four days and nights in the spirit of acceptance, celebration, and profound ritual, wherever we were, we were all different – and we were all the same."

'Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Edition' is out now as a four-disc DVD and a two-disc Blu-ray on Warner Home Video. 'Music from the Original Soundtrack and More' and 'Woodstock Two' are out now on Rhino. The six CD-box set, 'Woodstock 40', will be out on 17 August on Rhino. Items from the Hard Rock's Woodstock Collection are on display at the Hard Rock Café in London. Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock' is out on 30 October

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