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June 16, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 35
Pop Eye: Soundblast ’66
By Richard Goldstein
Federico Fellini came to the Bronx last Friday night — in spirit anyway — when an assemblage of rock ‘n’ roll musicians took over the giant diamond at Yankee Stadium. Under the title “Soundblast 66,” they staged a pop-happening masquerading as a concert. Participating were a battalion of public relations men, 66 (three and a half tons of) go-go girls, squads of city and private police, and a bored, restless, chilly crowd of fans.
The concert was billed with some of the biggest names in Pop. The acts spanned the spectrum of the American rock scene (an increasingly expansive spectrum it is). The Beach Boys brought their California surfsound, with its emphasis on material fun and games. The Marvelettes an Little Stevie Wonder came heavily doused in soul and negritude. The McCoys handled the double-entendre and rauc-rock. The Byrds were appropriately long-haired and psychedelic. And Ray Charles came along for the class.
So, “Soundblast 66” should have been a gratifying combination of jazz-folk gospel acid-dance-rock. But the potential got lost somewhere in the stadium’s mammoth infield. The end product sounded like a cross between a Jehovah’s Witness revival and a drag race. The Fellini touch hung heavy over the whole affair like oily Bronx pasta.
It began an hour and 15 minutes late, with the go-go girls. Fresh from rehearsals at the Riverside Table Tennis Club, they seemed confused by the open green. They circled the baselines on bicycles. They screamed and waved streamers like switched-on cheerleaders. They frugged and jerked in mid-riff drag.
From the home-team dugout, 16-year-old Randy Zehringer, who plays with the McCoys, watched the wiggling arms and torsos, and looked bored. He had sen it all before. Playing the stadium, he confided, was “awful, terrible. It’s like singing in the middle of a freeway. With all the noise and open space, you can’t hear the audience reaction and you can’t hear your own sound.”
But once out of the dugout, the McCoys lost their apathy. With plastic energy, they bounded down the plywood runway stadium officials had constructed to protect the grass. The audience (which one concert official estimated at 25,000) seemed lost in the immense grandstands. Most of the stadium’s seats were unused, and the sound of trickling applause echoing off empty wood seemed anything but frenetic.
The stage was set upon the pitcher’s mound. This initial separation between audience and performer was never breached. Rock ‘n’ roll is a big medium, and the stadium’s acoustics — with its automatic echo and feedback — are immensely discothequable. But for groups like the McCoys, it was a hell of distractions. Fireworks exploded in the grandstand. Fistfights broke out. Autograph hunters roamed wild in the outfield. And a horde of press photographers knelt at the foot of the stage in homage. The sound was lost in the pseudo-event.
As the Byrds emerged from the home-team dugout, a bell-bottomed body burst from a nearby box and tried to leap the fence. She was stopped by a flying wedge of police. The group raced down the plywood path to the stage, but they had to wait a full ten minutes before their equipment could be assembled. Finally connected to their amplifiers by electrical umbilical cords, they began to play. But the sound wasn’t worth the amps. The group seemed incapable of sustaining effective harmony in person, and their ambiguous raga-rhythms lost themselves in a maze of echo and feedback. Priceless details (Jim McGuinn doing a neat two-step as he sang, Gene Clarke’s phosphorescent buttons, the grin on Mike Clarke’s face as he dutifully pounded the drums) were lost on everyone in the audience who had neglected to bring a high power telescope.
The Beach Boys came out of the pitcher’s bull pen in a green armored van. The vehicle stopped short of the stage and was immediately surrounded by police. But it was a false miracle right out of “La Dolce Vita.” The anticipated riot of screaming fans never materialized, because the truck seemed miles away from the nearest female groupie, and males were distracted by the dancers.
Undaunted, the Beach Boys mounted the stage. There were screams. There was cheering. There were signs, placards, and bedsheets. But no fainting, no turmoils no adulation. “It’s too cold,” one reporter muttered. “I want a riot with racial overtones,” whispered his photographer. “I’ve still got half a roll to shoot.”
But all went well — and dull — as the group careened thorugh “Surfer Girl,” “California Girls,” and “Sloop John B.” They finished with “Barbara Ann,” waved goodbye in the general direction of the floodlights, and climbed into the armored van to be whisked away.
The management tried to fan the dying flames during the intermission. They gave away a couple of lightweight Suzuki cycles, a gross of albums by the Gentry, and other material goodies. But the audience, bored by the delays and chilled by the weather, wilted and grew thin. They were only mildly impressed as Miss Soundblast ’66 (16-year-old Sherry Se-Bor, a sophomore at Massapequa High) came on stage to take her bows.
For the second half, the tempo changed abruptly. The go-go girls were gone. Their bicycles lay stacked along the foul lines. Their streamers littered the infield. The grandstand was virtually empty and those who remained in the boxes formed a primarily Negro audience.
So, the management gave them soul. Little Stevie Wonder waved in the imagined direction of applause, and smiled for the clicking cameras. But once on stage, he stopped being a blind man and started to sing.
His set was the evening’s most successful. The catcalls ceased and the stadium quieted noticeably as he belted out his soul-scrubbed lyrics. His version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was magnificent in scope. It bounded off the walls and rows of empty seats. It echoed from the giant scoreboard and made the entire concept of holding a pop concert in Yankee Stadium seem plausible.
Ray Charles ended the evening with a medley of old favorites. By this time, the cold was beginning to get to everyone, and the Raelettes stood in the wings with towels from Consolidated Laundries wrapped around their bare shoulders. But the audience was with this act, and they sang along jubilantly with the evening’s finale: “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
A 14-year-old go-go dancer from Borough Park, Brooklyn, sat in the back of the grandstand, her head buried in her mother’s lap. “They didn’t pay us at all,” she complained. “They made us rehearse three times. They made us wear our own costumes.”
And, she explained, “I sprained my ankle trying to get a good look at the Byrds.”
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 10, 2009