Kurt Cobain once remarked that there was a feeling amongst his generation that everything had been said and done before they’d even had the opportunity to make their mark, and (belonging to that very generation) I was reminded of the late Nirvana front-man’s observation when I spent an enlightening hour a couple of days ago watching a DVD of Blind Faith playing a free gig in London’s Hyde Park. For those not in the know, the short-lived Blind Faith (one album, one tour) were one of Rock’s first ‘super-groups’, a band whose individual members had already enjoyed a degree of success in other combos.
The reason Blind Faith attracted immediate media attention and were able to stage their debut public performance in a venue guaranteed an audience of several thousand was that their ranks included Eric Clapton on guitar and his cantankerous Cream cohort Ginger Baker on drums. By 1969, Clapton was venerated to a degree that annoyed the man himself, and power trio Cream had blazed a pioneering trail in both Psychedelia and Hard Rock before internal frictions between Baker and bassist Jack Bruce brought about their split in 1968. Their commercial and critical cache remained high, however, so when two-thirds of the band were back together in a new venture, they were bathed in an intense spotlight from the off. This four-piece were completed by the addition of the little-known bassist Rick Grech from underground band Family and by the soulful vocals of the precocious (21 in ’69) Steve Winwood, who had already established himself with both The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic.
Blind Faith had yet to release their only album when they decided to unveil the project with a free gig at Hyde Park a month before The Rolling Stones staged a similar and more retrospectively remembered concert there in the summer of 1969; but expectations were so high that it didn’t seem to matter that the majority of the material played would be unfamiliar to the punters; whatever they played would be received rapturously. With their instant enthusiastic fan-base, the band took to a remarkably tiny stage that seemed to be situated in the middle of the audience rather than a grandiose platform of the kind the Stones played upon a month later. Ironically, the camera picks out Mick Jagger as Blind Faith begin their set, perhaps taking notes on how to get this kind of event right.
The dearth of new material the band had assembled reduced their performance to forty minutes, padded out with a few covers, and Eric Clapton later regretted their premature entrance into the arena, brought about by over-confidence and commercial expectations. He became further disillusioned by the sell-out tour the band undertook to promote their chart-topping debut LP later that year; he felt audiences were not responding euphorically to the music but to the past reputations surrounding the band members; and this was instrumental in his decision to call it a day before any further Blind Faith recordings could be made. In a way, it was a shame, because an album primarily remembered for a striking sleeve evocative of more innocent and less cynical times (one that would today probably result in the whole band being placed on the Sex Offenders Register) was a strong, experimental mix of Psychedelic Blues, Soul, Folk and Jazz-inspired improvisation, a refreshing melting-pot typical of the ‘anything goes’ mindset prevalent in the UK music scene at the time.
What struck me watching the sole filmed performance of Blind Faith, however, was a reminder of how non-corporate Rock was in 1969, and how it was still in its joyously embryonic stages, having broken free from the ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’-type showbiz circuit, but yet to fully establish a true alternative. There are no sponsors’ banners decorating the stage and, of course, there was no overwhelming ticket demand exploited by unscrupulous touts or promoters, with the gig being free. Blind Faith could afford to resist the contemporary rip-off of astronomical charges to see the band in action because they knew the real money would be made from the record sales.
The whole event has the look and feel of a casual gathering, as though a few thousand beautiful people wandered down to Hyde Park on a summer’s day and happened to stumble upon a performance by some of the hottest performers in the country. Naturally, unless they had a car (which I doubt many did), the majority would have got there via public transport, clad in their hippie threads whilst surrounded by City Gents in bowler hats and pinstriped suits, passing through the monochrome side of 60s England into its Technicolor parallel universe like urban Alice’s breaching the pastoral looking-glass.
Were I a member of the generation present that day in June 1969, I could be accused of donning rose-tinted specs when marvelling at the high summer of youth culture with envious eyes; but I was approximately eighteen months old when Blind Faith took to the stage and therefore can only view it as a detached bystander, raised on Pop that has spent most of my adulthood languishing in the shadow of the groundbreakers and the pioneers. The parents of the time dismissed the long-haired liberators with the same venom as today’s parents dismiss the Instagram selfie-junkies that constitute 2016’s equivalent youth; but that generation were exceptionally blessed with intelligent, articulate cultural figureheads making up a new, vibrant art form as they went along and genuinely believing their endeavours would transform the world into a better place, artists to whom resting on laurels, milking a formula and sucking the proverbial corporate dick were anathema. Rock in its wretched death throes via Coldplay at Glastonbury or Rock in its glorious ascendancy via Blind Faith at Hyde Park? No bleedin’ contest, mate.
© The Editor