Remembering the 1975 Ohio River Music Festival

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(The News Record)

UPDATE 9/1/17: I received a very kind email from Randy & Terri Maltbie that I’ve tacked onto the end of this post. (Scroll to the very end if you’ve already ready my story.) Randy attended this festival and was nice enough to share his personal story. Thanks, Randy!

In April 2016, an article published in UC’s student paper, The News Record, proclaimed that year’s spring concert to be “bloody and violent.” The opinion piece sparked controversy and conversation on Twitter, with some alleging the paper had overstated the atrocities and others pointing the finger at UC and PAC (the program council) for losing control of the event.

It was a small concert-based controversy, but it brought to mind an old News Record article I had read about a genuine drug and violence bonanza that took place at UC in the summer of 1975. The Ohio River Music Festival was insane.

While the 2016 spring concert packed “about 5,000” students into Sigma Sigma Commons, the Ohio River Music Festival boasted 35,000 strong inside Nippert Stadium, a venue only built to handle about 28,000 at the time. Throw in the reported crowd of 18,000 lingering outside the stadium and around campus and you’ve got a small city of music fans, drunk and high on any substance they could get their hands on.

It was, at the time, the largest rock concert in the history of Cincinnati.

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The concert itself was set for Sunday, August 3, 1975 and was set to feature bands such as Aerosmith, REO Speedwagon, Blue Oyster Cult, and Styx. The crowds began rolling into Clifton on Saturday night, setting up a 30-acre shanty town in the Armory Fieldhouse parking lot. Frisbees and roman candles flew back and forth throughout the night and into Sunday morning as some of the more entrepreneurial concertgoers set up “flea markets” stocked with drugs and paraphernalia. Per The News Record, one van owner invited shoppers to tour his shelves that “stocked more pills than a SupeRX.” (SupeRX was a popular chain of drug stores at the time.)

The temperature on Sunday reached into the mid-nineties, which turned Nippert into a giant sauna of sweaty, drunk bodies. The gigantic stage — constructed the day before the concert — had to be large enough to support unique arrangements for all 11 acts and a sound system powerful enough that some reported hearing music in Newport, Kentucky.

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The karate security (left) was tasked with stopping concertgoers from climbing the stage fence (right)

As the concert began to pick up steam, the crowd got rowdy. Security was extensive, as 90 Cincinnati police officers were on duty, along with 25 campus officers and 20 black belt karate specialists called in from Chicago. The 115 officers patrolled the perimeter of the concert, determined to keep the exterior crowds out of the stadium by any means necessary. This approach to lock down the walls of the concert turned the interior crowd into a mess of drugs. At one point, the public address system issued a warning that “some bad chocolate mescaline” was circulating the stadium. The security booth had received two unconfirmed reports of deaths from the drug. In the end, it wasn’t mescaline at all, but strychnine — a type of pesticide often used to kill birds and rodents.

As the crowd on the field reached a fever pitch, many tried to climb the fence separating the concertgoers from the stage. This is where the karate experts had been stationed, and they met any disobedience with strict violence. Check this passage from The News Record:

One six-foot “gorilla” dressed in a black karate gee corralled a concertgoer trying to climb over the fence, pulled him down by his hair, and then gave him several drop kicks in the face for good measure — just so he wouldn’t get the idea again.

Watching the episode from the stage, the lead singer of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band approached the black belt during a break and said, “You know pal, you’re one bona fide ass-hole.”

One particular flare-up saw 20 people outside the stadium storm the fence in an attempt to enter the concert. When officers ran into the crowd to apprehend the trespassers, a glass bottle tossed from CCM plaza struck an officer in the face.

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Blue Oyster Cult plays

REO Speedwagon was a no-show, and headliner Aerosmith was late to the stage. As a light rain fell on the crowd, things were quickly reaching a boiling point. Student security forces placed in the middle of the chaos desperately manned the stage fence against collapse.

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Someone brought a baby to this concert

At 9:15 PM, Aerosmith finally hit the stage, and the crowd erupted with a 15 minute standing ovation. As the concert reached its conclusion an hour later, most of the crowd slowly dispersed. The final damage tallies were severe. According to The News Record, 12 had been arrested, at least 27 had been taken to area hospitals, two unconfirmed deaths were reported, as well as “several miscarriages, hundreds of cut feet, drug overdoses, and numerous cases of heat exhaustion.”

The News Record even went as far as to report that summer school students arrived on campus Monday morning “shaking their heads, gazing at a mountain of wine bottles, broken styrofoam coolers, baggies, beer cans, blankets, and a few concertgoers still going over Aerosmith’s lyrics in their drugged sleep.”

There was never a second Ohio River Music Festival.

The 2016 spring concert seems awfully quaint in comparison.

Details and photographs for this story were taken from the August 13, 1975 edition of The News Record. The original article was written by Marc Scheineson, with photographs by Scheineson and Gunther Storjohann.

Did you attend the show? I’d like to talk to you! Reach out to @OhVarsity on Twitter, or email me at OhVarsity@gmail.com.

Update: Some additional photos via The Cincinnati Enquirer. Thanks to Dezy Hume for the heads up.

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The crowd inside the concert

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Beer cans and garbage line the festival grounds

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An ambulance responds (left) and a concertgoer rolls a joint (right)

I attended that festival with my girl friend and younger brother (he was 13 years old at the time). Why my mom trusted me to take him to a concert of that size still amazes me to this day? Had a great time and you are right it was hot!!

I remember the announcement about the bad drugs and having a discussion with my brother about drugs in between acts. I really liked the way the stage was set up so that one group could perform while they set the adjacent stage for the next act. I was already an Outlaws fan so it was good to see them open the show. In fact, I’m currently listening to a live recording made in Cincinnati later that day.

As a WEBN loyalist I had heard many of the groups played on that station. Can you believe that we got to see all those great groups for $9 per ticket? Those were the days.

We were seated to the right of stage (as you looked at it) in the bleachers in the corner of the stadium. Not great seats but the sound was so good that it did not matter. I walked down to the field level during the Blue Oyster Cult show and that was a drug haven with open sales and use clearly visible.

Other than that, we spent a good day enjoying the show and had no problems near our seats.

The only other thing I recall was going to the men’s room and it had a very long set of stairs heading down with a long line. When my brother and I got to the bottom there was a really “out of it” girl. A lot of the guys were yelling at her to get naked and do them. I wondered how truly out of it she had to be to get that lost and end up in the men’s room. A nice guy and his friend helped her get out of the room and up the steps, unharmed.

Randy & Terri Maltbie