What do Dadaists and rock festivals have in common? At first glance, not a lot. Yet, in 1968, a surrealist spectacle complete with dropped piano fascinated 5,000 revelers near Seattle—and set the stage for the birth of the outdoor rock festival.
The event was called the Piano Drop, reports Ben Marks for Collector’s Weekly, and it was a far cry from today’s commercial festivals. Marks writes that while the inspiration behind a concert that included a piano that was dropped from a helicopter is contested, the importance of the event isn’t—the Piano Drop is considered the immediate forerunner of the Sky River Rock Festival, the muddy, musical outdoor festival thought to have inspired Woodstock.
It all started with a moving truck, writes Marks. Two musicians named Larry Van Over and Gary Eagle were hauling a piano through the streets of Seattle when it fell off the truck. “We thought it sounded kind of cool,” Eagle told Marks. They set out on a quest to find a hall where they could drop a piano as part of a performance. But venues were skeptical of “a bunch of crazy hippies” who wanted to destroy an instrument, so they joined forces with an alternative newspaper, booked Country Joe and the Fish, and decided to drop it on a piece of private property.
With a single drop of a piano, the Piano Drop became a legend in instrumental destruction. The organizers were in great company: think Hendrix, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, and even students at MIT who have been dropping pianos from Baker House since 1972.
But though the crowd was enthusiastic, the logistics were somewhat lacking. In their book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, Walt and William Crowley note that the pilot lost his cool when preparing to drop a 500-pound piano on a crowd of thousands. The piano, they write, “imploded with a singularly unmusical whump.”
Still, what the drop lacked in acoustic excitement, it made up for in inspiration—Paul Dorpat, tells Marks that the Piano Drop proved “that it would be possible to do an outdoor concert, and perhaps a multi-day concert, with more than one band.”