1 April , 1972
It seemed a good deal at the time. A three-day sojourn in the Caribbean sun, all to the music of Alice Cooper, The Faces, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Black Sabbath, B.B. King, Billy Joel, Dave Brubeck, Elephant’s Memory, Roberta Flack, Herbie Mann and a slew of other names. The site was Vega Baja, on Puerto Rico, where the Mar Y Sol festival ultimately kicked off.
Self-confessed hippy Alex Cooley had turned promoter in 1969 and launched the International Pop Festival in his hometown Atlanta. By ’72, he was looking further afield for a new project, settling on “Easter in the Caribbean with Music and Friends”. Greg Lake is still haunted by memories of ELP’s involvement.
“The first thing I remember about the Mar Y Sol festival was stepping down onto the runway to discover the sun was so intense it had begun to melt the tarmac,” Lake remembers. “After quite a long drive we arrived at
a luxury tropical hotel. At first it all felt like a holiday atmosphere until we began to learn there were serious problems at the site and the government were trying to get the festival stopped. I remember jumping down out of a helicopter and being greeted by the backstage manager, who told me that they had just killed a rattlesnake under the stage… the whole thing did not feel good. It was not until later that we discovered a body being ferried out on the helicopter we had just arrived in was, in fact, the dead body of someone who’d been murdered, apparently over some drug deal that went wrong.”
“One concert- goer was hacked to death in his sleeping bag.”
As the first arrivals made their way to the site, the Puerto Rican authorities, suddenly aware that thousands of rock fans could be at large on the island, went into legal overdrive, fearing a drug spree. Said Cooley, “The Puerto Rican government got a restraining order to keep us from doing [the festival]. We brought a lawyer in from the States and argued it all the way up to the appeals court – and we won!”
With the injunction reluctantly reversed, the festival went ahead. For some Mar Y Sol was pivotal. A set by the then unknown Billy Joel was wildly received, but for others the event was a nightmare. Several bands, including Fleetwood Mac and Black Sabbath, were scheduled to play but either failed to make it or were prevented from playing. Lake recalls that even those who did make it to the stage had problems. “I remember performing and feeling my left arm becoming unbearably hot. I quickly snatched a look between playing and singing and could see that my left arm was actually beginning to give off smoke. Apparently they had set up a huge and powerful search light on the side of the stage and were planning to use it during the filming. After a few desperate and agonising screams from me they finally switched it off.”
The music, documented in part on a CBS double-album, was vital enough, but problems constantly beset an audience wilting in the sun, causing a constant queue at the medical tent. Then there were the armed youths roaming the festival area – one concert-goer was hacked to death in his sleeping bag – and there were tales of others being swept out to sea. The local authorities got tough again. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Cooley, who went into hiding before being smuggled off the island beneath luggage in a Volkswagen bus that was driven right up to a plane on the runway.
And when the music rumbled to an end, there were problems for those leaving by air. Three days later, some were still attempting to quit the country. The San Juan Star reported, “Pan American World Airways set up extra flights and took the initiative in extending credit to youths who did not have money or plane tickets.”
There were stories, too, that scores of people were owed money for services rendered at the festival, while the Puerto Rican government alleged the organisers owed around $40,000 in taxes alone. Still, Cooley hailed the festival a success. Richard Kimball of Los Angeles rock radio station KMET-FM had a different opinion: “It was a fucking drag,” he declared.