The 100-year history of outdoor music festivals in America dates back to the Ravinia Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois that was established as attempt by a railroad company to increase its paying patrons. Over the years it has been the site of classical, jazz and musical theater performances.
The 1950s saw the start of two historic Newport, Rhode Island festivals dedicated to a specific musical genre: the Newport Jazz Festival (1954) and the Newport Folk Festival (1958). A Newport Music Festival catered to classical music was added in 1969. The Monterey Jazz Festival began in 1958 to provide a similar experience for California and West Coast jazz aficionados.
So the concept of a public outdoors concert built around the performances of a carefully selected group of musicians extended over an entire day or even several days was well established by the mid-’60s.
The seeds for the Monterey Pop Festival were born first in the ballroom Acid Tests conducted by Ken Kesey and others in the San Francisco area. In October ’65, the Longshoreman’s Hall near Fisherman’s Wharf was the sight of a daylong event dubbed “A Tribute to Dr. Strange” newly formed Jefferson Airplane were one of the bands providing musical accompaniment to the daylong acid trip and communal dance. Within three weeks two other gatherings were booked: “A Tribute to Sparkle Plenty” with music by the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Charlatans; and “A Tribute to Ming the Merciless” with music by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. By early January ’66 ballrooms like the Fillmore, the Avalon, Winterland, Carousel (renamed Fillmore West) and others had become regular meeting places for music and acid.
As the avant-garde community began to grow and organize, young graphic artists were hired to design posters for the events. These posters, incorporating wild colors, highly stylized and detailed designs and swirling freeform text could be easily identified at a distance, but often difficult to read, even at close range. The look became the visual icon of the psychedelic movement and a cultural snapshot of the mid-’60s hippie movement.
The Acid Tests culminated in the Trips Festival, a three-day multimedia, multicultural circus featuring strobe lights, liquid light shows, slide shows, live theater, dancing and free samples of acid. Several bands provided the musical soundtrack for the event with the Grateful Dead being at the core of the musical activity. The three night activity (8 PM to ???) was attended by over 6,000 paying customers with hundreds more coming in through a back gate.
Throughout 1966, the psychedelic musical gatherings continued, often two major events per weekend. The criminalization of LSD in October ’66 didn’t eliminate its use, but only pushed it underground. Acid was still part of the trip; it just wasn’t openly sold.
On January 14th, 1967, the ballroom gatherings attended by hundreds merged into a huge outdoor festival called the “Human Be-In”. Music for the event, held in Golden Gate Park, was provided by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother playing on a flatbed truck. The daylong event began with an early morning sacred Hindu ritual consecrating the grounds and ended with a parachutist drifting to the ground as the Grateful Dead finished their set. The hours in between were amazingly calm, most likely due to the pacifistic speeches, the psychedelic music and the continuous haze of marijuana smoke that hung over the heads of the gathering. There were no fights, no incidents, and no arrests, which made for a calm day for the two policemen on horseback who patrolled the gathering of 20,000.
In the next few months national media gave extraordinary attention to the hippie movement in San Francisco; journalists visited the Haight-Ashbury district, Mecca to all things hippie and psychedelic. Tour bus companies offered tours of the district called “Hippy Hop Tours” and billed them as “the only foreign tour within the continental limits of the United States”. Record executive also flocked there, hoping to find marketable psychedelic sounds. The eyes of America were becoming well aware of these tie-died nonconformists and their “peace and love” philosophy.
The summer of ’67 was called the “Summer of Love” and was kicked off by the Monterey Pop Festival, held June 16, 17 and 18 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. The organizers of the non-profit Festival, backed by a board that included Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, and Roger McGuinn, selected 31 artists to perform in the three-day event.
On Friday, the Animals and Simon and Garfunkel were among the acts that kicked off the event. Saturday’s lineup included Janis Joplin, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and Otis Redding. The Sunday list centered on the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Who, Ravi Shankar, the Grateful Dead, and a then little known guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. The rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, R&B, blues, and soul performers came from around the world to perform, free of charge, at the event. All profits from the concert and subsequent recordings and videos go into a Monterey Pop Foundation that assists people in need.
Monterey Pop Festival Film Trailer, June 1967
The First Annual International Monterey Pop Festival was never repeated. But in those three days, electrifying performances abounded, and the 200,000 who attended the three days witnessed one of the high points in American music history.
For the next two years smaller pop festivals were scheduled throughout the country, including the two-day Miami Pop Festival in 1968, attended by 40,000, but the next major event in rock festival history would be held in upstate New York and coordinated by four young entrepreneurs in their early twenties.
Woodstock Music Festival
In March, ’68, two of the young men, independently wealthy and looking for ideas for a television sit-com they wanted to produce, put an ad in a newspaper: “Young Men With Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” The other two had an idea to create an upstate New York recording studio in a town called Woodstock. When the four got together, the idea of having a party for record executives to promote the studio was hatched. By the end of the third meeting, the idea of a small concert/cocktail party for music industry elite had grown to an outdoor concert for 50,000 fans. The Woodstock Venture, Inc. corporation gave 25% ownership to each of the four young men.
Over the next year the growing corporation would lease 300 acres of land, lose the town permit to host the festival, find another location and procure another permit. They enticed a young independent filmmaker to film the “3 Days of Peace and Music” and a graphic designer to created a poster centered around a dove (actually a catbird) on a guitar. In April ’69 ads began appearing in the Village Voice, the Rolling Stone Magazine, and the New York times.
The group wanted to sign the biggest rock groups in America to appear, but experienced credibility difficulties—no band would sign because they didn’t appear creditable, but they couldn’t appear creditable until someone signed. The solution was to hire three major bands for unheard of amounts and pay cash deposits. The Jefferson Airplane, who charged $5,000 was offered $12,000; Creedence Clearwater Revival were offered $11,000 and the Who $12,500. The three contracts gave the Woodstock Venture group instance credibility and soon signed others including the Who, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. After some negotiations, Hendrix signed for $32,000, far more than any others on the bill. Part of the negotiations included a clause that Hendrix would be the closing act for the Festival. As it turned out, that put Hendrix onstage late Monday morning, by which time the rain and mud had driven most of the crowd home.
When the massive preparations were finally completed, Woodstock (which was actually held on Max Yasgur’s farm 70 miles from Woodstock) was billed as the high-point of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and the culmination of the peace and love generation. Although the August 15-18th 1969 festival was spread over four days, the promoters counted them as “Three Days of Peace and Music” because they started late Friday and ended by noon on Monday. The Friday night concert was centered on folk musicians and included Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Country Joe and Ravi Shankar. Just after midnight Friday the rains started coming—five inches in three hours. By Saturday dawn Max Yasgur’s farm was a slippery mud bowl and the approximate 250,000 fans that were lucky enough to make it to the site were drenched.
Saturday was the real beginning of the rock festival with Santana, CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and finished with the Who around 3 am. Throughout the day the rainstorm continued; at times preventing artists from performing, but mostly turning the Woodstock Nation into a dripping, mud-caked tribe.
On Sunday the rains had increased to the point that all performing was stopped. When the stage acts resumed, around 7 pm, Country Joe and the Fish, the Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears all played, with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young starting their set at 3 a.m.
By Monday morning, many of the Woodstock faithful had left. Those who stayed (estimated 40,000 of the quarter million) heard a mixed bag; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha-na-na (a retro doo-wop/pop singing group) and finally, at 10:30 am, Jimi Hendrix.
In retrospect, Woodstock was a highly commercial venture dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, beads, frizzy hair and flower-power stickers. Although it was advertised as “Three Days of Peace and Music” it turned out to be four days of “mud and money”. While undoubtedly at the time it was the greatest assembly of rock musicians at one event, even outshining the Monterey Pop Festival of two years earlier, it barely matched Monterey for significant musical moments: Hendrix’s playing and the appearance of a newly formed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young being two of the most important.
How ironic that Monterey in ’67 appeared from the outside to be a money-making venture, but was actually a non-profit organization while Woodstock in ’69 was advertised as a communal gathering yet made millions for the four young men involved.
60 Minutes Australia celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock ’69
The study of ‘60s rock festivals cannot be complete without at look at the last of the major ‘60s festivals: Altamont.
Altamont Music Festival
The rock festival was originally billed as the “Woodstock of the West Coast” and was to be held in December 1969 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Several of the Woodstock performers including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and San Francisco’s own Santana, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were to appear. The Rolling Stones were finishing their tour of America and were scheduled to appear, unannounced and without advance warning, at the end of the day to play and film scenes for their tour rockumentary.
But bad luck, bad decisions and bad attitudes created the antithesis of the Woodstock love-in.
When the Stones announced in a press conference in New York City that they would be giving a free concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, thousands of hippies and wannabes hit the road for the West Coast. City officials, well aware of the environmental disaster that Woodstock left behind, cancelled the festival’s permit. Festival organizers had barely twenty hours to find a new concert venue. The new location was a rundown racetrack in the hills twenty miles east of San Francisco named Altamont.
The short time given to move the concert to the racetrack didn’t allow for organizers to prepare adequately. They anticipated 100,000, but nearly 300,000 showed up, creating a nightmare of logistical problems: inadequate toilet and medical facilities, open drug use and the most significant problem, Hell’s Angels members providing security.
Both the Dead and the Stones had used Hell’s Angels as security before, and had had nothing but positive experiences. But these neophytes were less experienced in the handling of security than in creating barroom brawls. Their answer to crowd control was the handle end of a pool cue, their fists or a full beer can launched at the head.
The problem began to surface early on December 6th; in the middle of Santana’s set the wrestling between the crowd who surged forward and the Angels’ who guarded the stage began. If the stage had been elevated to 6 or 8 feet, like the one at Woodstock, the audience could have seen the performers, but in their lack of planning, Altamont organizers built a stage just one foot off the ground. When Hell’s Angels members created a line in front, most of the 300,000 audience members couldn’t see. Although the Rolling Stones’ manager attempted to calm down the security by providing all the free beer they could drink, the alcohol in the security mixed dangerously with the marijuana and drugs in the crowd to create an explosive atmosphere.
When Jefferson Airplane played, one of the band members, Marty Balin, was knocked out by a misdirected pool cue swung from the edge of the stage. The resulting confrontation and shouting match between members of the Airplane and inebriated members of the Hell’s Angels was caught as part of the historical rockumentary.
At dusk, the Grateful Dead arrived by helicopter to play their set. When they learned that fighting between Airplane members and Hell’s Angels had taken place, they decided not to play for fear that the surge from their fans would only create more violence. While this should have been a signal for festival promoters to cancel the rest of the evening and send the crowd home, they had a contractual agreement to allow the Stones to play and film their set.
When the Rolling Stones arrived and began their performance, the violence resumed. The Stones required that all other lights, including those in the medical units, would be turned off so that their spots and film lights would focus everyone at the stage. While Mick Jagger was singing “Sympathy for the Devil” a song about how groovy it was to be Satan, just a few feet from the stage Hell’s Angels members were beating to death a young African-American named Meredith Hunter. The ignominious moment was captured in the fifth verse of Don McLean’s epic rock song “American Pie”:
“And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singing…”
Jim Curtis catches the biting irony of the moment in the book “Rock Eras” when he writes:
“A young black man murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music – it was too much to kiss off as unpleasantness.”
It is estimated that 850 were injured at Altamont. In addition to the beating and stabbing of Meredith Hunter, three other deaths occurred –two were run over by a truck while asleep in their sleeping bags and an unidentified person drowned.
By every account possible, Altamont was a disaster and a humiliating embarrassment for all involved. The hope created by those who had preached peace and love had died a shameful death in the dark night at Altamont. The anti-materialistic idealism of the late ‘60s was murdered by the greed of those they admired.
Events of the Altamont festival can be seen in the Rolling Stones’ documentary film “Gimme Shelter”. Shortly after the event, the Grateful Dead wrote “The New Speedway Boogie” in memory of those affected by the violence there.
The Story of Altamont 1969 summarized:
In the next few decades, more carefully planned festivals, events and concerts would grab our attention including Watkins Glen in 1973 (600,000 attendees), and Live-Aid in 1985 (broadcast to millions). While each of these festivals, and many others, included many of the important headliners of the day, the emphasis has changed significantly. Monterey was about the music; Woodstock and Altamont were supposed to be about the communal experience with the music being secondary. Most subsequent events have used music as the tool for political reform or humanitarian fundraising. Although many have undoubtedly been helped in the last few decades, the original goal, to bring the best music to the people, should still be the main goal.