The Monterey Festival – Three Days In June 1967 That Changed The Face Of Music – Forever
If you asked most people who were around during the latter half of the sixties to name the most important music event of that era it is likely that a majority of them would say “WoodStock.”
Now I’m not about to contradict that view, Woodstock has earned its place in music history by virtue of the sheer quantity and quality of music that was on offer there and, equally, by the vastness of the audience, estimated to be in excess of 400,000 people with some estimates saying more than half a million.
“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song and celebration.”
So goes the song, written by Joni Mitchell and taken to number one in the UK in 1970 by ex-Fairport Convention vocalist Iain Matthews and his band Southern Comfort.
Two years earlier, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in California, an event took place which many regard as the precursor to Woodstock. It was described as the “Monterey International Pop Music Festival” and it proved to be the launch pad for a number of artists who went on to become major forces in the industry.
The event was conceived, or so the folklore has it, following an evening of conversation at the home of Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas whose guests included on that occasion; Paul McCartney, John & Michelle Phillips of the Mamas And Papas, and music promoter Lou Adler.
The concept was turned into reality by Adler and John Phillips with the aid of several talented individuals to take care of specific requirements such as producer Alan Pariser and ex-Beatles publicist, Derek Taylor.
Between them, they formulated what the event was going to look like and how it was to be operated. It was decided that the acts appearing were to be asked to appear for free and all proceeds were to be donated to charity.A board of governors was appointed which included McCartney and other luminaries including Mick Jagger, Brian Wilson and Donovan.
The Venue was selected,and the dates agreed upon, it was to be the weekend of Friday 16th June – Sunday 18th June 1967.
Now for the important bit, who will be performing?
That’s where the magic begins, as far as I am concerned, the lineup for this festival has never been matched in terms of the artists who appeared and the stage they were at with their careers. Yes, Woodstock, two years later, did have a more extensive list of artists and there were many more people there to see them but most of those artists were better established and better known than was the case at Monterey.
That’s why I call it “Monterey Magic”. Consider this, Jimi Hendrix was still relatively unknown before Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones came onto the stage at Monterey and introduced him to the world. After Monterey, and his electrifying performance culminating in the burning guitar and amp battering ritual, Jimi became the musical giant that we still remember vividly to this day. Just ask any decent guitarist who his biggest influences were and you’ll struggle to find one that doesn’t have Hendrix on his list.
The Who, big in Britain but not so much in the States, were dramatically brought into focus after their explosive set at Monterey which ended in one of their trademark instrument smashing extravaganzas courtesy of Pete Townsend and a drum-kicking Keith Moon..
Otis Redding was already established in the USA but only on the relatively obscure “Chitlin Circuit” for much of his career up to Monterey. Redding had began his career in the late fifties and early sixties and black performers were still restricted across much of the USA. Monterey changed all of that for Otis, he was immediately brought to the attention of an international audience who had been largely unaware of his wonderful talent. Regrettably, they didn’t have long to savour such talent because Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash just six months after Monterey and just a few days before his biggest ever hit, “Sittin On The Dock Of The Bay” was released.
Big Brother and the Holding Company were another USA band, well known enough in their native California but beyond the shores of the US there were few people who had experienced Janis Joplin’ explosive talent. they saw it in bucket loads at Monterey though. Janis performed Ball ‘n’ Chain brilliantly and captivated the crowd. Her career really took off internationally after that and she appeared in major venues in Europe particularly, including the Royal Albert Hall in the UK. In 1969, she did, of course, play Woodstock although many would say that it was not one of her finest performances. Again, however, the Monterey effect was short lived with Janis as she died soon after Woodstock, in October 1970, aged just 27.
Another memorable piece of Monterey Magic was the inclusion of the Indian master sitar player Ravi Shankar. This was a brave move perhaps, Indian music was not widely traveled at that time and this would be the first time that many people in the audience had heard a sitar played to such a wonderfully high standard, or indeed, at all!). It was, however, a four hour long recital by the virtuoso and only a short extract from it is included in the cinema release of the film.
For those of us who didn’t make it to the event, (I was only 12 at the time and living in the UK), there is the excellent film coverage shot by D. A. Pennebaker and released with the title “Monterey Pop”. Pennebaker had not filmed a festival before but had made numerous films including “Don’t Look Back” which documented Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour. that was the film that included Dydlan holding up cards to the accompaniment of his “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – as iconic a sequence of music video as you will ever get.
Not all of the Monterey performances were filmed but most of the significant ones were. This film was shot using improvised and especially made equipment to help with the synchronisation of the sound and image. The result was something to wonder at when it was first released in 1968 and I remember seeing it for the first time then and being very impressed by the results. I tried on subsequent occasions to see Hendrix live but was always thwarted by ticket availability and venues that were not really big enough for such a crowd-puller. The footage in the film, whilst not as thrilling as seeing the man live, certainly came close for me.
The Pennebaker film has been spruced up and remastered and is available in DVD format now with extra footage not originally included in the cinema release. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the cash for a one-off experience, (but I think you’ll watch it over and over again).
Yes, Woodstock may be the one that most people remember – but Monterey should be the one that none of us forget.