Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Monterey Pop Festival

Woodstock, the high water mark of flower power. The biggest ever free festival. Three days of peace and love and music. The mythical Ur-festival that all others try, and fail, to live up to.

Well maybe.

There are a lot of myths about the sixties, and most of them seem to be about Woodstock. So what's the truth?

Well, first off the festival wasn't dreamed up by flower children living in an ashram. Instead, the original genius came from two Trustafarians playing golf. Wondering what to do with their parents money, one suggested a organising a music festival. The other agreed. After all, he said, "how much trouble can you get into putting on a concert?"

The answer was a lot. It started with sixties radical Abbie Hoffman extorting $10,000 to buy off his Yippie army, and ended with a state of emergency being declared and the National Guard flying in supplies in military helicopters. How not to organise a festival.

In between there was some good music though. There were those like Country Joe McDonald, Canned Heat, Janice Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, who had been the big names of the sixties and whose fame - and in two cases lives - were coming to an end. Then there were those like Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who were just starting out and who would be big in the seventies.

But the music wasn't that good. Pete Townsend said it was the worst gig The Who ever played, although he was a little distracted by Abbie Hoffman leaping onto the stage during "Tommy" and grabbing Roger Daltrey's mike to rant about a mate who'd been nicked. The Who weren't really the band to try this trick with and Townsend applied his guitar to the Yippie's head, and his boot to his behind, and sent him on his way.

Next year, of course, it got even worse. At Altamont the Rolling Stones encamped in a fortified back stage area to enjoy their champagne whilst their Hells Angels minders ran riot, in the process knocking out Jefferson Airplane's lead singer and killing - in disputed circumstances - an armed black man.

So much for peace and love then.

However the myth of Woodstock lives on, in large part thanks to Joni Mitchell's song, which imagines it as an earthly paradise. 'Imagines' though is the word as she wasn't there in person, having a pressing PR appointment instead.

But there was a sixties festival where it all went right, a festival which really is the model which all modern festivals follow, or at least the good ones.

The Monterey Pop Festival took place in June 1967 Monterey, California. This was the summer of love, and Scott McKenzie had just told everyone what to wear in San Francisco.

Monterey by Grace Slick
The plan was for a festival with the the best of everything. Where artists would find great facilities and where the audience would hear great bands, and it was all to be done for charity.

The Mamas and Papas were the driving force behind the gig. The venue had been running a regular jazz festival for nearly a year. Jazz was considered 'real music' and the aim was to give rock the same status and respect. This was important. Rock bands at the time struggled to play decent venues, with old cinemas and theatres down on their luck being where most gigs got played. The Who's classic album, Live at Leeds, was recorded in the Refectory at the Students Union, which was pretty impressive for the time.

Monterey aimed to change things, firstly by providing the artists with the best facilities possible. At Woodstock, by contrast, even providing back stage toilets was a bit of an afterthought. The back stage area was also not the fortress guarded by thugs that it was at Altamont. Famous faces were seen mingling with the crowds throughout the weekend and Jimmy Hendrix apparently spent one night jamming in a nearby building.

It's Hendrix who generally gets remembered. Making love to and then igniting his guitar. He'd lost a coin toss to The Who, who played before him and were the first to trash their instruments.

Also playing that weekend was Otis Redding, in his first big gig to a mainly white audience, Janice Joplin, playing her most important gig to date, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, who also played a breakthrough performance, Canned Heat, Simon and Garfunkle, The Animals, Country Joe and the FishThe Mamas and Papas and Ravi Shankar. The last played a four hour set on the Sunday morning, which must have tested the patience of all but the extremely stoned.

Care was also taken to ensure that those who attended also had fun and stayed safe. As well as a well supplied First Aid station, volunteers were on hand to help people through bad trips. At Woodstock services were overwhelmed and they had to call the Army in, whilst backstage at Altamont resembled a bizarre war movie where First Aiders tending the numerous victims of Hells Angel violence were beset by alternative therapists trying to mend broken bones with crystals and good vibes.

Festival security worked well with the Monterey police who in turn found the hippies far less frightening than they'd expected. The hippy scene in California would eventually become grimmer and nastier, as pimps and drug dealers preyed on the naive waifs and strays who headed west. But in '67 everyone really did wear flowers in their hair, even the police.

Maybe it was because these early pioneers were more Middle Class than the runaways who came to populate the Haight-Ashbury District later, and where Charles Manson would eventually take up residence. But California was also the heart of hippydom. In New York the Yippies and others had fantasies of revolutionary violence and treated new arrivals as cannon fodder for the cause. Meanwhile in San Francisco the Diggers actually put a bit of effort into making an alternative community, taking in the bewildered and feeding the hungry.

Similarly, unlike the rampantly commercial Woodstock, which only became a "free" festival after $3 million of tickets, and more importantly the movie rights, had been sold, the only organisation to make money out of Monterey was the Monterey Pop Foundation Foundation, a charity that still exists today.

However despite all this Monterey remains relatively forgotten. It's not even been possible to buy the film in Europe for a while. (Fortunately you can watch it on Youtube.)

Why this is is a bit of a mystery. But maybe it's because there really is no other narrative. Woodstock was always Heaven to some and Hell to other. Altamont provides every reason imaginable to go 'told you so' to the Flower Children, but at Monterey there really was no downside.

But that was then. What about now? Where can you go to find a festival where it really is safe, where the artists are treated with respect but where the musicians emerge to meet the punters, where everything is both relaxed and well organised, where the music is varied but always good and where you can possibly even meet the odd - and now rather elderly - Flower Child?

Well, if you read this blog regularly you'll know my answer to this one: Cropredy.

(If you don't belive me about Monterey, try this page by someone who actually was there.)

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