To paraphrase a Beatles lyric, which, no doubt, many have heard recently, “it was fifty years ago today,” that the first (and only) Monterey International Pop Music Festival was held on June 16-18, 1967. Monterey Pop and the release of “Sgt. Pepper,” helped usher in the self-proclaimed “Summer of Love” and were two lasting icons of the decade.
While significant, Monterey was not the first outdoor rock festival. The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival was actually held a short drive away in Marin County, California, only a week or so prior. Fantasy Fair acts that would also take the stage at Monterey included big pop groups like Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds. One notable exception was The Doors, who performed at Fantasy Fair but not Monterey; reportedly, they were just not invited and one wonders if their abrasive performing aesthetic may have brought just too many bad vibes.
So why is Monterey remembered more than Fantasy Fair? For one, it’s well-documented. Rock music filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker directed Monterey Pop (1968), a documentary that captured many of the now famous moments from the concert. For another, the bands were just plain more famous and for the most part have not fallen to dated obscurity (like The New Salvation Army Band to name just one example).
Monterey was filled with rightfully classic moments from its performers. Honorable mentions go to Eric Burdon, Otis Redding, and a raga from Ravi Shankar that served as the finale of the film. Yet, the following three performances cemented these artists’ images in the public’s imagination to the present day. They created moments that were standouts not just for the concert, but 20th century pop culture as a whole.
The concert was one of Janis Joplin’s first major live performances with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. The acid-drenched yet earthy blues of Joplin’s voice was enough to visibly amaze Mama Cass who was watching from the audience.
The Who were also launched into the American consciousness with their explosive and, for the time at least, violent performance. Several smoke bombs were let off as Pete Townsend terrified the crowd (and the backstage technicians) by smashing his guitar on the ground while Keith Moon kicked over his drum kit and leaped over it as a finale. The artist who followed was rightfully intimidated by the band, and they by him, that the two flipped a coin to see who would perform first.
The Who performed first, and yet it’s The Jimi Hendrix Experience that arguably stole the entire three days. His flamboyant clothes and stage manners along with the high volume feedback and constant dive-bombing on his guitar’s vibrato made his performance and experience the American public simply had not seen before.
During his finale of “Wild Thing” the song became performance art as he laid his guitar before him on the stage, straddled it, squirted lighter fluid onto it and set it on fire. The constant droning of his band in the background as he gleefully watched it burn, his face and flicking tongue lit up by flame, was an image of menacing yet alluring lust that was pure rock and roll.
Above all else, Monterey Pop was both a sign of the times as well as a precursor for every major music festival to this day. It was a touchstone for the counter-cultural movement and one that helped underground music surge into the mainstream.
Arguably the Woodstock festival in 1969 was more iconic in the culture of the decade and generation as a whole. Yet Monterey was undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the most extraordinary year in pop music: 1967.