America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.
By the late sixties, the Vietnam War had reached a fever pitch and tens of thousands of young men were drafted at random every month. Without knowing whether they were going to be drafted, with the possibility of returning home in a metal coffin as hundreds were by 1967, Rock and Roll was first an escape, then a cultural force unequaled so far in American history.
In early 1967, music promoters in Monterey, California wanted to capitalize on this phenomenon. They wanted to do for Rock and Roll what they did for Jazz with the Monterey Jazz Festival: bring together the best acts in the country to a single venue. This had never been done before on this scale. In 1965 and 66, Rock and Roll occupied that holy trifecta of the music industry: it was the best written and most creative music, it was the most popular, and you could dance to it. Furthermore, by having it in the same venue as the respected jazz and folk festivals, it would legitimize Rock and Roll as a serious musical genre.
The first act the Monterey Pop Festival promoters contacted was biggest live band of 1966, The Mamas and the Papas. However, the Jazz template was barely large enough for them, much less the who’s who of Rock and Roll that were on the list to be invited. The Mamas and the Papas’ producers and managers expanded the scope of the festival, spread the performances over three days, and then got about the business of herding the eclectic group of the biggest names in Music to Monterey.
The response was unheard of and the heavy advertising meant fans of all kinds began to arrive. By early June, 1967, the original promoters and the city of Monterey began to get cold feet. The Age of Psychedelia was upon America and the Summer of Love was all around. The hippies of San Francisco were descending upon the city in ever increasing numbers for the festival. The city commissioned a song, “San Francisco”, (you know, the one with the silly line, “…gentle people with flowers in their hair…”) to be used in a commercial to remind the festival goers that violence, squalor, and vandalism does not equal peace, love, and harmony. That public service announcement would become one on the biggest hits of the year (San Francisco was a big hit with many Vietnam vets: San Francisco was the first stop on the return trip back from Vietnam) The advertising campaign worked and the police and security found themselves wielding bouquets not batons.
On 16, 17, and 18 June 1967, almost a hundred thousand spectators arrived to listen to and watch the best live Rock and Roll bands in the world. The Monterey Pop Festival immediately revolutionized the industry and became the template for every music festival since. Without it there would be no Coachella, no Woodstock, no Lollapalooza, or no Punk Rock Bowling. Monterey wasn’t the first music festival, but it was the first filmed and the resulting documentary made it the standard. Careers were launched based on their performances and many would go on to be household names, while some bands would fade into obscurity after cracking under the cultural pressure. Many performers would cement their place in Rock and Roll history with their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Of the thirty or so bands that played, including Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Byrds, and The Grateful Dead, five acts in particular stood out.
The first and possibly the biggest surprise was Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “She didn’t just sing with her voice; she sang with her whole body” commented a newspaper review. After just one song, The Mamas and the Papas, watching in the audience, knew they were no longer the biggest act on the West Coast.
The next was Otis Redding. Unlike today, Rock and Roll was a unifying force with artists either consciously or unconsciously introducing their culture to their audiences, no matter the color of any of their skins. Otis Redding just moved from gospel music to R&B and his appearance was his “coming out”. He stunned the crowd and sang with such soulfulness, that it was as if he knew he wouldn’t last the year.
The third act to steal the show were the British invasion late arrivals, The Who. Though Pete Townsend and Keith Moon had been destroying their instruments for years in Britain, Pete’s first smashed guitar in America sent shock waves though the audience, and catapulted The Who to instant superstardom.
Another shocker was Jimi Hendrix who electrified the audiences with his guitar. At the end of his set, Jimi doused his guitar in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. He then got down his hands and knees and worshiped the flaming instrument like a pagan god – the High Priest of Rock and Roll in front of a hundred thousand disciples.
The last act to steal the show was not at all pleased with Hendrix’ theatrics. The 47 year old Master Sitarist Ravi Shankar was appalled at the flaming guitar and saw it as a desecration. The former court musician of the Indian Raj was the most unlikely Rock and Roll star; nonetheless, Shankar stole the show and held the audience enraptured. His music is most associated with the mind expanding psychedelia of the time, but at the festival, he did the unthinkable: asked the audience to stop doing drugs, implying that they couldn’t truly appreciate the music while high. And they did, at least for a bit.
Ravi Shankar’s presence at the Monterey Pop Festival highlighted the fact that the biggest band on the planet, the Beatles, were not actually playing live at the festival. He had almost single handedly invented World Music after taking the Beatles’ George Harrison as a pupil, and their absence was noticeable. The Beatles were there: high as kites and partying three days straight, but they never got on stage.
By late 1966, the Beatles were the best studio musicians in the business, bar none. They wrote the most innovative, most creative, most technically difficult music heard in generations. But that creativity came at a price: it sounded like shit on stage.
Many of their latest songs required facilities and back up only found in a studio. There was no place for an accompanying orchestra on a stage. These were the days of Eleanor Rigby and Sgt Pepper, not a Hard Days’ Night and I Want To Hold Your Hand. Their recently released Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and is, the greatest studio album ever released and will continue to be so until we invent new musical instruments or aliens give them to us, and even then we’ll have our work cut out for us. But as great as Sgt Pepper is, it couldn’t be played on stage, at least not in 1967 nor could their previous two albums.
By then the Beatles hadn’t played live for some time. Sgt Pepper was written specifically because they knew if they got on that stage at Monterey their mystique would be ruined. They decided to ditch the limitations and showmanship of the stage, for the expansive creativity of the studio and the business of selling records. The chose the science of the studio over the art of entertainment. They needed a studio album to compete with the Festival and to remind everyone they existed even though they weren’t on stage in the biggest rock concert of the century. Sgt Pepper was the first Pop album.
Popular music is a fiscal contract between a producer of a popular product in the most convenient media format and a consumer who is the best judge of the various merits of that product. Rock and Roll is a social contact between band and fan separated only by bright lights, stacks of speakers, and an elevated dais. Sgt Pepper and the Monterey Pop Festival created an irrevocable and irreparable divide in music. The bands that played Monterey influenced the development of rock and roll and its countless sub genres. The disciples of the mastery of Sgt Pepper, who didn’t or couldn’t play at Monterey, mostly because their studio albums couldn’t be replicated on stage, influenced pop.
The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it