From June 16 to 18, 1967, the first major rock music festival took place in Monterey, California. It is not as well known as Woodstock but it is, perhaps, much more important, being much more faithful to the spirit of peace, love and music and serving as an inspiration for all the multitudinous concerts that followed. Monterey also served to launch the careers in the U.S. of such important names as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin (then part of Big Brother & The Holding Company) and Otis Redding, who would find a new audience for soul among young hippies, thanks to the Festivals impact and the brilliant film shot by D.A. Pennebaker. From Guitars Exchange we want to remember those mythical three days with our ten favorite performances:
Quicksilver Messenger Service
They were the last of San Francisco's big bands to have a recording contract, and not because of a lack of offers, but simply because these hippies who lived in a commune wanted nothing to do with businessmen. They were famous for their concerts and for the incredible exchanges between their two guitarists, John Cipollina and Gary Duncan, especially with the former wielding the favorite guitar of the Haight Ashbury scene, a Gibson SG. Like all the bands at the Festival, they benefited from the great sound system set up by the organization, in their case new Fender amplifiers that would end up in their van. The song recorded for them by Pennebaker's cameras was Dino's Song, composed by one of their original members who was in prison at the time for marijuana possession. The song is one of those love hymns that so well exemplifies the spirit of the Festival.
The Byrds always sounded better in the studio than live but this performance is not bad, just listen to the glorious start of Chimes Of Freedom with Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker to know that this group had a sound of its own. And then there's the accelerated version of So You want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star, which is pure punk; and they were able to play it with the man who played the trumpet in the original version, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who was another big name in the Festival on his own. However, the most memorable aspect of this performance is David Crosby's desire to play the leading role, as he is unable to keep quiet for a moment and was probably high on acid or coke (or possibly both). His days in the band were numbered as even the patience of a guy as calm as McGuinn has a limit.
Neil Young had left the band a few weeks before the start of the Festival (although he would return in August) and for his performance Stephen Stills decided to have his friend Crosby (and his Gretsch 6119) at his post to start shaping up what would be one of the most famous supergroups of the end of the decade. The performance is far from memorable but it is very interesting to hear Stills mix his voice with Crosby and Richie Furay in the role that Graham Nash would have a couple of years later. The Springfields were also an incredible band and the repertoire includes such gems as For What Its Worth, Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing (a song by Young sung by Furay), Rock n Roll Woman (a song by Stills about another of the Festival's protagonists, Grace Slick, in which he does a great work with his orange Chet Atkins), Bluebird, A Child's Claim To Fame and Pretty Girl Why.
Moby Grape opened the Saturday afternoon session. Their concert was incredible but it was marked by the rumor that the Beatles were there attending the concert; something that had to be denied by a member of the organization. The funny thing about this is that since their first concerts Moby Grape had been known as the ‘American Beatles’, and all the members of the band could sing and compose. Nominally the leader was the charismatic Skip Spence, who had been the drummer of Jefferson Airplane, and had composed their most emblematic song, Omaha. Their splendid debut album had appeared only a few days earlier, on June 6th, and Spence, who was brandishing his Gibson 355, was splendid throughout the performance, unleashing Hey Grandma, a song that was recorded by Pennebaker for inclusion in the film. But a stupid decision by their manager, who asked for a million dollars to appear in the film, meant it was left out of the final footage. This is a pity because that debut album is still one of the best of that time and the band was more than capable of performing live with several vocalists and an excellent guitarist like Jerry Miller and his legendary Beulah (a '62 Gibson L-5 CES that was bought as a tribute to Wes Montgomery). Not in vain did people like Led Zeppelin adore them, especially Robert Plant; along with Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Eric Clapton.
Jefferson Airplane were playing ‘at home’, but of all the bands in San Francisco they gave the best performance. They were also one of the few bands that had a couple of hit singles, Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, and were better known by the public, but their performance was also a real treat, giving excellent versions of darker songs like High Flyin' Bird and Today. Grace Slick was a force on and off stage, and she takes the spotlight with her performance. It's hilarious to see how Pennebaker's camera focuses on her exclusively during Today, despite being sung by Marty Balin, but Jorma Kaukonen and his 345 also shows why he is one of the most important guitarists in psychedelia.
Until the appearance of Hendrix at this same festival, Mike Bloomfield was the quintessential American rock guitarist, the Clapton or Beck from the USA, with the other guitarists having him as a model and inspiration, so his appearance with his new band was one of the most highly expected moments of the Festival (Crosby would say "if you didn't hear Mike Bloomfield's group, man, you are out of it, so far out of it"); the band was Electric Flag, although in the posters promoting the Festival they appeared as The Mike Bloomfield Thing. It was one of their first performances together and they were all very nervous; but ‘the thing’ was a complete success. Bloomfield used the two guitars that are most associated with, their white Telecaster from 64 and the mythical Gibson Les Paul Standard Sunburst from 59, which made its first appearance in the splendid Wine, with Bloomfield totally on fire with his guitar, even though his voice mic is off and he cannot be heard. Buddy Miles, the band's drummer and second singer with Nick Gravenites, also shines with his volcanic rendition of Over-Lovin' You. But the perfectionist Bloomfield was not at all satisfied in spite of the audience's reaction, thinking that his former boss Paul Butterfield or Canned Heat had played much better, but most who saw them that day disagree with him; they really should have taken advantage of that performance to release their first album soon after…
Big Brother And The Holding Company
Janis Joplin produced one of the most mythical performances in the history of rock, and this was the day the world discovered her, specifically her voice, which was one of the most powerful and expressive that this genre of music has ever had. It was Saturday June 17th, Janis' voice stood out from her fellow band members even when she was just a backing singer, like in Combination Of The Two, but when she took over lead vocals it was impossible not to feel the shivers down your spine; her version of Ball & Chain is simply historic. In Pennebaker's images you can see another great vocalist, Mama Cass, who is listening to her, totally amazed. The funny thing is that those images correspond to that Saturday's performance but those of the band that appear in the film are those of their second performance on Sunday. After their huge success on the first day, it was decided to give them a new space so that Pennebaker could record their performance, something that their manager had not allowed the first time round. After this performance all the record companies tried to sign that white girl who sang like Bessie Smith. A star was born.
The Who's performance in Monterey wasn't particularly good, but when you're the fucking Who, the best live rock band of all time, even an average performance is one that is unattainable for everyone else. The band was already very big in the UK but had not yet achieved success in the US, so they had a big desire to prove themselves. The atmosphere was hot, Hendrix and the Who knew each other from England and knew that their theatrical performances, with smashed instruments and so on, were going to cause a stir among the peaceful hippies. A coin was tossed to see who would come out first and Townshend won the toss. The Who came out as usual like a hurricane, with Keith Moon breaking three sticks in the first song alone. The Vox amps they rented were not their usual Sound City and the sound was not the best (just compare their version of A Quick One here with the Rock And Roll Circus version to see how the equipment had improved from 1967 to 1968) but the energy and intensity was the same as always, At the end of My Generation all the equipment was wrecked, as usual, and Townshend's Stratocaster (a very unusual choice) was not spared the final sacrifice and was completely destroyed (though it would not be the last Stratocaster to be savagely destroyed that night).
Speaking of performances for history, how about Otis Redding in Monterey showing white audiences how tight a band can play, in this case Booker T. & the MG's, and the excitement that can emanate from one of the most soulful throats in history. Grace Slick would testify that she thought the stage was going to collapse when Otis started stamp his feet, not so much because of the pressure on the stage but because of the magnetism of his personality, the power of his songs and his incredible band. Please note Donald 'Duck' Dunn playing bass on Satisfaction, Steve Cropper on guitar - for God's sake this is not a performance, it's a revelation like the one Jake Blues would have years later against James Brown in the Blues Brothers movie! Soul had found a new audience among the hippies of love and peace. Listen to the people shouting in Shake, watch Otis make them eat out of the palm of his hand with his speech about the generation of love, before showing them what love really is with the incredible version of I've Been Loving You Too Long. This is music that is nothing short of miraculous, with Otis caressing every syllable, savoring every moment with his band, lifting the audience from their seats to enchant them again; listen to those wonderful notes from Cropper's Telecaster behind his giant voice. This is pure magic, although the most incredible thing of all is that a performance like this is not at the top of the list but rather…
You know that moment in the cartoons when something so incredible happens to a character that his jaw literally falls to the ground? That's what happened to all the fortunate people who were lucky enough to witness James Marshall Hendrix perform in Monterey. Can you do that with your guitar? Are you having sex with it in front of thousands of people? Did you just set it on fire? I can imagine Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, Stills and other great guitarists watching this performance and thinking the same thing their English colleagues had thought a few months earlier, "well, we'll have to get our act together or find another job”. What Hendrix did here is give rock its definitive sound, his Stratocaster sounds like black magic, like a spell of electricity, all the bands on the billboard would take note, distortion and electricity were the new queens and Hendrix their absolute God. When he plays Rock Me Baby he takes the blues to Saturn and if he had recorded his version of Like A Rolling Stone it would be another shameless robbery from Dylan. Hendrix doesn't do covers, Hendrix reinvents the songs, listen to that introduction, it's pure poetry, there's no one who sounds like that in 1967. Listen to the rest of the song and see why he's the most complete guitarist, how he dominates the rhythm guitar and the solos, all the dynamics and the 'fills'. Listen to his version of Hey Joe and see him dominate all the tricks of his great idols, playing with his teeth or behind his back without missing a note. Hendrix had it all, the look, the sound, the attitude, the desire, he was the coolest guy on the planet and he wanted to eat the world. He did it with the savage guitar on Wild Thing, the solo quoting Sinatra's Strangers In The Night, rolling around with his guitar on the floor in an orgy of distortion and noise, and finally setting fire to his guitar and destroying it. And after the wild ritual, look at people’s faces; they are in shock, they can’t fully understand what they have just seen, but they know it will stay in their mind’s eye for a long time. It is not surprising, they have just witnessed the birth of rock music as we now know it.