Fifty years ago today (June 16), a quartet of wild-hearted and wide-eyed optimists turned sleepy little Monterey, California, into the epicenter of rock-and-roll music. What musician John Phillips, manager and producer Lou Adler, promoter Alan Pariser and publicist Derek Taylor did may have changed the course of music forever.
The three-day Monterey International Pop Music Festival brought together some of the major acts of the day — Simon & Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, and Phillips’ band, The Mamas & the Papas — while introducing the world at large to others that would become icons in their own right. The Who and Jimi Hendrix were discovered by American audiences. Janis Joplin turned into a star overnight. Otis Redding — who only 15 months prior recorded his legendary In Person at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles and who only six months later would die in a plane crash in Wisconsin — brought his crowd to ecstasy.
Perhaps even more importantly, it convinced music promoters that there was a value in the live coalescence of disparate-sounding artists.
As Gregg Perloff, whose Another Planet Entertainment is helping to put on the 50th anniversary Monterey Pop Festival from June 16-18, puts it: Back then you were either a Stones fan or a Beatles fan or a Beach Boys fan, and isolated into those groups.
“Now we take for granted with the internet and social media that instantly [after] someone says, ‘Hey have you seen so-and-so?,’ you can,” Perloff said. “In those days, if you were a working artist, you were out there doing your own thing, and maybe your paths crossed [with other artists], but you could only really hear what it was on vinyl. A Mama Cass might not have had a chance to see a Janis Joplin live.”
Good thing she did. Monterey Pop documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s cameras captured that iconic moment — Elliott becoming transfixed by Joplin’s aching rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” shaking her head and mouthing, “Wow. Wow. That’s heavy!” — and so many others of that memorable weekend.
Held two years before Woodstock and widely regarded as a major moving force of what would come to be known as the Summer of Love, Monterey Pop was seen as one of the first breakthroughs of the counter-culture movement. During a time of tremendous political unrest, Monterey Pop was not just a music festival, but a moment in time.
At the time, such festivals were commonplace for individual musical genres: Folk festivals were routine, the Newport Jazz Festival was long-established, and even Monterey had played host to its jazz festival for nearly a decade. Monterey Pop, though, brought eclectic sounds together from across the country. Peace and harmony radiated from the Bay. A few had attempted it before – in fact, the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, which featured the Doors, Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds, among others, had taken place just a week before – but with rock music in its relative infancy, never had such different sounds from such different places come together for the common cause.
“The people were there for an experience and to listen to great music, but it wasn’t just about the music,” Perloff said. “It was about all the different things going on, the politics of the moment… It was the precursor to all the other festivals to come.”
For Perloff, it was the preservation of musical history in Pennebaker’s 79-minute concert doc that lionized Monterey Pop into lore. “What Monterey Pop has in common with Woodstock,” he said, “is — ‘Thank God a film was made of each of them.’”
Pennebaker’s documentary brought the festival to life, and to mass audiences. Now it is regarded as a standard-bearer of concert footage, and even documentary filmmaking. For as much time is spent capturing the music, there seems to be equal time spent on the audience.
Without the lasting images of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar set aflame, who knows if Monterey Pop becomes the standard for all rock music festivals that followed? Without the video evidence of Otis Redding and the indelible sounds of Booker T. and the MGs turning a West coast audience on to the Stax Records sound of Memphis, does Woodstock even take hold two years later?
“I think with the festival, the political climate was there and the musical climate was there to make these things occur,” Perloff said. “May have it occurred five years later? Probably. But if Woodstock and Monterey Pop wouldn’t have been on film, they would’ve been lost to history. Now we have this as part of our rock ‘n’ roll. Eventually, progress gets made. But what those shows did was speed up the progress.”
That Monterey Pop even took place may have been a miracle in itself. It was no surprise back then that there was not a 1968 Monterey Pop, and 1969, and onward. The local Monterey community was aghast at what the hippie culture brought to their small town, located two hours from San Francisco, which at the time was a major hub for rock music, home to the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Adler, who as Phillips’ and the Mamas and the Papas’ manager helped organize the first festival in 1967 and who spearheaded the 50th anniversary celebration, told Perloff, it was an uphill battle just to get the original weekend approved. Now, Perloff said, “We’re welcomed by the city, by the arts community. They realize now the role arts play in everyday lives. They don’t just say those rock-and-roll types. Even corporate America has embraced music … I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
“Back then, the good kids were playing sports and it was like ‘Uh-oh, those hippie kids are coming in.”
And judging by the success of Coachella, Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo — and any number of other festivals still following in Monterey Pop’s mold, generations later — it appears they’ve never left. A 2016 Los Angeles Times story revealed that Coachella and the country music festival Stagecoach – both run by AEG’s Goldenvoice concert promotion – contributes more than $700 million to the local Palm Springs and Coachella Valley economies. According to the Times article, Coachella draws nearly 100,000 attendees per day, Coachella breaking its own record in 2014 with more than $84 million in ticket sales.
Fifty years after the first major pop and rock music festival changed the course of music history and introduced an entirely new audience to Jimi Hendrix and the Who and Otis Redding, more fans than ever are flocking to see their favorite artists perform together.