Monterey Pop: The Hippies, The Film, The Music

The main stage ready to go

The Monterey Pop Festival began on a grey Friday afternoon in June 1967, and peaked two days later on a frantic Monday morning when The Mama’s and The Papa’s finished their set. There were an estimated 60,000 people on the festival grounds at that time, and over 100,000 visitors throughout the weekend. The festival was the product of a two month long organizational effort (headed by John Phillips of the Mama’s and the Papa’s), and the culmination of dozens of musical acts performing on one stage—all, due to festival policy, at no price. It was the first ever pop music festival in the United States, as well as the largest congregation of like-minded hippies, freaks, bohemians and beatniks the world had ever seen—100,000 of them, all in one place, to witness the height of the “summer of love” and music history.  And it was all captured by D.A. Pennebaker in the documentary Monterey Pop to be seen by as wide an audience as television allowed.

The Hippies

In many aspects, including in its filming, the festival marked a new era for both the counter-culture movement and the way that it reached a wider audience. It came at a time when the hippie movement was reaching its zenith as a counter-cultural movement, and continuing on afterwards as a popular cultural movement. Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane considers it the birth, and the death, of the 1960’s pop music festival.

There was at least one patron (which is probably indicative of many) at Monterey in 1967 who shared the same sentiment—a woman who was interviewed for Pennebaker’s documentary who stated that every few years a new wave of rock bands form, and with it comes “all the other bullshit”. Her implications were that at that moment in San Francisco they were witnessing the zeitgeist of their form of psychedelic rock, and soon would follow the bullshit. For that reason Monterey can be seen as much an end to something as a beginning—the end of the formation of the hippie counter-culture movement and the beginning of the hippie popular culture movement.

“I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me”

The backlash was even happening as the festival was going on. The song “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, written by John and Michelle Phillips and performed by Scott Mackenzie to promote the festival, was already receiving criticism from the die-hard hippies of Haight-Ashbury for being too on the nose, too much of a simplification of what the movement was supposed to be about, and too inviting of people who would act as cultural tourists. This, of course, is terrible. You can’t preach peace and love and host events called a “human be in” and then exclude those who wish to join.

The Mama’s and The Papa’s performing “California Dreamin'”

We can see the same occurrences and reactions in modern movements: Counter-culture, acceptance, and backlash. It isn’t anything new. The hipster movement and backlash is one that is happening right now, and has been for a few years, as is the more concentrated Occupy movements which have sprouted up all across North America and share similar values to hipsters (which I won’t even try to touch, the mere mention of which brings looks of disgust: Am I a hipster? Are you? Is contemplating whether one is a hipster or not constitutional of hipster behavior? Is everyone I see as trying too hard or trying too little a hipster? It’s been said a million times before).

Examining that place in time—a movement at its zenith—is why the Monterey Pop festival and the film which immortalized it is so interesting to me. It seems, whether by virtue of itself or other factors, to have come right at the peak of the summer of love, stamped its mark in history, and left never to be replicated. Four months later the people who began the movement in hopes of achieving some euphoric humanism and peace, declared the “death of the hippie” and told people to stop coming to San Francisco. Summer was over, and the fervor of the moment dissipated as quickly as it had swelled.

Merchants on the Fairgrounds

The summer of love in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco had began, strangely enough, in January of that year with a 30,000 person “human be in”. By mid spring it had a council and an organizing party, and by June it was in full swing. Its name implies an idealistic and organic movement, which it most certainly was, but it wasn’t as idealized as our modern signifiers of flowered hair, free love, good acid, and rock-and-roll make it out to be. It was organized to be organic. And as such, among the movement there was a growing fear of being co-opted by outside forces, commercialized, and stripped of its humanistic roots. Even at Monterey there was dissention between the Los Angelos and San Francisco cliques, the latter accusing the former of being “too L.A.”, with the connotations of record labels and surfer commercialism that came with it. If there were these trivial problems between two scenes that were relatively sympathetic to each others’ philosophies, how would they then react to the public at large when they caught wind of the movement and wanted in on it too?

As stated before, with bated acceptance, and with the knowledge that with popular growth came a host of logistical problems. Although Monterey was a large festival, it was a fraction of the 500,000 that would camp out at a farm in Woodstock two years later. It was even small compared to the 200,000 that would inhabit the Altamont motor speedway in December 1969. For that reason Monterey didn’t have the organizational hazards of Woodstock, or the security hazards of Altamont. There is a short clip in the beginning of Monterey Pop which shows a Hell’s Angel’s member sitting in a chair, having a conversation and laughing, which can be juxtaposed to the violence seen by the Hell’s Angel’s security forces at Altamont in Gimme Shelter. That festival was plagued with violence and unease. Something had changed. Hunter S. Thompson captures this sentiment perfectly:

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ….
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

In a recent interview Grace Slick said that, for the musicians, Woodstock was hell. Jefferson Airplane was scheduled to go on at night, but didn’t make it on to the stage until mid-morning due to poor scheduling and management. The musicians were flown in by helicopter and sequestered in hotels, away from the fans and the music of their peers. There were drug overdoses. in actuality, the rain that brought about famous clips of people frolicking in the mud put a damper on the festival. Woodstock, like Altamont, was plagued with problems that were largely missing from Monterey. Whether this organizational degradation is inherent in the growing of a movement, or Monterey was just lucky, is something which I don’t know, but it is still interesting to observe.

Jefferson Airplane Performing High Flyin’ Bird

The Film

D.A. Pennebaker was fresh off of releasing his great Bob Dylan Documentary Don’t Look Back when he came to film at Monterey. In that documentary—and here—he employed a verité style that would become his hallmark. When I watch Monterey Pop it is amazing how modern the filmmaking techniques look, and that is because it had such a huge effect on all concert films after it. Woodstock and Gimme Shelter would have a very different look if it weren’t for the success of Monterey Pop, and may have never been filmed in a feature format at all.

What is also amazing to me is how much this documentary acts as documentation. It is weird to think of it so literally, but documentaries are polemic in nature, so when presented with something that merely presents the event it becomes refreshing. There were still editorial decisions like including Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” in the final cut instead of “The Sound of Silence” because it fit better within the documentary, but those artistic decisions were done to create a flow rather than enforce an argument for what the festival should be. I’m not saying that the film transcends the confines of documentary, which can never be truly impartial; I’m saying that the style that Pennebaker chose lends itself to the creation of what appears to be an unbiased representation of what it was like to be at the festival,rather than an argument for what the festival supposed to be.

What the festival was, and what the focal point of the documentary was: music. Michael Lydon, in his article for Newsweek that was written immediately after the festival, says that there was rarely a break in the assault of noise throughout the day and night. The film mirrors that sentiment; aside from very sparse interviews, and an opening scene showing John and Michelle Phillips manning the phone lines to organize the event, the film is entirely about the music. One act seeps into the next; there is very little downtime.

I mentioned earlier that the way the concert was filmed contributed a large amount to the legend of Monterey. Pennebaker admits that for the majority of the concert his film crew and himself were experimenting with new angles to shoot, new ways to focus on performance, and new techniques to do it all in a confined space. The modern steadicam wasn’t invented until the mid 70’s by Garrett Brown, but here we can see early incantations of that prototype in the rigs that the cameramen use. The mechanism was a bridge between hand-held and steadicam styles of shooting; at the same time it could shake to produce a sense of immediacy, as well as be capable of taking smoother shots when stabilized—something which lends itself to shooting the psychedelic acts and stoned reactions. Pennebaker also experimented by shooting the concert from behind the stage, which produces two of the most lasting images from the film: Grace slick backlit in profile, and the seizure inducing image of Otis Redding as he moved in and out of blocking the lights.

Otis Redding performing his cover of the Jay-Z and Kanye West song “Otis”

Crowd reactions are edited into the performances (most famously Cass Elliot proclaiming that Janis Joplin’s rendition of Ball and Chain was “heavy”). The camera weaves throughout the crowd showing people’s reactions to the music and to their surroundings. It’s fun to guess which people are tripping out of their mind and which are just into the music. In trying to do so one of the most surprising things to me was how normal most of the people looked. Not everybody was a hippie, or at least outwardly appeared to be. My shock at this is probably a product of my own lack of perspective on the time period, and a subsequent stereotypical image that projects in my mind of “hippie”.

Monterey Pop presents such a vivid representation of the time and place that it spurred a realization that my preconceptions about the 60’s culture were simplistic and overly reliant on its signifiers: flower, long hair, colourful clothing, stoned, etc. It is a powerful thing when a film can act as a historical document just by showing what a thing wasn’t, rather than what it was. In this case, what it wasn’t was the image that one see’s on the “Flower Power” infomercials, where for 150 bucks sent to TIME you can buy back a piece of the 60’s.

Okay, maybe the stereotype was true
Damn, it was.

The Music

I can’t say much about the music other than it is—above all else—the reason to see the movie. Acts like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar came onto the world stage because of the festival. The music speaks for itself, so I’ll list my five favourite performances from the festival and call it a day:

5. Jimi Hendrix – Wild Thing 

4.Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long 

3. Big Brother and the Holding Company – Ball and Chain 

2: Eric Burdon and The Animals – Paint it Black

1: Jefferson Airplane – Today 

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