This infamous, bloody music festival may have killed off the ’60s dream for good, but it produced much better music than its angelic cousin, Woodstock. Check out my review at niche appeal or peep it below.
Altamont: A Musical Review
Rest in peace to Meredith Hunter.
The sacrificial lamb of the ’60s. He is easy to identify in the Maysles Brothers footage that made up the Gimme Shelter movie due to his psychedelic green suit, hovering on the edge of the churning, violent crowd like the ghost he was soon to become. He dances wildly. He grinds his teeth and bites on his lips. Classic speed freak behavior. His eyes dangerously alive, gleaming with joy and paranoia. A potent speedball. Just 18 years old when he was cut down by the Hells Angels at the Altamont Motor Speedway as the Stones played “Under My Thumb”, Meredith Hunter still hovers on the edge of youth culture like a whirling green dervish.
Mr. Hunter getting stomped and slashed down and by the Angels has to be one of the most disturbing images ever caught on film. The parting of the crowd at the first flare-up of trouble. The dark cloud swarm of Angels bum rushing in on Meredith. The gun from the pocket of the psychedelic suit, gleaming obscenely against the backdrop of the Northern Californian night. The Angel swarm reaches him. The kid had no chance. Even with the gun. Down he goes. Fists and feet and denim. The knife in the Angel’s hand, long and strangely tribal. And down it goes, so precise and methodical it’s easy to forget there is a mere kid on the receiving end. The Maysles Brothers make these horrible few seconds the centerpiece of their infamous documentary, rolling, rewinding, and rolling it again to hypnotic effect. Several members of the Stones are forced to watch as the cameras capture their reactions, and it’s completely riveting to witness as they realize the full extent of the horror they created with this festival. Even the cold dead eyes of the future Sir Mick Jagger go moist for a long moment. Of all the hundreds of hours of footage that have been filmed of this performer over the past 50 years, this may very well be the only moment that captures him raw. “That’s horrible,” he mutters audibly under his breath, flipping his classic 1969 corkscrew shag back into place.
Indeed it was horrible. But was it truly the “death of the ’60s” as has been mentioned in the same breath as Altamont for nearly 50 years by every publication, blog, documentary, and buzzed music writer at happy hour? Any true ’60s aficionado, Stones fan, or horror gawker knows the legend well and has seen the documentary. Many can quote from it directly. Some dress as particularly colorful audience members from the film for Halloween. Images of pool cue-wielding Hells Angels in coonskin hats tripping their faces off as they lash out randomly at audience and band members alike, flower children looking grey and washed out in the winter Californian gloom, naked fat guys falling and crushing people who were just trying to vibe to the music, traffic jams and bad acid, cheap bottles of wine passed next to out-of-control bonfires, musicians pleading for peace from the stage, some seemingly genuine and others just because they knew it was being filmed and wanted to be on the right side of history. This is what people think of when they vibe on Altamont.
Although they took place on opposite ends of the Nation and were set up as distinctively different beasts, Woodstock and Altamont are nearly always used as an angel and devil analogy, the shining heart of the optimist, change-the-world, peace-and-love ’60s vs. the dark dismantling of bad drug freakouts and Mansonoid zombie killers. An easy yin-and-yang scenario for lazy writers and uninformed cultural historians alike. In reality Altamont was not set up to be anything like Woodstock. While the party in Bethel was touted from the very beginning as a multi-band festival to spread out over three days, Altamont was from its inception a simple showcase for the Rolling Stones with the other bands added as afterthoughts, a sort of nod of their golden hat to a flower power generation they never truly belonged to. Woodstock was originally a paid festival before The People took over and made it free, while Altamont was free from the very start. Woodstock was set up as a multi-day affair, while Altamont was schedule for just one very long day. The two festivals really couldn’t be more different in their intentions and setups.
While it cannot be denied that Altamont turned out very badly and deserved the harsh press it received (thanks to the Grateful Dead for sparking the idea for hiring the Hells Angels as security), one thing that is hardly ever mentioned is the actual music. Five bands played at Altamont, three of which had also graced the stage at Stock just months earlier and would be cashing in madly on the film and endless double albums commemorating the event. The main aspects always mentioned about the bands at Altamont are what horrific events took place during their sets. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane getting knocked unconscious by the Angels during their performance. Meredith getting stabbed to death while The Stones shuffled through their shortened set. The outbreaks of violence during Santana and CSN&Y. The music itself tends to be left out in the cold like an Orange Sunshine casualty in the Speedway dawn.
The reason for this is simple. Because of the violence and degeneration on display at Alty, there was never an album released to showcase the musical trip of the evening. The documentary itself focused mostly on the blood and the shell-shocked faces of the audience. Meanwhile, everyone and their ex-hippie mother assumes that the music of Woodstock was a glorious tapestry of good vibes that no amount of rain or mud or brown acid could conspire to soil. You already know all the clichés. Hendrix rocking the Anthem at dawn. Santana headbanging away on one riff for an hour. CSN&Y with their “soaring harmonies”. Ten Years After with their savage blues pummeling and watermelons. But for each of these instantly iconic moments there were the ones you never hear about. The abysmally bad Dead set in the pouring rain with the failing amps. The Band showing up lethargic and out of tune. The ear-splittingly awful Incredible String Band set where 300,000-plus couldn’t hide their disinterest. The lame band that played the woodblocks. John Sebastian’s cloying, twee wailings. And…ahem…Melanie. The editing in the final Woodstock film made it seem like one flowing, groovy dreamscape of history in the making, but The Stock’s musical reality was far drearier than what Rolling Stone’s decades-long propaganda campaign has led us to believe.
So what of the music at angelic Woodstock’s evil west coast second cousin? It is understandable that the actual music of Altamont has been long-buried by images of dead teenagers and ultra-violent motorcycle gangs glazed on speed and acid. But for anyone who actually delves into the music produced on that ’60s-killing night, as we do here, the argument can be made that the music of Altamont actually burned much brighter amidst the hippie apocalypse than the better-documented sounds that came out of that Upstate New York hog farm.
- The famous Gimme Shelter. There are really less than twenty minutes of music footage from festival, but as some of the lone visuals from the Death Fest they are invaluable
- The Rolling Stones & Friends – Altamont Live. This bootleg only surfaced earlier this year. Previously you would have had to cobble together 47 or so different spotty boots just to get a complete-ish musical picture of the day/night, making this thing an absolute godsend. The sound is patchy in parts, but this audience recording is easily the most complete document of the musical twists and turns of Altamont and includes many, many tracks that never even showed up on the various band’s official setlists from that last month of 1969.
Altamont kicks off early in the jingle jangle morning with the bizarre and appropriately eerie strains of an early Moog being tuned. As someone who has listened to every scrap of recorded music from this festival, I can tell you that I’ve not come across one Moog line on any song by any of the bands who graced the makeshift stage that day. So if some fellow obsessive out there should know who used a Moog at Altamont, hit us up. Here the synth squelches work as a perfect lead-in, setting an ominous feel much like the opening seconds of a ’60s acid exploitation flick, which is essentially what Altamont was, only come to very real life.
Then we have legendary Stones manager Sam Cutler on the mic. While Sam never fully recovered from the Altamont bloodbath (he was the guy who listened to the Dead and installed the Angels as security, i.e. the guy who made the call that killed the ’60s dream), here he sounds sincere as all fuck in his belief that “this could be the greatest party of 1969.” The exhaustion tinging his voice is understandable. The guy had not slept in 3-or-so days. On the documentary footage he looks like a wet shag rug left out on the lawn, wrapped in a plastic jacket against the northern Cali fog cold. But while not completely convincing, there is definite hope that can be detected underneath the trepidation of this opening proclamation. It was hope that would soon be viciously dashed, but the guy wasn’t cynical out of the gate. Which counts for something.
Kicking off the fest is the wide-eyed Chicano mystic. Right from the opening notes of “Savor” you know this isn’t the gentle vibes world music bro who showed up at Woodstock and found his fame. Mr. Santana and his band sound raw here, locked-in and savage. This isn’t “Oh wow man far out”. This is crunchy and darkly tribal. The crowd sounds hushed in awe, stunned at finally getting some music after a long night on blankets in the chill. Percussion breaks pound like drum circles in hell, threatening to spin out of control completely. It may have been the sound system which was admittedly bottom heavy, or perhaps the young upstart was simply adapting his vibe to the mood of the crowd, morphing from the saintly, benevolent Woodstock San Man to something a little more foreboding. A young punk in sleeveless fringe casting a hypnotic and surprisingly aggressive spell on an early afternoon crowd of sleep-deprived lumpen hippies. “Evil Ways” simply slays to close out his short set as the recording captures an audience member stating with wonder that a fat guy had just taken off his clothes. This is most likely the same naked fat man who can be seen in the documentary being beaten down by the Angels’ pool cues, but it’s interesting to know that earlier in the day dude was just grooving to this incredible set as the lysergic waves fried his synapses.
Crowd Calming Score:
Mr. Santana is the only Altamont frontman who had nothing to say to the audience, potentially because the main trouble had not yet started during his set.
Sam Cutler: 90/100
Sam jumps back on the mic at the end of the set to admonish the “many people who should not be on this stage”. He pleads, “Let’s give the musicians some room to breathe.” While not necessarily crowd control, his concern for the musicians is admirable considering what came later. And it’s chilling to hear his voice start to lose control as he realizes the gravity of the situation. Oh shit, here we are in a field with 300,000 people and with only a day-drunk motorcycle gang as security. Oh shit indeed, Sam.
Next The Airplane takes flight. Always a hit-or-miss prospect, here the future Starship sounds far less watery than usual, something close to solid, with Jorma’s solos squiggling and wiggling in a way seemingly designed to freak out hundreds of thousands of people on heavy psychedelics. Grace Slick and Marty Balin, whose voices often clashed horribly both on wax and stage, lock in on vocals the way they probably always imagined it in their heads, conjuring their vision to life. Things were no doubt starting to get out of control out there in the crowd by this point, and the band ring through the chaos admirably. Check out the ragged, almost punked-out edge to “3/5th Of A Mile” if you’ve always assumed the flower children didn’t have grit. And was the choice of playing “Fat Angel” a good one when surrounded by fat, pissed-off Hells Angels? Perhaps due to the danger, the song burns here with far more funk and verve than it did on vinyl. “White Rabbit” is blessed with a doomy bottom end that places it very far away from the song you know from classic rock radio and every ’60s movie montage, more of a bad trip anthem than a call for utopia. “Free Bird” is presented as a garage rock rager with Jorma ringing out snotty rhythm chords like dirty denim flung into the corner of his room. Only the beginning of “The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil” falls into disarray as the twin leads yodel out of sync. Considering Balin had just been punched in the face by a fat Angel, this was understandable and the band pulls out all the stops to back him up amidst the chaos, sweeping back in with a crazy rhythm break and then a swirling out with a psych freakout breakdown that spirals over ten minutes and crash lands with a Jorma solo with so many notes it seems to be trying to pick out all the shifting heads in the audience. The Plane is a hundred times better at Altamont than their tepid, disjointed, oh-so-out-of-tune Woodstock set. They powered through more violence here than your average 77 punk band and came through with a set both spacey and admirably tough.
Crowd Calming Score:
Grace Slick: 100/100
“Easy, Easy, Easy, Easy, Easy, E-e-e-e-asy”
This mantra, chanted perfectly in sync with the rhythm section after the guitars cut out during one of the many outbreaks of violence during their set, is some of the most convincingly cerebral crowd calming attempts of the night. And then you have the simply immortal, “You’ve got to keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love.” Ah, the late ’60s. Peace and love and not a puritan thought in sight.
Jack Casady: 0/100
“I’d like to mention that the Hells Angels just punched Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank them for that.”
Although admirable for his fearlessness and cocky stance in the face of what was proven to be serious danger, the Airplane bassist certainly did nothing to stop the Angels from beating on people with pool cues. If anything this announcement worked to amp up the gang’s hippie hate and spark them up for further battle.
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gimme Shelter and the black-and-white photos from Altamont are jewels for Gram Parsons fanatics. Here was GP before his largest ever audience, angelic in a snake skin, torso-exposing Nudie suit that only he could pull off, all smiles with a prop acoustic held out to the audience like a joint on a clip. These are some of the purest Gram images in existence, and they perfectly capture his laid-back oddball charisma. The Burritos were no joke. Chris Hillman chugs away on hard-edged Bakersfield bass lines and future Eagle Bernie Leadon masters his twangy Telecaster, leaning into string bends like his impressive whiteboy afro tilting in a strong breeze. One of the highlights of the documentary, “Six Days On The Road” is a total delight, rollicking along like a rusty train, rickety but headstrong. You get the sense each of their songs could fall apart at any moment, but you have faith that they never will. “High Fashion Queen”, an underrated track from Burrito Deluxe, is trotted out to strong effect here. The Burritos were that rare band who could add a touch of lightheartedness to a song without diluting its message, and when Gram gets to “nothing left inside your heart but the same old hurt” his voice breaks with emotion in the midst of an otherwise rote junkie groupie tale. You really get the sense that some buckskin-and-sandals cutie had done some damage to poor ol’ Gram just recently. Of all the bands that rocked Altamont, this is the only real “having a good time and grooving in a field” music on the agenda, and it’s telling that there were no significant acts of violence from the crowd during their set. In the documentary footage you can peep frolicking hippies with zonked smiles having way too much fun tossing coffee can lids back and forth like Frisbees. It’s the only time you see people smiling the whole day. The sun is even out. “Cody Cody” floated with a Byrdsian jangle that worked like a calming salve on the crowd. It’s interesting to hear an audience member calling for “Lazy Day”, a song that failed as a single and is much hated within the Parsons cult. The Burrito Bros happily bust it out, adding a stutter-stop R&B rhythm that locks in defiantly after the opening lead and never lets go. This is clearly the only band having any fun at the Altamont Motor Speedway that day. Gram was known to be hit-or-miss live during his short life, but here he really shined when many lives depended on it.
Crowd Calming Score:
Gram Parsons: 100/100
GP didn’t have to address any violence because there was none during his set. His honky tonk angel presence and good vibe music was far more successful in soothing the crowd than any of the peace rap preaching by the other bands.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
At Woodstock they had arisen from the mud as harmonized acoustic saviors. At Alty they storm the gates with a slow-burning “Black Queen” that taps into a dark energy that people just don’t think of when they consider CSN&Y. Steven Stills sounds almost metal on the solo, raining down-strokes like early, bluesy Slayer. “Pre-Road Downs” hits solid and bright, unabashed pop with an expansive mindset, with a jittery organ underscoring the hooks. It sounds like Stills may have been hitting some dirt weed before their set as his vocals sound a bit ragged on this one, but Crosby and Nash swoop around his lead for the save. “Long Time Gone” is The Cros at his supernatural tent preacher best. The chorus burns with a surprising desperation, the band crescendo-ing with an aggressive force that could jar your image of these dudes as some Laurel Canyon “Judy Blue Eyes” warblers. “Down By The River” locks into flight and surges with a grace that Neil’s more respected Crazy Horse never could have mastered, with four of the greatest ever vocalists swooning and gliding over the top. Extra points are awarded for Stills and Young doubling up on the first solo like Ratt would two decades later.
Crowd Calming Score:
Graham Nash: 45/100
“Please you people stop hurting each other. You don’t have to.”
The first sentence of this plea rings true, with Nash sounding like a child pleading with his parents to stop their fighting. But “You don’t have to”? Seriously, Graham? Of course they don’t have to, man. But they are, man. And, man, you’re doing nothing to stop them.
The Rolling Stones
One of the Maysles Brothers who filmed Gimme Shelter stated:
“The Stones never sounded better than at Altamont…they were playing like their life depended on it.”
In a very real way their lives did depend on it. And Mr. Maysles was also right-on about their playing. This is far-and-away the best Stones live performance on record, not only from this period but ever. If you only know the stadium Vegas act of the post-’70s Stones then listening to any of the dozens of “Stones At Altamont” bootlegs will shock you. This was a young band (seven years old in 1969) that was still raw and hungry even as they were achieving the type of status that would draw 300,000 people to a godforsaken race track in the middle of nowhere.
The contrast between what the Stones were doing and their long-tuning, free-form jamming peers of the time was monumental and misunderstood by the rock press of the time. For example, the Grateful Dead were supposed to play Altamont but backed down because they were wimps. While The Dead and The Stones sharing a stage may seem just about right for the times, in reality these were bands at serious aesthetic odds. The Dead’s Utopian vision and anti-star persona was completely lost on the Chuck Berry greaser Stones. The English lads were old school showbiz through-and-through, so it isn’t surprising that they would stand out like an uncool ego trip at their own festival. The Stones were trying to buy into the flower power market here, but they didn’t have the loose spirit to back it up. “We don’t really do the crowd participation thing,” Mick Jagger said in a pre-Altamont interview. “We’d rather come out on stage in a Cadillac.” A joke? Sure. But it rang true and set them apart from the muddy free festival spirit of the late ’60s/early ’70s.
“The Stones were on an ego trip,” David Crosby later said of the band that birthed the Altamont nightmare. And their set from that night benefits greatly because of it. The opening one-two-three punch of “Jumping Jack Flash” into Chuck Berry’s “Carol” into “Sympathy For The Devil” draws the battle lines very clearly. These are not groovy tunes to usher in the communal age. These are harbingers of the apocalypse. “Sympathy” in particular is given its best ever airing here, with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts giving the tale a hard-funk edge. Keef’s solo is truly evil, dredging up The Dark Lord far more effectively than Mick’s satanic posturing, and it’s no wonder that the main bloodshed of the night began kicking off during this solo. Motorcycles exploded. Multiple scuffles erupted in the dark. And Meredith Hunter began his death dance.
One of the filthiest songs of all time, “Stray Cat Blues” is treated like a redheaded groupie on ludes. Mick Taylor does his crazy slide guitar thing way off the beat. It sounds like he’s playing a completely different song, or at least he wishes he were. Keef misses whole chord progressions. Mick changes the age of the stray cat in question from 15 to an even more scandalous 13. It’s a savage deconstruction of a song that was only one year old at that point, and it shows why bands like The Damned would give the Stones a break eight years in the future. These shag-haired Englishmen didn’t give a fuck long before that was cool.
Finally realizing that their hard-edged avant blues was actually causing people to be stomped and killed that night (just consider this and compare it to the sanitary seated arena spectacles The Boys put on these days), Mick & Co. made the call to slow it down a notch. “Love In Vain” is glistening and gorgeous like they just couldn’t capture it on record. The malevolent ghost of Brian Jones shows up in the dark misogynist grooves of “Under My Thumb”. Even the gentle, down-tempo reading the surviving Stones give it on this night cannot chase him away. The crowd erupts, parting like multiple red seas from any sign of trouble. A black dog walks across the stage. And Meredith Hunter is knifed down within mere yards of Sir Mick’s mic stand.
At that point they knew they were fucked. They were fully aware their “best party of 1969” had morphed into something monstrous that their music itself was partially responsible for. They realized they were in great danger. It was shut-up-and-finish-the-set time. No more gentle grooves to pacify the crowd. Like any great band would, they settled fully into the murderous chaos. Their set really takes flight from here on out. “Brown Sugar” rears its soon-to-be-inescapable head for the first time ever, and it never sounded this good again. Oh the gall of this band for breaking out “Midnight Rambler” as kids were being assaulted and hoisted bloody onto the stage in front of them. “Gimme Shelter”, all heroin and rape and murder, rings out desperate and true with Keef and Mick T. weaving around one another like shaman dancing next to a massive bonfire. Only “Honky Tonk Women” sounds out-of-place in this atmosphere with its leering, party-time vibe clashing with the counterculture meltdown taking place in its path.
Leave it to the Stones to end this slasher-fest with the incredibly inappropriate “Street Fighting Man” and somehow escape being hounded into early retirement by all the hundreds of post-Altamont think pieces and op-eds and finger-wagging radio broadcasts that started once the sun came up the next morning.
Over the course of their roughly hour-long set, it is thrilling to listen as The Stones gradually ease into their role as Luciferian hippie dream killers.
They would never sound this great again.
Crowd Calming Score:
Mick Jagger: 11/100
“Why are we fighting and what for? WHY ARE WE FIGHTING AND WHAT FOR??”
Crowd control is certainly not Sir Mick’s strong suit. Why ask why, Mick? People were fighting and they didn’t know what for, and no English school mum scolding was going to stop it.
Keith Richards: 96/100
“Listen man, either those cats cool it, or we don’t play!”
Leave it to Keef to go right for the source. Pointing to a couple of club-wielding Angels, the Human Riff calls it as he sees it. Unlike the Jefferson Airplane bassist, he doesn’t get all passive aggressive in calling them out either. In pointing out that the Stones would stop playing if the violence of their security platoon continued, he was most likely hoping that the Angels themselves wanted to hear them play and would stop pummeling naked fat men in order to keep the concert going. Unfortunately he assumed wrong, but props to Keef for the proactive effort. As always, the most fucked up head on the racetrack that night was also the most sensible.
While the Free Concert At Altamont Motor Speedway may have been a bloody disaster and the death knell of the flower power dream, its musical selections were far tastier than those of its angelic and peaceful Upstate New York rival.