ALTAMONT – 50 YEARS ON

ALTAMONT – 50 YEARS ON

Sometimes events in history can get lost in time. The deeper I dug while researching my latest story, the more I realised that Altamont was a dirty word to be buried in the fading minds of pop history. It was like some forgotten mine that had been rusting for over fifty years; yet its poison was as toxic as ever….

The end of the 1960’s was not all about love and peace. Just four months before the hastily arranged festival at Altamont took place, the success of Woodstock had briefly reunited the disenchanted youth of America as only music can. During a tour earlier that year, the Stones learned of a growing voice of displeasure from fans about the inflated cost of tickets – double the price of those from a recent tour by The Who. The Stones hoped that a one-off free concert would appease their angry fans. They got together with some of the hottest acts around with plans to turn the tour into a positive venture — and a profitable one, as they intended to film it for a memorable documentary.

It would be memorable — but for all the wrong reasons. Venue after venue rejected them, as they could not handle the complications associated with hosting so many popular bands at the last minute. They had to settle for the ill-equipped Altamont Speedway in Livermore, CA. There were not nearly enough first aid tents or toilets, and the stage was a mere 39″ tall. Not to mention that the Hell’s Angels were chosen as security! The Stones’ manager, Sam Cutler, hired them after seeing them in action at a Hyde Park gig (and at the recommendation of many fellow musicians). However, they were not up to the challenge that the Californian crowd presented.

It was a disaster waiting to happen, and on December 6th, 1969, it did. There were over 300,000 fans, many of whom were high or drunk. It was more than the Hell’s Angels could ever have been expected to handle. Their makeshift barrier of motorbikes was not enough to keep the crowd away from the stage. Marty Balin of Jeffersons Airplane was knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel. Those who dared get near the stage were similarly attacked. Grateful Dead refused to play due to the chaos. Bill Wyman had missed his ride, meaning that the Stones were a member short.

When the Stones finally took the stage, everyone’s nerves were at a breaking point. Jagger tried to calm the crowd, but to no effect. Meredith Hunter climbed onto one of the speakers — and when the Hell’s Angels surrounded him, he made a fatal mistake. He drew his gun to defend himself. What happened next is too graphic to describe here, but is documented in the Gimme Shelter documentary. Paul Cox, a fellow partier, got him to a Red Cross tent, but Hunter died before help could arrive. He was only 18 years old. He was buried four days later in Skyview Cemetery in an unmarked grave, as his family could not afford a headstone. Many decades later, he finally received a headstone.

Despite the video evidence, his murderer, Alan Passaro, was cleared of the crime. This was not unusual at the time, as Hunter was black and Passaro was white — and he was tried by an all-white jury. The only one to ever apologize for this murder and terrible injustice was the stage manager, Chip Monck.

During the chaos, three other people died; one drowned, and two others were run over in their sleeping bags. Immediately after their set, the Stones made their escape via helicopter.

Keith Richards said in his 2010 autobiography, “It was the first time Brown Sugar was played in front of a live audience…. A baptism from hell, in a confused rumble in the Californian night.”

A “baptism from hell” it might have been, but valuable lessons were learnt that fateful night. For many of the bands that day though, things would never be the same. For others… it was only rock and roll.

 

Author: Ian Woolley

Ian Woolley has been in the music industry since 1974 and has built up a vast amount of musical knowledge across many genres. Starting out singing in a band in his home country of Wales, due to work commitments he relocated to the South coast of England in 1981. He began a successful career as DJ in England which also took him to work briefly in France,Malta, Switzerland and finally Dubai in 1998. Adding to his portfolio, he was one of the original pioneers of Karaoke in England, as well as organising trivia music and general knowledge events. In 2012, he began supplying trivia packages for mobile applications for various companies including Bluestratus, Plain Vanilla Corporation and BSkyB (the latter for a new television game-show). In 2013, he founded Quiz Britain which promotes trivia and quizzing, primarily in the UK where he is CEO. The company supplies and organises bespoke trivia and quiz packages for events – many of which are charity based. Clients have included The Air Ambulance Trust, It’s Your Choice, Joshua Deeth Foundation, Oakhaven Hospice as well as corporate events, including the Only Fools & Horses Convention. The company has also promoted many successful TV game-shows for various companies including ITV and BBC, as well as appearing in some as a contestant. In 2017, he was organiser of a special one day trivia quizzing event called Quizfest UK which involved lots of celebrities from the world of Quizzing, TV, Comedy and the Music industry. He also wrote and directed a short youtube comedy spoof involving many that were present. His newly formed side company QB Productions was launched in 2018, working in various capacities with supplying celebrities from the world of music and TV. These include interviews, book signings, ’an audience with’ theatre shows, guest trivia appearances and individual performances and charity events. At the same time, he began to write monthly columns for the Beat Music Magazine, interviewing many worldwide pop artists across all genres. Reviewing their autobiographies and books, as well as new albums. He also freelances show reviews at various theatres around the UK. Recently he launched an online Podcast called ‘WoolleysBeat’, where he interviews many pop artists and authors of music books and autobiographies, as well as those that work on TV and Radio. As a lover of many genres of music since his teens, Ian’s knowledge is without question and although he works with many established acts, he has always been keen to promote upcoming bands and artists. His motto is ‘you never pass a good busker by’!

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