The Festival that Made History: Revisiting Monterey Pop Festival on its 50th Anniversary

In a time when music festivals are plentiful, have their own designated eight-month-long season, and cater to just about any genre preference, it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t always the case. In 1967, the absence of festivals was the subject of a conversation taking place in Mama Cass Elliot’s living room. “Rock music wasn’t considered an art form,” says Lou Adler, who partnered with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas to put on the seminal Monterey Pop Festival. It would take place over three days at the Monterey showgrounds that, up to that point, had only played host to folk, blues, and jazz festivals. Monterey would change everything. For some of the artists performing at Monterey, life would forever be separated into two halves: Before Monterey, and what came after.

To kick off the 50th anniversary weekend of Monterey Pop Festival, we’re revisiting what made it such a significant and memorable moment in music history.

“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”
Written by John Phillips and sung by Scott McKenzie to promote the festival, the song would top the charts and become a theme song for the era.

The artists agreed to play for free.
In fact, John Phillips knew the San Francisco bands would be a hard get, as they were against the more commercial Los Angeles groups, and often played for free in San Francisco. Monterey was, however, the first festival to fully host artists by paying for their travel expenses, accommodations, ground transportation, along with providing them with sound equipment. Tickets to the festival could be purchased for between $2.50 and $6.50.

Photographer Lisa Law and attendees made an agreement with the local chief of police.
It was the ‘60s, and psychedelics and marijuana were part of the music listening experience. The success of the festival depended on law enforcement looking the other way where drug use was concerned. While the chief of police was skeptical, he agreed, and many of the cops patrolling the grounds that weekend ended up with flowers tucked inside their helmets and hanging from their motorcycles. It was a statement that opposing groups could come together in peace.

“All us hippie’s meeting with the Chief of the Monterey Police asking him not to bust anyone who was smoking pot or indulging in LSD, and he did just that and the concert was fantastic and there were only two arrests — two drunken red necks who were bothering the hippies.”

Otis Redding absolutely brought the house down.
Redding went to Monterey relatively unknown by white audiences, and came out on the other side as an artist whose name would become synonymous with rock music. Tragically, Redding died just six months after his earth-shattering Monterey performance, but it’s a performance still talked about today.
“This is the love crowd, right?” Redding asked the crowd. “We all love each other, don’t we? Am I right? Let me hear you say, ‘Yeah!’” It was a moment that summed up the entire festival and rock music as the unifying force that it was.

Janis Joplin cemented her place in rock and roll history.
Stars would align for the Texas native with the soulful voice that weekend. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s manager, Julius Karpen, wanted no part of D.A. Pennebaker’s filming, but Pennebaker was determined to change his mind. During Janis’s first set, he kept the film rolling with the camera on the audience. We have this to thank for the now iconic moment he captured of Mama Cass mouthing, “Wow!” as Janis wrapped up her first set. “She was so amazing,” Recalls Pennebaker. “There’s no way we can have a film, and not have her in it […] the next thing I knew, she came up to me, and she said, ‘I’m going to do the whole show again, and you guys can shoot it.'”

The Who got rowdy.
So the legend goes, The Who won a coin toss with Jimi Hendrix and went on first (both acts had been performing in the UK and had similar endings to their sets). During a short set that would introduce The Who to the U.S. mainstream, they concluded “My Generation” by smashing up their gear and exiting the stage, leaving behind an awestruck crowd.

Jimi Hendrix. Need we say more?
Jimi Hendrix was another name that would soon launch to national attention as a result of Monterey Pop. Not only that, but his performance would go down in history as one of the greatest and wildest. The Who had already made their appearance and performed a (literally) electrifying set, but Jimi was about to steal their thunder. During his performance of “Wild Thing,” Hendrix doused his guitar in lighter fluid and set it aflame on stage.

Ravi Shankar played a four-long set on his sitar.
Shankar was a huge influence for bands in the psychedelic rock era, especially the Beatles. He was the only artist paid to play that weekend, as he was signed on to play on the grounds before Monterey was officially organized.

Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, Monterey Pop, CA 1967 by Jerry de Wilde

All the organizers and bands were looking for was validation for their music. What they got was something no one could have predicted. Monterey Pop would not only be credited as one of the beginnings of the Summer of Love of 1967, it would immortalize artists it helped launch to icon status.

Listen to a full broadcast by Paul Ingles on Monterey Pop’s significance (quoted in the article) here.

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Lily is an entertainment writer who grew up around the corner from Janis Joplin's hometown. Consequently, she found herself enthralled with the music and stories of the leading women of rock & roll at a young age.
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