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Audio Rewind: Remembering Monterey Pop Festival, the World’s First Rock Fest

Mama Cass was a formidable figure, a near-myth that was lionized for both her size and the uncanny legends affixed to her name. One, for instance, claims that Cass’s vocal range increased by three notes when she was hit in the head by some copper tubing that fell from a construction site (she actually confirmed the story). Another says that her death was caused by ham sandwich asphyxiation. Perhaps the most enduring of her legends, though, occurred inside Cass’s house in 1967, when she and a group of equally notorious cohorts birthed the first large-scale rock music festival. It all began in Monterey.


As the story goes, Cass was gathered round-table style with Paul McCartney, Grammy-winning record producer and music executive, Lou Adler, and her fellow Mamas and Papas, John and Michelle Phillips. The five of them were discussing an idea presented by promoter, Alan Pariser, who, after witnessing the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, had approached the Mamas and the Papas about performing in a new rock festival.

At that time, jazz and folk, both of which had held smaller festivals at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, were considered art forms, a status that rock ‘n’ roll had not yet achieved. Rock ‘n’ roll was still just a fad. A nascent movement that many thought (and even hoped) would disappear from whence it came. And perhaps, had the room decided not to move forward with the Monterey International Pop Festival, it would have. Instead, Monterey became a template for future festivals and bolstered the genre as one of the most important artistic movements ever to come out of America.

The festival, which began on today’s date in 1967, drew between 25,000-90,000 patrons (this was an era in which data was estimated with eyes rather than calculated with algorithms). Tickets could be purchased for $3.00–6.50 (!), and Adler and John Phillips decided to run Monterey as a charitable event—without sacrificing any of the amenities that came to define the true festival experience.

“[O]ur idea for Monterey was to provide the best of everything — sound equipment, sleeping and eating accommodations, transportation — services that had never been provided for the artist before Monterey,” Adler reflected in a book about the festival. “We set up an on-site first aid clinic, because we knew there would be a need for medical supervision and that we would encounter drug-related problems. We didn’t want people who got themselves into trouble and needed medical attention to go untreated. Nor did we want their problems to ruin or in any way disturb other people or disrupt the music.”

The visionary approach adopted by Monterey’s creators didn’t end there, either. Audio engineer Abe Jacob designed a state-of-the-art sound system that would be the forebear of all the large-scale PA’s that followed. Electronic music pioneers Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, who had bought one of the very first Moog synthesizers, manned a demonstration booth at the festival and interested a bevy of seminal musicians in electronic music—among them The Doors, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, and Simon & Garfunkel. And Chip Monck’s lighting, too, was noteworthy, attracting the attention of Woodstock’s would-be promoters.

Though Monterey’s not as famous as Woodstock—which occurred on a New York dairy farm two years later—it’s certainly feasible to suggest Woodstock might not have been as successful without Monterey as a model. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the festival, Monterey Pop, helped cast Monterey in all of its trailblazing light.

The infamously dogged music journalist Robert Christgau extolled the 1968 film, calling it “instrumental in convincing potential organizers and participants that music was the healthiest way to crystallize the energy of a counterculture that by then seemed both blessedly inevitable and dangerously embattled.” He wasn’t shy in citing its immediate influence either: “Poof, Woodstock.”

Woodstock’s piggybacking, in some ways, is a loose forbear of today’s music festival landscape. Many of the same artists (e.g. the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who), for instance, performed at both festivals. Today, similarly, there exists a veritable circuit in which active artists program their summer tours around major festivals. All the big names swap ideas and personalities until each one begins to look like the other. Take a resurgent Radiohead and the reborn LCD Soundsystem, for example. One or the other or both are playing at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Glastonberry, Lollapalooza, Outsidelands, FYF, Austin City Limits, Primavera Sound, Osheaga… and the list goes on.

There’s no need to make a pilgrimage to Coachella anymore. You can likely find a similar lineup at your local musical festival—if you’re in an urban area, you almost assuredly have one. And that’s certainly convenient, but it’s also lacking in the ethos of  what Monterey truly represented. Gone are the days when secret late-night meetings incited live music revolutions. Gone are the vaguely guesstimated attendance records. Gone is that Mama Cass mystique. Instead we have facial recognition technology at Boston Calling. We have a general flattening in which the Bonnaroos and Coachellas look more and more alike each year. We’ve established party-over-music precedents as festivals sell out before lineups are even released. But rest assured, at least there’ll be Heineken-sponsored beer tents and $13 farm-to-table beef sliders in every city in the country for three days every summer.

But gluttonous mainstream festivals aside (some large festivals do still give some love to local flavor and help smaller artists), there are still some bastions of music-focused gatherings: the eclectic, historically-driven Moogfest; Hudson, New York’s “anti-festival,” Basilica Soundscape; the Justin Vernon/Aaron Dessner-run Eaux Claires Music Festival; CMJ and SXSW, the broad reaching showcases for up-and-comers. Thankfully, there is still room for the music lover. Still, Monterey was the music festival at its best. It was an event created by artists and run for charity in the name of music and togetherness, with a proclamation that rock music was “the healthiest way to crystallize the energy of a counterculture.” It even transcended said counterculture.

“Our security worked with the Monterey police. The local law enforcement authorities never expected to like the people they came in contact with as much as they did,” Adler remembers. “They never expected the spirit of ‘Music, Love and Flowers’ to take over to the point where they’d allow themselves to be festooned with flowers.” Today’s festival landscape would do well to revisit its roots, and today’s world could use just a little more music, love, and flowers too.

Image: Public Domain

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