The summer of 1969 saw the world united in hope. By the end of the year, however, the death of the 60s brought with it the end of the hippie dream of a brighter future. But the music that united hundreds of thousands of people at mass gatherings throughout 1969 lives on today. So what happened to make 1969 such a beautiful yet shocking climax to the 60s?
The answer begins with two consecutive days in September 1962 that witnessed a pair of portentous events that would change everything. At least one was seemingly innocuous, but both would have far-reaching consequences that, by the end of the decade, would redefine culture and society, opening up hitherto unimagined possibilities.
Defining moments of the decade
Firstly, on the evening of September 11, 1962, EMI producer Ron Richards oversaw the recording of “Love Me Do” and “PS I Love You” by Parlophone’s new signings, The Beatles. Paired together, they would become the Liverpool band’s first release, signaling the start of a revolution that would reshape the world of music and art completely over the next seven years.
The next day, on a hot afternoon in Houston, Texas, John F. Kennedy addressed a large crowd at the Rice University football stadium. The purpose of his speech was to announce his country’s goal to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, and return him safely to earth: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
In the post-war years, the western world had gone some way to rebuilding itself, intent on forging a new world without the bloodbaths that had marred the first half of the century. As the 60s took hold, so too did a new sense of hope that anything was possible. Gone would be the shackles that had tied humankind to its earthly toil.
The greatest adventure in human history
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,” Kennedy concluded, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” In these few short sentences, he had committed his nation on a trajectory to undertake the greatest adventure in human history.
The ensuing years witnessed triumph upon triumph for The Beatles and their fellow pioneers of pop music. As every timeless single was followed by yet more groundbreaking albums, even the sky didn’t seem likely to limit the rise of pop’s masterminds.
The same couldn’t be said for the Apollo program in its pursuit of the assassinated JFK’s target of reaching for the stars. With the Soviets first to every landmark on the road to the Moon, Apollo seemed to be suffering nothing but frustration and setbacks. While The Beatles were holed up in EMI’s studios at Abbey Road recording Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, disaster struck in Florida, when all three of the first Apollo crew were killed in a fire during a test.
But, as the end of the decade drew close, it began to feel as though everything it had promised was going to come together in one glorious summer. 1967’s Summer Of Love had turned sour in 1968: it had been a year of riots in Paris, Chicago, London, and Prague (among many other cities); the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, shocked the US; and an escalation of the war in Vietnam was proving increasingly unpopular. And yet Christmas Eve 1968 offered hope, in the shape of perhaps the most powerful photograph ever taken, as Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to look back at Earth from the Moon. Hope springs eternal, and from the eternity of space, the belief that the 60s was a special decade was reborn.
The summer of ’69
Despite the previous year’s confrontations, 1969 saw the hippie dream of peace and love very much alive. Previous years had seen a number of increasingly large outdoor music events. Of course, music festivals weren’t a new thing. Since ancient times, people have gathered in celebration of song. In the modern age, the Newport Jazz Festival had been a great annual gathering since 1954, showcasing a phenomenal array of talent, from Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, who famously shocked the audience in 1965 by playing with an electric guitar and band.
Arguably the first great rock festival was 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival, which featured The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, Simon And Garfunkel, and The Who. The following year saw the first of many free concerts in London’s Hyde Park in June 1968, with Pink Floyd, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Jethro Tull, and Roy Harper on the bill (“I think it was the nicest concert I’ve ever been to,” reflected John Peel).
As the summer of ’69 approached, and the Apollo program was finally looking like it would fulfill Kennedy’s promise, the foundations were being laid for a series of mass gatherings of the clans on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, the summer sprang into life with the much-anticipated debut outing from Blind Faith, a supergroup comprising Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech. Their free concert in Hyde Park, on 7 June 1969, saw them joined on the bill by Donovan, Richie Havens and Edgar Broughton Band, in front of an unprecedented crowd estimated at some 120,000 people. With fans expecting something akin to a Cream show, they all stood ready for the freakout. But as it became apparent that this was a more bluesy, laidback offering, they got as close to chilling out as was possible in the soaring summer heat.
“A great and epoch-making event in British social history”
Next up for Hyde Park was an event that would go down in the annals of rock history. It had been two years since The Rolling Stones had appeared in public. In the intervening time, they had been front-page news after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been sentenced to jail terms for drug offenses – sentences that had been quashed after public outcry, led by the surprising figure of William Rees-Mogg, whose editorial in The Times suggested that the Stones had been sentenced more for who they were, than for what they had done. This in itself was one of the defining moments of the decade, as mainstream pop acts and the counterculture collided publicly for the first time.
By 1969, the Stones were counterculture figures, and their appearance in one of London’s royal parks was a line in the sand. Instead of British bobbies, security was handled by Hells Angels. But the Stones’ success in the park was far from guaranteed. With founder member Brian Jones becoming increasingly estranged from the band, he was replaced in early 1969 by Mick Taylor, a brilliant young guitarist making waves with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
While the reshaped Rolling Stones were holed up in The Beatles’ Apple Studios rehearsing for the show, events took a dark turn – one that would add an unwanted poignancy to the concert. In the small hours of 3 July, Brian Jones was found at the bottom of his swimming pool. The coroner’s verdict was that he died by misadventure while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Two days later, Mick Jagger opened the Stones’ Hyde Park show – which he dedicated to Brian – by reading from the poet Shelly’s Adonais about the death of his friend, John Keats, before hundreds of white butterflies were released in tribute to their departed guitar player.
Inevitably, Jones’ death overshadowed the concert, and yet the band’s return to the live stage was a triumph despite the somber beginnings. The Guardian described the show, which attracted an estimated 500,000 hippies, beatniks, Angels, and pop fans, as “a great and epoch-making event in British social history”. It was an event, a happening, and, in some respects, the music was secondary. As Keith Richards told Rolling Stone magazine, “We played pretty bad until near the end, because we hadn’t played for years… Nobody minded, because they just wanted to hear us play again.”
“Three days of peace and music”
Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, and John P Roberts were struggling to find a venue for their own gathering of the clans. They had hoped to put on a festival around Woodstock, NY, home to Bob Dylan and The Band, among other musicians, artists, and poets. In the end, they put on what was billed as “three days of peace and music” an hour’s drive away, at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm at Bethel. The posters may have called it “An Aquarian Exposition”, but the world came to know the events of August 15-18, 1969 simply as Woodstock.
The bill was extraordinary: Ravi Shankar, Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, Sly And The Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, The Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, and Jimi Hendrix were just a selection of those who performed, with things running so late that it was around 9am on the Monday morning before Hendrix took to the stage, playing his unique take on the United States’ national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
With advance sales of around 186,000 tickets, the organizers knew Woodstock was to be a major event and braced themselves for a crowd of around 200,000. But as showtime approached, it became evident that at least twice that number was on its way. Left with a choice between finishing the fence or the stage, it was decided that, from now on, it would be a free festival. With supplies limited, the swollen crowd mucked in to ensure that, even when the heavens opened and turned the ground to sludge, everyone would have a good time.
Such was the spirit of the crowd that, surveying his wrecked farmland in the wake of the event, Yasgur said, “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.” The 60s’ dream of building a better world seemed as though it was finally going to become a reality.
Going out with a bang
Back in the UK, Isle Of Wight Festival at the end of August returned Bob Dylan to the live stage, in front of a vast crowd that included three-quarters of The Beatles (Paul’s wife Linda had given birth to their daughter Mary the day before the festival). After his show, Dylan joined The Beatles back at John Lennon’s Ascot mansion, closing the summer with a summit of music’s leading lights.
With The Beatles latest masterpiece, Abbey Road, now mixed and ready for release, the return to the stage of Dylan and the Stones, and an incredible summer forever synonymous with the greatest gatherings of people in Western culture outside of warfare, the 60s looked set to go out with a bang. And it wasn’t just the heroes who had defined the decade who gave rise to optimism.
“One giant leap for mankind”
New heroes had emerged over the summer – not least the three astronauts who had hit Kennedy’s target of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins became household names when, on July 20, 1969, their Eagle Lunar Module touched down on the surface of the moon.
“One giant leap for mankind” had been Armstrong’s words, and it seemed as though the 60s had been merely the launchpad for the 70s and beyond. Surely these would be the decades when humanity would finally learn that all it really needed was love?
Back on terra firma, the future was also looking bright. New stars had emerged. David Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity,” had gone stratospheric in the wake of the Apollo landings. Heavy blues rock had been gaining momentum for a few years, with the likes of Cream and Jimi Hendrix showing the way. In 1968, a new group had been launched, with session guitarist par excellence Jimmy Page assembling a band in which every instrument played loud, heavy, and hard. With their eponymous debut fast becoming one of the albums of the year, a new standard had been set.
And just as Led Zeppelin contrived to bring virtuosity to the fore, so did another strand of rock music emerge. King Crimson’s debut offering, in October, In The Court Of The Crimson King, brought jazz and symphonic music together with rock and blues to create one of the cornerstones of the burgeoning progressive rock genre.
Diversifying more than ever before
In 1969, rock music was diversifying more than ever before. In Detroit, and at the opposite end of the rock spectrum to the prog emerging in Britain, Iggy Pop’s Stooges, alongside MC5, had adopted an anarchic approach to rock’n’roll, their incendiary club shows harking back to the nascent Beatles’ Hamburg days. Both bands released hugely popular and influential albums in 1969.
Sly and the Family Stone had shown at Woodstock just how rock and soul could combine, bringing funk to a (largely) white audience. And while Motown acts like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were exploring the possibilities of experimental albums, the new kids on the block exploded onto the pop scene, as Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” began its rise to the top of the Hot 100.
Death of the 60s dream
And yet all was not as rosy in the rock garden as it may have seemed to the outsider. An August 20 mixing session for their new album at EMI Studios, at Abbey Road, was the last time John, Paul, George, and Ringo would work together. In Los Angeles, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson had fled his own home after it had become the de facto headquarters for his friend Charlie Manson’s increasingly erratic “family”. Not long after Wilson’s departure, The Wizard, as Dennis knew him, acted on what he believed to be coded messages from The Beatles and unleashed his own vision of revolution, brutally murdering Sharon Tate and a number of others in early August.
The summer of 1969 united all humanity in celebration of humans’ greatest endeavor and brought together the youth of the world at massive gatherings from Hyde Park to Woodstock, Isle Of Wight to Seattle. The positive vibrations of that celebratory summer were tied up in new music, from David Bowie and Jackson 5 through Led Zeppelin to the rise of reggae, prog, and funk.
“Everything went perfectly wrong”
But then just as the astronauts splashed back to earth, so did the hippie dream crash, as that most spectacular of decades came to a close. Events that had taken a darker turn with the brutalities of Charles Manson and his killing spree were brought into sharp focus at the final gathering of the decade, a free concert by The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway, in northern California, on December 6, 1969 – a day that Rolling Stone magazine called rock’n’roll’s worst: “a day when everything went perfectly wrong”.
In hindsight, recruiting Hells Angels as security was, according to Keith Richards, not a good idea. “But we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead,” he told the Evening Standard. “The trouble is it’s a problem for us either way. If you don’t have them to work for you as stewards, they come anyway and cause trouble.”
The all-day show also featured performances by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young. As the day wore on, the scene among the 300,000-strong crowd grew heavier. As clashes with an increasingly intoxicated section of Hells Angels became violent, Grateful Dead decided not to play. By the time the Stones took to the stage, things had gotten out of hand. They had to stop ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ in an attempt to calm the crowd.
As Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers’ film of the concert, documents with chilling clarity, a fight broke out near the front of the stage during “Under My Thumb” between 18-year-old Meredith Hunter and some of the Angels. During the fight, Hunter pulled a pistol, according to some reports in response to having been stabbed. In return, Hells Angel Alan Passaro stabbed Hunter, who fell to the ground and was further attacked by more Angels, dying on the ground just yards from the stage where The Rolling Stones played.
“The new generation will create a higher order”
The Stones knew something had happened, but not the full extent of the attack. Doctors were repeatedly called to the front of the stage, but they continued their set, unaware that a murder had taken place in front of them. Tempted as they may have been to cancel the show, the band was acutely aware of the potentially riotous consequences if they attempted to flee.
What had been billed as “Woodstock West” had gone horribly wrong. As well as the murder of Meredith Hunter, two men were killed in a reported hit-and-run, while a fourth death came when another youth, apparently on LSD, drowned in a fast-moving irrigation canal.
Many commentators cited Altamont as not just the site of four tragic deaths, but of the death of the 60s dream itself. Writing in The New Yorker decades after the fact, Richard Brody said: “What died at Altamont was the notion of spontaneity, of the sense that things could happen on their own and that benevolent spirits would prevail.”
Likening the events of Altamont to The Lord Of The Flies, he concluded, “What emerges accursed is the very idea of nature, of the idea that, left to their own inclinations and stripped of the trappings of the wider social order, the young people of the new generation will somehow spontaneously create a higher, gentler, more loving grassroots order. What died at Altamont is the Rousseauian dream itself.”
The music lives on
But while the disaster at Altamont signaled, in retrospect at least, the moment when the 60s died, the music would live on. It’s telling that today’s biggest stars still want to be associated with those huge stars of the 60s – Rihanna has worked with Sir Paul McCartney, while, in the summer of 2018, Florence Welch joined The Rolling Stones on stage in London to perform one of their classic songs, “Wild Horses.”
The musical freedoms that had been born in the 60s allowed all that came after – and not just from those new stars like David Bowie and Jackson 5. Though The Beatles were no more, their solo careers would deliver yet more timeless classics. The Rolling Stones were arguably only just hitting their stride as the decade turned, with albums such as Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St as good as anything they ever produced.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Every new generation that creates pop music owes a great debt to the 60s, a decade with an influence like no other.
The end of the 60s saw a burst of creativity that cemented the decade’s importance in music history. Explore some of the greatest albums of the era, including classics from The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Allman Brothers Band, on our Summer Of ’69 store page.