The fabled “Summer of ’69” began well enough with the Rolling Stones’ free concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5, joined by established bands Family and the up-and-coming King Crimson. The Stones hadn’t performed in public in over two years and they’d shelved their plans to release Rock And Roll Circus, but they had a new guitar ace named Mick Taylor from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers as a replacement for the band’s troubled founder Brian Jones, a killer album just six months old, and another killer album in production. Thus Jones’ tragic passing just two days before the show cast a massive shadow that required recognition and could have nixed the whole endeavour. But carry on they did; Mick Jagger opened the show before the audience estimated at 250,000 to 500,000 with a reading from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs in tribute to Jones. The performance was not received as one of the Stones’ best due to tuning problems, but it provided a rather fitting public introduction to the Stones’ golden age, showcasing new songs like “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Street Fighting Man”, as-yet unreleased tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “Love In Vain”, and the brand spanking new B-side “Honky Tonk Women”. The Stones even gave a hat tip to Johnny Winter, covering “I’m Yours & I’m Hers” from his newly released second album.
Change was in the air by the middle of 1969 – in rock as much as in the world it inhabited. This was certainly true of the Doors; Jim Morrison was losing interest in the band and had to be persuaded to stay at least until recording on The Soft Parade had been finished. With his reduced involvement, it was left to guitarist Robbie Krieger to assume songwriting duties in part, as Morrison’s original songbook had been thoroughly plundered of ideas. Producer Paul Rothschild insisted on the introduction of strings and horns (most notably on the excellent “Touch Me” and the less-excellent “Wishful Sinful”), and the album even delved into country hoedown near-parody (“Running Blue”). It wraps with the title track’s bit of late psychedelic sonic strangeness. Critical reception was less positive than before, with the album criticized as uneven and disjointed, and the Doors’ original fan base seeing the album as an attempt to pander to pop audiences.
Leslie West’s first solo album, Mountain, would come to be popularly regarded as the debut album of West’s band of that name, but for the moment, it was still a solo effort. Heavily influenced by Cream’s brand of blues rock, West found a natural ally in producer and bassist Felix Pappalardi, who had manned the desk for Cream’s last three albums; the result was a churning, grinding electric blues rock disc that managed to be heavier than the British band that had inspired it. “Baby I’m Down” recalls “White Room” a bit with its descending staircase riff, but with West’s gravelly, rough-hewn vocals in place of Jack Bruce’s. More jazz influences are to the fore on “Southbound Train”, while doom-laden album opener “Blood of the Sun” tells its tale of exodus from an apocalyptic hellscape. When the album was finished, a discussion on next steps led West to invite Pappalardi to form a band with him. The resulting band Mountain would be joined by drummer N. D. Smart and keyboardist Steve Knight for their appearance at Woodstock the following month.
Seventies prog rock monsters Yes released their self-titled debut in July, initially with a more bluesy-jazzy sound and several cover songs. However, the underpinnings of their coming incarnation were already evident, specifically keyboards (courtesy of Tony Kaye at first) and the band’s distinctive harmonies led by Jon Anderson; “Looking Around” is a particularly good example of these elements. Their cover of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing”, meanwhile, inserts the riff from “Day Tripper”, buried subtly in the middle. While commercial reactions were muted, the album was well-received critically, with legendary critical curmudgeon Lester Bangs describing it as “the kind of album that sometimes insinuates itself into your routine with a totally unexpected thrust of musical power.” Wow.
Husband and wife duo Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett established themselves as a country rock/R&B hybrid under the name Delaney & Bonnie and Friends with a rotating, changing band behind them. They were one of the first “white” acts signed to Stax Records (the first, according to Eric Clapton), and their sound made them a natural fit with the label’s existing talent. Their second album, Accept No Substitute, would be released by Elektra, but would attract an offer of a contract from George Harrison to sign with Apple Records. The album didn’t sell well, but it was critically acclaimed; the soul-inspired “Ghetto” would be covered later by other Stax artists, while “When The Battle is Over” features Bonnie at her most Janis Joplin-esque (while still retaining a softness more suited to their brand of R&B). The duo would have a huge influence on Clapton, who invited them to join Blind Faith’s upcoming tour as opening act and who would draw particular inspiration from them the following year on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Time had run out for Moby Grape by the summer. After a tour as a four-piece in support of ’69 earlier in the year following Skip Spence’s departure, bassist Bob Mosley shocked his bandmates by leaving to join the U.S. Marines, a career that was short-lived due to his diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia during basic training. As a trio aided by a session bassist, the band churned out Truly Fine Citizen, whose more mournful, forlorn tone was hard to miss and spoke volumes. This showed up primarily in the form of strong country influences, most notably on “Right Before My Eyes”, which tells, appropriately, of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. Album opener “Changes, Circles Spinning” takes a different approach, this time with world-weariness and a touch of cynicism, lamenting the inability to “tell the honest man from a liar” – a commentary on the world’s fortunes more than the band’s, perhaps. And with the whole thing encased in an image of fat grinning cop lounging contentedly outside a studio door…. well, in the heady, turbulent summer of ’69, it was tough to find a more abject image of surrender to authority. Critic Robert Christgau referred to the album as that “in which what should have been America’s greatest rock group gasps its last”; after its release the band would take a two-year hiatus before reuniting in 1971 for one more album with the old crew.
A similar fate was approaching for Country Joe and the Fish, whose fourth album Here We Are Again saw the band adopt a more pop-ish approach through the addition of horns and strings. “Crystal Blues” incorporates some back-to-basics jam band sensibility, while “Here I Go Again” picks up the theme from “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag” with the band’s trademark anti-war sentiments: “Father’s gone to fight the war, he left us here alone; I shiver in the lonesome night, beside the telephone… But time brings no word, I guess he’s not coming home.” A more forlorn, less whimsical approach to the sentiment, as if the time for such trivialities had now passed and the reality of the nature of the struggle was setting in. But it wasn’t all a lost cause; “Doctor of Electricity” ends the album by informing us that “something is changing, and it’s breaking the machine”, and urges us to join them.
Jethro Tull, meanwhile, were headed in the opposite direction: up. There have been various explanations for the departure of guitarist Mick Abrahams following their debut; one was that Abrahams was a blues purist while vocalist/flautist Ian Anderson wanted to paint with a more varied palette. Anderson got his wish; Stand Up saw the band spread their wings with a more eclectic sound (raga influences on “Fat Man”, for instance), while still retaining much of their bluesy origins (the snaky, Zeppelin-esque “A New Day Yesterday”). New guitarist Martin Barre’s chops are the highlight of “We Used To Know”, with its extensive, noodling, grungy solos. But as the only credited songwriter on the album and Tull’s most distinctive member (due to both the unusual presence of a flute in rock and his famous one-legged playing stance), Anderson was now squarely the band’s leader.
Mick Abrahams would forge his own path, however. The same month his new band, Blodwyn Pig – with Abrahams as primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist – would release their debut, Ahead Rings Out. As might be expected, the album was a pretty faithful blues rock disc, though with exceptions (“Sing Me A Song That I Know” actually manages to sound like a somewhat harder-rocking Tom Jones song, probably due to Abrahams’ vocals). There’s also some period appropriate skillful jazz improvisation (“Leave It With Me”). “See My Way”, meanwhile, left off the UK release but present on the US version, grows in volume and intensity until it manages to almost invoke some Black Sabbath-esque heavy riffing around the 3-minute mark. As the waning Sixties decade neared its climax, it was clear that the darkening direction of rock would be spearheaded by heavy blues a la Led Zeppelin and Mountain, en route to the heavy metal of the Seventies.
August 1969 would be a transcendent month for rock music and for Sixties popular culture in America as a whole. Like any such period, however, the true extent of its influence and legacy could only be assessed in retrospect. The month would mark the cultural high water mark of the generation, yet also a much darker event that would administer one of its death blows.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s third album, and their second of the year, was released on August 3, and seemed eerily prescient in retrospect. Green River‘s first few songs continued the Band’s brand of swampy electric blues, exemplified by the title track. “Commotion” expresses some kind of urgent need to keep moving to avoid an unspecified threat. “Wrote A Song For Everyone” suggests by its title a hopeful anthem of unity, but it’s actually a lamentation on the strange coexistence between the ability to articulate powerful concepts in such turbulent times on one hand, and on the other the inability to communicate meaningfully with a single individual (specifically, it’s been said, John Fogarty’s own wife). Next up is the band’s famous, dire apocalyptic warning “Bad Moon Rising”, which despite its jaunty, upbeat melody and rhythm, expresses hope that we’re “quite prepared to die” given the ominous warnings on the horizon. Sort of a spiritual predecessor of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, really.
A swapping-out of darkness for nihilism was evident in “1969”, the first track on the Stooges’ eponymous debut. We’re informed by young vocalist Iggy Pop that it’s “another year with nothing to do”, a statement totally at odds with the messaging that had poured forth from popular music in the second half of the Sixties so far. In fact, the songs are thematically self-centred in a period that espoused the appreciation of larger issues. As such, in an age represented by the expanding concept of rock as “art” and its growing sophistication in the form of prog, jazz-blues hybrids and extended virtuosic jams, the Stooges’ sound was primitive and simplistic, while possessing an undeniable energy (Ron Asheton’s feedback-drenched guitar on “No Fun” is a great example). And the opening squeally riff on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” simultaneously presages the rise of both heavy metal and punk. Not bad for a record that one critic backhandedly complimented as “stupid-rock at its best”.
On August 9, four members of Charles Manson’s “Family” — three women and one man — entered the Los Angeles home of Hollywood celebrity couple Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and brutally murdered the pregnant young actress and her four visitors. Manson supposedly ordered the attack as retaliation against music producer Terry Melcher, who had denied him a recording contract and who had previously lived at that very house. After stabbing their victims, the four intruders wrote “pig” on the door of the house in Tate’s blood, ditched their weapons and clothing, and left the scene. The next night, the same four plus two others and Manson himself went to the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, chosen at random, and again stabbed the couple to death before writing “rise”, “death to pigs” and “Healter [sic] Skelter” on the walls in their blood — Manson’s sobriquet for the “race war” whose prediction he had twisted out of the Beatles’ White Album. As the facts and the planned, coordinated nature of the grisly murders became known over the ensuing months and the images of the young, fresh-faced “flower children” who made up Manson’s murder squad entered the popular consciousness, the already-fading ideals of the Sixties in America suffered a body blow. Suddenly, young hippies weren’t just peace-loving people you could casually give a ride to — they might be cult members or murderers, even the girls! The unraveling of Sixties idealism was accelerating further as the year wore on.
“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand.”
But the movement and its generation weren’t played out quite yet, and hadn’t even reached their climax. In that vein, the word “Woodstock” still manages to evoke a reaction in most adults, even after nearly half a century. Those reactions range from “something to do with music a long time ago” to “the focal point of an entire generation”, and everything in between. Whatever the case, August 15-17, 1969 would indisputably secure its place in American and western cultural history for myriad reasons.
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair originally started as a money-making venture by a handful of entrepreneurs. With tickets on sale for $18-$24 for the full weekend, the organizers expected a crowd of around 50,000 people, based on attendance figures at the Miami Pop Festival a few months earlier. However, a late change in venue to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York left them scrambling to finish the logistics setup before the festival started, which ultimately proved impossible. As the crowd unexpectedly swelled into the hundreds of thousands, the gate/ticket booth setup was abandoned and the event was declared “free”. The next three days in the rain and mud would produce many epic and memorable moments in rock history, and result in the christening of the “Woodstock Generation”. Some have pointed out that the event also featured three deaths, a couple of births, and a couple of miscarriages; others, meanwhile, have pointed out that one might expect considerably more of each of those things during any given weekend in a city of nearly half a million people.
The first performer, Richie Havens, began the event at 5 pm, played for a couple of hours, ran out of songs, and — urged on by the organizers because the next several acts were having trouble getting to the festival due to clogged highways — improvised a new song “Freedom” with its frantic strummed rhythm and melody on his guitar. Following in his wake were such luminaries as Ravi Shankar, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Mountain, the Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and finally Jimi Hendrix, who took the stage just after 9 AM on Sunday as the festival was winding down. Despite playing to a much smaller remaining crowd of only 30,000-40,000, Hendrix tore into his now-legendary, ironic, defiant, feedback-drenched rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the image and sound of which tapped into the Sixties zeitgeist like few other moments during the entire decade and transformed Hendrix into one of the era’s defining icons.
One-time music critic and later Angry Samoans lead singer Mike Saunders reviewed Humble Pie’s debut As Safe As Yesterday Is by describing them as “a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band” – regarded as the first use of the term “heavy metal” as a music descriptor (rather than as a lyric a la Steppenwolf). In any case, there’s something undeniably heavy about the album from the get-go; plenty of low end, and a clear progenitor of the stadium rock of the Seventies. Humble Pie were bestowed the label “supergroup” from the outset, being composed of the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott, the Herd’s Peter Frampton, Spooky Tooth bassist Greg Ridley, and 17-year-old Jerry Shirley on drums, and it’s a surprise how fucking American a British band can sound. The title track suggests in snatches something the members of Van Halen might have been listening to as youngsters, while “Bang!” grinds along with a relentless, driving energy encountered later on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special”. A weird accomplishment for a bunch of British chaps… even more so “Alabama ’69” with its southern harmonica-inflected first person anti-slavery boogie replete with, oddly enough, a few redneck hoots and hollers. “I’ll Go Home” swipes the opening riff from Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”, but maybe Page and Plant got their own back by pilfering Marriott’s vocal approach on their reworking of “You Need Love” later in the year. All in all, as satisfying a collection of heavy metal-leaden shit-rock as you’re likely to hear.
Good friends Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood had begun jamming together as their previous bands broke up and went on hiatus, respectively. Ginger Baker turned up one day, and despite Clapton’s reluctance to include him (he didn’t want to just form “Cream, Mark II”), Winwood eventually brought him around to the idea. They found a bass player in Family’s Ric Grech, and Blind Faith were officially a band. Their premiere performance had been at a free concert in Hyde Park on June 7 before the album’s release, where the seeds of their collapse were sown early: Clapton thought they didn’t play very well, and felt the adulation from the crowd was undeserved and too reminiscent of Cream days, when the whole “Clapton Is God” thing became excessive and he could get a standing O just for showing up. Their self-titled debut (and only studio album) was released to commercial and critical success in August, though not without controversy due to the album cover, which featured a topless prepubescent girl and sparked all manner of silly theories about her identity and the nature of her relationship with the band. A tour was inevitable, and songs like “Presence of the Lord” – loaded with more wah than usual from Clapton in the form of a swaggering mid-song solo – and “Can’t Find My Way Home” receiving particular praise. Unfortunately, with not enough new material, the band had to rely heavily on Cream and Traffic songs when playing live, thus becoming pretty much what Clapton had hoped they wouldn’t. The writing was on the wall; Clapton had been hanging out with tour backing band Delaney & Bonnie and saw in them a sound he wanted to explore further, and Blind Faith split following the tour.
Jack Bruce, meanwhile, went solo following the breakup of Cream. Always considering himself more of a jazz bassist than a rocker, he let his diverse talents and interests roam on his debut, Songs For A Tailor, with lyrics supplied by Cream contributor Peter Brown. There’s considerable complexity on display, arguably more so than on Cream’s albums, and with a good measure of genuine lyrical weirdness (“Ministry of Bag”). The album’s standout is “Theme For An Imaginary Western”, a jazz-rock hybrid that Mountain covered at Woodstock a few weeks before Bruce’s album was even released, thanks largely to album producer Felix Pappalardi’s new status as a member of that band.
While extended instrumental jams were certainly no stranger to rock by the summer of 1969, they had been primarily blues and/or jazz based. Thus when promoter Bill Graham got Santana on the ticket at Woodstock in exchange for his services with logistics and planning for the festival, the newly formed band introduced Latin rhythm and flavour to the mainstream Sixties rock audience for the first time. Their self titled debut, most of which they were able to perform during their set at Woodstock, was released shortly after, and became a commercial hit, particularly on the strength of “Evil Ways”, “Persuasion” and particularly “Soul Sacrifice”, the band’s standout performance at Woodstock. Much of the credit for their success was owed to their multi-part rhythm section comprised of bassist David Brown and percussionists José Areas, Michael Carabello and Michael Shrieve (at only twenty, the youngest musician to perform at Woodstock), who combined to deliver propulsion and energetic momentum at a time when the jam band ethic tended to favour something more relaxed.
Woodstock also gave a boost to UK blues rockers Ten Years After, whose third album Ssssh became their biggest stateside hit so far. The focus was Alvin Lee’s guitar work, particularly notable on “Stoned Woman” with its showcasing of brief guitar squeal effects around the 2:35 mark with a prominence rarely afforded in rock up to that point. The pure blues are given recognition on the cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, which updates the intentions from those of Sonny Boy by pointing out that the narrator in this case wants to ball her all night long. And “I Woke Up This Morning” gives Lee an opportunity to rival Jimmy Page for grungy feedback-drenched solos.
At the behest of producer Mickie Most, Donovan’s seventh studio album Barabajagal opted in part for a heavier, more rock-oriented sound. This was accomplished by using Most’s other clients, the Jeff Beck Group, and assorted other musicians (John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, Aynsley Dunbar) as Donovan’s backing band. The influence was particularly evident on “Superlungs (My Supergirl)”, “Atlantis”, and on the title track “Barabajagal (Love is Hot)”, the latter of which would be rediscovered in the 1990s UK rave scene – rather ironic, since the album itself could only be released in the US due to contractual issues.
It was clearly possible for new bands emerging in 1969 to leap straight into hard rock without a quick initial stop in late psychedelia. This had been true of Led Zeppelin and MC5, and Flint, Michigan’s Grand Funk Railroad were next in line. Their debut, On Time, displayed the power trio’s brand of simple, straightforward hard rock, particularly in evidence on more up-tempo numbers like “Anybody’s Answer” and the slightly cleverly entitled “T.N.U.C.” with its bitter tale of love gone bad and the extended drum solo in the second half. While the band would never receive much critical acclaim (they were probably too straightforward to find a critical toehold amid the prog rock of the Seventies), they would become commercial giants for the coming decade’s first half.
Status Quo, meanwhile, still had a bit of mileage to squeeze out of the dying psychedelia genre, and Spare Parts played it out in songs like “Face Without A Soul” – tuneful, pleasant-sounding and decidedly hippy-dippy – and “Mr. Mind Detector”, louder and much more cacophanous. But the album was a failure and the band of Brits dumped the Carnaby Street fashions and enthusiastically embraced hard rock starting with their next album. Canada’s The Guess Who also took a final stab at psychedelia on Canned Wheat, whose fairly upbeat compositions nonetheless tell tales of discovery, all too late, of the dirty truth lurking beneath life’s gilded surface (“Undun” being a case in point — “she found a mountain that was far too high, and when she found out she couldn’t fly, it was too late”). Album opener “No Time”, meanwhile, reminded listeners that summer was indeed over — both the summer of ’69 itself (thank God) and the era of hopeful change that was breathing its last. The whole thing wraps with Burton Cummings’ Yorkshire-accented spoken word “Fair Warning”, the band’s own “So You Want To Be A Rock N’ Roll Star”-esque warning about the cutthroat nature of the music industry and an admonition to forget the whole thing and finish school. Tune in, turn on, drop out? Nope, not anymore.