It's easy to speak cynically about the "Summer of Love", but the music of the Monterey International Pop Festival remains a vital footprint in time.
There are very few images in the history of popular music as iconic as Jimi Hendrix kneeling before his guitar, summoning forth flames as if performing a sacrificial rite. The ubiquity of that image has somewhat overshadowed the fact that it happened on the evening of June 18th, 1967: the closing night of the Monterey International Pop Festival and the beginning of the "Summer of Love".
These days, it's easy to speak cynically about 1967, so far as the "Summer of Love" is concerned. The year 2007 is not the Utopia of higher consciousness that the hippie community envisioned 40 years ago. In fact, like Vietnam, we find ourselves in the middle of an unjust war. Instead of be-in's and love-in's, we have Gawker, TMZ, and various online communities that thrive on sensationalism. Not only do we mistrust the government, we barely trust one another now that cell phone cameras fuel D.I.Y. tabloids. That quintessential hippie image -- long hair, headband, beads, and bell-bottoms -- has become something of a joke, its authenticity tarnished by Madison Avenue, who trots out the "peace, love, and flowers" ethos to market everything from coffee to furniture.
However, the music of 1967 and the Monterey International Pop Festival remains a vital footprint in time, when acts as diverse as Jefferson Airplane, Hugh Masekela, the Byrds, Laura Nyro, Lou Rawls, and Ravi Shankar came together in a spirit of creativity and philanthropy. Artists waived their performance fees and the ticket revenues -- less the nuts and bolts expenses of putting the festival together -- established the Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation, a non-profit charity that is still active in promoting artistic, mental, and physical health.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this historic concert, Razor & Tie has issued Monterey International Pop Festival, a two-CD set containing some of the more memorable moments from June 16-18, 1967. Basically, Razor & Tie distills Rhino's exhaustive four-disc set first released in 1992 for the 25th anniversary, and again in 1997 for the 30th. Few documents of the festival, however, compare with Criterion Collection's definitive three-DVD set from 2002, for Monterey Pop resonates most as both a listening and visual experience. The theatrics of the artists and the audience's reactions made the songs thrilling cinema in D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 documentary. On the Razor & Tie set, which is co-presented with Starbucks Entertainment, only a third of the 26 performances are culled from the film. Listeners only familiar with the documentary will actually find a wealth of new material on Razor & Tie's release. (Die-hard fans of the individual artists probably already have the respective tracks somewhere in their collection, if not the Rhino box set.)
For such a monumental event, Monterey Pop began somewhat innocuously with the Association's "Along Comes Mary", featured here, I guess, because it was the leadoff performance. Otherwise, it's fairly pedestrian. Eric Burdon and the Animals' "San Franciscan Nights" has a bit more meat on its bones, if only for the jocular intro by Burdon. Simon & Garfunkel, who closed the first night of the festival, appear with "Homeward Bound" and "The Sounds of Silence", notable because both tracks were previously unavailable on the Rhino set.
The real thrill of disc one, however, is a pair of tracks by Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring (of course) Janis Joplin. The response of the audience to Big Brother's introduction indicates how strong their renown was locally, long before Monterey audience member Clive Davis "discovered" the band or "Piece of My Heart" captured the ears of pop audiences. "Down on Me" chugs along with an infectious groove for three delightful minutes, but it's Joplin's vocal on Big Mama Thorton's "Ball and Chain" that awakens goose bumps. This is the performance that moved a dumbfounded (Mama) Cass Elliot to simply utter, "Oh wow" in the Monterey Pop film. For eight unedited minutes, Joplin grunts "Oh-oo-whoa-wuh" while practically bursting out of her skin. She creates her own idiom of language on the ends of each phrase, her raspy voice teetering on the outskirts of any known range. It's nothing short of riveting.
"Born in Chicago" by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band is a rousing, stompin' blues affair, bringing disc one back to earth after the far-out but interminable "Section 43" by Country Joe and the Fish. (Though Monterey Pop was historic, it was not immune to filler.) The Electric Flag's "Wine" adds a rollicking New Orleans vibe to disc one, and in the truest sense of the word "international", Hugh Masekela vocalizes in a Southern African dialect on "Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)". The Byrds, who were dealing with internal fissures at the festival, close disc one with decent live renditions of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" and their own "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star".
Disc two is framed by two bands that symbolized opposing (and competing) musical enclaves. Representing the contingency of San Francisco bands and the thriving artistic, LSD-infused scene of Haight-Ashbury, Jefferson Airplane is introduced as an example of "what the world is coming to" (cue laughter by Grace Slick). Launching into their two biggest hits, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", the band is in fine form throughout. (Their performances of "High Flyin' Bird" and "Today", captured in the film, are also noteworthy.)
With their Southern Californian, sun-drenched harmonies, the Mamas & the Papas, who close disc two, represented the L.A. music scene. Even though (Papa) John Philips and Dunhill Records' Lou Adler produced the festival, San Francisco bands cast a critical eye towards their "slick" L.A. counterparts. The main point of contention was that L.A. represented the business (i.e. "money") side of music, while the San Francisco scene was more communal. (It should be noted that Philips and Adler created the idea of Monterey Pop as a charitable event.) That both communities of musicians ultimately shared the stage at Monterey cannot be underestimated.
Also significant is how democratic the festival was in its line-up of performers. Bridging the divide between the soul and rock audiences, Otis Redding's two filmed performances, "Shake" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long", stand among the most visceral of Monterey Pop. Introducing the latter tune, he asks, "This is the love crowd, right? We all love each other, don't we? Am I RIGHT? Let me here you say 'YEAH!'" Though the festival featured plenty of blues -- the Saturday afternoon line-up was virtually all blues acts -- Redding and Booker T. and the M.G.'s brought the rhythm.
The evening of June 18 marked the last time the Who or Jimi Hendrix would be "new" names to U.S. audiences. (Two years later, each act's legacy would be cemented at Woodstock.) Both the Who and Hendrix brought an element of live theater to their performances, from their colorful, ruffled shirts to the guitar-shredding conclusion of each set. You can practically smell the smoke emanating from the Who's explosive "Summertime Blues" and "My Generation". Though Hendrix torched his guitar on a feedback-fed version of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" in the Monterey Pop film, his performances of "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Like a Rolling Stone", featured here, reveal the subtleties of his distinct vocal style as much as "Wild Thing" did his legendary stage antics.
(Mama) Cass Elliot sums up Monterey Pop best during the introduction to "California Dreamin'": "Boy, hasn't this been somethin'? Something we can really be proud of... everybody. It's been so groovy." As "groovy" as the festival was, both Elliot and John Philips later admitted that the lackluster performance by the Mamas & the Papas was the worst of the festival. Yet there's a charm that envelops even the most underwhelming of tunes, for Monterey Pop was the first musical event of its kind to unify the different factions of popular music.
Unfortunately, Razor & Tie does little to dress their tribute to Monterey Pop in attire suitable for the occasion. Aside from the Monterey Pop logo, the cover art is generic psychedelia. The breathless liner notes by Andrew Loog Oldham, a member of the Monterey Pop Founding Board, give some character to an otherwise unimaginative booklet. For such an auspicious occasion, and with the financial might of Starbucks behind this release, one would expect more creative and colorful packaging, even some tint of color in Elaine Mayes' one-of-a-kind photographs. Such quibbles are only secondary to the music, though, and what music there is on Monterey International Pop Festival is the stuff legends are made of.