Little Bits of History

Under My Thumb

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 6, 2013
Altamont Free Concert

Altamont Free Concert

December 6, 1969: The Altamont Free Concert is held at the Altamont Speedway in California. The concert headlined The Rolling Stones who had been touring the world. The Maysles Brothers film company had been shooting footage throughout the tour. The event outside San Francisco was first planned for the Golden Gate Park, but scheduling conflicts forced a change of venue. Sears Point Raceway was the fallback site, but there was a dispute over film distribution rights. On December 4, the venue changed again. With such short notice, logistic problems cropped up.

Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Cosby Stills, Nash, & Young all played before the Stones took the stage. The Grateful Dead were to have played after CSN&Y but declined to come out on stage because the 300,000 strong crowd was too violent. The stage was only 4 feet off the ground. There was a need for security between the concert goers and those performing. The Stones’ road manager hired the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, under Ralph “Sonny” Barger, to be that security.

There is a dispute about how the Hells Angels came to be in charge of keeping order. Both the FBI and the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada list them as one of the big four outlaw motorcycle gangs. They were considered by the hippies of the day to be “noble savages.” When asked how they should be paid, Barger said he liked beer. Crowd management was not the bikers’ forte. They used violence to quell any commotion, hitting people with weighted sawed-off pool cues or charging them with their bikes at full throttle. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out on stage by a Hells Angels member.

Meredith Hunter got into an altercation with some bikers while the Stones were playing Under My Thumb. Hunter neared the stage and drew a gun. He was stabbed five times and then kicked as he lay on the ground. Hunter, 18-years-old, was dead. The Stones, unaware the young man had died, kept playing. They interrupted their set several times but were threatened with violence if they quit. Alan Passaro was charged with murder and acquitted after pleading self-defense. The free concert that was to be “Woodstock West” ended in horror and became, instead, the end of an era.

“You keep fuckin’ playing or you’re dead.”- Sonny Barger to Keith Richards

Sweet William of Hells Angels: “We don’t police things. We’re not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.”
Sam Cutler, The Rolling Stones business manager: “Well, what about helping people out – you know, giving directions and things?”
Sweet William: “Sure, we can do that.”

“The violence just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back I don’t think it was a good idea to have Hells Angels there.” – Keith Richards

“Really, the difference between the open air show we held here in Hyde Park and the one there is amazing. I think it illustrates the difference between the two countries.” – Keith Richards

This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: The Rolling Stones are an English rock band. The group formed in 1962 and became part of what was known in the sixties as the “British Invasion”. They were part of the counterculture of the 1960s. They incorporated blues into their music, even taking their name from a song written by Muddy Waters. Originally the band was made up of Brian Jones, Ian Stewart, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts. Today, Jagger, Richards, and Watts are joined by Ronnie Wood. They group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004. Rolling Stone, the magazine, ranked them fourth in the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” list. It is estimated that they have sold over 200 million albums. They have released 24 studio and 11 live albums and many compilations.

Also on this day: Encyclopædia Britannica – In 1768, the first edition of the encyclopedia is released.
Blood in the Water – In 1956, the Melbourne Olympics became violent.
Boom – In 1917, two ships collided in the Halifax Harbour.

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