Lambasted by Rolling Stone magazine as "rock and roll's all-time worst day — a day when everything went perfectly wrong," the 1969 music festival at Altamont Speedway in Northern California was a concert unlike any other. Immortalized in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, Altamont was scheduled during one of the most rebellious and heady times in American history, filled with gritty guitar riffs, lots of recreational drugs, and young people looking to rebel. The free concert gave fans a chance to jam out with some of the most epic bands of the counterculture, including the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. But when the Hells Angels showed up to work security, things took a turn for the worse. Fans expecting free love and peace were treated to brutality and general mayhem. Forever remembered for its shocking violence, destruction, and chaos, the tragic events at Altamont ended the era of free love and marked the death of the swinging '60s.
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were hot in the '60s. They stormed the global music scene and were itching to play in the hotbed of the free love movement: California. The Stones wanted the show to be both memorable and a reminder to fans that the music and the revolution were both just beginning.
A free concert seemed like the perfect idea. But there was one problem: their manager couldn't find a location willing to host thousands of drugged out hippies, not even for one debauched night. After getting rejected from San Francisco and Sear Point raceway in California, the Stones soon stumbled upon the idea of using Altamont.
Located in the middle of nowhere, secluded and barren, the speedway promised to provide isolation and plenty of space. And for a bit, it seemed like a good idea. The evening before the concert, about 5,000 fans showed up to connect with friends, get high, and party in the abandoned cars left behind on the speedway. A hired crew quickly erected the small stage and everyone waited for the sunrise. No one, however, could have suspected what was headed their way.
The Stones were not the only band scheduled to play that infamous day at Altamont. Santana, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane were also planning to entertain the crowd, a number the planners estimated would be around 100,000 people. However, early the next morning it became clear they had drastically miscalculated, as the hills became packed with spectators swarming over the horizon to catch the free show. As far as the eye could see in every direction, hyped up hippies descended on the venue in droves.
There had been almost no preparation for the show, so there was no signage about where to park or how to find the location of the main stage. As a result, confused and wasted fans just abandoned their cars on the side of the road and set out on foot to find the music. By the time the first guitar lick hit the air, the barren fields were filled with over 300,000 people looking to party.
Fans were notified of the concert just four days before it was set to take place. The Stones did not warn the surrounding public or the police department; they just moved forward quickly and decisively. In the rush, no one paid attention to details like bathrooms, food, water, or seating. Aside from the small wooden stage erected just four feet off the ground with lights and speakers, there wasn't a whole lot else at Altamont.
Once the bands began playing, they were surrounded on all sides be a seething mass of humanity. It was actually planned this way, so that the concert would be more "intimate."
The roar of 100 motorcycles heralded the Hells Angels' arrival. Appearing over the crest of the hill, the gang maneuvered their bikes through the crowd and headed toward the stage, ready to take up positions as security for the concert. Somehow, the concert organizers thought that hiring a notoriously rowdy criminal organization was the best way to ensure things didn't get out of hand.
The Angels didn't stop to chat or smile at the curious crowd, they just made a beeline for their position, parked their motorcycles, and started drinking Red Mountain Vin Rose wine from gallon jugs. Unfortunately, they didn't know the wine was spiked with acid from Laguna Beach. Although their bikes were safely parked next to the stage, the acid soon had the biker's internal engines running full tilt, and doses of mescaline, reds, and speed were seen strewn across the stage. The more they partied, the more violent they became, and fights began to break out at regular intervals.