Most Americans remember 1969 for many things: Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and the moon landing, among other notable moments in history. But when the Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels as security for the Altamont Free Concert in December of that year, brutality and tragedy marked the end to the Summer of Love. Altamont also served as a turning point for the public reception of the notorious biker group. Although many already knew the Angels as tough and always ready for a brawl, the concert cemented their reputation as an outlaw organization. Until that point, the Angels shared a resentment of the police and the establishment with other 1960s counterculture groups; however, Altamont separated the Angels' underworld activity from the peaceful defiance of other protestors.
The Altamont Free Concert took place on December 6 at a remote race track in Northern California. Planned to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock, organizers recruited some of the most popular musical acts of the time, including the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana. As one of the primary organizers, the Rolling Stones planned to make a come back after a long break and hired the Hells Angels as security for the festival.
While there are many people to blame for the disasters that took place, the Angels having the authority to police the venue undeniably spearheaded the chaos. Meredith Hunter became the tragic face of the Altamont Free Concert, as the teen's untimely end exposed the prejudice and intolerance overshadowing the era of peace and love. Many things went wrong leading up to and during the show, and the presence of the Hells Angels cemented the event's legacy as a tragedy.
The Grateful Dead Refused To Perform
Although they helped organize the event, the Grateful Dead did not appear at the Altamont festival. Scheduled to take the stage after the Rolling Stones, they saw the unrest breaking out and decided not to play. The band retreated to their helicopter and left Altamont while the Stones were still on stage.
This may have helped free the Grateful Dead of some of the blame over what happened at the festival, but many people accused the band of abandoning their fans by doing nothing to fix the situation. They argued that at least the Stones went on and tried to calm everyone down. It's doubtful the Grateful Dead would have been able to stop the brutality, but considering that they vouched for the Hells Angels and recommended them as security, many felt they had some responsibility for the bikers' presence at Altamont.
Mick Taylor Said They Needed Security From The Angels
Stories about the tragedy taking place at the venue reached the Rolling Stones at their hotel several hours before they took the stage. The band considered ditching the event, but their obligations to the organizers and their fans convinced them to follow through. Although Keith Richards believed Altamont "was basically well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed," at least one of his bandmates didn't share the same opinion.
Mick Taylor returned home after the event extremely shaken by what he saw, recalling:
It was just completely barbaric, like there was so much [aggression] there it completely took the enjoyment out of it for me... it was impossible to enjoy the music, or anything, because most of [the atrocities were] going on right in front of the stage, right in front of our eyes...
The Hells Angels had a lot to do with it... I got the impression that because they were a security force they were using it as an excuse... perhaps the only thing we needed security for was the Hells Angels.
The Bands Stopped Their Sets To Urge The Crowd To Calm Down
I could see a guy from the stage who had a [blade] and just wanted to [get] somebody. Anybody getting in the way of anybody had himself a fight, whether he wanted it or not. We tried to stop it the best we could by not playing, but by the time we got to our fourth song, the more we got into it, the more people got into their fighting thing.
The Rolling Stones repeatedly stopped their set so Mick Jagger could urge the crowd to "be cool." Jagger told the audience, "There's so many of you. Just keep cool down in front and don't push around." He also asked, "Why are we fighting? Every other scene has been cool."
Keith Richards addressed the crowd in a less delicate manner, adding, "Hey, if you don't cool it, you ain't gonna hear no music!"
According to Mick Taylor:
We had to keep stopping in the middle of numbers. [Jagger] did his best to cool the people out. He was doing everything in his power to cool them out. We were speechless for a little while afterwards. We didn't enjoy it. I think at one point we might have walked off stage, but that would have been a disaster. We just had to carry on and play the best we could.
Organizers Paid The Angels In Beer And Gave Them No Specific Instructions
As payment for their security services, Altamont organizers gave the Hells Angels $500 worth of beer. Saul Austerlitz believed the alcohol contributed to their behavior that day, as did the environment. He explained:
The Dead had worked with the Angels, but were putting them in a situation that was highly unfamiliar to them. Going to a place that they didn't really know, dealing with an audience that was probably 100 times as large, and making them essentially the sole authority figures responsible for security at a show of that size.
It also didn't help that organizers gave the Angels no specific instructions about how they were supposed to do their job. When asked how they should handle the crowd, the Rolling Stones' road manager Sam Cutler allegedly told the Angels, "We don’t give a f*ck. Just keep these people away." Although he denies telling the crew they could park their bikes in front or stand on the stage, the Angels took his words to mean they could do whatever they thought necessary.
"They weren't supposed to get on the stage, but they thought their place was on the stage and that's where they went," remembered promoter Ron Schneider.