The Complete Monterey Pop Festival Review

The first – and, as it turned out, only – Monterey International Pop Festival took place over the weekend of 21-23 June 1967. Of the three major pop/rock festivals that took place on American soil in the late 1960s, Monterey somehow lacks the cultural clout of the other two. If Woodstock presented a vision of the Sixties in apotheosis, and Altamont was the decade’s dark close, Monterey was simply three hot summer days filled with music. But what music! Organised by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, Monterey was a major breakthrough in the careers of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, both of whom shone brightly here, only to be extinguished before the Sixties were over. But in addition to these two, there was an impressive line-up of other bands and singers, many of whom were at or near their best, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and Janis Joplin among them, not to mention Phillips’s own band The Mamas and the Papas. Other performers, for example, Simon and Garfunkel, were certainly accomplished but somehow seem a little out of place.

Nowadays such events would be the stuff of TV and radio simulcasts, but in those days that wasn’t really an option. Monterey Pop was originally intended for television, but the content of the film (however tame it might seem now) prevented that, so the film was eventually shown in cinemas, as were the film versions of Woodstock and Altamont. The emphases of each film were different. The three-hour Woodstock (nearly four hours in its extended director’s cut) devoted about as much of its running time to the fans as to the music. Gimme Shelter spent even more time offstage, and was structured around the Stones watching the footage as it was edited; you can see the horror on their face as the full extent of the catastrophe comes home to them. Monterey Pop, the shortest of the three feature films, spends some time behind the scenes, a little while with members of the audience, but concentrates on the events on stage. D.A. Pennebaker and his crew, shooting on 16mm, don’t (at least in the original feature) try to be comprehensive. We usually get one number from each performer, occasionally two, in one case three. The film isn’t meant to be chronological either. Pennebaker structures his film around opposites: soft and loud, daytime and darkness. Around the 50-minute mark Monterey Pop reaches a (literally) pyrotechnic climax with The Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, before calming us with the Mamas and the Papas and finishing with fifteen minutes of Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing. That’s certainly a long time, but you can see why it’s there: it’s the calm after the storm, the comedown.

Along the way there are plenty of classic moments. Janis Joplin, then fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company before going solo, shows in “Ball and Chain” just why she was one of the finest white female blues singers ever – it’s a performance that seems torn out of herself. Not for nothing can you see Mama Cass Elliott exclaim “Wow!” in the audience. Grace Slick, co-lead vocalist for Jefferson Airplane, was inadvertently responsible for Oliver Stone: at the time serving as a grunt in Vietnam, his interest in Sixties popular culture was sparked by a desire to have sex with her. A little older (28 at the time) than many of her cohorts, she was never the compliant dollybird. The flowing robe she wears here offsets her She Who Must Be Obeyed persona, like a dominatrix in mufti. There’s an extraordinary violin-led version of the Stones’s “Paint It Black” from Eric Burdon and the Animals. (The Stones themselves didn’t appear, being banned from entering the USA then due to drugs convictions.) And finally…”This is where it all ends”, says John Entwistle, leading off The Who’s assault on “My Generation”, on the audience’s eardrums and finally on their own instruments.

At its heights, Monterey Pop is exhilarating. It’s also a sad film, as in encapsulates an era and a moment that is no longer. Many of those present would be dead before the decade was out. John Phillips died more recently, in 2001, and the DVD package is dedicated to him.

In 1986, Pennebaker produced two shorter documentaries from all the footage, which were released in cinemas as a double bill. Jimi Plays Monterey begins with a short overview of Hendrix’s career prior to the festival, before showing his entire set. Shake! Otis at Monterey is Redding’s entire set.

Criterion’s three-DVD box set (which carries a spine number of 167) is called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. But, as Pennebaker admits in the booklet that comes with the set, that isn’t quite so. The major omission is The Grateful Dead, simply because their songs went on so long that Pennebaker’s crew ran out of film. Some other footage was simply not up to standard. So it’s the Nearly Complete Festival, but this set has more than enough to satisfy anyone. Disc One (spine number 168) is the original version of Monterey Pop as released in 1968. The film does exist in a nine-minute-longer version, but as that extra footage is of Hendrix and is included in Jimi Plays Monterey, it’s left out to avoid duplication. Disc Two (spine number 169) contains those two shorter documentaries. Finally, Disc Three (no spine number) contains two hours of outtakes, much of which has not been seen before now. This includes more from acts who were in the original feature, plus others who were not. Even some of the festival’s legendary disasters, such as Laura Nyro, aren’t so bad, and in this case the footage disproves the story that she was booed offstage. There are people who seem out of place, such as festival openers The Association and their arch sense of humour. But there are also storming performances from the likes of Joplin and The Who which are worthy of inclusion in the main feature. This disc ends with some fairly camp impromptu performances by Tiny Tim in the festival green room, filmed by Pennebaker, illuminated by a cigarette lighter.

Disc One: Monterey Pop
“Combination of the Two” (Big Brother and the Holding Company), “San Francisco” (Scott McKenzie), “Creeque Alley” and “California Dreamin’” (The Mamas and the Papas), “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Canned Heat), “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)” (Hugh Masakela), “High Flyin’ Bird” and “Today” (Jefferson Airplane), “Ball and Chain” (Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin), “Paint It Black” (Eric Burdon and the Animals), “My Generation” (The Who), “Section 43” (Country Joe and the Fish), “Shake!” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (Otis Redding), “Wild Thing” (Jimi Hendrix Experience), “Gotta Feelin’” (The Mamas and the Papas), “Raga Bhimpalasi” (Ravi Shankar)

Disc Two: Jimi Plays Monterey
(all by the Jimi Hendrix Experience unless indicated)
“Can You See Me?”, “Purple Haze”, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Monterey (by Eric Burdon and the Animals), “Killing Floor”, “Foxy Lady”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Rock Me Baby”, “Hey Joe”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Wild Thing”
Shake! Otis at Monterey
(all by Otis Redding with Booker T and the MG’s with the Mar-Keys)
“Shake!”, “Respect”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “Try a Little Tenderness”
Disc Three: The Outtake Performances
“Along Comes Mary” (The Association), “Homeward Bound”, “Sounds of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Not-so-Sweet Martha Lorraine” (Country Joe and the Fish), “(I Heard Her Say) Wake Me, Shake Me” (Al Kooper), “Driftin’ Blues” (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), “All I Ever Wanted to Do (Was Love You)” (Quicksilver Messenger Service), “Drinkin’ Wine” (The Electric Flag), “Chimes of Freedom”, “He Was a Friend of Mine”, “Hey Joe” (The Byrds), “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Poverty Train” (Laura Nyro), “Somebody to Love” (Jefferson Airplane), “Flute Thing” (The Blues Project), “Combination of the Two” (Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin), “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield), “Substitute”, “Summertime Blues”, “A Quick One While He’s Away” (The Who), “Straight Shooter”, “Somebody Groovy”, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair”, “I Call Your Name”, “Monday, Monday”, “Dancing in the Street” (The Mamas and the Papas), “King for a Day”, “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”, “May God Be With Our Boys Tonight”, “My What a Funny Little World This Is” (Tiny Tim)

Monterey Pop was shot on 16mm stock. It’s never going to look as slick as entirely-preplanned concert movies shot in 35mm such as Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz. Needless to say it’s quite grainy, especially in the nighttime scenes which were filmed by stage lighting. However, the picture has been cleaned up for this release, and it’s fair to say that it won’t look much better than it does here. The transfer is in the original 4:3 ratio. Monterey Pop was remastered from the original 16mm A and B rolls, Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake from 35mm dupe negatives. The outtakes are of similar quality to the main features, though some of them display the effects of dirt and hair in the camera lens, particularly noticeable with the camera filming Cass Elliott during the Mamas and the Papas’s numbers.

The film always was in stereo: if you saw it at one of a few showcase cinemas on its original release, you would have heard a four-track magnetic soundtrack. (The radio spots included on this DVD all make an issue of this.) But it’s a fair bet that most people outside those lucky few will have heard this film in mono. But that’s one advantage of a concert movie that was professionally recorded on 8-track equipment that was state of the art at the time. (To put this in perspective, The Beatles didn’t use eight-track recording equipment until their final album, Abbey Road.) There are four soundtrack mixes: Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, plus two Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes – the original surround and mono. Needless to say, the remix makes this film sound clearer and richer than before, with plenty of audience ambience on the surrounds and the subwoofer filling in the bass lines. The original stereo mix simply can’t compete with this. The same three mix options are available on Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake. With the outtakes on Disc Three, only a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is available (left and right stereo, non-surround), though two tracks (“Combination of the Two” by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin and “A Quick One While He’s Away” by The Who) have Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes available as alternatives.

It’s hard to know where to start with the extras. One reason why I’d rate Criterion’s release of Gimme Shelter as one of the greatest of all DVD packages is because of its comprehensive set of extras, just about every primary source available for one of the key events in western cultural history. As a festival, Monterey Pop doesn’t quite have that significance, but Criterion have taken the same all-inclusive approach to the extras. So here they are, a disc at a time.

Monterey Pop has a feature-length commentary from Pennebaker and festival producer Lou Adler and also an interview between the two men. Both are as informative as you’d expect on a Criterion disc, and remarkably don’t duplicate each other too much. The video interview is in 4:3 and runs 29:23. It’s divided into 7 chapters and there’s an index available on the menu.

The “Scrapbook” section is subdivided into two parts. Elaine Mayes was a photographer at the event for Hullaballoo magazine and later published a book, It Happened at Monterey. Her stills gallery is further subdivided into Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Crowd (including some non-performing attending celebrities such as Nico and Brian Jones). Each still or group of stills – mostly black and white – is preceded by a caption identifying the performer. Next is a photo-essay with Mayes’s commentary, which is divided into six chapters, total running time 12:14. A Mayes biography is also supplied.

The second section of the scrapbook is a facsimile of the festival’s programme brochure. Its navigable page by page, and there are links to text where it exists: it’s too small to read on the page reproductions. This section is very long: while it’s admirably completist to include it, I doubt many people will read all of it.

A series of audio interviews follows, recorded at various times after the festival. Each interview is divided into chapters and indexed. The interviewees are John Phillips, Cass Elliott, David Crosby and Derek Taylor. The sound quality isn’t always state of the art (Cass Elliott’s interview especially), but it’s certainly acceptable.

Rounding out the “Supplements” section is the theatrical trailer, in 4:3 with Dolby Surround sound, running 2:44. It pretty much covers all bases and gives a good impression of the film. There are six radio spots, each one emphasizing a different act (Hendrix, Joplin twice, Redding, the Mamas and the Papas). “The Remix” is five pages of text by Eddie Kramer about how he approached remixing this DVD from thirty-five-year-old one-inch analogue tapes. This is fairly technical stuff, but if you want the details you’ll find them here. Also in this section is a four-page Kramer biography. The final section on the main menu, “MIPFF”, is two pages of text detailing the work of the Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation.

On to Disc Two. The opening menu screen leads you to either of two main menus, depending on which of the two short films you choose to play. On Jimi Plays Monterey, the main extra is a commentary by Charles Shaar Murray, recorded in Spring 2002. Murray is certainly qualified to talk about Hendrix, as he wrote a book about him, Crosstown Traffic. He contributes an extremely enthusiastic and entertaining commentary. So much so in fact that the film’s 49 minutes aren’t enough to contain him, and he gets an additional eight chapters of “Additional Audio Excerpts” to talk about Hendrix, including a dead-on Mick Jagger impression along the way. This is a standout commentary by any yardstick you care to measure it with.

Concluding the “Jimi” half of Disc Two is a short (4:41) full-frame video interview with Pete Townshend in which he talks about his fairly distant acquaintance with Hendrix, and gives his side of the story about how they tossed a coin to decide who went on first. Finally, there’s the trailer, which is full-frame and runs 3:39. Although most of it is devoted to Jimi Plays Monterey, some of it covers its double-bill partner.Shake.

Redding’s set runs only 19 minutes, so music historian Peter Guralnick provides two commentaries. The first goes through the Monterey set song by song, the second talks about Redding’s career as a whole. This is very informative if a little dry, and it pales next to the Murray commentary. Finally, the “Otis” half of the disc comes to an end with an interview with Redding’s manager Phil Walden, which runs 18:45 and is quite in depth though again possibly a little dry.

There are no extras on Disc Three, unless you count the alternative 5.1 sound mixes of two of the songs. On the other hand, the entire disc comprises two hours of extras on its own.

The 64-page booklet that comes with the box set includes as well as an introduction by Pennebaker, band credits and DVD information, a set of essays about the festival. These were written at various times from straight afterwards to years later. “Monterey Pop: The First Rock Festival” by Michael Lydon is the full version of an article originally published in much shorter form in Newsweek in 1967. A year later, Jann Wenner reported in Rolling Stone about how politics put paid to any future festivals in “A Bloody Battle over Monterey Pop Festival”. “The Meeting of the 'Twain: Monterey and the Great California Divide” is a retrospective article by Barney Hoskyns, written in 2002. Also written in 2002 is “Monterey Pop: People in Motion” by Armond White, about Pennebaker’s film.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival keeps up the standards set by Criterion’s earlier Gimme Shelter DVD. Given three discs to play with, they have not only provided you with over four hours of often great music, but have included every single primary source available. This contains everything you’ll ever want to know about the festival, which remains a key event in Sixties music. Play it loud!

9 out of 10
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