We’re going to go out on a limb and say whatever The Grateful Dead offers you, it would be a smart idea to avoid it at all costs. Whether it’s a heavily-iced birthday cake, tea or a security team, if the Dead are involved just turn around and walk away. It’s the advice that The Rolling Stones should have taken when the sixties legends suggested the Stones use the biker gang the Hells Angels as their security team for an infamous show. It would turn into a huge disaster.
The Summer of Love had been raging on for a few years when The Rolling Stones decided to hold a free concert in 1969 at Altamont Speedway in California. The show was set to be the crowning moment of the sixties—the most creative and free-spirited decade in memory. Instead, it became the moment the hopefulness and integrity of the decade were suddenly torn down and it left the festival steeped in tragedy.
California’s answer to Woodstock took place on December 6th at a remote race track in Altamont and featured some heavy-hitting acts of the day including the aforementioned Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana, with The Rolling Stones’ long-awaited return to the stage marking the crowning moment—but the band made one huge error: hiring the Hells Angels.
The biker gang were famed for their no-nonsense approach to working security of rock shows and would often use their fists and feet before their words when trying to control the crowd. During the sad day at Altamont they would go one further and the African American teenager Meredith Hunter would be tragically murdered as a result. Hunter had brought a gun with him to the concert for protection, with his sense of self-protection growing as the Hells Angels continued to punch and kick people away from the stage.
Hunter jumped up on a speaker to get a better look at the stage and was hauled off by the gang member, dishing out a solid punch to the young man as he did so. Hunter dispersed into the crowd but saw a volley of punches and gang members coming his way. To protect himself, Hunter drew his weapon only to be stabbed repeatedly by a gang member as he did so. Bystanders tried to help Hunter to a medical tent but were allegedly blocked by Hells Angels, by the time he did arrive there it was too late and he sadly passed before the Stones concluded their set. According to Hunter’s family, nobody from the festival sent their condolences.
While this is certainly the most tragic event to occur from the decision to hire the Hells Angels, it wasn’t the only mistake they made. As well as Meredith Hunter, singer Stephen Stills was also the subject of a vicious biker attack as he was stabbed with a bike spoke, meanwhile Denise Jewkes of Ace of Cups was also injured, this time by a thrown beer bottle. Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin saw a group of bikers attacking a man near the stage and jumped down to intervene, he was knocked out cold and missed the rest of the band’s set.
As well as throwing punches and kicks wherever they could, the biker gang also saw fit to use their bikes as herding devices and would drive through the crowd, intimidating everyone in their path before parking up in front of the stage. Naturally, a crowd of thousands isn’t as protective over motorbikes as perhaps they should have been. “I ain’t no cop,” Hells Angel Sonny Barger said. “I just went there to sit on the front of the stage and drink beer and have a good time, like we was told. But when they started kickin’ our bikes, man, that started it. I ain’t no peace creep, man, but if a cat don’t wanna fight me, I wanna be his friend.”
It wasn’t just the violence which the gang brought with them, either. There was also a healthy dose of all-round mischievousness as the gang would block people’s view of the show on purpose, they’d grab mics from people making announcements and generally stand along the length of the stage, making it impossible for performers to play their music. When you add to that the gang also used their loud engines to drown out people they didn’t like, you could see how tensions overboiled.
After Mick Taylor got out of the venue and eventually made it home, he recalled the event with a heavy dose of trepidation: “It was just completely barbaric, like there was so much [aggression] there it completely took the enjoyment out of it for me,” he said. “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.”
He added: “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.”
It was enough to make all the acts try to help out in keeping things cool. Santana remembers of the experience: “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.”
Meanwhile, Mick Jagger also acted as best he could, “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.” As Mick Taylor remembered of the event, “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.”
The real issue was that Mick Jagger and the band were confused by who the real Hells Angels were. Though the group had hired them on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead (who left before performing their set, having seen all of the violence erupt around them), The Rolling Stones had used them before. Well, sort of. The band had used a group called the Hells Angels for their huge Hyde Park show but the truth is they couldn’t have been further from the real deal.
The Hyde Park group stood back, drank tea, and largely let the police do any real work. With Jagger so intent on not having any police at the Altamont event it left only the Hells Angels in charge. With no authority higher than the bikers, they ruled the entire 300,000-strong crowd with an iron fist. It meant as well as dishing out beatings, they also took whatever drugs and money they found too.
The entire event was a disaster. Though Mick Jagger would resolutely blame the gang, something which would see him become the subject of various assassination attempts from the Hells Angers, really the blame lay squarely on the head of the organisers. We’re not sure that hiring 200 well-known thugs and violent criminals to police anything is a good idea, let alone one of the biggest rock concerts of all time. It was a tragic day that we hope is never repeated.