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Music

The Fantasy Fair: America's forgotten first music festival

@TylerGolsen

When did the Summer of Love officially kick-off? For most, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band signalled a brand-new psychedelic era that began when the album was released in May of 1967. For the original wave of San Francisco hippies, the stage was set when Timothy Leary advised them to “turn on, tune in, drop out” at the Human Be-In in January of that year. Essential albums like Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut were already out, but there was still the need to put on a major event to bring people together.

That’s when two separate festivals began the initial stages of planning for June of 1967. The better remembered of the two is the Monterey Pop Festival, which brought the likes of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who to mainstream attention for the first time in America. But one week before Monterey, another major music festival was put on just a few miles north in Marin County – perhaps the first major rock festival in American rock music. That would be the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival.

Originally planned as a benefit concert for the Hunters Point Child Care Center, the Fantasy Fair quickly grew into a two-day when prominent acts like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane signed on to perform. The lineup was eclectic: Dionne Warwick, Canned Heat, The 5th Dimension, The Grass Roots, Captain Beefheart, Country Joe and the Fish, and The Byrds all made appearances.

The “Magic Mountain” aspect wasn’t just a marketing gimmick: the festival took place at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on top of Mount Tamalpais State Park. It was a brutal climb, and most attendees were bussed in from the mountain’s base. Another mode of transportation was available for some of the more adventurous concertgoers – a ride on the back of a Hell’s Angels motorcycle.

As the hippie scene began to coalesce in San Francisco, so too did the establishment of the Hell’s Angels. The motorcycle club had been around for almost 20 years prior to the festival, but their connection with the counterculture was officially solidified in 1967. Music fans could hardly see a show at the Avalon or the Fillmore without rubbing elbows with the Hell’s Angels.

The Doors performing at Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival. (Credit: JustRadley)

Despite their aggressive behaviour, the Angels’ presence at the festival was largely benevolent. The club’s members acted as security, but unlike the infamous turns they would take at the Altamont Festival two years later, there were no reports of major fights or disturbances. Although most major rock festivals weren’t quite as utopian as their histories would suggest, the Fantasy Fair just might have been the closest one to pure harmony.

One of the biggest draws was the relatively new Los Angeles band The Doors, who were riding the wave of their first hit ‘Light My Fire’ when they arrived at the Fantasy Fair. Just a month after performing the song in front of rock’s first major festival crowd, ‘Light My Fire’ would rise all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, solidifying the commercial appeal of psychedelic rock across the United States.

Bands like Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jefferson Airplane used the Fantasy Fair as a sort of warm-up for their domination of the festival circuit across the late 1960s. All three performed at the Monterey Pop Festival a week after the Fantasy Fair, and all three would later go on to perform at the era’s final defining festival, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival.

Although reviews were positive and attendance for the festival topped out at a reported 40,000 people, the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival failed to live on in pop culture the same way that its main competitor, the Monterey Pop Festival, did. The only professional film crew at the festival was a television news crew, making the preservation of the show largely dependent on home movies, photographs, and raw audio. What remains today is a fascinating, and tantalizingly small, taste of what was likely America’s first major rock festival, one that would set the precedent for over 50 years of festivals that would follow.

Check out salvaged footage from The Doors playing ‘Light My Fire’ at the festival down below.

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