America was a very different place in 1967. Martin Luther King, Jr, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and John Lennon were all living. In fact they were all alive and highly productive—virtually the height of their super powers. In 1967 the Vietnam War was starting to look more and more like the quagmire that it truly was, but the generation of young people who had come together around the Civil Rights Movement were hopeful that they could sit-in, march, sing, and protest in order to end the war. The summer of 1967 was the high water mark for the peace movement as one largely successful protest movement gave way to another.
It was called the “summer of love” due to music festivals and peace demonstrations popping up all over, the most famous of which was the Monterey Pop Festival in mid-June. That festival was really the coming out party for a host of artists who would irreversibly change rock music: Jimi Hendrix Experience, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company (who wouldn't even sign a record contract until autumn), Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead.
For these bands, Monterey introduced the world to some of the music that would come to define the late 60s musically. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had just released Are You Experienced? a few weeks earlier, so for most people it was the first time that they’d heard “Foxy Lady,” “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” or the iconic “Purple Haze.” Jefferson Airplane had gotten airplay with the haunting sounds from Surrealistic Pillow. Monterey was the first time a huge audience heard the powerful voice of Grace Slick either belting the question, “Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love?” or teasing out the dark and menacing sound of “White Rabbit.”
Other established artists like Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, and Johnny Rivers performed at Monterey, but so did The Who. The Who are deeply interesting. They had benefitted from a persona that fit nicely with the clever, witty, and non-threatening image many bands enjoyed in the early 60s. But midway through, they started sounding less folks and much heavier. “My Generation” became something of an anthem for the 60s, especially when they played it as aggressively as they did live. 1967 and Monterey was kind of a turning point because they seemed to embrace, as did many of the bands that performed there, a new alternative, counter culture identity. For The Who, the irony was that they named the album they released in 1967 was named The Who Sell Out. It was anything but a sell out to the mainstream. Instead, for the Who and many other bands, 1967 marked the beginning of an alternative counter-culture.
The Beatles, by far the biggest band in the universe, topped the charts all year long with songs from Magical Mystery Tour. The album featured those songs that we’ve grown so used to that we miss their subversiveness. The big hit for them in the summer of 1967 was “All You Need Is Love.” Such a wonderful and quaint idea now, but in 1967 it was a direct challenge to authorities who were perceived to think that their military might put them above such menial virtues as love.
There were lots of reasons to question the authorities who had proven to be less than truthful in the recent past. The same authorities in power were the ones who had to be persuaded about civil rights and women’s rights. These same authorities promoted the deep value of the Vietnam War as a responsibility of patriotic America to endorse, support, and die for. Those in authority (which is different from saying that they were legitimate leaders) were threatened by having to face hard questions.
The counter culture of the late 60s didn’t buy it and their not-so-mainstream music reflected their doubt and the strength of their attitude: “When the truth is found to be lies / And all of the joy within you dies, / Don’t you want somebody to love?” The indictment of the older generation in authority said, “People try to put us down (talkin’ ‘bout my generation) just because we get around (talkin’ ‘bout my generation) / Things they do look awful cold (talkin’ ‘bout my generation) I hope I die before I get old”—the implication being that they'd rather die than act like the older generation.
As a cultural threshold, the music 1967 gave words to the culture shift. It was best described by the Buffalo Springfield anthem, “For What It’s Worth.” Stephen Stills had composed the song in 1966 after seeing a protest on Sunset Strip turn into a riot. It speaks the words that echoed throughout the remainder of the 1960s: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear…It’s time we stop. Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”
Looking back 50 years to “The Summer of Love” it’s easy to find some parallels. Questions about what is trustworthy information about today just as badly or worse than they did in 1967. It seems that the truth is regularly found to be lies. One can’t know the truth from Tweets, though it would be nice if the truth could be captured in 140 characters. The music of 1967 gave context to what people recognized and challenged authority. We could use the same kind of gutsy artists who challenge authority—because legitimate leadership won't be threatened by having to answer hard questions.