Violence, Chaos and Counterculture

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic ‘Gimme Shelter’ documentary. It follows The Rolling Stones over the last 10 days of the last leg of their US tour ending with the infamous free concert at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco.

The free concert, which started as a musical celebration, with over 300,000 people in attendance and security provided by the Hell’s Angels, turned sour.

The line-up included Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and of course, The Stones.

The lack of organisation led to encroachment on the stage for all the supporting sets and the lack of discipline shown by the Hell’s Angels created a violent energy in the air. The first example of this was during Jefferson Airplane’s set when lead singer Grace Slick, was punched by a Hell’s Angel.

The uncontrollable violence even meant that The Grateful Dead refused to perform at the concert. This lead to growing tension throughout the night as the violent Hell’s Angels clashed with the audience putting the whole love generation on the line.

The Stones took to the stage at nightfall with the atmosphere at boiling point. As the opening notes of ‘Sympathy for the devil’ started to play, the entire surrounding venue erupted into mass chaos. Not even Mick Jagger, who at the time was the worlds biggest rockstar, could break it up.

As the band played through their set, the violence got worse and worse. The most unfortunate incident of the night was the death of 18 year old Meredith Hunter. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd, after a previous scuffle with an Angel, with a .22 calibre revolver. He was quickly disarmed and killed by Hell’s Angel, Allan Passaro, who stabbed him twice.

The Stones forced their way through the set, the consensus was that if they stopped playing it would turn into a full blown riot. The documentary from the following year has the feel of a horror film… The violence and anger that fuelled the event was a complete juxtaposition to the values of the so-called ‘Love Generation’.

“You can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see that high watermark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” This quote from Hunter S. Thompson seems quite fitting for the night of December 6th 1969, where the wave, did indeed break.

Words by Jake Morgan

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