I recently discovered this handbill for a Jefferson Airplane/Byrds show I attended in May of 1967. I was 15 years old and nearly finished with my first year of high school. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper was going to be released in 4 days, and the Airplane’s single “Somebody to Love”, for the album “Surrealistic Pillow”, was #17 on the charts, and on it’s way to the #5 position. The Byrds “Younger than Yesterday” album had been released a couple months before the concert and the single “So you Want to be a Rock & Roll Star” had already been up and down the charts, reaching #29. (There is a certain irony in this being the last hit single by the Byrds, a band that didn’t play any of the instruments on their first recond, except for McGuinn’s guitar.)
This was a period of transition for pop music, the “underground” was just beginning and FM stations playing “album cuts” were just starting to pop up. LP sales were just about to overtake singles. Both the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane were about to play at the Monterrey Pop festival in a couple of weeks.
I can’t recall much about the opening acts except they both sounded pretty ragged and one of them played “300 pounds of joy” by Howlin’ Wolf. I wasn’t familiar with the tunes and the sound system was not very good, so they might have been much better than I thought.
This was perhaps the first show in the Coleseum that featured music played at this volume and the quality of the sound system was mediocre at best. This impacted on the Byrds in a major way as they didn’t really sound too much like their recordings, especially the vocals. Neither McGuinn’s or Crosby’s guitars sounded too good, either: and Crosby complained a number of times about how Sunn Amplifiers were “terrible”. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve heard a Rickenbacker 12 string through a Sunn amp, before or since. Not exactly a match made in Heaven. In any case, it seemed that there were signs of strain between group members: Crosby was the only one who talked on stage and a couple times I noticed both McGuinn and Hillman seem to cringe, especially during one of this tirades against Sunn amps.
Considering how things sounded out front, I could only imagine what it must have sounded like on stage, and I wondered if they could even hear each other. I also missed Gene Clark’s vocals in the mix, especially as the song “Feel a Whole Lot Better” was my favorite Byrds tune. I understand how difficult this must have been for them, but as a 15 year old kid, they didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
By the time the Airplane hit the stage, the PA system seemed to be better sorted out as you could hear the power in both Marty Balin and Grace Slick’s voices. Neither Paul Kantner, nor Jorma’s guitars suffered much from being distorted, and in fact you could hear Kantner much better than on any of their records. On tunes like “Somebody to Love” he really stood out and added an urgency that made the tune really powerful without upstaging the vocalists.
You often heard the phrase “They didn’t sound much like the record” in those days. The sound quality on studio recordings was getting better and more sophisticated, but live sound was often inferior. The local bands in the Northwest, like the Sonics, Don and the Goodtimes and the Wailers usually sounded better than their recordings in a live setting, as the PA systems of the era were up to the task of filling a National Guard Armory or a skating rink. Sound quality in a large 10,000 seat arena meant for basketball or hockey was often hit or miss, and usually the latter.
Some bands stopped touring during this period, (The Beatles come to mind) as being able to re-create the sound on their records was literally impossible. By 1969 or thereabouts, most concerts were featuring decent quality sound with systems up to the task. In fact, the sound at the Monterey Festival was regarded as groundbreaking and added to both the mythical status of that festival and the impact that acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who had on the audience.
The other thing that distinguished “concerts” from the local bands was that they weren’t “dances”. On one hand, this gave the bands a new sense of freedom, as they didn’t need to worry about if people could dance to what they recorded. But they also gave up a certain sense of the connection with the audience: that symbiotic relationship that could create a runaway feedback loop.
One could go on for a while about this, but it was all just part of the era. A lot of memorable music made during the 60’s and 70’s wouldn’t have happened if it would have had to pass the “It has a great beat and you can dance to it” test on American Bandstand.
A few days after I attended the concert, the Beatles released the Sgt. Pepper record, and it was suddenly everywhere, on everbody’s record player and most of the songs also got played in the radio. Rock & Roll started taking itself seriously and people were self consciously creating “art”.
Seemingly overnight, the focus switched from fan magazines promoting “teen idols” to critiques of guitarists techniques and guitar “heroes” like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix became “stars” by being guitar virtuosos. Musicians political views were openly discussed, and we no longer were privy to what their favorite colors were.
Neither the Byrds or the Jefferson Airplane had any hit singles after 1967. Crosby was fired later on in 1967, and eventually went on to Crosby, Stills and Nash, after sitting in with Buffalo Springfield at Monterey. Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship and had hit singles in both the 70’s and 80’s. How quickly things seem to go full circle.
AM (Top 40) and FM continued to co-exist for quite some time, and some acts continued to appear on both formats and sell albums as well as hit singles, but some groups like “Paul Revere and the Raiders”, “Three Dog Night” and the “Guess Who” got branded as “Singles Bands”, and generally weren’t treated kindly by “critics”, nor a lot of airplay on “Classic Rock” stations that became popular in the late 70’s early 80’s.