Who played at the first ever rock festival?

12 June 2021, 20:00

Jim Morrison performing with The Doors at the Mount Tamalpais Fantasy Fair  & Music Festival on 10 June 1967
Jim Morrison performing with The Doors at the Mount Tamalpais Fantasy Fair & Music Festival on 10 June 1967. Picture: Elaine Mayes/Getty Images

Was it the Isle Of Wight? Glastonbury? Or even Woodstock? Step forward the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival!

By Martin O'Gorman

Chances are you've never known a world without rock festivals. They first came to prominence in the late 1960s, and they've now become a firm fixture on the musical calendar. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic scuppering plans in 2020, it's looking hopeful that 2021 will see the return of the festival.

But whose idea was it in the first place to gather people together in the open air to listen to live music? Which was the first modern rock festival to take place?

Festival fans enjoy the "valley of dancing" at Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival. They're probably not listening to banging techno.
Festival fans enjoy the "valley of dancing" at Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival. They're probably not listening to banging techno. Picture: Elaine Mayes/Getty Images

The precursor to the rock festival was the jazz festival, the biggest of which was the Newport Jazz Festival, which first took place in Rhode Island, USA in 1954. In fact Reading Festival had its roots in the National Jazz Festival, which first took place in Richmond-upon-Thames in August 1961 and cited Newport as its inspiration. By 1971, rock music had taken over and the event had moved to Richfield Avenue, where it remains to this day.

And you thought painting your face at a festival was a new thing...  the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival in June 1867
And you thought painting your face at a festival was a new thing... the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival in June 1867. Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

In January 1966, there was something called the "Trips Festival" in San Francisco, which was part of the notorious "Acid Tests", in which musical performances and light shows all aided the consumption of the then drug of choice, LSD. But while the Trips Festival lasted three days and saw The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other bands from San Fransisco's counterculture play, it took place in the middle of winter and indoors.

The modern festival era is generally thought to have been kicked off by the Monterey Pop Festival in California in June 1967. Landmark sets by The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were filmed for a documentary that took the concept of the rock festival around the world.

However, Monterey wasn't the first.

Festival goers in 1967: "Mum, I'm tired." "Pick your feet up, The Doors are on in ten minutes!"
Festival goers in 1967: "Mum, I'm tired." "Pick your feet up, The Doors are on in ten minutes!". Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The first modern rock festival as we know it was the KFRC Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival, which took place at the Cushing Memorial Ampitheatre in Marin County, California on 10 and 11 June 1967, pipping Monterey to the post by an entire week. The show was originally set for the previous weekend, but bad weather had put a stop to that.

Festival-goers line up to buy tat. No jester hats, you'll notice.
Festival-goers line up to buy tat. No jester hats, you'll notice. Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

KRFC was a local radio station that sponsored the gathering and the setting was a stone amphitheatre situated on the side of Mount Tamalpais, which could host 4,000 people. However, according to different reports, anything between 15,000 and 40,000 people actually showed up for the festival.

You can see the stone steps of the amphitheatre at the Mount Tamalpais Fantasy Fair & Music Festival  in 1967
You can see the stone steps of the amphitheatre at the Mount Tamalpais Fantasy Fair & Music Festival in 1967. Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

But who played this landmark event? For the $2 entrance fee (proceeds went to a nearby child centre), you could see some of the key artists in what became known as the "counter-culture".

The Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison, signs a copy of the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival programme.
The Lizard King himself, Jim Morrison, signs a copy of the Fantasy Fair And Magic Mountain Music Festival programme. Picture: Elaine Mayes/Getty Images

On Saturday 10 June 1967, you could have seen blues rockers Canned Heat, soul singer Dionne Warwick and The Charlatans - but not the Tim Burgess lot as Tim was only born a couple of weeks earlier. This Charlatans was a Californian act who were the reason Burgess and co had to call themselves "The Charlatans UK" in the States.

Also playing in the coveted 2pm spot were the hot new band The Doors, whose latest single Light My Fire was on its way up the US charts (it would eventually make No 1 in July).

Sunday 11 June's bill featured The Byrds (fresh off the back of their fourth album Younger Than Yesterday), local lads The Sons Of Champlin, the ubiquitous Jefferson Airplane (who apparently played Sunday morning AND Sunday afternoon) and the legendary Captain Beefheart.

The festival rounded off at 5pm with a half hour set by Tim Buckley (father of Jeff) and a closing appearance from The Steve Miller Band.

"We're gonna need your help with this next one..." (Actually, we'd like to think that the psych rock of the day was a bit cooler than that)
"We're gonna need your help with this next one..." (Actually, we'd like to think that the psych rock of the day was a bit cooler than that). Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

According to the "Marin History" blog, visitors to the festival were greeted by a "giant Buddha balloon". The experience of attending the festival itself was described in vivid detail:

"When you arrive at the Fantasy Fair, you will immediately surrounded by colour and motion, the good vibrations of thousands of people flowing with the natural beauty of Mt. Tamalpais.

"The major happening is you, your feeling of good will, and your knowledge that the Fair and the Mountain are a part of you, therefore yours to enjoy.""

Also at the festival site was something called the "Geodesic Dome Light Chamber", which was an 8-minute trippy light show. There was also a giant slide, tree swings and a "valley of dancing". Sounds just like Glastonbury in the 21st Century, doesn't it?

Something interesting going on in the woods at the world's first modern rock festival, June 1967
Something interesting going on in the woods at the world's first modern rock festival, June 1967. Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

And to prove that some things never change, the San Francisco Chronicle noted in its review of the festival that Monday: "The weekend crowd was remarkably well-behaved and about the only real beef the kids had was the long — two hours and more — wait for the 'Trans-Love' buses that carried them up and down the mountain."

Sound familiar?

Man chugs beer at festival; partner looks on disapprovingly. A scene to be repeated at rock festivals for the next half century and beyond. Sir, we salute you.
Man chugs beer at festival; partner looks on disapprovingly. A scene to be repeated at rock festivals for the next half century and beyond. Sir, we salute you. Picture: Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images