The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on June 1, 1967. Suddenly the record album was more important than the hit single, the whole more important than the individual pieces. Anything was possible. Whimsy and mysticism, brass bands and electric guitars, grownup worries and childhood fantasies existed side by side. A year that started with The Monkees sitting in the top spot on the Billboard album charts for the first five and a half months was suddenly transformed. The Summer of Love had begun.
On January 14, 1967, a “Human Be-In” had been held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Billed as “a gathering of the tribes,” the event drew 20,000 people for speeches, poetry, music and just being together. It wasn’t a concert or music festival; it wasn’t a political rally. It was just a coming together of folks who were looking for a more meaningful way of life than the materialistically driven anxiety they saw around them. The national media took notice, and the word “hippie” began to insinuate itself into the national conversation.
In February, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out, bringing the San Francisco music scene to national attention. The same month, The Beatles put out a two sided single that sounded completely different from anything that had come before: “Penny Lane” backed with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” presaging the album-length breakthrough that would come a few months later.
In March, young people began arriving in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, drawn by the utopian ideals they’d heard about and the free-living images they’d seen. In April, the local hippie community declared “a summer of love in San Francisco.” In May, Scott McKenzie’s recording of Papa John Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” shot up the pop charts, an irresistible invitation to come join the party.
Thousands of people did trek west for the summer, but the cultural impact reached far beyond the Bay Area. Hair got longer overnight, suits and ties were out, bright colors and bell bottom jeans were in. Peace symbols, love beads, psychedelic lettering and Day-Glo flowers began popping up in suburban homes. Marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs would soon begin to infiltrate middle class neighborhoods.
The largest impact of the Summer of Love on many of us was in the music we listened to. After Sgt. Pepper, all the rules were thrown out, all bets were off. Even The Monkees became social critics with “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and its “rows of houses that are all the same…here in Status Symbol Land.”
The Monterey International Pop Festival was staged two hours south of San Francisco over the weekend of June 16-18. It was the first rock festival, modeled on the successful jazz and folk festivals that had gone on there and in Newport, Rhode Island since the ‘50s. It was a watershed event, introducing little known acts like Otis Redding, The Who and Jimi Hendrix, giving exposure to local bands like Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) and throwing in hitmakers of the day including The Association, The Animals, Simon & Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and the Mamas & the Papas. In the spirit of the times, all of the performers except Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar played for free, and all proceeds went to a non-profit foundation. More than 200,000 attended over the course of the three day event.
The following Sunday, June 25, the first live round-the-world satellite television broadcast aired, with entertainers from 26 countries performing during the course of the two-hour event. The Beatles represented Britain, and their performance of “All You Need is Love,” complete with orchestral accompaniment, piccolo trumpets, Mick Jagger singing and clapping along, Keith Richards parading around in a sandwich sign, John Lennon chewing gum while he sang and Keith Moon offering Ringo assistance on brushes, mesmerized the worldwide audience of 400 million, giving the Summer of Love its motto and theme song.
All was not love, though. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, with 485,000 American troops deployed there. Anti-war protests were becoming larger and more numerous across the country, an estimated 400,000 marching in New York City and 100,000 in San Francisco in a “Spring Mobilization to End the War.” Urban unrest grew uglier and more militant as Newark and Detroit erupted in deadly, fiery race riots in July.
But the summer soundtrack was magnificent: The Young Rascals’ “Groovin” topped the charts as May turned into June; Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” had a four week run at #1 through the end of the month. The Association held on to the top spot for the month of July with “Windy,” followed by The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” “All You Need is Love” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” as September arrived. Sgt. Pepper topped the album chart all summer long.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” The Grass Roots declared “Let’s Live for Today,” the 5th Dimension took us “Up-Up and Away,” Janis Ian sang about interracial romance in “Society’s Child” and the Young Rascals fell in love with “A Girl Like You.” Stevie Wonder admitted “I Was Made to Love Her,” Procol Harum discovered “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the Music Explosion prescribed “A Little Bit of Soul” and The Temptations proclaimed “You’re My Everything.”
Top 40 radio was still the glue that united the nation’s youth, but 1967 saw the blossoming of the record album. The Doors arrived with their potent first album, Hendrix appeared fully formed with Are You Experienced, the Grateful Dead released their debut, Arlo Guthrie told the tale of Alice’s Restaurant, The Moody Blues joined with the London Festival Orchestra for Days of Future Passed, and Peter, Paul & Mary’s Album 1700 included “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The Who Sell Out appeared late in the year, as did Cream’s psychedelic-covered Disraeli Gears and the masterful Something Else by The Kinks. The Beatles closed the year with Magical Mystery Tour.
It was a time of contradictions—the naïve idealism represented by hippies and flower children, exemplified by “Groovin,” “Windy” and “All You Need is Love,” bumping up against the nasty realities of war in southeast Asia and on the streets of America’s cities, and the darker sounds of The Doors and Procol Harum.
The Summer of Love deteriorated rather quickly out in the Haight. As too many people arrived, the upbeat spirit of optimism and community gave way to despair and disenchantment, the drugs got harder and heavier, free love gave way to STDs. By mid-summer the glow was fading. On October 6, a group of hippies staged a mock funeral on the streets of San Francisco called “the Death of Hippie.”
For those of us out here in the hinterlands, the Summer of Love represented a flowering of hope. We probably missed the hippie funeral, and chose to take from the period whatever images comported with our own mindset. The following year would be a frightening wakeup call for a lot of us, from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy to the police riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.
That summer of 1967 was in many ways the last gasp of innocence for our generation and the nation. Forty years later, we have never gotten it back.
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.