Woodstock West The greatest rock concert that never was

By Kathryn McKenzie

A photocopied clipping from the Salinas Californian newspaper of Jan. 28, 1970, found in a dusty manila folder, is intriguing enough on its face.

WANTED: Personable and pretty girls (18-24) wearing groovy Fashions of today (preferably self-made). Would you like to help us host the entertainers and celebrities at the 1970 MONTEREY WORLD POP FESTIVAL to be held near Aromas. For details contact Ray Engel at Mediametrics Headquarters, (408) 373-3870.

What in the world was the Monterey World Pop Festival? Its promoters advertised it as “one of the most star-studded events in rock history” that could attract as many as 500,000 people to Monterey County.

For all the puffery, though, it turned out to be the Fyre Festival of its era — a concert that was famous only in the minds of its organizers.

It was an event that never happened, despite the fact that tickets were sold, posters were made, and many, many articles were written about it.

If you are able to recall the controversy that erupted over the Monterey World Pop Festival way back when, then your powers of recall are far superior to most people’s.  The non-event has faded into the mists of the past century, its organizers either deceased or long gone from the area.

But close to 50 years ago, it caused enough of a ruckus that legislation was passed at the state level to prevent it.

The rock concert was imagined on a similar scale to Woodstock, with hundreds of thousands of music fans expected to turn up for a three-day concert in rural Monterey County, on a 462-acre property in Aromas, north of Prunedale.

Some referred to it as a “Woodstock West,” conjuring up visions of a multi-day phantasmagoria of drugs, sex and rock n’ roll, with naked, drug-addled hippies running wild through the grassy hills of North County, a vision that surely thrilled young people and horrified their elders.

Just what was the Monterey World Pop Festival, and why did it cause such consternation? (By the way, don’t confuse this with the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, the granddaddy of all epic rock concerts, the one where Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire. The organizers of MWPF probably chose the name to make people think it was related to that more famous music festival, but the two were completely separate events with no relationship between them.)

A little history for you young’uns.  A half century ago, the United States was divided against itself — the older Republican establishment against the mostly young, long-haired, pot-smoking, free love, free-thinking crowd, who protested the war in Vietnam and pretty much went against what The Establishment wanted them to do. It seems incredible now, but knock-down battles were waged between parents and youth over the length of their hair and the music they listened to.

It was also a time when large outdoor rock concerts had come into vogue, and they were a vital shared experience for young people.

In the book “Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont,” author Saul Austerlitz writes, “There was power in a crowd, a force and cohesion beyond words or demonstrations of intent. There was joy, too, in sharing a space with so many others, content in the knowledge that shared purpose had been transformed into physical contact.”

Yet the peaceful back-to-the-garden vibe of Woodstock turned into a hellish darkness on Dec. 6, 1969, when an 18-year-old African American man died after being severely beaten by Hells Angels bikers, who had been hired to provide security for the Altamont concert.

Add to that the fact that public sentiment — at least on the part of the older generation — was going against such events.

An Associated Press article from Dec. 18, 1969, recounts the numerous cancellations of concerts throughout the state: “Promoters are meeting with resistance at virtually every California site they select for more rock music concerts like ones that have led to violence and death when thousands of youthful fans jam together — many openly using marijuana and other drugs.”

(Keep in mind that a half century ago, marijuana was still widely viewed in the context of “Reefer Madness” and not as a potentially medicating or even positive influence.)

Even modest musical events were viewed with suspicion at that time. Las Lomas resident Greg Dean recalls having a hard time getting rock concerts approved in the late 1960s, when he managed a band and promoted concerts while going to college.

“I had Ike and Tina Turner and Blue Cheer booked at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, and Watsonville freaked out at so many young people having a good time near their town that it was not allowed!” Dean recalled in a message through Nextdoor.

Among those alarmed at what such a concert might mean for the Monterey Bay area were those serving on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. (From 1965-77, this included my late father-in-law, Warren Church, and it is from his copious files that I have drawn some of this information.)

It all began in late 1969 when two local disc jockeys and a Bay Area strip club owner dreamed up the concert and presented a plan to Monterey County. The site they proposed: a 462-acre property in Aromas, right beside Highway 101 and directly across the highway from the iconic Red Barn (then known as the World’s Largest Hay Barn, later an antiques store and flea market). The Monterey World Pop Festival, as they called it, would be held March 20-22 — the first weekend of spring break.

At that time, only about 500 people lived in the unincorporated village of Aromas, the heart of which was about two miles from the concert site.

But the location, right at the end of San Juan Road before it intersected the highway (long before the present overpass was built) would offer easy access to people traveling from either the Bay Area or Los Angeles. The property owner was listed as the C&H Land Co.

Lawrence “Larry” Lee and Dean Brown, deejays at Monterey’s KIDD-FM, are listed as primary organizers, along with Robert De Celle, owner of the Primadonna Club in Newark. (Googling Mr. De Celle turns up a June 1969 newspaper article detailing arrests at his nightclub, targeting “bottomless dancers” for indecent exposure and lewd conduct.) Lee, Brown and De Celle formed a company called Mediametrics Inc., and the corporation attorney was Richard Schnal of Twohig and Schnal, Attorneys at Law, in Seaside.

The undated document also spells out their grand plans for the event. On page 3, capital letters scream, “PROJECTED NET (NOT INCLUDING FILM AND RECORDING RIGHTS) …. $2,343,000.”

“A great deal of time and effort has been spent researching past festivals in order that Monterey Pop can enjoy total success,” the document continues. “It is of paramount importance that the first Monterey World Pop Festival be an outstanding success so as to allow its continuation.”

It goes on to spell out details such as anticipated attendance — “the projected figure of 200,000 is very conservative. We feel safe in saying … that 500,000 would be more realistic.” It was to be priced at $12 for a three-day ticket, or $5 per day.

The rest of the proposal deals with what to do about sanitation, medical facilities, housing of entertainers and roadies, gate crashers (to be prevented by a 9-foot-high Cyclone fence and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Posse), the printing of the program (Herald Printing Co. in Monterey, 25 cents each), revenue from concessions and program advertising, and the cost of leasing land for the event ($45,000).

Then there’s the $150,000 budget for bands, with which “it is possible for present Monterey World Pop as one of the most star-studded events in rock history.”

All well and good, but the organizers — possibly so excited about their plans that they overlooked some details — did not realize, perhaps, that half of the property they were leasing was in San Benito County.

Right away, local government agencies began to have concerns about a massive free-range concert in the area that would bring in a half-million people, many of them long-haired, pot-smoking, unwashed hippies.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance on Dec. 16, 1969, stating that gatherings of more than 5,000 people in any unincorporated county area would be prohibited. San Benito County would also pass a similar ordinance.

But even as county governments were looking to quash the festival, organizers continued to blithely advertise it, selling tickets through Ticketmaster and running ads. A colorful poster was created. There were articles in numerous publications. The ad looking for “pretty girls,” referenced above, ran on Jan. 28

Even Billboard magazine of Feb. 14, 1970, had an item about the concert as though it was still about to happen: “Security and facilities for 300,000 people will be provided and 60 bands—to remain unnamed until contracts are signed—are expected to play 16-18 hours daily.”

Billboard also stated that the concert would include a carnival, artisans’ fair and round-the-clock film festival, all additions that had not been revealed in the initial proposal to the county.

At the urging of Monterey County officials, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 148 on Jan. 12, 1970, which said that local agencies could require event promoters to indemnify such agencies for all costs incurred in matters of public health and safety. In other words, if things went south at a rock concert — murder, mayhem, what have you — the promoters would be on the hook for reimbursing counties for public safety expenditures.

Monterey County also continued to chip away at the event. The promoters applied for a special permit to allow the concert. When the permit was turned down, they appealed the decision. The supervisors then passed a resolution on Jan. 20, stating that they recommended that outdoor concerts not held in a permanent building or stadium should be made illegal by the state legislature.

Ultimately, a perfect wedge issue was found: There was no permit for the existing driveway from San Juan Road into the concert property, according to a note from the county road department on Feb. 6, 1970.

No legal access? No concert.

Six days later, attorney Schnal wrote a letter withdrawing the promoters’ appeal.

Then there was a new worry: that people would show up anyway at the site, tickets in hand, and be enraged that the concert had been canceled.

“We are sure you can well imagine the problem that would arise if you have a congregation of several thousand disillusioned and restless young people on our hands,” wrote Loren E. Smith, then chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, to state attorney general Thomas C. Lynch.

Subsequently, there were several small articles in local papers that stated the festival was going to move to another location, but nothing seems to have come of that.

“The Monterey Pop Festival is off, at least as far as this area is concerned. Mediametrics, Inc., announced Wednesday that the festival would be moved to a friendlier site, but the location and date were not revealed,” reported the Sentinel on Feb. 12. That was the last that anyone heard of it.

And as to whether any of the ticket purchasers got their money back, your guess is as good as mine.

As for those 60 bands that were supposedly going to play? It’s odd that there wasn’t at least one headliner mentioned. But if organizers were going to get the sought-after bands of the day, who would they have engaged?

I’m sure they were trying pretty hard to draw in popular groups from the Bay Area, and at the time, few were bigger than Santana, which was seeing its debut album peak in popularity then.

No doubt the organizers would have loved to have booked Santana — which, incidentally, also played at Woodstock — and bands in the San Francisco Sound groove would have been highly sought after, such as Moby Grape, Hot Tuna, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish.

Perhaps concert organizers tried to get bands that played the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, such as Quicksilver Messenger, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. Or The Doors, who got their start in Los Angeles. Or perhaps pop upstarts Creedence Clearwater Revival, who despite their distinctive swamp rock sound, hailed from the East Bay.

We’ll never know. But really, it could have been epic.

Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.