Altamont Speedway Free Festival Dec. 6, 1969: The worst day in rock and roll history

The rock concert held at Altamont Speedway in California featured rock and roll legends, Hell Angels and three deaths
Altamont Concert - Speedway in background
Altamont Concert - Speedway in background / William L. Rukeyser/GettyImages

December 6, 1969, would be declared "rock and roll's all-time worst day, a day when everything went perfectly wrong by Rolling Stone magazine's John Burks. It was hoped that the Altamont Speedway Free Festival would become "Woodstock West," but instead became a black mark in rock and roll history.

Located outside of Tracy, California, the Altamont Speedway, a motorsports race track, hosted the Free Festival that approximately 300,000 people attended. This event took place four months after Woodstock in Bethel, New York, and while that event had some issues, nothing compared to what occurred in California.

It was a violent event with many people sustaining injuries, cars were stolen and then abandoned, and the property damage was extensive. Four people died at Altamont: two in a hit-and-run car accident, another drowned in an LSD-induced incident, and Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death during an altercation with the Hells Angels. It has long been argued that the Hells Angels were in attendance as bodyguards for the event; regardless of whether they were hired or not, attendees reported that they were violent and pool cues to control the crowd from coming on stage.

Footage from the event taken for be Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, creators Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin chronicle Hunter's death that occurred during the Rolling Stones set. Hunter, armed with a gun, approached the stage, and Hell's Angel Alan Passaro stabbed him several times, resulting in Hunter's death. Passaro would be acquitted of the crime as it was considered self-defense.

Hells Angels at Altamont Concert
Hells Angels at Altamont Concert / William L. Rukeyser/GettyImages

Altamont Speedway Free Festival lineup

  • Santana
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  • Rolling Stones

The Grateful Dead, the main organizers of the event, opted out of their set; the event's main organizers would have followed Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young due to the increasing violence.

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