May 19 2023
By Dave Thompson.
They came from all corners, converging on the Swiss capital of Zurich for two nights of music quite unlike anything the country had ever seen.
Jimi Hendrix flew in from New York, where he’d spent the last three days. Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell made the shorter hop from London, on a plane full of musicians: Traffic, The Move, The Small Faces, John Mayall’s latest bunch of Bluesbreakers, Eric Burdon and his Haight-heavy New AnimaIs, The Koobas, and Eire Apparent. And as each successive aircraft disgorged its psychedelic cargo, the Swiss customsmen scratched their heads one more time, and the waiting press went crazy.
“In May 1968, Switzerland meant just three things to the average rock musician: cheese, triangular chocolate, and—like much of Western Europe—riots.”
Switzerland had never been an integral part of the rock ‘n’ roll circuit. The Montreaux Casino would raise the country a little in the eyes of the world in the early 1970s, but even that was more famous for burning down than standing up—an event that Deep Purple would recount in “Smoke On The Water.” More recently still, the Montreaux Pop Festival has heightened the country’s reputation for major events even higher. But in May 1968, Switzerland meant just three things to the average rock musician: cheese, triangular chocolate, and—like much of Western Europe—riots.
Berlin, in April, and Paris, in mid May, had already ignited with student protests and outright rebellion. In Switzerland, the youngest elements of the outspoken left wing Partei der Arbeit [PdA) were busily preparing for the day when revolution would come to their streets as well. Was it design, or coincidence, that decreed May 30 as their chosen date, and that day’s Pop Monsterkonzert as the powder keg?
Of course, none of the arriving musicians knew any of this, not even after copies of the PdA’s latest manifesto, “Flugblatt der antiautorita naenschen,” was thrust into their hands by the crowds outside the venue. To them, as The Small Faces vocalist Steve Marriott reflected years later, it was just “another piece of fan art which none of us could read.” There was a great picture of Hendrix on the cover, though, in his psychedelic confederate finery, and a medal on his chest that proclaimed Mao’s insistence that “revolution is legitimate.”
Video Highlights from Monsterkonzert from the SRF Archives
Courtesy: SRF Swiss Radio and Television
Nobody knew that the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, Giorgio Frapolli, was in on the insurrection either.
The line-up for the festival, Switzerland’s first fully-fledged psychedelic happening, was a clear indication of the slow changing of the musical guard that had moved across Europe in recent months. The Experience were the clear headliners now, with even The Move having finally conceded, not defeat, but acknowledgement that Hendrix’s showmanship had moved to the next level.
The New Animals were edging further and further away from the pop mainstream, as they worked toward completing their ultimate statement of psychedelic intent, the classic Every One Of Us; and Eire Apparent were still waiting for the big break that had seemed theirs for the taking six months before.
So were The Koobas, only they had been waiting four years! Formed in Liverpool as one of the great tide of Beatlesinfluenced Mersey beat bands, the Koobas (or Kubas as they were originally known) had had every chance of making the big time, from a role in the Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey movie, and a tour with The Beatles, to a place within Fab Four manager Brian Epstein’s stable of stars. Nothing clicked, however, and now the band was simply living out its last days on earth, before Keith Ellis quit to form the prog rock supergroup Van Der Graaf Generator.
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, featuring soon-to-be Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, meanwhile, were viewed as the harbingers of the British blues boom, which was suddenly threatening to return rock to its most solid basics. Fleetwood Mac, the new movement’s undisputed champs, had apparently been approached to appear at the festival, but were unable to make it. Mayall agreed, not so much for the sake of flying the flag, but because it would enable him to expose his latest band line-up to a major audience. Little more than a month had elapsed since bassist John McVie and drummer Keef Hartley quit the group; Mayall wanted to break in a new rhythm section before setting out on an American tour.
Of all the bands on display, then, it was The Small Faces who would give The Experience the hardest run for their money. The motley Cockney foursome who emerged as a rabble of R&B hitmakers but developed into one of the finest British rock groups of their era. Singles like “Here Comes The Nice,” “ltchycoo Park,” and “Tin Soldier,” had left The Small Faces as popular with the hip crowd as they were with the pop fans, and Europe was on tenterhooks as it awaited the group’s second album, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. In the meantime, the continent simply went crazy for their latest single, the vaudevillian “Lazy Sunday.” Even The Experience, whose own third album was not expected until early fall, could not compete with that.
Neither, it seemed, could they hope to compete with the tensions that stretched across Zurich like trip wires. That afternoon, while Mitchell and Redding joined promoter Hanruedi Jaggi and the rest of the festival line-up at the Mascotte Club for a massive press reception (Hendrix was still en route at the time), the student underground bubbled with conspiratorial fervor.
“Barricades were planned, bottles and stones were stockpiled, and ambushes were organized.”
Barricades were planned, bottles and stones were stockpiled, and ambushes were organized. They had learned from the unrest that tore through Paris earlier in the month, from the way in which the gendarmerie stood back from the frontlines until the first furnace wave of the rioters’ self righteousness had burned itself out, then moved in for the kill during a lull in the action. They had learned, too, the danger of placing all one’s revolutionary eggs in one basket. When Zurich went up, it would not be one flashpoint, but many.
Hendrix’s trans-Atlantic flight landed in mid-afternoon, and he drove the 12 km to the four-star Hotel Stoller at Badenerstrasse 357, in downtown Zurich, waiting there until his bandmates could join him. By the time the group made its way to the venue, the 10,000-capacity Hallenstadion—home of the Zurcher SC ice hockey team—the concert was already in full flow. So was the unrest.
All evening long, while both the British contingent and the one local talent deemed fit for the bill, Anselmo Trend, played through their programmed set, the audience seethed restlessly.
Everybody, it seemed, knew that something was going to go down, the next step in European youth’s uprising against the evils of bureaucracy and the establishment. Now they were simply waiting for the signal.
The New Animals’ set was the first to suffer, as a phalanx of Hell’s Angels rolled in, riding their motorbikes across the dance floor towards the stage, “a flying wedge shape,” reported New Musical Express journalist Keith Altham, which parted the crowd “like the Red Sea in front of them.”
Steve Marriott, talking in the early 1980s, recalled the shouts of defiance that would periodically emerge from the packed hall, and the first signs of fighting that erupted while The Small Faces played. But such sights were commonplace at European gigs. The year before, touring Germany with The Who, John’s Children had succeeded in getting the army out, so successfully did they incite the crowd; 12 months before that, The Rolling Stones’ 1966 tour of the continent had seen venue after venue self-destruct in what the newspapers called pop-crazed rage.
Delays in changing over between bands only added to the mood in the Hallenstadion. An already tight schedule had fallen apart much earlier in the evening. At the side of the stage, authoritative uniforms could be seen in earnest and animated conversation with the promoters, and several bands appeared to have simply been slung onto the stage before things were ready, just to make a noise and distract the crowd in the hope that the lost time could somehow be snatched back in the next break. Of course, it never was, and as The Experience prepared to take the stage for their own performance, impatience had been added to the volatile mood of the audience.
Making its earliest known live appearance, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return]” opened the set, and already, less than a month after it was recorded at the Record Plant [and less than two months after Hendrix wrote it in his New York hotel room], it boasted the assurance and fire that would swiftly establish it as a career-long concert favorite.
“Stone Free” followed, and that was when all hell broke loose, in a hail of bottles, coins—anything small and throwable, it seemed. The missiles flew from every direction, aimed not at the stage, necessarily, nor at the rest of the audience, but simply thrown for the sake of being thrown.
Stunned, Hendrix stopped playing and stood aside while Frapolli raced onstage to take the microphone. The crowd shouted him down; the hail increased. It did not matter that the MC was “one of them.” Now he was simply another man in power, telling them to stop when they hadn’t even got started. Tapes of the event only begin to capture the drama, as Frapolli stood his ground and tried to restore order, his role as a revolutionary apparently forgotten, or subverted by his love of great rock ‘n’ roll. Hendrix’s music, he insisted, “needs full attention, not only with the fists but as well with your ears.” He was rewarded with another volley of jeers.
Behind him, Hendrix looked as though he was about to leave the stage, and thinking quickly, knowing what would happen if he really did walk off, Mitchell kicked his drums into “I Don’t Live Today,” its first (documented) airing since Montreal, back in April. Redding took his cue, and Hendrix had no alternative but to start playing again.
Stalemate. The crowd continued to bristle, the band continued to play, picking up the mood of the audience as much as that of the music. Rearranging the basic set they had already carried across two continents, they swung into a brooding “Red House,” a fleeting “Hey Joe,” a passionate “Foxey Lady,” and then The Experience’s own brand of civil warfare, “Manic Depression,” bleeding into “Fire,” and finally, a savage “Purple Haze,” Hendrix snarling out the lyrics at an audience that was already out of its brain.
Backstage afterwards, the mood was quiet. Nobody knew what was going on and wondered if the crowd response had been triggered by something onstage, something about their performance? They learned more once they were out in the streets.
A city that traditionally rolls up the sidewalks the moment it gets dark was ablaze with makeshift bonfires, beacons of wanton destruction, it seemed, the first fires of the long-awaited conflagration. With truncheons drawn and attack dogs snarling, the Swiss police came down as hard as they could.
They hit the wrong people. The would-be revolutionaries had already returned to their furtive meeting places, to plan the next step in their still stalled revolution, and the Hell’s Angel contingent had long since ridden off into the night. The kids on the street were just that—kids who had been to the Hallenstadion because they loved the music, and had no way of getting home. The concert had run long, public transport had shut down for the night, and the streets now milled with helpless, stranded gig-goers. For them, the fires were simply a way of keeping warm.
But when the police swarmed, chaos ensued. And as word of the melee spread through the sleeping city, carried on the wail of sirens and the dull thump of flying rocks, the “real” revolutionaries flew to their defense. By the end of the weekend, more than 250 people were in jail, and over 200 more were in hospital.
In the heart of downtown, the after-hours Crazy Girl Club, too, was in uproar, especially after the English musicians arrived, and one of their entourage, journalist Richard Green, leaped onto the bar to sing “Deutsch land Uber Alles.”
“The police were not far behind, arresting anybody who even looked like they might be having too much fun, then closing down the club and sending the bands back to their hotels.”
The police were not far behind, arresting anybody who even looked like they might be having too much fun, then closing down the club and sending the bands back to their hotels. “I don’t know why the police react in this kind of way,” Hendrix mused the following day, when Keith Altham interviewed him for the NME. “Maybe because there is such a low crime rate in this country, they have to find something to do.”
The following afternoon, The Experience returned to the Hallenstadion, to soundcheck and try and plan a more orderly show for that evening. The riots were on everybody’s minds. With daybreak, things had quieted down in the city, but the police were on full alert, and even casual passers-by looked ready for trouble. All the bands could do was try and ensure they didn’t find it at the show.
Distractedly, an on-stage jam got going, Traffic’s Dave Mason, Chris Wood, and Steve Winwood; The Move’s Trevor Burton and Carl Wayne, Hendrix and Vic Briggs from The New Animals, playing the demons away with an impromptu session that Wood had the forethought to tape.
The magic appeared to work. Though the streets outside formed a war zone again, a massive police presence ensured that the gig itself passed off without incident-just some ill-tempered scuffling, and a handful of arrests.
And the next day, June 1, The Experience flew back to London. Behind them, Zurich continued to bum.
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