For many reasons the year 1969 may have been the most momentous, pivotal year in the history of rock-and-roll. No year represented more of what The Golden Age of Rock really meant, and no year provided more of a transition to new stars, new genres and a new decade. Here are ten reasons that commend 1969 as a banner year:
1. Woodstock. Officially billed as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival and also dubbed “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music,” the three-day rock event occurred over the weekend of August 15-17, 1969. According to The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, more than 400,000 people camped out on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, to take part in the festivities. The list of performers on the bill reads like a who’s who of rock. Among the participants: Creedence Clearwater Revival; Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Grateful Dead; Janis Joplin; Jefferson Airplane; Jimi Hendrix; John Sebastian; Richie Havens; Santana; Sly and the Family Stone; and The Who. The festival ushered in the era of large rock concerts and arena rock bands. “Woodstock was basically peace, love and music,” said Carlos Santana, according to the book The Billboard Book of Number One Albums.
2. Elvis Presley and The Beatles both had number one hits. Elvis had at least one U.S. number one song on the Billboard singles chart from 1956 thru 1962, and the Beatles had at least one number one single on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 list from 1964 thru 1970, according to The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th edition. But the only year in which both legendary acts topped the U.S. chart was 1969, when Elvis scored his 17th and final number one song with Suspicious Minds, while the Beatles had number one hits with Get Back, and Something/Come Together.
3. Beatles last live performance, final photo session and last recording session. Although the Beatles had number one hits in 1970 culled from their long delayed Let It Be album, their final times together as a band actually occurred in 1969. Their final live performance as a unit took place on January 30, 1969. According to Time Magazine, the Fab Four gathered on the rooftop of Apple’s headquarters in London and performed five songs: Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got A Feeling, One After 909 and Dig A Pony. The final time the four were photographed together occurred at John Lennon’s home at Tittenhurst on August 22, 1969, according thebeatles.com. Their final album recorded together was 1969’s Abbey Road, which topped the Billboard album chart for 11 weeks, starting in the fall of 1969.
4. Hair. The rock musical Hair was the first of its kind to ever open on Broadway, and it defined the genre of “rock musical.” It broke new ground in many ways, with its integrated cast and focus on the hippie counter-culture, anti-draft and anti-Vietnam War peace movement, illicit drugs, nudity and sexual revolution. Its posters proclaimed it as “the American Tribal Love-rock Musical.” According to The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, the original cast soundtrack album from this musical spent 13 weeks in 1969 at number one. Songs from the long-running extravaganza also spawned hits for other groups. The Fifth Dimension spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1969 with Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In; the Cowsills hit number two with Hair; Oliver reached number three on the chart with Good Morning Sunshine; and Three Dog Night climbed to number four with Easy To Be Hard.
5. Led Zeppelin launches hard rock genre. Led Zeppelin had the first of their six number one albums when Led Zeppelin II started a seven-week run at the apex of the chart in December 1969. Earlier in the year they had released their eponymously-titled debut album. This innovative hard rock, heavy blues, and blues-rock band put the hard rock and heavy metal sound on the map.
6. Motown kings and queens unite. The Motown label and its subsidiaries, founded by Berry Gordy, became known as “the sound of young America.” The Primettes started as a group formed to back up the Primes. With the addition of Diana Ross, the Primettes would evolve into the Supremes and have a dozen number one Billboard Hot 100 singles, according to The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th edition. The Primes would become the Temptations, who themselves would place four number ones hits. The pairing of Motown’s premier male and female vocal groups seemed inevitable, and they joined forces to produce TCB, a number one album the week of February 8, 1969.
7. Concert tragedy sobers the rock field. As successful as the Woodstock concert was, another concert represented the flip side and showed the limitations of the “peace and love” movement. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was held on December 6, 1969, in northern California. More than 300,000 rock fans attended the event, which many felt would become the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock. The Rolling Stones, who headlined the event, allegedly hired the biker gang Hells Angels to provide security at the event. During the concert, a fan was stabbed to death, allegedly by a member of Hells Angels, and this represented a major setback to those who advocated rock music as a panacea for the ills of the world. The concert also was the site of three accidental deaths (by a hit-and-run car accident and a drowning), scores of injured people and many stolen cars. According to Rolling Stone magazine, things went so badly at the event that The Grateful Dead, one of the event’s organizers, did not even get to perform due to increasing concerns about violence.
8. Bed-in for peace. In March 1969, John Lennon and his new bride, Yoko Ono, staged a “bed-in” for peace while on their honeymoon. In June they hosted another bed-in at a hotel in Montreal, Canada, and also recorded the song Give Peace A Chance live in their hotel suite. Rock artists in 1969 were taking bolder stands to protest the Vietnam War, linking the music to the antiwar movement.
9. Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye and sports anthems. The fictitious band Steam had a number one Billboard hit in December 1969 when Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye spent two weeks at the summit, the last multi-week number one hit of the 1960s. But the song’s importance lies in the fact that it has become arguably the number one anthem sung by home fans at sporting events to serenade a vanquished road team out of town.
10. The torch is passed to the new king. While the “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Presley, had his final number one Billboard singles hit, and the Beatles unofficially broke up and had their final moments as a band, a future legend placed his first song on the chart. Michael Jackson, as a member of the Jackson Five, released his first hit record I Want You Back in late 1969. The song would become number one in January 1970, the first of four consecutive number ones for the Jackson 5 that year. Michael of course would go on to become the “King of Pop.”
The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition, Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003
The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, Craig Rosen, Billboard Books, 1996
Rolling Stone magazine