Carlos Santana performs at Altamont, Dec. 6, 1969. Home video footage. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

Lost Footage from Notorious Altamont Speedway Dug Up

Once described as ‘rock and roll’s all-time worst day’,1969’s Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a disaster from to finish.

Originally billed as ‘Woodstock West’, Altamont is remembered more for the Hells Angels security controversy, the violent stabbing death of Meredith Hunter, and the hit and run deaths than a lineup that included the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The entire debacle was, of course, chronicled in 1970 documentary, Gimme Shelter, featuring in-depth interviews and incredible footage from the day—more of which has just been uncovered in the Library of Congress’ archives.

The story goes that in 1996, an archivist and historian by the name of Rick Prelinger acquired a cache of reels from a soon to be defunct Palmer Films, adding them to his burgeoning collection—an archive of around 200,000 reels which were then acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section at the Library writes that, ‘A press release predicted it would take several years before the Library will be in a position to provide access to these films. As it turns out, that was optimistic—we are still making steady progress on the collection 19 years later.’

Mashon also reveals that the recent discovery of the previously unseen Altamont videos came when a technician working on the Prelinger Collection came across two reels of silent 8mm film with ‘Stones in the Park,’ written on it—a title that got everyone hot under the collar imagining it to be home video footage from the 1969 Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert held in London, held just days after the death of band member Brian Jones.

Mick Jagger (in red) and Keith Richards (in shades, natch), just off stage at the Altamont concert, hours before their segment turned deadly. Dec. 6, 1969. Home video footage. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

After sending the reels up for 2K digitization by the Library’s film preservation laboratory, Mashon heard back that the scans instead featured never-before-seen footage from the Altamont Speedway concert. The footage might be silent, but the videos include performances that were never featured in the Gimmer Shelter film, including sets from Carlos Santana, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (the latter of which supposedly hated their performance so much, they refused to give approval for footage to be used in the documentary). Aside from the performances themselves, you can catch the Stones watching the entire thing from side of stage before their infamous set. The second reel features new angles of the Stones’ performance; a silent but chaotic snapshot of the quickly deteriorating situation which descended into violence and the festival being called off, even before headliners the Grateful Dead took the stage.

An incredible discovery by the Library and with over 200,000 reels in the Prelinger Collection to sift through, here’s hoping there’s many more. Watch the video here. 

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