Keith Altham: “I told Jimi Hendrix to set fire to his guitar”

NME's features editor during the Summer Of Love recalls his run-ins with The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and Hendrix

Behind every great rock’n’roll moment, there’s an NME journalist pulling the strings. When Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and beckoned forth the ancient spirits of rock in an iconic representation of the destruction of old conventions that came to define the Summer Of Love, for instance, it was a hack of this parish called Keith who first gave him the idea.

 

I was backstage at Finsbury Park Astoria,” recalls Keith Altham, NME’s features editor in ’67 at the start of a long and storied career in journalism and PR, “and [The Jimi Hendrix Experience] were on that package tour Englebert Humperdink and Cat Stevens and a whole bunch of people who were ill suited. Chas [Chandler, Hendrix’s manager] turned to me at one point and said ‘how are we going to steal the headlines this week?’ So I said ‘you can’t keep smashing the guitar because people will just say you’re copying The Who and The Move, you got to find something original to do – why don’t you set fire to the guitar?’

 

“There was a silence in the dressing room for about 10 seconds and Chas turned to Tony Garland, who was his PA at the time, and said ‘Tony, go out and buy some lighter fuel’. That is how ‘guitar flame’ was born. Jimi set fire to it on stage, after a few aborted efforts he whirled it around his head like an Olympic torch, much to the disconcertion of the fire chief who would probably never work again on the circuit.”

 

 

As the mastermind behind one of the defining images of 60s counterculture, Keith was the go-to guy to write the sleevenotes for a new compilation ‘60s Summer Of Love’, bringing together classic tracks from the likes of The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, The Mamas & The Papas, Cat Stevens, Donovan and dozens more lovers of the mile-wide trouser. And as a mainstay of rock’n’roll through his decades at NME and as The Who’s PR, there’s also no-one better to tap for insights into the greats…

 

Playing dress-up with The Beatles

 

“We did a few photo sections with them at Fab magazine, where I kicked around with them for a couple of afternoons. They would spend all day posing for colour photographs in a variety of costumes and silly hats so we could keep using the pictures for about six months. When they first started they were really a boy band with a couple of guitars thrown in, and people would just scream at them. You couldn’t hear them live. I saw the Beatles play a few times on stage, I think they did a Christmas show at Prince of Wales and I saw them play at a fan club convention in Wimbledon, and they had to fence the fans away with that wire mesh. They were screaming so loudly you could barely hear them, I think John was doing his famous version of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ while supposedly singing something else. They weren’t a great live band to me in that sense, because they weren’t allowed to be. The amplification system hadn’t yet caught up to have the ability to drown out the screams. It meant the Beatles did seem to be miming a lot of the time.”

 

 

Battling Jagger over Bridget Bardot

 

“I did a lot of stuff with the Stones and Jagger, I went out to Paris with them for one memorable trip where I encountered Bridget Bardot, which was no great hardship, but she seemed to prefer Mick’s attention to mine which I couldn’t quite understand. He had a bit of broken French to go with it as well, which most of us didn’t, at least he could converse in French, and she settled for him.”

 

Hitting NYC with Hendrix

 

“I flew out [to Monterey] with Jimi and The Experience from Heathrow and we flew in to New York to begin with. We spent the day mooching around Greenwich Village and I spent half of it trying to hail down cabs for Jimi because they wouldn’t stop for him. They took one look at him and saw this freaked out hippie black guy with a big burrow round his neck and a big hat and wouldn’t stop. I remember one of them turning round to me at one point and saying ‘What’s that n*****r with that hat doing in the back of my cab?’ and I couldn’t believe what he had just said. I said ‘what did you say?’ and he repeated it so I said ‘the first thing you can do is drive to the nearest police station and have a chat about civil rights’. At this point, Jimi is trying to pull me out the cab saying ‘Keith! Keith! Don’t! Just chill out!’. Eventually I let him pull me out and he said ‘Keith, don’t do me any favours, I know how to handle this shit, I’ve been dealing with it all my life. Did you see his gun?’ I said ‘no I didn’t see his gun Jimi’. ‘In another year they’ll be begging for my autograph,’ he said and he was right of course.”

 

Watching flower power bloom

 

“The Monterey festival was the cornerstone of a change in attitude towards pop music, it changed everything. Dylan was the turning point for that and gave us a more serious outlook on the popular music scene. Before that, what I was doing was just ‘fan enthusiastic’ stuff. It did [feel like a pivotal moment], but only in retrospect if I’m honest, because they had some lightweight stuff there, but there was some very impressive stuff as well. Janis Joplin was just the most amazing female singer I have ever heard, and I told her when she came backstage at one point and she looked me up and down and said ‘do you get out much honey?’ Otis Redding was on the bill as well, just 3 months before he died, singing wonderfully. ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ was just a beautiful song, I didn’t realise how big he was, six foot six maybe. A big burley guy with a beautifully silky voice.

 

“Mamas and Papas were right on cue for the flower power feeling that was around at the time, ‘peace and love man’ and all the rest of it. There was something about it that didn’t sit well. It wasn’t a bad idea – peace and love is never a bad idea as opposed to war and hate – but you’ve got to have the infrastructure in place to keep it going, and they didn’t. They were too vulnerable, which meant the vultures and a couple of figures saw a way of making a fast buck, moved in very quickly and it changed direction and became a sell-out. The Monterey festival itself was genuine, the feeling of comradeship and togetherness was real, but it changed pretty soon after that and people became slightly flaky and meant it wasn’t sufficiently strong to keep out the greed-mongers. I remember asking Brian Jones as we were walking around the grounds; he was in his gold robes and a plastic swastika necklace and I said ‘How’s the summer of love for you then? Free love, you know Brian’ and he said ‘well first of all it’s not free and it’s not love’, which kind of summed up my feelings about it.”

 

 

Bonding with The Who

 

“The Who had sponsored my trip [to Monterey], which as far as [Pete] Townsend was concerned meant he had first dibs on me. He was saying ‘I hope we are gunna get the same coverage as Jimi, you’re spending an awful lot of time with him’. I didn’t want to upset Pete Townsend that would’ve been hazardous to my health. Monterey was probably one of the most spectacular [Who gigs]. They came on with their demolition squad and wrecked the joint. People just had their mouths gaping; they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Equipment being destroyed, amplifiers being destroyed, they’d never seen anything like it. At one point they exited in a cloud of dry ice and Keith Moon’s bass drum, which he had kicked on to the ground, was rolling precariously along the front of the stage. He came through the dry ice like the Terminator and kicked the bass drum into the photographer’s pit. As they left the stage the feedback was ringing on the stage there was sort of a stunned silence from the crowd, then they erupted in to thunderous applause. That performance stuck a Doc Marten in the door. Both the Who and Hendrix pushed the door ajar on the American market – it established a moment in time where you could glimpse into the future of the world market.

 

“The Who was a love affair that for me went on for sixteen years. They were the best live band in the world at the time when it was just guitar, drum, vocal and bass, there was just nobody who could touch them when Keith Moon was in the band. The Hendrix Experience wasn’t a bad little band but they didn’t have that unified force that the Who had – they were extraordinarily powerful and the best rock songwriters in the world.”

 

’60s Summer of Love’ is released on 30th June on Universal Music On Demand.