Underground psychedelic scenes blossomed all over the West Coast, and indeed the world, in 1966 and 1967, but Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium set the standard and begat an empire. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Fillmore was that it not only featured the best of San Francisco and American rock bands, but up and coming English bands as well. Of course, British bands had been touring America behind The Beatles since the so-called British Invasion, but the Fillmore locked up the hippest and coolest English bands as well as the American ones, and that set it apart from all its competitors.
The opening of the Fillmore East on March 8, 1968, and the Fillmore's move to Fillmore West a few months later (July 5, 1968) gave English bands two guaranteed stops on both Coasts, and through the offices of various entities like the Premier Talent Agency, a touring circuit was built up for English rock bands, including the Tea Party in Boston, the Kinetic Playground in Chicago, Eagles Ballroom in Seattle and many other places. But the foundation for English rock bands was Bill Graham's Fillmore.
Up until the Fillmore, English bands were used to playing 30 minute sets on indifferent sound systems, often in venues were selling drinks was one of the primary purposes. Groups like The Who and Cream were stunned to arrive in San Francisco and find not only a light show and state-of-the-art Owsley Stanley designed sound system, but an expectation that they would play two hour long sets (separated by a few other bands) for the same audience. The Who sent their manager to the record store to buy Who albums so they could learn their own songs; Cream extended every number into a Coltrane-style blues jam, thus upending the music industry in the process.
However, the introduction of English rock bands to the Fillmore was a somewhat slower process than most people realize. The Fillmore and its main competitor, Chet Helms Avalon, were constantly looking for new bands to book. Chet Helms had more underground connections on the West Coast, and was generally more of a taste-maker, so Graham needed a source of bands that Helms didn't have access to. It took some time, but England became a great pipeline for the Fillmore.
What Was The First English Rock Band To Play The Fillmore?
It is doubtful that there is a pub or bar that has a Trivia Night contest that would ever ask this question, but the answer is pretty obscure to even the savviest of rock fans.
June 23, 1966 Them/New Tweedy Brothers/Oxford Circle/Sons of Champlin
Them were a classic British Invasion band, tremendously popular in California, who had a legendary tour of the West Coast before their work permits ran out. Graham added a Thursday night show--I think a first--to accommodate them, as The Mothers and Lenny Bruce were playing on the weekend. The Oxford Circle were from Davis, and had just had a shining weekend at the Avalon, so Graham was suddenly anxious to book them. Marin County up-and-comers the Sons of Champlin were the "audition" band, and did not appear on the poster, but they did so well that the Sons were booked to open when Them returned to headline the weekend of July 29-30.
Nonetheless, however Them's enthusiastic California fans may have seen Them as "English," the band themselves quite correctly saw themselves as Irish, so they are not the correct answer to the imaginary trivia question (as phrased).
July 8-9, 1966 The Mindbenders/Chocolate Watch Band
The correct answer to the question "Who was the first English rock band to play The Fillmore" is actually The Mindbenders. The Mindbenders were part of the last wave of the British Invasion. Originally known as Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, they had had a hit hit called "Game Of Love" which reached #1 on Billboard on March 27, 1965. Lead singer Fontana had left, however, but the Mindbenders continued on and had a big hit of their own "A Groovy Kind Of Love," which had reached #2 on April 30, 1966. So while The Mindbenders didn't have underground cool, they were a popular band, and bands with names like "Mindbenders" fit in with the Fillmore mystique.
The Mindbenders were lead by guitarist and singer Eric Stewart, who later had success with Hotlegs (what, you've forgotten "Neanderthal Man'?) and 10cc. I have never read a review or heard a description of the band's performance, so I don't know how they went over at the Fillmore. The Mindbenders continued on through 1968, and had some limited success in England, but eventually faded away. Old people may remember them for their lip-synch appearance (backing Lulu) in the movie To Sir, With Love.
The Chocolate Watch Band were the coolest band in San Jose, and probably put on a sensational performance, but for any number of reasons being the coolest band in San Jose has never been a ticket to success in San Francisco, and the group never got their due at the Fillmore.
July 29-30 Them/Sons Of Champlin
According to Bill Champlin, Van and Bill hit it off and got wildly drunk the first night, and Graham did not forgive Champlin for some years.
October 23, 1966 The Yardbirds/Country Joe and The Fish (afternoon show)
This Sunday afternoon show was probably single-handedly responsible for establishing the idea that cool bands came from London. The Yardbirds had just flown in to California in advance of a Los Angeles television appearance, and it was one of Jeff Beck's last appearances with the group. Nonetheless, the Fillmore worked its magic and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page's twin guitar assault tore down the house. ED Denson reviewed the show in the Berkeley Barb, and called them "probably the best band in the world at this time," or words to that effect.
However, it was eight more months until another English rock band played the Fillmore.
June 16-17, 1967 The Who/Loading Zone
The Who came to San Francisco to start a long tour, and after frantically learning all their old songs to fill out both hour sets, came away mightily impressed with the Fillmore's ambience. The band promptly went to Monterey, where Pete Townshend jammed with the Dead, Eric Burdon and others on a free stage, and The Who played their famous Sunday Night set. The Who spent the rest of the summer touring America on a package show with Herman's Hermits and The Blues Magoos, so when they got back to London, all Townshend could talk about was how great the Fillmore was.
Santana Blues Band debuted at the Fillmore on the opening night, probably preceding the Loading Zone, but they were late and Bill Graham fired them for the second night.
June 20-25, 1967 Jefferson Airplane/Jimi Hendrix Experience/Gabor Szabo
We think of Jimi Hendrix as an American artist now, and rightly so, but at this time he would have been perceived as English. In any case, the implication that a bluesy American guitarist would go to London and come back as Hendrix only made London seem like just as cool as San Francisco, which in the Summer of Love was cool indeed.
The Airplane may not have played every show (this is another topic entirely) and Big Brother filled in one or more nights. Gabor Szabo would have been awesome as well, although I'm not sure anyone noticed.
June 27-July 2, 1967 Chuck Berry/Eric Burdon And The Animals/Miller Blues Band
Eric Burdon, a former British Invasion star himself, practically had a conversion event in August of 1966, and ultimately relocated the Animals to California. We have discussed Burdon's history extensively elsewhere, but suffice to say at this time The Animals were correctly seen as an English band.
The Steve Miller Blues Band backed Chuck Berry, and parts were later released as a Chuck Berry album on Mercury called Live At The Fillmore.
July 25-26-27, 1967 The Yardbirds/James Cotton Blues Band/Richie Havens
The Yardbirds, always popular on the West Coast, returned to The Fillmore. Jimmy Page was on his own as the guitarist, but he seems to have handled that pretty well.
August 22-26, 1967 Butterfield Blues Band/Cream/Southside Sound System
August 29-September 3, 1967 Cream/Electric Flag/Gary Burton Quartet
In a legendary two week stand at The Fillmore, Cream addresses the problem of filling out their sets by letting their improvisational talents out into the open. San Francisco musicians and fans are blown away, and the whole event seems like a merger of two of the biggest trends in rock music. The freedom and openness of San Francisco provides a platform for the discipline and invention of the competitive professionalism of the London music scene, and after the word spreads--and it does--Cream is the hottest band in the country. Cream had muted their on stage jamming in England, but a different dynamic was awaiting them in San Francisco and Cream established themselves as rock's heavyweight champions.
To top it off, Mike Bloomfield's Electric Flag had their first major appearance since Monterey. It was somewhat ragged, and the band even missed a night due to illness in the group. The Gary Burton Quartet, a remarkable electric jazz crossover group in their own right, featuring guitarist Larry Coryell, were in the midst of rehearsing and recording some of their classic albums (Lofty Fake Anagram and Genuine Tong Funeral).
October 27-29, 1967 Eric Burdon and The Animals/Mother Earth/Hour Glass
The Animals returned. The Hour Glass were based in Los Angeles, and featured Duane and Gregg Allman.
November 4, 1967 Big Brother and The Holding Company/Pink Floyd/Richie Havens
Pink Floyd, with a very fragile Syd Barrett still holding down the guitar and vocals as best he can, had begun their American tour. Pink Floyd was booked for a benefit at the Fillmore on October 30, but was unable to play due to visa problems, nor did they make the first two nights of the run (November 2-3). Pink Floyd made their American debut on November 4, actually around the corner from the Fillmore at the much larger Winterland.
November 9-10-11, 1967 Procol Harum/Pink Floyd/H.P. Lovecraft
At this time, Procol Harum was touring behind the huge single "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," and fm airplay on KMPX-fm fo their first album was starting to make a difference as well. The November 9th Fillmore show was the first one where two English bands shared the bill (H.P. Lovecraft were from Chicago).
The November 10 and 11 shows were moved to Winterland, a sign that ticket sales were doing well, but I still find it odd that this weekend bill was moved.
November 16-17-18, 1967 The Doors/Procol Harum/Mt. Rushmore
The Doors were huge by this time, which is why the Friday (17) and Saturday (18) shows were moved to Winterland. Mt. Rushmore was a San Francisco band.
In 1968, when the touring season started again, there were return visits from many of the bands, as well as numerous new arrivals like John Mayall, Traffic and Ten Years After. Once the Fillmore East opened, national tours could be anchored by the two Fillmores and the true British Invasion began.
Appendix: Canadian Corner
Since Canadian bands won't get a post of their own, I will briefly discuss Canadian bands that played the Fillmore:
May 5-6-7, 1967 The Grateful Dead/The Paupers/Collage/Alive
The Paupers were Toronto's hottest band, managed by Albert Grossman, and were supposedly very good live. Although they played Monterey Pop Festival, they never lived up to their promise and broke up relatively soon after.
There were a lot of good bands in Canada, but none of them played the Fillmore, and few of them played The Fillmore West. I am not counting The Sparrow here, because although they were from Toronto they were based in Sausalito, and in any case although they appear on a Fillmore poster (for June 2-3, 1967 with Jim Kweskin), I have a feeling they had broken up by then and moved to Los Angeles to become Steppenwolf. While Steppenwolf was mostly Canadian, they were initially seen as a Los Angeles band.
Does anyone know anything at all about the group Collage? Update: Bruno Ceriotti (of course) pointed out that Collage was a quartet who released a 1967 album on Smash, but nothing else is known except the band members first names. I was unable to find out anything about Alive.