Saturday, August 7, 2010
Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA: Major Rock Shows 1967-69
The Swing Auditorium, on E Street in San Bernardino, had been built in 1949 and had a capacity of up to 10,000, making it one of the largest rock arenas in use in the 1960s. Many non-Californians assume that San Bernardino is part of Los Angeles, but that is only true in a very broad sense. The city of San Bernardino is actually 60 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, and even further from Santa Monica or the Coast. Given the history of Southern California traffic, that can sometimes be two hours of more of driving, at any time of the day or night. Thus San Bernardino was really new territory for 60s rock bands, far away in many senses from Los Angeles proper.
The cities and counties of San Bernardino and Riverside are generally known today as The Inland Empire, part of Greater Los Angeles in some broad ways and a separate planet in others. Those who have never lived or spent time in Southern California have a tendency to think of Greater LA as a single entity but in fact it is more of an ecosystem, both culturally and economically. San Bernardino has had a lively music scene since World War 2, but the music was infused by the different universe of the Inland Empire. This is not some long-lost phenomenon; the Empire has always had a distinct relationship to Los Angeles, providing a space for Orange Groves, Factories, Aerospace and now Exurbs, with the accompanying boom and bust cycles coloring each development.
An amazing post by blogger and musician David Lowery (from the groups Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) looks at how the physical and economic landscape of the Inland Empire has infused his music over time. I took his excellent meditation as an opportunity to look at the arrival of the modern rock concert in the Inland Empire, at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino.
While the Swing was apparently used for many "Teen" rock shows in the mid-60s, with one important exception touring bands did not begin playing there until late 1967. Rock shows in California followed commerce, which had followed the major Interstates and which ultimately replicated the history of railroad construction. The patterns of late 20th rock band touring were laid on top of the network of railroads built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 60s rock bands played San Francisco and Los Angeles first, and then extended their range to places like Santa Barbara and San Diego in the South and Portland and Seattle in the North, all along the US-101/I-5 corridor. All those places had established concert venues with major rock bands before psychedelia migrated East to San Bernardino.
San Bernardino has an interesting history dating back to at least 1810, too lengthy to go into here. Given its isolation and the unimportance of Southern California with respect to San Francisco, it played little role in California History (if the Mormons had not returned to Salt Lake City from San Bernardino in the late 1850s, perhaps that history would have been different, but I digress). The city and county of San Bernardino are in a dry desert that is not inherently friendly to development. Like almost all of Southern California, without importing water and having a railroad to export production, the city and county had little chance to thrive. The Southern Pacific Railroad, who effectively created modern Los Angeles by including it on the SP Main Line, chose for various reasons to site their junction at Colton, in neighboring Riverside County. This left San Bernardino high and dry.
San Bernardino found a rail link through a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In the Southwest, the general direction of the Santa Fe gave rise to the communities that linked the famous Route 66, one of the first Interstate Highways. The metrically preferable name of San Bernardino got it included in the 1946 Bobby Troup song of the same name, later covered by Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones, among others.
San Bernardino and The Rise Of Greater Los Angeles
Architecture Critic Reyner Banham, in his classic 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, demonstrated conclusively that the history of Los Angeles development was intrinsically tied to the development of railroads. Most important of these was the interurban Pacific Electric Railroad, which linked a series of then-disparate communities in such a way that they were a greater whole that existed as a single economic entity. The map below is part of the Streetcar map from 1920, and anyone who has even visited the Los Angeles area will recognize the blueprint of the freeway system that would arrive before and after World War 2 (click for a larger version)
The Pacific Electric Railway reached San Bernardino in 1911. At that point, despite the enormous distance from San Bernardino to the Coast, it became part of greater Los Angeles. The outline of Interstate 10 and Interstate 215 are visible on the streetcar maps, because as Banham eloquently observes, the railway created the interlocking communities that were ultimately served by the Freeways. As a result of the Pacific Electric, San Bernardino became a part of Los Angeles while places to the North, like Palmdale and Lancaster, did not.
The Inland Empire In The 1960s
World War 2 brought enormous growth to California, and Greater Los Angeles in particular benefited from the expansion of the Aerospace Industry. Norton Air Force Base opened in 1942 near Downtown San Bernardino, and it contributed greatly to the growth of the area. During the great boom in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, the "Inland Empire," which more or less defined the area from the San Bernardino County line (abutting Los Angeles County) to the Nevada state line, moved from being a land of orange groves to a community of factories and suburbs. Riverside County, just to the South, and lacking any large cities, also became part of the broader Inland Empire. New suburbs grew up all around both counties, as people flocked to Southern California from elsewhere to work in the various industries located in the Empire.
In the 1960s, the Inland Empire was full of teenagers, and they jumped on the rock and roll train of the 1960s without hesitation. The Empire was far from Hollywood, however, so local garage bands were surprisingly successful, as there was an audience of eager teenagers ready, ready, ready to rock and roll. However, while the rock stories in Riverside and the surrounding area in the 1960s are great ones, it has been told brilliantly and in amazing detail by Ugly Things magazine, so I will not recap them here. Suffice to say, teenage groups like Bush and The Misunderstood did not have to compete with the rock stars of the day, as they almost never ventured far inland, and local teenagers became rock stars in their own right.
The Rolling Stones
While rock bands of the mid-60s completely ignored San Bernardino, which may have well have been Kansas as far as they were concerned, there was one amazing exception: The Rolling Stones. For whatever reason, the Stones made their American concert debut at the Swing Auditorium on June 5, 1964. Keith Richards recalled the crowd fondly, as they knew all the words to the songs, and of course Keith had heard of San Bernardino because he knew the lyrics of "Route 66." The Stones returned to San Bernardino on May 15, 1965, to an apparently equally rapturous reception, but after that they played nearer the Coast, and Inland Empire teenagers still had to get their live music through their local heroes.
Rock Touring In The 1960s
Prior to the Fillmore and the Avalon, rock bands only toured to accelerate the sales of records. Most concerts were sponsored by local radio stations, and even headline bands performed short sets, typically around 30 minutes. Numerous local acts would fill out the bill, sound systems were dismal and lighting was pedestrian. Serious bands saved their best performances for nightclubs in big cities, where there was more of an opportunity to play well, but even those were few and far between.
The Fillmore and the Avalon elevated the rock concert to Art, in parallel with the great albums released by the likes of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. A rock concert became a Serious Event, treated reverentially and subject to analysis and criticism. Professional sound and adequate lighting were part of the "concert experience," just as they would be on Broadway. At first this concert aesthetic only took hold in some Underground enclaves in a few big cities, like San Francisco and Santa Monica. As some of the groups who embodied that aesthetic became popular, like Jefferson Airplane and The Doors, they started to tour around the country.
The initial "Fillmore Circuit" roughly followed I-80 and I-5, more or less paralleling the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail routes as they headed East. Bands played the West Coast (I-5) and headed East through the Sierras towards Chicago, stopping off to play Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha or Des Moines on the way. From Chicago they headed to New York, via Cleveland and Detroit, and then worked the I-95 corridor along the Eastern Seaboard. Famous 60s venues like the Boston Tea Party, the Fillmore East, Philadelphia's Electric Factory and Miami's Thee Image were all arteries off the rock and roll "Main Line" of I-95. The lesser known venues of the West Coast stuck close to either US 101 or I-5 (from the Hippodrome in San Diego to the Fillmore, thence to the Crystal Ballroom in Portland and Eagles Ballroom in Seattle).
By 1968, however, rock music had exploded way beyond the confines of a few big cities. FM radio was booming, teenagers everywhere read Rolling Stone magazine, and there were a lot of bands out touring. Managers and booking agents started to see that there was plenty of pent up demand for rock shows out in the suburbs. Just as the railways had extended their reach from big cities in order to create suburbs, rock tours followed the same map. Bands on a West Coast tour discovered they could play a show near Los Angeles one night and then play Orange County or San Bernardino the next night for an entirely different audience.
The Swing Auditorium
The Swing Auditorium was central to San Bernardino County, and more accessible to Riverside County than any venue in Los Angeles County and most of Orange. Every account I have read of the Swing Auditorium recalls it as an aging dump with terrible sound, and yet those recollections were surprisingly fond. What follows is a list of rock concerts at Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino from 1967 to 1969 that feature touring rock bands, as the rock universe followed the path of the Pacific Electric Railway and brought a high-but-not-lonesome sound to the Inland Empire.
February 4, 1967 Buffalo Springfield
This was probably a regular radio station style show, and the Springfield probably played a brief set. Such shows were probably common at the Swing, and this one is only memorialized because Neil Young and Stephen Stills were in Buffalo Springfield.
April 15, 1967 The Turtles/Sandpipers
July 14, 1967 “Crepuscular Happening” The Grass Roots and Battle of The Bands
Ugly Things #28 described this event in some detail, and it was probably typical. The battling bands included The Good Feelins (from San Bernardino), The Torquays (also SB), Blues In A Bottle (Riverside) and Smoke (LA).
July 17, 1967 Jefferson Airplane
August 25, 1967 Buffalo Springfield
November 3, 1967 Buffalo Springfield/Yellow Payges/Mandala
Mandala were a high powered group from Toronto, Ontario.
November 17, 1967 Eric Burdon and The Animals/Blues In A Bottle/Caretakers/Good Feelins/Ancient Peach
Another typical event, sponsored by KMEN-am, with over 5000 in attendance (per UT #28).The new, psychedelic Animals had placed themselves firmly in the Fillmore camp, but they still played a lot of shows like this one, headlining over a number of local acts.
December 16, 1967 The Doors/Fly By Night Company/Friends And Relations/Winfield Concessions/Electric Chairs
I believe that San Bernardino got a fair number of dates in the Fall and Winter because touring was a snowy enterprise in other parts of the country, and the sunny Inland Empire was the beneficiary.
February 25, 1968 Cream/The Hunger/The Caretakers
A Commenter discovered this hitherto lost Cream date, presented by KFXM radio. Cream was thought to have played at Cal State Northridge on this date--perhaps they played two venues.
Cream was not only huge, but important, a serious live rock band. The Doors and the Airplane were great, of course, but they also had huge AM singles and a certain amount of teenybopper appeal, but Cream were revered like jazz musicians.
April 7, 1968 Steppenwolf/Blue Cheer/Cactus
April 20, 1968 Eric Burdon and The Animals/Friends and Relations/Yellow Payges/Electric Chair
May 25, 1968 Jefferson Airplane/Iron Butterfly/Boston Tea Party
Jefferson Airplane and Iron Butterfly were two of the biggest touring rock acts in the country at this point. This may have been the first major rock show at the Swing with a light show, since the Airplane toured with their own.
May 27, 1968 Cream
Cream returned for another date in May.
May 31, 1968 Mothers Of Invention
August 21, 1968: Steppenwolf / The Grass Roots / Sonny Love / Sonny Knight & The Soul Congregation / Chicago Transit Authority / The Fabulous Wahler / Three Dog Night
"First Annual Inland Empire Pop Festival"
September 5, 1968 Jimi Hendrix Experience/Vanilla Fudge/Eire Apparent/Soft Machine
Once Cream and Jimi Hendrix had both played the Swing, the venue was officially part of the touring circuit, however far it was from Los Angeles proper.
December 6, 1968 Eric Burdon and The Animals/New Buffalo Springfield
December 14, 1968 Chambers Brothers/Buddy Miles Express/Sir Douglas Quintet
February 1, 1969: Creedence Clearwater Revival/Canned Heat
February 18, 1969 Iron Butterfly/Steve Miller Band/P,G & E
March 28, 1969 Janis Joplin/MC5/Lee Michaels
April 26, 1969 Jefferson Airplane
August 8, 1969 Led Zeppelin/Jethro Tull
Imagine Jethro Tull as an opening act, and opening for Led Zeppelin at that. No wonder people have fond memories of the Swing.
August 30, 1969 Sly And The Family Stone
September 6, 1969 Iron Butterfly
Although Iron Butterfly's music seems dated today, they were a popular group in 1969, witnessed by the fact that they headlined the venue twice that year.
September 20, 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival/Lee Michaels
November 14, 1969 Moody Blues
November 21, 1969 Blood, Sweat & Tears
(Bob Weir and Pigpen on stage at the Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino on December 13, 1969. Photo by (and thanks to) Danny Payne)
December 13, 1969 Grateful Dead/Country Joe and The Fish/Flying Burrito Brothers
The Grateful Dead began a fruitful history with the Swing Auditorium on this day. It being the Dead and all, there's a tape and even some quite amazing photos (thanks to Danny Payne and Brad).
December 31, 1969 Lee Michaels
As the Inland Empire population boomed, and the rock market swelled as well, the Swing became a regular port of call for rock bands in the 1970s. In September 1981, the Swing Auditorium was struck by a small plane, and ultimately the building had to be torn down. Even the briefest google search, however, will show you that the ancient arena had a wealth of memories for its patrons. The Swing acted as a sort of cultural signpost for rock fans in the Inland Empire, as it was where bands from elsewhere put their feet on the dry desert, so its no surprise that despite the building's flaws it brings pack powerful memories for those who saw bands there.
Rock had moved from big cities to the suburbs by 1969, and San Bernardino was a textbook example (were I to write a textbook, that is). As the 1970s wore on, rock expanded beyond the anchors of the larger cities to the entire country, and individual suburbs of big cities became less important in their own right. When rock became the dominant form of live entertainment, major bands could play anywhere there was a population, and the need for rockin' suburbs anchored to a major metropolitan area was less critical, and the Swing was not replaced by a similar venue.