1969 was a tough year for the Rolling Stones: following the exit and subsequent death of founding member Brian Jones, and Marianne Faithfull's barbiturate overdose in Australia during the Summer (she was Mick Jagger's girlfriend), the band would deal with one of the most frightening moments in their career that would be forever perpetuated on film, and that would become known as "the Altamont incident".

With the help of Bay Area friends Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones' original idea was to organise a free festival in California similar to Woodstock (whose vibes still echoed across the country) that would coincide with the band's last US date, and tape it for their upcoming tour documentary Gimme Shelter.

Altamont Speedway Free Festival proved to be a mistake from the very beginning: in the aftermath of the success of the Hyde Park concert, the band's idea for Altamont was to create an American emulation of it, full of those wonderfully loving people from the West Coast. However, and due to several unforeseen circumstances, Altamont would forever mark what represented for many the definitive end of the '60s (although some would place the decade's final gasp on the Isle of Wight festival the following year, also marked by a number of organisational difficulties - to put it mildly.)

First of all, the Altamont Speedway was everything but a good spot for Rolling Stones' "Woodstock West" fantasy: situated in Alameda County near San Francisco, its grey, desolate landscape evoked nothing even remotely similar to Hyde Park's cheery summer vibes. Actually, it wasn't even their first (or second) choice for the Free Festival: the event was originally supposed to take place in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, but plans fell through only two days before the show due to little to no co-operation from the city or the police. So Altamont was a desperate decision, a last minute call with no supervision or security available - at least until the Hell's Angels were suggested to "hell" in exchange for $500 worth of beer. Who exactly had the idea of putting the motorcycle gang in charge is a subject that is still discussed to this day, with some sources affirming it was by Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane's suggestion, and others pointing their finger to the Rolling Stones. In any case, Hell's Angels were only supposed to sit near the stage and watch the equipment, since the stage was extremely low and people could easily climb to the top of it.

There is no need to go through the consequences of the event, since they have been thoroughly addressed by numerous documentaries and interviews ever since: the image of Meredith Hunter’s stabbing by one of the Hell's Angels after a revolver had been spotted in his hand is unmercifully visible on Gimme Shelter, and unequivocally illustrated by Mick Jagger’s face while he watches the dreadful footage that ironically took place during the performance of 'Under My Thumb' (and not during 'Sympathy For the Devil' as some sources erroneously state). The "bad vibes" so frequently mentioned by Grace Slick as the day progressed unfortunately worked as a premonition, an apocalypse announcement that would echo through Albert and David Maysles' upcoming film: its title, Gimme Shelter, couldn't have been more appropriate since one of the members of Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin, was actually beaten up by one of the Hell's Angels.

Altamont became the personification of the end of an era, a collective dream that came to an abrupt, untimely halt a few miles away from where it had metaphorically begun only a couple of years before. 45 years later, its filmic testimony is still a brilliant document of a whole generation becoming suddenly and desperately lost in itself, abandoned to the bitter taste of watching what they had become as their utopias disintegrated and left them orphans of their own breakthrough philosophies.

It would take the Rolling Stones three years to return to the United States, this time with Exile on Main Street as their luggage and filmmaker Robert Frank as the fly-on-the-wall documentarian (the result, Cocksucker Blues, is one of the Stones' most controversial documentaries for showing heavy drug use and uncensored, raw nudity). 1969 went out with a bang, but not as it had been initially expected: the acknowledge of the darkest places of human nature are to this day epitomised by that fateful night when Mick Jagger asked everybody to "just cool down and easy" and was profoundly disobeyed.