Live Music Exchange Blog

San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium: From ‘Dance-concerts’ to ‘Concerts’ – Steve Waksman


This week’s guest post is by Steve Waksman, Associate Professor of Music and American Studies at Smith College and author of Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard University Press, 1999) and This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (University of California Press, 2009).

He is currently researching the history of live music in the U.S. from the 19th century to the present and today’s post looks at how archival material about Bill Graham’s Fillmore illustrates changes and tensions in audience behaviour at rock concerts in the 1960s.

The reputation of San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium as one of the most hallowed live music spaces in rock history has long been well established. Equally well known is the importance of Bill Graham, the pioneer promoter who founded the Fillmore in early 1966 and would become perhaps the single most influential concert promoter in the United States from that point forward until his death in 1991.

Graham’s memoir Bill Graham Presents – co-authored with Robert Greenfield – is essential reading for anyone seeking a historical understanding of how rock concerts became big business, and how the culture of live rock changed during the crucial years from the mid-1960s through the 1980s. With Greenfield’s journalistic hand supplementing Graham’s own reflections, the book is not simply one man’s perspective on these issues but a rich oral history that includes the voices of many of the era’s participants, from leading rock performers like Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend to many employees who worked for Graham and his organization and saw it evolve. Nonetheless, it very much presents an inside-the-business view of these issues, with Graham’s insights expectedly setting the tone.

While doing research at the recently opened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archive in Cleveland, Ohio, I was excited by a discovery that sheds unique light on Graham, the Fillmore, and the ways in which rock concerts were changing in the latter years of the 1960s. Sifting through three boxes of material pertaining to the influential San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason, I found a personal, handwritten letter addressed to Gleason dated October 23, 1968, written by David A. Wiles. Wiles was, as best I can discern, not a musician or music industry insider, but a fan who had attended many shows at the Fillmore in the more than two years since it had opened, and who wanted to voice his dissatisfaction to Gleason about some of the trends that he saw taking hold.

To provide some larger context for Wiles’ letter, let me turn to Pete Townshend. Interviewed by Robert Greenfield for Bill Graham Presents, Townshend described what he called the “electric ballroom syndrome” typified by the Fillmore, through which live rock was made into a more “listenable music” rather than something primarily presented to accompany dancing. By all accounts, dancing was prevalent at the earliest Fillmore shows, but as bands locally and internationally developed an approach to rock performance that favored extended improvisational flights that placed new demands on audiences as listeners, so Graham cultivated a concert environment that favored attentive listening. When Graham changed the location of the Fillmore in the summer of 1968 and christened the new space Fillmore West – now a counterpart to the Fillmore East, which he had opened in New York City – these tendencies were already well in place.

This shift in the orientation of the Fillmore audience is, in large part, what motivates Wiles’ letter to Gleason. Early in his letter, he observes that Gleason had himself previously noted in his San Francisco Chronicle newspaper column that Fillmore shows had transformed from “dance-concerts” to “concerts” at which the audience “plopped down in front of the bandstand.” In itself, this change was not objectionable to Wiles, but what bothers him is that Graham, in his desire to generate the most profit from each show, allowed the hall to fill beyond a comfortable capacity, so that “it is impossible to even have a good time anymore – where a person cannot stand if he wants to without being shouted at by rude, obnoxious people – ‘SIT DOWN’.”

Wiles recalls a time when Graham had encouraged audience members to dance. More vividly, he recounts his experience at a Fillmore concert where someone in the crowd shouted at Janis Joplin to tell others in the audience to sit down, only to have Janis reply, “I’m not telling anyone what to do – It would be better if you did dance!” By contrast, at a recent Jimi Hendrix show Wiles was “disgusted” by what he encountered. His complaint – which includes reference to the Fillmore’s main competitor on the local rock ballroom scene, the Avalon – is worth quoting in full:

Never have I seen so many people – packed in like pigs. Why? Must so many tickets be sold that it becomes a matter of survival to see the show? And it’s not even worth getting dressed up for anymore, because people push, shove, swear at you. People still dress beautifully for the Avalon, why can’t the Fillmore retain some of the gentleness and beauty of its past? Must it turn into a 2 shows a night, pack ‘em in like cattle type operation.

Wiles ends his letter by pondering whether such changes connote “the beginning of the end” of the city’s ballroom scene. This might sound like the over-dramatic fears of a beset fan, but when one considers that within a month of his letter the Avalon would lose its lease and be forced to close, and both Fillmores – West and East – would close three years later in 1971, it could also be viewed as foreshadowing.

Several things make this letter such a valuable resource for the scholar of live rock music. While one can certainly interview people who might have attended the Fillmore or Fillmore West in their heyday, it is rare to find such a detailed first person fan account that is contemporary with the events being described. Clearly David Wiles cannot be said to speak for everyone who attended the Fillmore, but he nonetheless gives us insight into what it was like to go to shows in those years. More importantly, his complaints allow us to cut through the heavy veil of nostalgia that so often surrounds memories and historical portraits of the Fillmore and the larger San Francisco scene. Criticism of Graham for his business-minded approach to concert promotion has never been scarce, but here we get an audience member’s sense of how Graham’s approach was experienced by one who was there, and who had no vested interest in the Fillmore shows except that they provide the best possible live music experience. On this score, Wiles allows us to see the shows at the Fillmore as distinctly contested spaces, where different ideas about what a rock concert should be – a place for dancing or a place for listening, a place where the crowd equaled profit or a place where the crowd equaled the ability to have a good time – came into contact and rubbed up against one another, and not always comfortably.

Steve Waksman


Graham, Bill and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. New

York: Da Capo, 2004.

Wiles, David A. Letter to Ralph Gleason, dated October 23, 1968. Jeff Gold Collection, Box

RG2, Library and Archives, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.





Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


3 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium: From ‘Dance-concerts’ to ‘Concerts’ – Steve Waksman

This site is a space for comment and discussion. Please refrain from promotional activities such as advertising gigs or releases, offers of free downloads or similar. Any spam activity will be removed from the site.

  1. Pingback: Live Music Exchange Digest – w/c 5th November 2012 |

  2. A very good example of the music-for-listening/viewing vs music-for-dancing conflict. Coincidentally I was at that Hendrix gig – I can remember that everyone was sitting and that it was very full. Don’t remember any particular nastiness but then I don’t remember much detail at all (other than the music’s volume) – one aspect of Fillmore gigs at that point was that everyone was very stoned, which is why ‘flopping down’ seemed like the obvious thing to do.
    Simon Frith

  3. Pingback: Live Music Exchange Digest – w/c 1st April 2013 |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *