The Hells Angels were going to kill Mick Jagger. They were armed, dangerous and fueled by a burning need for revenge. Because nobody – not even a world-famous rock star – could make fools of the Hells Angels and get away with it. But Jagger had done just that – and now he was going to pay the ultimate price. The bikers had set out in the dead of night and were sailing, undetected, toward the rocker’s home. If all went to plan, Jagger would be dead by sun-up – and the Hells Angels would have gotten their satisfaction.
The bikers in that boat might have reflected on how things had turned out so badly. After all, the trouble between the Rolling Stones and the Hells Angels had started with a simple deal. In 1969, you see, the Stones mounted a comeback tour with the help of the Angels. Their first success was an iconic free concert in London’s Hyde Park – where the Angels provided security. Or so the Stones thought.
That’s because the biker security guards at the Hyde Park gig were not actually part of the real Hells Angels. They were just using the Angels’ name. So when the show made a massive splash, the band asked the proper Hells Angels to be security at an American concert. And then things started to go terribly wrong.
It could have been so good, too. The band chose the Altamont Speedway in California for the U.S. gig. The concert would be completely free of charge, and other bands on the bill included the Grateful Dead, Santana and Jefferson Airplane. So it was an incredibly big deal for the 1960s counterculture.
The whole thing was even called “Woodstock West.” But while Woodstock was the embodiment of the hippie peace and love philosophy, the Altamont gig would become its polar opposite. The event would be tarred with shocking violence, chaos and even death. And the Hells Angels would be at the very heart of the trouble.
That’s partly because there was a major difference between the Altamont security setup and the one at Hyde Park. In London, there had been a police presence, and the fake “Hells Angels” had had little to do. But in California, the cops were kept to a minimum – so the real Angels were off the leash.
It also didn’t help that the Altamont gig was put together in a total rush. This meant that the stage was a makeshift affair, there weren’t nearly enough bathroom facilities, and no one was really running things. So considering that 300,000 people turned up to see the bands play, the gig was an organizational nightmare.
It was such an ordeal that the Grateful Dead backed out of the event altogether. And things had reached a fever pitch by the time that the Rolling Stones took to the stage. During the signature track “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mick Jagger even had to tell the audience to chill out. But the crowd – and the Angels – didn’t listen.
The Angels showed no mercy to the audience either. They used pool cues to beat people up. They drove into the crowd on their motorbikes. They even knocked out the Jefferson Airplane frontman. A photographer named Bill Owens captured the fearful scene in a series of shocking images.
Owens had mounted a sound tower to capture the immense size of the event. But instead he snapped the Angels performing many stunning acts of violence. In some of the shots, the Angels are using pool cues on members of the audience. And later Owens even felt the Angels’ wrath first hand.
That happened when a member of the Hells Angels scaled the tower to speak to Owens. Well, “speak to” is perhaps underplaying it. Owens claimed that the Angel told him to come down off the tower or face being beaten with a pipe wrench and thrown off the top. Owens didn’t think twice before getting down and getting out of there.
Yet Owens did think twice about publishing his pictures. He was so scared of reprisals from the Angels that he actually used different names to sell the photos. Given the Angels’ actions against Mick Jagger, this was perhaps a wise decision. And the violence at Altamont escalated to a deadlier level after Owens went home.
Four Hells Angels guys assaulted a man named Meredith Hunter while the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb.” Hunter was 18 years old and at the gig with his girlfriend, Patty Bredehoft. He was probably just as spaced out as the rest of the crowd – but he was also hiding a weapon.
And when the Hells Angels guys set upon him, Hunter pulled out his gun. The Angels weren’t put off by the weapon, though, and their attack only got worse. One member of the gang, Alan Passaro, stabbed the 18-year-old and left him to die. The Stones continued to play, apparently unaware of what was happening.
This last point has been questioned, though. According to writer Joel Selvin, the Stones knew exactly what was going on. Selvin told RNZ in 2019 that members of the crowd actually had hauled Hunter onto the Stones’ stage. Selvin said he even had pictures of Hunter dying at the feet of Keith Richards. But the band has never admitted this.
What can’t be denied is that Hunter died that night after the assault from the Hells Angels. And he wasn’t the only one to lose their life that day. When all was said and done, four people had died at the concert. Two people were run over by a car, and someone else drowned on site.
The aftermath of the gig was just as chaotic. The Rolling Stones distanced themselves from the whole thing and have hardly talked about it since. Selvin has even said that the band has not shown “the slightest acceptance of responsibility.” He also claimed that the Stones skipped town before settling their bills. But there were bigger consequences for the Hells Angels.
The gang were quick to try to shift the blame, mind you. The top Angel, Ralph Barger, gave an interview to the KSAN radio station. “Personally, I was there to sit on the stage and listen,” he said. “I didn’t go there to fight.” He also seemed mad that Jagger had “put it all on the Angels.”
How Barger came to this conclusion is up for debate. The Stones didn’t say much in the aftermath of the concert – and Jagger seemingly said nothing to the press. In fact, guitarist Mick Taylor appears to have been the only one to speak up at the time. And all he said was that he’d found the whole thing scary.
Whatever the case, Barger had it in for Jagger – perhaps setting the stage for what was to come later. “Mick Jagger used us for dupes, man,” he said, according to Rolling Stone magazine. “We were the biggest suckers for that idiot that I ever can see.” Before the Angels sought their revenge, though, one gang member faced jail for murder.
Alan Passaro, a 21-year-old Angel at Altamont, was arrested and charged with Hunter’s killing. He went to trial for the crime in January 1971. But this was far from a run-of-the-mill murder trial. For one thing, the case against Passaro relied on documentary footage filmed during the gig.
The documentary is called Gimme Shelter and was actually playing in theaters when the trial took place. In the film, Hunter’s death is replayed many times over – and it’s these parts that the prosecutors used to identify Passaro. But while the Angel said that he had stabbed Hunter, he insisted, “I didn’t have no intention of killing.”
The Hells Angels also apparently tried to stop the doc from being seen at all. But not through litigation or any legal means, of course. According to Gimme Shelter producer Porter Bibb, the motorcycle gang intimidated the moviemakers and burglarized their studio. “We had death threats,” Bibb told Deadline in 2019.
Bibb said the film crew were not scared of the Angels, though. They were being looked after by the police and the FBI as they finished up the doc – and they made copies of the film for extra insurance. But in the end, the Gimme Shelter footage was not the final nail in Passaro’s coffin.
Passaro even managed to put in his two cents about Mick Jagger and Gimme Shelter during the trial. “I don’t know Jagger, but I think he’s a punk. A brat,” Passaro said, according to writer Daniel Cantagallo. “They used the club for publicity for this movie of theirs.” So there was still clearly bad blood between the two groups.
But the jury eventually saw things Passaro’s way. On January 14, 1971, the Hells Angel was deemed not guilty of murder. When Passaro heard the verdict, he screamed “Yeeow!” in celebration. His wife started crying too. Police officially closed the case in 2005 without charging another suspect.
Yet this wasn’t the end of the story as far as the Hells Angels were concerned. Because, as the public found out decades later, the Angels then planned to take out Mick Jagger once and for all. This assassination plot first came to light in 2008, thanks to a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the FBI.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the FBI were the ones to uncover this plot. A report in U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail claims that the Bureau had been keeping tabs on the Hells Angels since roughly 1948. Yet even the FBI were not aware of the bikers’ attempt on Jagger’s life until after it had happened.
So what actually went down – and how did Jagger escape with his life? Well, for the 2008 BBC documentary series The FBI at 100, host Tom Mangold interviewed ex-FBI agent Mark Young. And it was Young who revealed that he’d stumbled on the plot while investigating the Angels for other crimes.
The actual date of the attack was never confirmed. But the plan itself sounds like the plot of an outlandish movie. According to the former FBI agent, the Angels sought to kill Jagger while the frontman was at a house he owned in the Hamptons in New York. The bikers needed a way to break into the property without being seen, though.
So the group had the idea of approaching the house from the water. This, they seemingly reasoned, would give them a chance to slip past security and get to the vacation home through the yard. And once the bikers were in the house, all they had to do was take care of Jagger and escape on their boat.
The Hell Angels didn’t just talk about killing Jagger, though. They actually put their plan into action. “A group of them took a boat and were all tooled up,” Mangold told U.K. newspaper the Sunday Telegraph in 2008. There was just one problem. When the bikers got out on the water, the weather took a turn for the worse.
A storm hit the Hamptons. This must have caused the sea to become dangerous – as all of the Hells Angels were dumped into the water. But it seems that the revenge-focused bikers managed to get themselves back to safety unharmed. They never went back to try to take care of Jagger, though.
As we mentioned earlier, the FBI didn’t know about this botched murder plot at the time. But “some time after the fact,” according to Mangold, news reached the agents of the attempted assassination. This was down to the Bureau having an undercover agent in the ranks of the Hells Angels.
Although the BBC documentary doesn’t confirm the name of the undercover agent, it’s possible that it was Jay Dobyns. The ex-ATF agent got on the inside of the Angels between 2001 and 2003. He then used all the info he gathered to help the Bureau take on the bikers in court. But anyway, back to Jagger.
Even after the FBI became aware of the assassination attempt, they didn’t make any arrests. As far as we know, the agent didn’t investigate the case all that much, either. Why? Well, it’s pretty obvious. “Because no actual crime had been committed, there was nothing that the FBI could do,” Mangold told the Sunday Telegraph.
This is why Jagger probably wasn’t aware of the plot until 2008, either. It’s certainly not clear from the documentary series whether the FBI told the Stones’ frontman about it. And Jagger hasn’t talked about the attempt on his life in public. He did condemn the Hells Angels on one occasion, mind you.
In 1989 – 20 years after the Altamont gig – Rolling Stone asked the Rolling Stone how he felt about the whole thing. “I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong?” Jagger said. And he saved his last line to take a dig at the Hells Angels.
“It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed and how sad it was for his family and how dreadfully the Hells Angels behaved,” Jagger said. So there is no love lost between these two groups. But the Altamont gig left a scar on Jagger.
Selvin, for one, claimed the Stones weren’t “as fearless and fierce and unyielding” afterward. And others felt that that terrible night in 1969 was more than just an end to the 1960s. It was the end of the counterculture movement altogether. The end of free love and peaceful living. And the end of rock and roll as people knew it.