Seeing Amougies: Music Power and European Music Revolution

by Pierre Crépon

Fifty years ago, in October 1969, a strange assortment of electric guitar and saxophone sounds reverberated through the Belgian countryside, emanating from what has come to be remembered as the “Amougies Festival”. Officially “Festival Actuel”, it is the name of the small village close to the French border where the festival’s marquee ended up installed that has stuck.

The festival’s programming was to remain unique: a split between what French writers then called “le pop” – rock – and what is still called “le free” – avant-garde jazz – interwoven on the same programs for five days. The biggest rock names included Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, Ten Years After, Yes, Caravan, and Captain Beefheart. Frank Zappa acted as host and occasional guest guitarist.

The jazz side of things was exclusively devoted to the music’s cutting edge, with groups led by Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Noah Howard-Frank Wright Quartet. (1) Produced by the BYG label, the festival coincided with the launch of the company’s now iconic Actuel series, for which the above jazz musicians all had or were about to cut records.

The impossibility to hear the music played in Amougies has done much for the festival’s legendary aura. Amateur audience tapes of certain rock acts circulate and a handful of extracts have seen official releases, but most of what took place is left to the imagination. However, movie cameras were present and two films assembled shortly after the festival by directors Jérôme Laperrousaz and Jean-Noël Roy. The culprit of the films’ disappearance from the commercial circuit after a brief theatrical run is rumored to be Pink Floyd, their clear star and only group to be featured in three sequences, but precise information remains elusive.

Thanks to La Direction du patrimoine cinématographique du CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée), located behind the thick walls of a former military fortification in wooded Bois-d’Arcy, southwest of Paris, it remains possible to see Amougies Music Power and its second part Amougies European Music Revolution (2) for research purposes.

The two films are stylistically identical. There are no interviews, voice-overs, or coverage of the organizational drama that led this French festival to take place in Belgium after a string of relocations. The focus is only the music. The sole setting is a crowded stage perpetually surrounded by onlookers that only daybreak and too many hours of playing could clear, as was the case for the premiere performance of saxophonist John Surman’s trio with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin. Sequences are short and raw, cutting abruptly without waiting for pieces to end. They are strung together by shots of the rural surroundings and of “hippy” spectators walking away in early morning fog.

The cameras capture the proceedings at the closest possible range, moving on stage in-between performers, seeking close-up shots of faces, hands, and instruments, rarely showing groups as full entities. The approach works best in one of two sequences featuring the Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the films’ clear highlights. Cameras navigate the group’s massive, stage-filling inventory of instruments, showing saxophonist Joseph Jarman parodying the rock musicians with a guitar and haranguing listeners. While Malachi Favors plays electric bass in the background, Jarman proceeds to strip, throwing his clothes at the audience. As if on cue, the PA system plays its part and breaks down, adding to the intensity of the moment rather than impairing it. (The sequence cuts off when Jarman is down to his underwear, but he did go all the way.)

Historically, Amougies happened during the emergence of a new breed of music festivals. Comparison points used in contemporary press coverage included Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, both held two months before. In L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri (soon to become Charlie Hebdo), writer Delfeil de Ton pitted Laperrousaz and Roy’s style against D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, opposing the latter’s recreation of the spectator’s point of view – a simple vehicle to relive the 1967 festival’s experience –, to the on-stage presence offered for Amougies – a perspective made possible only through the films. (3)

Slinging terms like “pitiful”, “cheats”, or “whore” at pop musicians, Delfeil de Ton also wrote about the limits of the rock and free jazz assemblage. Except for the Art Ensemble and perhaps Anthony Braxton – seen hitting trash cans mounted on stands while hair from Leroy Jenkins’s violin bow float in the wind – two fundamentally different approaches to stage presence and spectacle are on display. Slightly more time is devoted to rock, but the regular alternation of genres in the films’ sequencing underlines this.

The juxtaposition also provides food for thought regarding free jazz influences on the forward- looking rock of the era. It would not be surprising if The Nice’s Keith Emerson was influenced by Cecil Taylor – Emerson definitely takes things farther in terms of pugilism and acrobatics. A shot shows a “fragile” sticker on his Hammond organ as it is being beat mercilessly, played on the inside, and even jumped over. Much has been said on the avant-garde influences of Captain Beefheart’s then recently released Trout Mask Replica, and his Magic Band here features the “Mascara Snake” on the decidedly non-rock bass clarinet. What has come to be known as the “Canterbury Scene”, noted for its use of improvisation, gets a significant portion of screen time, with Caravan and Soft Machine both featured twice and an early version of Daevid Allen’s Gong.

The notably lengthier sequence dedicated to Archie Shepp is another high point. Contrary to what legend would have, the saxophonist’s ad hoc big band doesn’t provide the setting for a Shepp/Zappa summit. Generally, the guitarist is not a central figure in the films, and he is here only one of a dozen musicians that are propelled by the drum kits of Philly Joe Jones and Louis Moholo. A bluesy number is played with the harmonicas of Chicago Beau and Julio Finn at the forefront. When the music quiets down, Shepp sings his “Mama Rose” while the horns play mysterious Eastern lines.

The most striking scene of the films might be Don Cherry’s set. Film footage of the trumpeter’s early years is rare, making this particularly precious. Cherry vamps on a piano, standing up – the posture of the multi-instrumentalist ready to move on to the next sound device – backed by South African bassist Johnny Dyani and Turkish drummer Okay Temiz. At a point, Neneh Cherry, then 5, wanders into a close-up showing Cherry bent on the instrument, in deep concentration. The focus is not broken, the playing is at a very high level, and one can only regret the fade out shortening the moment.

A third, very limited, component of the festival’s programming was contemporary “new music”. The films only feature a short glimpse of the Marseille-based GERM, who played a Terry Riley piece at Amougies when the composer had yet to achieve worldwide fame. Of the groups having appeared on the first day of the festival, only the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation is featured. Drummer Sunny Murray is therefore regrettably absent, as is pianist Burton Greene. Also absent are most French pop groups, represented only by Ame Son, and free jazz musicians with less visible profiles: Clifford Thornton, Kenneth Terroade, Arthur Jones. For the record, aside from the names previously mentioned, Joachim Kühn, Steve Lacy, Robin Kenyatta, The Pretty Things, and East of Eden also make the cut. (4)

Fifty years on, the Amougies films stand as raw documents of a one-time event in music history. Shortly after the festival, the precarious alignment of stars that had made it possible for this music to be played in a context where such documentation could occur was reshuffled. It was not to be repeated, and now that the Pink Floyd footage has been released in a costly box set (5), we can only hope that a home video release might become possible. All the more since, rumor has it, extensive rushes survive.

Special thanks to Patrice Delavie and Magalie Balthazard at La Direction du patrimoine cinématographique du CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée).

© 2019 Pierre Crépon


  1. For additional details on the festival’s schedule, see Pierre Crépon, “Free Jazz in Amougies: Research on the Schedule of the Festival Actuel, October 24-28, 1969,” Discogs, October 2019,
  2. France: Open Films, 1970.
  3. Delfeil de Ton, “Les lundis de Delfeil de Ton: Amougies au cinéma,” L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, July 1, 1970, 6.
  4. An additional rock group appears, that this writer apologizes for having failed to take down properly.
  5. Pink Floyd, The Early Years 1965-1972, Columbia/Pink Floyd Records PFREYB1, 2016.

> back to contents