The Story Behind the Anti-War Protest Song “San Franciscan Nights” by Eric Burdon and The Animals

The word “hippie” comes from hipster and describes people who embraced a social movement in the mid-20th century. Their anti-materialistic lifestyle and rejection of conformity and consumerism was a continuation of the wave started by the Beat Generation, who had experimented with drugs, sexuality, and travel. Writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady appealed to the “beatniks” who were unhappy with the status quo.

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As early as 1964, the media was using the term hippie. It became synonymous with anti-war protests, and hippies started adopting the slang terms created by the Beat writers and subscribing to the countercultural ideas they fostered. And as a result of LSD and marijuana use, the musical landscape changed drastically. Let’s take a look at the story behind “San Franciscan Nights” by Eric Burdon and The Animals.


The song’s opening is a parody of the TV police procedural Dragnet, with Burdon reciting a verse encouraging listeners to do whatever it takes to reach San Francisco.

The following program is dedicated to the city and people of San Francisco,
who may not know it, but they are beautiful, and so is their city
This is a very personal song, so if the viewer cannot understand it,
particularly those of you who are European residents
save up all your bread and fly trans-Love Airways to
San Francisco U.S.A., then maybe you’ll understand the song, it
will be worth it, if not for the sake of this song but for the
Sake of your own peace of mind

San Francisco

Hippies started to congregate in larger populated cities. Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco had some of the biggest groups of counterculture representatives. In 1967, the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park and the Monterey International Pop Festival brought the image of the hippie to the mainstream media. The West Coast celebrated the Summer of Love as the growing movement of anti-establishment dreamers believed they could make a difference in the world.

The Animals first visited America in 1964 and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. “House of the Rising Sun” shot to the top of the charts, and more hits followed. The original lineup continued for a few years before they began splintering. Bassist Chas Chandler managed The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and lead singer Eric Burdon gathered a new crop of musicians and dubbed them The New Animals.

Strobe lights beam create dreams
Walls move minds do, too
On a warm San Franciscan night
Old child, young child feel alright
On a warm San Franciscan night
Angels sing leather wings
Jeans of blue Harley Davidsons, too
On a warm San Franciscan night
Old angels, young angels feel alright
On a warm San Franciscan night

Monterey Pop

The fashion and values of hippies significantly affected culture, appearing in television shows, movies, books, art, and music. Mainstream society assimilated many aspects of hippie culture, and hippies began subscribing to Eastern philosophy and Asiatic spiritual concepts. The vast majority of the movement consisted of the oldest Baby Boomers and the youngest members of the Silent Generation. People born in the late ’40s and early ’50s came of age during the most optimistic era of the hippie movement.

Eric Burdon and The New Animals played at the Monterey International Pop Festival on Friday, June 16, 1967. They covered “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones, featuring an electric violin. This performance signaled a change in Burdon’s music, moving in a more psychedelic, hard rock, politically charged direction. He later wrote the song “Monterey” about the experience. The lyrics would quote a line from “Renaissance Fair” by The Byrds and name-check Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Hugh Masekela, The Grateful Dead, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones.

I wasn’t born there. Perhaps I’ll die there
There’s no place left to go, San Franciscan

Be-Ins and Love-Ins

In the BBC documentary Eric Burdon: Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, the singer remembers his time in San Francisco during the Summer of Love: “It was all flooded with color. England was bleak, and America was technicolor cinemascope. For a few months, it was heaven. It was magic, the great be-ins and love-ins in the park, and the people that I met. Well, that’s what LSD does.”

Cop’s face is filled with hate
Heavens above, he’s on a street called love
When will they even learn
Old cop, young cop feel alright
On a warm San Franciscan night
The children are cool
They don’t raise fools
It’s an American dream
Includes Indians, too

Anti Vietnam

“San Franciscan Nights” was written in protest of the Vietnam War. In 2010, Burdon told Songfacts: “The ‘Love Generation’ helped the anti-war stance in the States. It certainly turned a lot of soldiers’ heads around, making them wonder why they had to be out fighting a war when back home, their girlfriends were frolicking around, and it caused a lot of anguish on that level. Maybe it helped politically with the so-called enemy. I’m not sure.”


The song’s final line is a plea to include Indians, too. In 1963, Belva Cottier, a Sioux social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area, learned the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary would be closed, and the city of San Francisco would take over the property. According to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, she and her cousin, Richard McKenzie, proposed that if the property was surplus land of the government, Sioux could claim it. On March 8, 1964, a group of Sioux demonstrated by occupying the island. The protesters publicly offered the federal government 47 cents per acre, the same amount for the land the government had initially offered them. The protesters were threatened they would be charged with a felony. This resulted in increased attention to indigenous peoples’ protests across the Bay Area. Occupation continued for years. On June 10, 1971, FBI agents and special forces police removed five women, four children, and six unarmed Indian men. The occupation was ended.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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