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How Britain fell in love with music festivals

Pop Music Festival of the Isle of Wight (Photo by Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) - Credit: Henri Bureau/Sygma/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

On June 1, 1985, the Peace Convoy, a nomadic band of New Age travellers aboard a convoy of scruffy, repurposed and salvaged coaches, ambulances and vans, attempted to set up camp near the ring of prehistoric standing stones, for what would should have been the 11th Stonehenge Festival.

This was despite a court injunction prohibiting the event from going ahead. Some 1,300 officers from Wiltshire Police had been deployed to enforce the injunction with a four-mile exclusion zone.

Precisely what happened next is debated. The police claim that the convoy tried to barge its way through to the stones. The travellers deny this and say the officers began to smash their vehicle windows.

A section of the convoy left the road and entered an adjacent field. Here, the travellers tried to regroup and to begin negotiations with the police. At 7pm, officers started to clear the area. They achieved their aim using tactics of swift deployment and violent assault – methods that had been developed in the recent miners’ strike.

There were more than 500 arrests, and many of the vehicles were damaged. The 11th Stonehenge Festival never happened. ITN journalist Kim Sabido, covering the story, said that at this ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ he had seen “some of the most brutal police treatment of people” that he had ever witnessed.

Those travellers that were able to get away retreated into Somerset. They made their way to Worthy Farm, the home of Michael Eavis, the man behind the Glastonbury Festival – which was first held 50 years ago this weekend.

Instinctively, Eavis was an ally of the New Age travellers and they had helped shape his festival over the years, their ideals and outlook influencing and informing how it was organised. This intensified after the Battle of the Beanfield, as Worthy Farm offered sanctuary, and the travellers were allowed to create their own free space within the Glastonbury Festival.

Five years later, though, riots between travellers and security teams broke out on the day after the festival, over claims they were looting, ending in 235 arrests and £50,000 of damage. From that point on, it was clear that the festival had to change and become more professional to survive.

That five-year period, from the Battle of the Beanfield to the travellers’ rioting in 1990, was the end of a particular tradition in British festivals. It was a tradition that went back to the free festival movement of the 1970s and back even further to the very origins of the events.

One of the earliest was the Beaulieu Jazz Festival, first held in 1956. Inspired by the American Newport Jazz Festival, Beaulieu featured on its bill acts like Acker Bilk, Johnny Dankworth and Ian Menzies and the Clyde Valley Stompers, which, whilst not quite as impressive as Newport (Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Basie, Ellington, Armstrong, Holiday to name a few) did appeal to that first generation of British teenagers who used music to define their place in the world.

And if you think that those trad-jazz teens were a fairly mild bunch, you’d be wrong. In 1960, there was a riot at Beaulieu, supposedly caused by Bilk’s billing, with fists flying between the trad-jazz and modern jazz faction. A BBC scaffolding broadcast tower was demolished in the fracas.

The incident led to some of the first tabloid ‘youth gone wild’ headlines of the 1960s. Long before the mods and the rockers and Mick and Keith’s orgies, the British press ran lurid tales about jazz-loving nihilistic beatniks. But there are also accounts of the riot that suggest that it had nothing to do with a trad-jazz, Acker Bilk, running order squabble fest.

There is some evidence that the violence in 1960 was caused by Teddy Boys from Portsmouth who just liked to make trouble. If this is true then, as we shall see, this would not be the only time that young men from Portsmouth did their best to ruin an English festival.

The one person who did have a good 1960 Beaulieu festival was the 16-year-old Rod Stewart. According to his autobiography, Stewart snuck into the site via an overflow sewage pipe. In the beer tent, he got chatted up by a much older and much larger woman. He ended up losing his virginity to her. If nothing else, Stewart’s anecdote demonstrates that part of the appeal of festivals for the young has always been about booze and sex.

But the other significant thing about Stewart’s attendance at Beaulieu is that his subsequent musical development mirrors that of the development of festivals themselves. Jazz festivals became jazz and blues festivals, jazz and blues festivals then became jazz, blues and R+B festivals.

The most famous of these festivals was the National Jazz Festival which took off as Beaulieu closed down. By 1963, this event had moved far enough away from trad-jazz to include the Rolling Stones in its line-up. It moved about a lot in the 1960s, but in 1970 it settled in Reading, and with a couple of exceptions (one caused by Tory councillors and the other by Covid) it has been there ever since. And if Glastonbury is the UK’s alpha-festival, then Reading is its nearest

Moreover, many among us prefer Reading because firstly, it was always more about music than lifestyle, and secondly, it’s not on a farm miles from anywhere – and therefore has better transport links.

It is impossible to separate the history of the UK’s festivals from those of the USA. The Newport Jazz Festival inspired not only Beaulieu but the Cambridge Folk Festival, which began in 1965 and still takes place in the same venue and sticks to its core musical identity.

But it was Woodstock, in upstate New York that set the tone for so much of what followed. So many people turned up there that the organisers declared it free (the authorities declared it a disaster zone). And it was this counter-culture belief, held among the mostly middle class, largely white, hippy movement, that getting something for free, something for nothing, was a radical act, that would shape festival culture over the next few years.

Back in the UK, the first Hyde Park Festivals were free. Somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million people supposedly turned up to see the Stones in 1969. A few weeks later, the second Isle Of Wight festival took place. This one wasn’t free. There was a business plan of sorts, and while the organisers, Roy and Ron Foulks, were tending to make it up as they want along, they did a fantastic job, especially, because, as Ray Foulks put it in the title of his memoir, they managed to steal Dylan from Woodstock.

One of the joys of British rock and pop is that all that sex and drugs and rock and roll stuff, and all that guitar hero, genius poet, male ego, straddling the earth twaddle, is often played out in provincial circumstances.

At the time, Dylan lived in Woodstock. He had retreated there after being in the spotlight throughout the 1960s. And it was Dylan who had given Woodstock its bucolic status. It was his retreat into nature which had turned Woodstock – the place – into something pure in the counter-culture imagination, as a rejection of the urban, modern world. “We are starlight. We are golden” as Joni Mitchell in her song about Woodstock had it. So everyone expected Dylan to play the festival.

But he didn’t. Instead, he went to the Isle of Wight. Wootton, where the festival was to be held, was about as middle England as you can get. But, contrarian as ever, Dylan chose here instead of upstate New York to make his comeback. And because he did so, the festival was a success. So the Foulks decided to outdo themselves.

The line-up of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival reads almost like a culmination – albeit an obvious one – of the 1960s musical imagination; Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. As line-ups go, it was a belter, which is why everyone wanted to be there.

It has been estimated that 600,000 people crossed the Solent to get there. To put that into some an oblique intergenerational context, that is about four times as many as crossed the Channel on June 6, 1944. I once met a man who claimed to have nicked a rowboat from a boating lake in Gosport on the mainland to row across the Solent to the festival.

It was all a bit like that. Anything that the organisers put in place was immediately undermined by this huge crowd who were happy to improvise anyway they could. And much of that improvisation involved not paying.

The tearing down of the fences to allow the crowds to get into the festival is usually blamed on French anarchists who believed the world should be free to them. There are also stories that bands of young men from Portsmouth were also in this ‘something for nothing’ vanguard. If that’s true (and my Gosport boating lake heist source swears it is), then this was the second time lads from Pompey tried to undermine a festival. Despite the line-up, despite some incredible performances (Jethro Tull supposedly ‘won’ the festival), despite the festival selling out, that was it. There wouldn’t be another Isle of Wight Festival until 2002.

During that same summer of 1970, Somerset farmer Micheal Eavis went to the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music, which was headlined by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Thrilled by what he saw he thought he’d have a go at organising a festival on his farm.

He booked The Kinks, one of his favourite bands (he liked listening to them while he milked his cows) and began to sell tickets. Unfortunately, the Kinks pulled out at the last minute, but T-Rex replaced them. Marc Bolan, worried that he would snag his velvet jacket on the hawthorn-lined paths on the farm, was just on the cusp of pop-superstardom at the time.

So, on September 19, 1970, with 30 stewards manning the site, 1,500 headed to the farm, paying £1 for tickets (including free milk).

In hindsight, T-Rex were an excellent act to have as the first headliner, but at the time, Eavis was just pleased that the whole thing had happened. He’d pulled it off, but the festival made a loss, and it’s never that clear if Eavis was that committed to trying again. Hendrix had died the day before this first Glastonbury. In the early autumn of 1970, it was starting to feel like the 1960s were a done deal.

But the 1960s weren’t quite over yet. In 1971, two posh hippies, Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill (granddaughter of Winston) were drawn to the mystical aspects of Glastonbury. The area has a reputation for being England’s spiritual HQ. Its mixture of Christian, Wicca, and Albion/Avalon mythology has made it a draw for druids, Morris dancers and weekend pagans. So Kerr and Churchill asked Eavis if it were possible to host a free festival at the site.

Eavis went along with this and the event, which featured David Bowie, went well enough. But Eavis didn’t enjoy it. There was something about that posh, hippy, consequence-free existence that didn’t sit comfortably with his methodist upbringing, which had combined a concern for the welfare of others with individual responsibility. This wouldn’t be the last time Eavis would find himself split between the counter-culture’s belief in freedom and that meaning things should be free.

But in the early 1970s, the nature of festivals themselves and of the counter-culture was changing. Growing out of West London, especially around the Ladbroke Grove squatting scene, came a much harder, much more politicised radicalism, one that argued for rent strikes and communal living. From this came the birth of the free festival movement.

This was a different sort of radicalism to the Woodstock-influenced love, peace and harmony freedom of Kerr and Churchill.

In 1972, the first Windsor Park Free Festival was held, deliberately and provocatively, in front of the Royal residence. In 1973, a second took place. But in 1974, the festival was outlawed, and the police shut it down.

But that didn’t stop the free festival movement. They now made Stonehenge the centre of their operations. Starting in 1974, The Stonehenge festival would be held until the Battle of the Beanfield 11 years later.

Eavis himself restarted Glastonbury in 1979. His remit throughout the 1980s was, in part, that it should be a focus for anti-Thatcherism, which was made explicit by naming the festival Glastonbury CND. In 1984, Eavis invited EP Thompson, the historian and author of the Making Of The English Working Class, to address the crowd from the main stage.

In this speech, known as the Alternative Nation speech, Thompson argued: “That this has not only been a nation of money-makers and imperialists, it has been a nation of inventors, of writers, of activists, artists, theatres and musicians.”

Like Eavis, Thompson came from a Methodist background. His argument wasn’t just that the arts are important but that the act of creativity was how you make a better world. And this is what Eavis believed he was doing with Glastonbury – he was actively working at making a better world.

Glastonbury became an anti-Thatcher stronghold, and it was this that put Eavis on the side of the travellers (fellow travellers if you will). But there were lots of troubles ahead.

Glastonbury was not a huge event in the 1980s and 1990s. It struggled to sell out, and this was partly to do with this hangover from the 1960s and 1970s – that festivals should be free. Everyone could climb over the fence to get in, so everyone did.

Eavis didn’t mind too much that people weren’t paying, but what was a problem was that it made the festival impossible to manage.

The vast majority of New Age travellers were idealists and were decent people, but if you want to live outside of society then you create a space for people who want to live outside the law.

When I was a teenager the New Age traveller site was where people bought drugs – both soft and hard. Any idealism about this being an alternative lifestyle was tempered by knowing that among these outsiders, criminal elements also mixed. And on the festival sites themselves, crime began to spiral. In the 1990s, tent theft became a problem. In 1991, a friend of mine woke to find a man with a knife in her tent

By the late 1980s festivals in general were in trouble. Reading was still trundling away, but by the middle of that decade, it was starting to lose the plot. This culminated in the bizarre 1988 festival which saw Bonnie Tyler, Iggy Pop, Meat Loaf, Jefferson Starship and The Ramones all on the same bill. For his troubles, Meat Loaf was showered with bottles of urine.

Then there was rave culture. Dancing in fields was no longer about the worship of blokes with guitars. In the late 1980s, a spontaneous, informal, illegal world of raves sprang up on farms and in disused warehouses and airfields.

However, instead of being a threat to Glastonbury’s ‘rock-festival’ status, rave culture very quickly became part of Glastonbury. Informal sounds systems began to spring up on the site.

But one of the side effects of this rave culture was that criminal gangs began to organise aspects of that scene too. The control of the drug trade was lucrative, and while drugs had always been part of what festivals were about, it was, by the early 1990s, becoming quite heavy. There was a danger that the festival organisers weren’t really in control.

Another sign had come in 1988 at the Donington Festival (now Download). Guns’n’Roses – at the time one of the most exciting bands on the planet – were playing and the crowd was so raucous and surged so violently, that two young men were killed. Donington had become another fixed feature of the festival scene, and this tragedy raised questions about the scene’s viability.

But it was what happened next at Reading that probably saved Britain’s festivals and made them what they are today. In 1988, the Mean Fiddler took over the running of the Berkshire event.

The Mean Fiddler was a chain of music venues run by Irish businessman John Power. He has a reputation for being a ruthless, effect and unsentimental businessman. But this was what Reading needed. The festival became safer, more focussed. The facilities got a better. No one threw bottles of urine at Meat Loaf after that. Power saved Reading from bankruptcy and he made it profitable.

Throughout the 1990s it was becoming obvious that Glastonbury also had to change to survive. The amount of people still bunking in was becoming absurd.

It may be that there were about 300,000 at the festival in 1994, 200,000 of whom didn’t pay. Also, that year, five people were wounded in a drug-related shooting. Not surprisingly, each licence application for the festival became a struggle.

Eavis approached the Mean Fiddler to help. Power wasn’t interested in helping a rival and walked away, but Melvin Benn who worked with Power, and who would later run Mean Fiddler (which itself would later become became Festival Republic), was happy to get involved.

Eavis had already worked with Benn and had liked his no-nonsense approach to security and ticketing when the New Age travellers had proved difficult to manage. In 2002, a partnership was formed between Glastonbury and the Mean Fiddler.

It would be nice to tell the story of British festivals as an idyllic triumph of art over commerce. But that’s not true. It was the Mean Fiddler/Festival Republic that did most to create the 21st century British summer of festivals.

They turned Reading into Reading/Leeds, Donington into Download, they transformed Glastonbury into what it is today and they created new events such as Latitude and Wireless. And most of the other festivals – the modern Isle of Wight Festival, Bestival, End of the Road, and the dozens of others which have sprung up – all came in the wake of Reading/Leeds, Download and Glastonbury.

I’ve been going to festivals since the late 1980s, long enough to witness how they have changed from that new-age last hurrah of the counter-culture into something more commercial and more professionally run. There will always be part of me that would have loved to have seen Hawkwind at 3am in a field in Wiltshire in 1973, but these modern festivals are a brilliant part of modern life.

I’ve generally managed to keep fairly balanced about things during this Covid year, but the one time it got to me was over the weekend of what would have
the Cambridge Folk Festival. It would have been my 50th festival I think. I missed seeing my friends, and the music, and the ritual of being able to take a few days out of it. Most of all, I was worried that it may be a while before that world comes back. Festivals are about becoming lost in the crowd. Crowds are not something we can even contemplate in 2020.

Being at a festival, watching an act you adore, being in the vivid immediacy of it all, along with thousands of others, is something I’ve been doing since my teens. I want it back asap.

In 2012 Eavis and Benn went their separate ways (amicably). Eavis was able to do this because his festival, now professionally run thanks to Benn, and which now featured the biggest acts on the planet, never sold-out to commerce.

It still gives its profits to charity; there’s still no commercial sponsorship; and the creative energy that came from the New Age travellers still give shape to the various fields and zones and stages that you don’t normally see on the BBC coverage.

The history of British festivals is a history of the changing politics and culture of the country over the last 60 years.

You could strip it down to each generation’s festival drug of choice; from jazz festivals with their marijuana (and cider), to LSD in the 1960s, to speed (and cider) in the 1970s and early 1980s, to ecstasy in the late 1980s and 1990s, and now the recreational weekend cocaine use (with artisanal cider) of this century.

Reading is the only festival to have gone through all these stages, but it is Glastonbury that was most dramatic in how it managed to get from that self-indulgent LSD stage, through the excesses of the belligerent speed stage, to pretty much invent the weekend recreational stage. Of course, you don’t need drugs to enjoy a festival. But you do need crowds…

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