The UK boasts some of the most notable and illustrious festivals in music – and, with an eclectic event to suit every taste, there’s something for everyone nowadays.
Spanning genres from folk to funk, and heavy metal to house, we’ve have never had so much choice – but a rare few remember the days when the likes of Glastonbury, the Somerset soirée which has become a rite of passage for modern day music lovers, were wild and mysterious, counter-cultural, hippy hangouts.
Free entry, no-shows and a lack of security – back in the day, festivals were much more raucous and rough around the edges affairs. Here, we chat to three nostalgics who were there, and remember it well…
Columnist, Author of ‘Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude’, and ‘one of those rarities who was there in the ’60s …and does remember it’.
“I went to an outdoor Jimi Hendrix concert sometime in the late ’60s – I seem to remember it being at Knebworth, but the internet can’t confirm this. I went with my then girlfriend and two other friends on a 650cc BSA A10 motorcycle and sidecar that I’d purchased from a friend in Bristol for £20 (and which had a slightly unnerving tendency to backfire through its single carburettor and catch fire: damp blanket was kept in sidecar: its dampness was automatically maintained).
I wore a Clint Eastwood style poncho and my girlfriend’s huge round, purple-tinted aviator shades, with no crash helmet (they weren’t required then). We were stopped by the police twice, to our great amusement, but released both times after satisfying them of our sanity.
On arrival, Hendrix was having one of his off-days – he stomped around the stage angrily, his guitar went further out of tune, and more often than usual, and then he cut the set short and fled. He was followed onstage by the Leicester band, Family, with singer Roger Chapman, who were just becoming big around that time.
They played a storming set, with fabulous wild sax and great guitar, and the crowd went mad for them, almost forgetting the Hendrix debacle. The incident is now preserved on many websites as the urban-legend that Hendrix was afraid to follow Family onstage – I very much doubt he was, and on a good day he wouldn’t have needed to. On the way home we were only stopped once…”
Music, Film and Culture Photographer, and Author of ’78-87 London Youth’
I remember going to see the Stones in Hyde Park in 1969. There were 350,000 – 400,000 people crammed into the place – and not one single chemical toilet.
There was nothing to eat or drink all day – well, other than what one might have brought – because there were no concessions either.
Actually, I think I might have seen one ice cream van, but that would have probably been in the park anyway.
But there was definitely no merchandise, or, for that matter, VIP area.
It was quite ridiculous, looking back. Me and my small posse of music nerd mates got there for about 8am, and there were already about 5,000 people waiting to get in.
We managed to secure a great position just to the left of the natural bowl as it started to slope up. It was great! The sun shone all day, and the bands started around noon. Family played, as did Roy Harper (actually, he tended to play at all the free Hyde Park gigs) and King Crimson. Alexis Korner too, I think. I’m sure there were others.
So, we sat in the sun all day without any food or drink – and without hats. When you’re a teenager, you tend not to plan ahead, you see. Everything was going well up until the point just before the Stones were about to come on …when I decided that I desperately needed to answer a call of nature.
Being a well-brought up kid, and with no receptacle to hand, I made my way to the nearest public toilets, which were at Marble Arch – about half a mile away.
Needless to say, getting out of the crowd was difficult – but getting back in was virtually impossible.
There were people packed cheek by jowl and mostly sitting crossed legged almost as far as the eye could see. Somehow, I managed it, mostly by trampling over people’s bodies. I had quite a few things thrown at me, but in fairness I was stick thin in those days, so probably didn’t weigh that much anyway!
Luckily, the Stones were always very late coming on, so I got back to my friends in good time. They weren’t much good that day but who really cared?
I remember that quite a few people left the gig early to go and see Chuck Berry playing at the Royal Albert Hall.
What is often forgotten about those early Hyde Park gigs is that in the 1960s, rock music wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it is now. Some young people didn’t like it at all, and many were more into stuff like stamp collecting and train spotting.
The first Hyde Park free concert I went to was the Pink Floyd one the previous year (1968). I read about it in International Times, which was my main way of finding out about all the cool stuff then. It wasn’t in every single daily paper every day like it is now.
The Floyd gig was fairly sparsely attended when I turned up, and I’d only really made a last minute decision to go on the afternoon itself. There were no more than about 5,000 people there and considering it was free, it was a nice day, and the Floyd were a pretty big, chart band at the time, that’s not much at all. It was also the first time I ever saw Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett.
In those days, prior to the Stones using the Angels for security in 1969, there was literally no security at gigs. If you were close enough, you could practically climb up on stage with the band.
The only people around to stop you would have been the roadies or the band’s management, if there were any – but, to be honest, back then, the only roadies some bands had was the bloke that drove the van.
At the famous 14 Hour Technicolour Dream concert in April 1967, I watched the Floyd from a great position sitting right on the back of the stage. Everyone was far too cool to ask you to get off.
I just wish I’d had a camera back then.
Public Relations at Glastonbury, 1986-1999
The first Glastonbury I ever went to was in 1986 – and, after that, I worked there every year up until 1999.
I worked doing the press at the Pyramid Stage. That meant that I got to deal with all the photographers and journalists – most of whom just got completely mashed. I must say though, that the photographers worked incredibly hard, especially in the years when it was just mud.
I saw the festival right from the days when it was really just counter-culture – which, as far as I’m concerned, nostalgically, were the best years. You had the Mutoid Waste Company, and a convoy basically rampaging around the site – in some ways it was absolutely terrible, but in others it was an experience that no festival can recreate now. It was just, well, verging on lawless.
We, as the team working backstage for Michael Eavis, consciously set out to shift the idea that people had about the festival, because in the early years it was struggling to even get a license. The Somerset police were objecting to it – it was going down a one-way street and it had to be turned around. Although I look back with great affection at those times, it couldn’t really carry on like it was.
We would gather tons of journalist and take them around the site to showcase the theatre, the circus, the green field, all of the amazing people who just turned up, and didn’t get paid. I remember the moment when the NME started to come round to portraying it as something glorious. There was a real sea change in attitude. The Sunday Times wrote this really important piece saying how great it was, and once you start getting a few of the mainstream, conservative press on side, it really helps.
There was the Battle of the Beanfield over at Stonehenge, when Michael Eavis opened Glastonbury up for the convoy to limp into, and I applaud him for doing that, but it also has to be said that the convoy, in those days, weren’t all peace and love, a lot of them. It was Thatcher’s Britain, after all.
Michael deals with everything from his kitchen, and he is a very astute guy. He’s extremely good at dealing with the agents, and getting a good act together. I think that because there was always a charity angle at Glastonbury, raising money for the likes of Water Aid and Oxfam, that helped, because bands would play it partly to lend their support.
I think that, ultimately, the festival got itself into the position where it didn’t really matter what the bill was, people would buy tickets because it was a sort of pilgrimage. Obviously, they want big acts, but big acts want to play it, because where else are you going to play in front of 200,000 people nowadays?
I always thought the best slot wasn’t the Pyramid headline slot, but when the sun is going down, which is sort of the two before. It had to be sunny too, though. You could have Van Morrison play, and if the weather was right, it was just mystical. You’re in the Vale of Avalon, and he’s singing about the Vale of Avalon – just perfect.
The 90s were wild times, I remember the Happy Mondays, in the days when the backstage of the Pyramid was absolutely tiny – there were us lot camping there, and press, and crew – thoughtfully printing up hundreds of backstage passes for all their mates. It ended up being completely mad – overrun with crazy Mancunians running around the backstage pen. I was in the middle of them all thinking, “where did all this lot come from?!” We just had to wait until they all either passed out or ran off somewhere else.
The second stage always went on a little bit later, and that was where everyone would head to after the Pyramid ended. Spiritualized finished the Sunday night there, and it was just a wall of sound, masses of fireworks, and an entire field of people having a great big psychedelic love-in.
There was a Stone Roses no show in 1995 – and Pulp famously ended up covering the headline slot. They just stormed it – they were, simply, brilliant – and it actually rejuvenated their careers,
Some people are just right for the big stage. I remember seeing Robert Plant there, and thinking it was the perfect place for him to be. When Michael first started booking the more mainstream, kind of ‘you what?’ acts, like Tom Jones, it was just incredible – because you’d end up with 200,000 people all singing ‘Delilah’. It was both ridiculous, and amazing, at the same time.
Some people just get it. Even if you are an enigmatic kind of performer, you cant be too enigmatic at a festival like Glastonbury, and the ones who understand that, like Oasis for example, will get an incredible response.
Because thats what people want. It has to be big, it has to be brash and it has to be out there. Don’t be too cool, because it just doesn’t translate.