[F]estivals, greater or lesser, each with a peculiar quality, unique and yet related to those preceding and succeeding, have built up the dance of the year.—Lawrence Whistler The English Festivals (1947)
How much longer will joss sticks rule? / They have their hair long and stringy, and wear jesus boots / Afghan coats, yeah making peace signs, maaan / Talk about Moorcock, Floyd at the Reading Festival.—Alternative TV, ‘How much longer’ (1977)
I have been interested in festivals ever since I attended my first, as a sixteen-year-old: Reading Festival in, yes, 1977. As I remember, Thin Lizzy played, and there was a moment when bassist and singer Phil Lynott, whose Fender bass had a mirrored scratchplate, was moving the bass so that the spotlight reflected off the scratchplate onto people in the crowd. And yes it did shine on me. And SAHB played, and stole the show (‘Framed’ was Alex as Jesus on the cross)—was it their last ever gig? I guess I was hooked. Other festivals followed over many years—Reading a couple of more times, Deeply Vale and Stonehenge Free Festivals, the tail end of the East Anglian fairs, WOMAD Festivals, Outside-In Jazz Festival, Glastonbury, and many just as interesting smaller or local events. I will say that going to a new WOMAD festival, en famille, in 2008, did try my patience and enthusiasm (‘wo-MUD’), though being what I claim as first ever Professor in Residence at a pop festival, at Kendal Calling in 2011, and having a pass at the Maijazz Festival in Stavanger as part of the Rhythm Changes project also in 2011, really revived things.
The Pop Festival (McKay, ed.)
This is a collection of essays I have been working for a couple of years, and which has now been offered a contract for with Bloomsbury, for publication in 2015. The proposed chapters cover festivals over the past half century or so, from UK, US, Europe and Australia, and key cultural and theoretical developments such as around theory, festival media, the digital festival, festival dress and audience performance. To my knowledge there is no key book that deals with this field, even though festivals today are a core part of the popular music and media industries—over 800 festivals each summer in Britain alone… (Though in 2011 we started to see press pieces asking if the festival bubble has burst.) From the introduction to the proposal:
‘Popular music festivals are one of the strikingly successful and enduring features of seasonal popular cultural consumption for young people and older generations of enthusiasts. In 2008 in Britain alone there were over 500 festival events, from Glastonbury Festival to local, small scale or ‘boutique’ events. The festival has cemented its place in the pop and rock, and in the seasonal cultural economy. The purpose of this book is to present the first collection of academic studies on festival culture as a whole, from its origins to a wide range of contemporary manifestations. It is an inter-disciplinary collection, drawing on Popular Music, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Performance, Film, History, Sociology, American Studies, Psychology. The originality and timeliness of the book is severalfold:
- it is the first academic collection drawing from a range of disciplines to explore festival culture—a groundbreaking opportunity
- it rehistoricises the pop festival by tracing its origins to the decade of the 1950s (rather than 1960s or 1970s)
- it brings together leading scholars in the field, drawing on current funded research projects, recent doctoral scholarship of a new generation, and established academics with a track record of writing about festivals
- festival culture is booming today—students, the media, and the music industry are all interested in festivals, their history, future and how to understand them
- its international / transnational scope is evident in the case studies: USA, UK, Europe, Australia, transatlanticism, world music, the Internet
- the potential is outstanding: it is attractive to students across numerous disciplines, is international in its scope, and would likely garner media attention.’
Festival research projects
A number of recent and current national and international research projects are evidence of the surge in academic interest in festival culture. I have been involved in some capacity with each of these, as a research partner, invited speaker, or advisory board member.
- 2012-2015 Connected Communities Leadership Fellowship (AHRC, includes research project on festival as temporary and as anti-community)
- 2010-13 ‘Rhythm changes’ (inc. jazz festivals; EU / HERA; Music/Cultural Studies)
- 2009-10 ‘Festival as a state of encounter’ (AHRC research network project; Performance Studies)
- 2008-10 ‘Music festivals and free parties: negotiating managed consumption: young people, branding and social identification’ (ESRC; Social Psychology)
- 2006-08 ‘Society and Lifestyles’ (inc. European pagan / folk festival event; EU FP6; Cultural Studies/Sociology).
Beaulieu Jazz Festival 1956-61
With AHRC funding I have researched this festival, its origins, development, riotous moments, its mediation, and even a proto-free festival suggested by some of its more radical attendees. This work is published in chapters in Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, and in Andy Bennett, ed., Remembering Woodstock (Ashgate, 2004). Beaulieu, in the deep green New Forest of the 1950s , was where so much of British festival culture sprang from; an extraordinary, groundbreaking event.
Click on the image below for some footage of a 1950s Pathé newsreel showing hip cats at Beaulieu Jazz Festival…
YOUTH HAS A FLING
A short bibliography I produced originally in 2005 for a then new website about the East Anglian Fairs of the 1970s and 1980s. Short because there is unfortunately actually little research about this important rural countercultural period (although there is now an archive to visit and study, in I think Suffolk County Council main library, Ipswich).
[From the introduction] This is a book about Glastonbury, the town, its landscapes and legends, the festivals there. It is also about festival culture more widely—the history and development of popular music festivals, the ways in which they have contributed to alternative culture, even to alternative history.
In spite of the weather, Britain has an extraordinary tradition of festival culture, which, as we will see, takes its inspiration from sources as diverse as Gypsy horse fairs, American rock festivals, rebirthed pagan rituals and country fairs. From trad and modern jazzers at Beaulieu in the 1950s to the New Traveller/Acid House free gathering at Castlemorton Common in 1992, festivals can be vital spaces, vital moments of cultural difference.
They live in the memories of those who were at them, as experiments in living, in utopia, sometimes gone wrong. These festivals are about idealism, being young, getting old disgracefully, trying to find other ways, getting out of it, hearing some great and some truly awful music, about anarchy and control.
Of course, festivals can also be dull, homogenised mass events, at which crowds worship bad music played too loud in unconscious echo of sub-fascist ritual—but mostly those are the heavy metal ones. (Joke!) Key features of festival culture in Britain include a young or youthful audience, open air performance, popular music, the development of a lifestyle, camping, local opposition, police distrust, and even the odd rural riot.
To both chart and to celebrate the counterculture’s tribal gatherings, I look in detail at Glastonbury Festival, which has been at the centre of the movement for thirty years, on and off, and which reflects the changes in music and style, in political campaigning, in policing and festival legislation over all that time. Its audiences include old and young hippies, punks, folk fans, ravers, neo-pagans, and generations of activists, dreamers, fun-seekers, musicians, pilgrims, as well as the many city-dwellers who come down on Glastonbury for that annual hit of green freedom (within the fences, anyway).
The book moves between the micro-perspective of what Somerset dairy farmer and Glastonbury Festival organiser Michael Eavis calls his ‘regular midsummer festival of joy and celebration of life’, and the macro-perspective of what sociologist Tim Jordan has identified as ‘the importance of post-1960s festivals to ongoing radical protest’. I make no apologies for positioning my version of festival culture within a political praxis and discourse, however problematic. It is though a politics which admits pleasure, whether of pop and rock music, of temporary (tented) community, of landscape and nature under open skies, of promiscuity, of narcotic. The version of festival culture I offer here contains all these features. Sometimes. In varying degrees.
The vibrant adventure that is the social phenomenon of festival culture that has developed since the 1950s in Britain has touched several generations now. I hope you recognise your festival here; it has indeed ‘built up the dance of the year’. Be generous and optimistic: remember the good parts, for memory can change the world. (A bit. Sort of.) I hope you recognise your Glastonbury here. Even if you don’t remember it.
Glastonbury contains many black and white and colour images, and a Time-line of Festival Culture 1951-1999. Many of the photographs are by Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge.
Atti Insensati di Bellezza: Le Culture di Resistenza Hippy, Punk, Rave, Ecoazione, Diretta e Altri TAZ (Italian translation, two editions, 2000)
This was my first book. With hindsight, it was one of those timely books,caught the moment, made a bit of a splash. It draws on some of my own experience, and on old diaries too, where they were any good. It covers 30 years of countercultural activity, after the 1960s long decade. Three chapters in particular have a British festival focus, looking at
- the free festivals and fairs of Albion of the 1970s/80s,
- the ‘New Age Traveller’ movement of the 1980s,
- and the rave/free party movement of the 1990s.
Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from grey mundane of inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence. . . . The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.
[Quoted from an anonymous A4 sheet telling the story of the free festival in Britain, 1972-78] The political margin of the early free festival scene in Britain was crystallized by one particular yearly event, special because of its almost founding status, its means of organization, its setting and the way in which it attracted ever-increasing numbers of festival-goers. This was the Windsor Free Festival, which took place in 1972, 1973 and, finally, 1974, when the event, by now deemed too illegal, was broken up by police action. Windsor Free has partly entered countercultural legend because of the way it was conceived and organized. As with Stonehenge a couple of years later, the sheer audacity of its beginnings is quite extraordinary. In Rehearsal For the Year 2000 Alan Beam explains that ‘Bill “Ubi” Dwyer, tall, upright & honest, and in temperament as fierce as an army colonel, is “by the grace of God, originator and co-ordinator of the Windsor Free Festivals”‘. With Ubi’s great story, who knows or cares what’s fact and myth, but here’s a version I’ve cobbled together from different sources. In the early seventies Ubi was living in a commune in a squatted fire station in Fleet Street in London.
Tripping on acid in Windsor Great Park Ubi had a Blakean vision of a communitarian utopia, which he thought he could bring to life by holding ‘a giant festival in the grandest park in the kingdom, seven miles long!’ Why hold it at Windsor? Because it’s an effort to reclaim land enclosed for hunting by royalty centuries before–an updating of 17th century Digger strategy, challenging the later seizure by George III of Windsor Common Land. Ubi strikes at the heart of the British establishment and property-owning classes. Numbers of invitations distributed and of people attending fluctuate wildly. ‘For August 1972 Ubi invited four million people to Windsor Great Park but only a few thousand turned up. They spent a few days in a copse and hardly anyone noticed them’. One slogan of the Windsor Frees was PAY NO RENT. The second festival was also a rally for the legalization of cannabis, and 10-20,000 people turned up for nine days of (what’s so funny about) peace, love and understanding in the shadow of one of the British royal family’s several estates. The Queen was invited, but declined to attend by letter. The fact that she did reply was taken by Ubi ‘as a form of encouragement. . . . [W]hile not exactly enthusiastic, this letter was not actually hostile’. The Windsor Frees were publicized by a leaflet campaign organized by Ubi–in a neat irony, at one stage he was working for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office during the day while distributing stationery against her majesty and her privilege and property during the evenings. For what became crunch year, 1974,
300,000 leaflets were distributed in Britain and overseas, British Rail arranged to lay on extra trains, and 300 bands offered their services free. Ubi decided that to accommodate all the bands there should be 6 stages spread throughout the site, with 6 stage managers, each with a team working with him. He also arranged with the United Nations that they should use the festival to hold an Ecological Fair.
The U.N. couldn’t get it together, but many thousands of others did, including some unwelcome but perhaps not unexpected gatecrashers, a large contingent of police (800 according to Alan Beam). But more on that later.
The south-west of England, with its comfortable climate and ancient landscapes, and its accessibility from London and the Midlands, soon became the favoured region for free festivals. In 1971 the first Glastonbury Fayre had been held, with its pyramid stage, at Worthy Farm. The same year as the final Windsor Free, the first Stonehenge festival also took place. Stonehenge was to become the longest-lasting annual event in the counterculture’s calendar, in two ways. First, growing to spread over the entire month of June each year, and second by virtue of surviving for over a decade. This was a squatted event celebrating the summer solstice, hatched by Phil Russell aka Wally Hope with help from friends including some who would later be involved with anarcho-punks Crass. Penny Rimbaud recalls Hope’s ‘ludicrous plan . . . to claim back Stonehenge . . . and make it a site for free festivals, free music, free space, free mind’, inspired by Ubi and the Windsor Free Festivals. Kevin Hetherington describes ‘the host of meanings given to Stonehenge’ as a social space:
an important archaeological site, a temple, an ancient astronomical instrument, a tourist attraction, a symbol of ancient Britain as culturally and technologically skilled, a New Age site of worship, part of England’s cultural heritage, a node in a system of powerful ley lines, and the site of an annual rock festival.
Latching on to the solstice rituals of Druids at Stonehenge which themselves go back only to the turn of the century, the hippies invent an instant and powerful tradition. Squatter and original Hyde Park Digger Sid Rawle pinpointed the historicity in a letter to The Times in 1978, which explained: ‘We come to Stonehenge because in an unstable world it is proper that the people should look for stability to the past in order to learn for the future’. Rimbaud describes the exhilarating contradiction of Stonehenge: ‘Wood-fires, tents and tipis, free food stalls, stages and bands, music and magic. Flags flew and kites soared. Naked children played in the woodlands, miniature Robin Hoods celebrating their material poverty’. The utopian celebration of poverty at Stonehenge became an annual event for hippies, then for punks, then for travellers too until 1985, when, with tactics honed during the Miners’ Strike, backed by the respectability of English Heritage, police trashed the Convoy on its way to the stones….
Senseless Acts of Beauty contains numerous black and white images—photographs, radical ephemera, record covers, posters and flyers. [In fact, including such visual materials as an alternate strand of historical example—with scopophilic intent—has become one of the frequently-employed textual strategies of my books, both academic and general, ever since this first one.]