As those who do follow this blog might know I’ve been doing a series of blogs about my experiences at the Glastonbury Festival from 1992 onwards, but there’s a bit of a larger story to tell in regards festival culture in the UK.
There’s been festivals of some shape or form in the UK since the 1950’s. You can study the history of the growth of festival culture by looking at the excellent site, The Archive, which details festivals from 1960-1990, or searching out the splendid Festivals Britannia documentary that BBC Four broadcast a few years ago. It’s really the story of my perception of what happened to festival culture from the late 80’s onwards that I’m on about.
As I’ve outlined in the past, I grew up in a very working class part of Glasgow which didn’t mean I was ignorant of festivals as I knew they existed thanks to reading the NME from an early age, but that was mainly things like Reading Festival when it was going through it’s Jurassic phase. I only really learned about the wider world of festivals after reading an article about Glastonbury in an edition of the NME from 1985.
I was intrigued by the sounds of Glastonbury and the idea of a load of people sitting in a field somewhere listening to music and generally getting together. Not that was an alien concept to me back in Glasgow in the mid-80’s as sitting around Kelvingrove Park was a pastime, plus the odd open air gig used to happen in Glasgow so I’d had a tease but nothing anywhere near the full experience.
It wasn’t until I moved to Leicester in 1988 and drifted gently into various scenes in both Leicester and London that I started to dive into the whole festival culture. Leicester was, oddly enough, where I experienced my first full one day festival with the Abbey Park Festival which was a one day event normally held in August in Leicester featuring frankly a selection of some pretty naff bands, but I enjoyed the whole ambiance of the day and it was fun most of all.
Most of 1988 and 1989 was spent splitting my time between London and Leicester which was easily done thanks to my job, and being a young man with more money than sense I took great advantage of the delights and pleasures of London at a time when rave music was not only at it’s peak but it was colliding with other cultures such as the traveller and punk culture which is where it caught me. I used to finish work on a Friday and rather head back to Leicester, head into London to see gigs, or hang around various pubs in Camden or Kentish Town. I’d stay overnight wherever I could, so a floor, a bed or when there was a comic mart the next day, I’d find a cheapish hotel round Holburn and spend the previous night in Soho after being at the Astoria til the wee hours.
Then in 1990 I decided to take the plunge and go to that year’s Reading Festival, which had seen itself make the dinosaurs which used to play there extinct and started showcasing bright new talent from both sides of the Atlantic. I didn’t end up going, but I did start going to various free festivals on my increasing trips to the South West of England, and I’d stumble across groups of ravers in London pubs who’d drag me to a field somewhere in Hertfordshire.
When I left my job and became rooted in Leicester I fell out of that lifestyle, but festival culture was still attractive to me because it was very much still an underground and alternative thing to do, plus the free festivals were fun, but had a huge element of danger to them thanks to the somewhat dubious people often involved with them, not to mention the gangsters who’d follow them around selling drugs. Most of the time though the free festivals of the early 90’s were fun affairs which sometimes seemed never to have an end as they’d go on and on and on….
There was also a beginning and end to the summer with Glastonbury kicking it off with this huge life affirming party to welcome the summer months and Reading ending it with this dirty, filthy party in a field next to a railway line.
By 1992 or so the amounts of festivals had started to grow partly due to the response to the Castlemorton festival which saw the government start to crack down on free festivals, which meant all these people who were going to festivals wanted to go somewhere and there were decreasing amounts of places willing to host them. By the time the Criminal Justice Bill became law the amount of free festivals were dropping to single figures, and the days of the illegal rave were numbered. This meant big business saw a market and a chance to repackage what was an alternative and underground culture for a mainstream, so by 1993 you had the Phoenix Festival rear it’s head in what was the first attempt to introduce a new major festival to the calender to challenge (the 1996 lineup is to this day the best of any festival of any kind I’ve ever been to) Glastonbury and Reading.
The first year was frankly a disaster with security extinguishing campfires and getting people to turn off soundsystems which for those of us used to free festivals was a bit of a shock, also there was not enough water standpipes and toilets. It never really recovered from that first year as it gained a reputation after this, but it was where the campsite cry of ‘BOLLOCKS’ originated which hung around festivals up til the early 21st century. It did peak with the 1996 festival though more of how that failed in many ways in the next part of this series of blogs.
Phoenix never really brought in the mainstream punter, but rather the Glastonbury/Reading veteran & the person who couldn’t get their free festival hit any more. Attracting the mainstream would mean a change in the mainstream itself, which is exactly what happened when Britpop broke which meant the mainstream wanted to see bands like Blur or Oasis or Pulp and they played lots of festivals, so the mainstream slowly started feeding into festival culture. It wasn’t until 94 or 95 that people started seeing festivals as something to do rather than a Spanish holiday or a trip anywhere else. The fact you now had festivals organised by beer companies (Reading was only sponsored by Carlsberg Tetley) like T in the Park and also by large mega-companies like Virgin with the execrable V Festival.
And that sets up quite nicely my experiences at all the festivals I went to that wasn’t Reading or Glastonbury in the 90’s. This gives you a little bit of background as to what was happening and in the next part I’ll outline the exploitation of festival culture by the corporations and how it all went horribly wrong.