Sunday, April 15, 2012

Festivals Britannia

Finally got round to watching 'Festivals Britannia' a documentary about the history of the British festival scene first broadcast on BBC4 in late 2010. For anyone familiar with this history there were no great revelations as it trod the familiar path from the Isle of Wight 1969 to Glastonbury to Windsor to Stonehenge to Castlemorton 1992.

What lifted it was the film footage of these events and an excellent range of interviewees including many of the key figures in the different phase of the 20th century counter culture. Jazz ravers Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball recalled the 1950s jazz festivals, the later remembering 'you couldn't have a rave up in a dancefall. You had to walk across a floor and ask a girl to have a waltz or something, but if you were in a field you felt free'.

The Beaulieu jazz festival in Hampshire started out in 1956. In 1960, simmering tensions between modern and trad jazz fans sparked off the so-called Battle of Beaulieu with fans impatient to hear some Acker demolishing a BBC TV tower. A contemporary newspaper reported: 'Jazz succumbs to the Hooligans'.  In the same period the annual Aldermaston 'Ban the Bomb' marches became what free festival veteran Sid Rawle termed 'a festival on the march'.

The late 1960s free concerts in London's Hyde Park were described by Roy Harper as the high point of the hippie moment, a time when 'everything seemed to be bright and in the process of awakening' (Roy Harper).  On the Isle of Wight, the 1970 paying festival famously ended up with those outside storming the fence so that it was opened up for free on the final day. Festival organisers and Mick Farren who was on the fence storming side were interviewed, but the best quote was amongst a selection seemingly from a series of Isle of Wight residents engraged by the 'invasion' of the area by 600,000 mostly young people:  'If you have a festival with all the stops pulled out, kids running around naked, fucking in the bushes, and doing every damn thing that they feel inclined to do I don't know that's particularly good for the body politic' (all delivered in an impeccable upper class accent - I assume this was never broadcast at the time)

Windsor 1974 - 'Hippie PC Flees Pop Fury'
(from the excellent UK Rock Festivals site)

In the early 1970s the first Glastonbury festivals were followed by the emergence of the free festival circuit, most notably the Windor Free Festival. Closed down in a major police operation in 1974, the next year the Government offered a disused air force base at Watchfield in Oxfordshire as an alternative - but a state-sponsored 'free' festival with police on site was not quite the same. Among those recalling this period on the film were Nik Turner and Stacia from Hawkwind and Penny Rimbaud from Crass.

The free festival scene was dealt a severe blow with the mid-1980s crackdown on the Stonehenge Festival and the Convoy - everybody should have to watch the bullying gratuitous violence of the police in the so-called Battle of the Beanfield to understand the state of virtual social war in the mid-1980s, with the Government giving its forces free reign to bash miners, travellers and other 'enemies within' with impunity (sometimes feels like we are heading into a similar period).

The outlaw tribes, disenchanted and disenfranchised needed to find other places to gather, and Glastonbury had relaunched in the 1980s as paying festival raising money for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Farmer and festival organiser Michael Eavis reflected that 'we were just anti-Tory really, we were on a crusade to take on Maggie and to fight the oppression and it was very effective'. Through much of the 1980s it wasn't that hard to sneak into the festival for free, but increasing pressure from the Council and the police required stronger fences and more security.

By the early 1990s the survivors of the free festival scene were joining up with the new sound system culture, as described by Mark Harrison from Spiral Tribe and Rick Down (Digs) from DIY Sound System. The huge 1992 Castlemorton free party/festival prompted the Government to introduce the Criminal Justice Act to clamp down on 'raves'.

The programme ends with the increasing dominance and prevalence of commercial festivals in the noughties. But there is some evidence that this boom has peaked, with the Guardian asking recently 'Have we fallen out of love with the great British music festival?'. I don't think the desire to gather under the skies with thousands of like-minded music lovers has changed, but more and more of us can't really afford to spend the cost of a holiday on a weekend, especially if that weekend has to be spent in a highly corporate fenced-off enclosure.

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