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22 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:36pm

From the NS archive: Pop go the festivals

2 July 1971: Like a Tory party conference, a rock concert consists of a large number of people sitting and listening, more often bored than they would care to admit.

By Francis Arnold

On 19 September 1970, the day after Jimi Hendrix died, Michael Eavis held an event on his farm in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Tickets were £1, and included complimentary farm milk. It wasn’t until the summer of 1971 that this event came to be known as Glastonbury Fair, which would become the biggest music festival in the world; the same year, a major music festival  then the National Jazz Festival came to the Berkshire city of Reading for the first time, and was becoming heavier, both musically and metaphorically. Here, Francis Arnold documents the after-effects of one of the early summers of British rock festivals, through aghast tabloid headlines, political fallout over recreational drugs, and the sheer joy for punters that “Glastonbury grin” brought by community and freedom.

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For sheer prurience, the reportage of the rock festivals which took place in southern England last month, will be hard to equal: “Love in the Mud Orgy at the Big Pop Festival” (Sun, 22 June); “A bustling town and a sleepy picture-postcard village were reeling lat night under the weirdie, way-out impact of thousands and thousands of hippies who swept in for a jamboree of pop and pot” (News of the World, 27 June); “Bare-breasted girls dancing to the beat of drums angered villagers trying to sleep” (Daily Mail, 23 June).

Like a Tory party conference, a rock concert consists of a large number of people sitting and listening, more often bored than they would care to admit. Both forms of invasion disturb local life. At both sorts of event, visitors consume large quantities of dangerous drugs (nicotine and ethanol or cannabis) and are possessed, as far as one can see by a normal amount of lust for their appropriate age groups. Like Tory conferences, rock festivals are a fact. They will have to be regulated and sensibly organised or abolished, before they interfere with the life of the rest of the nation.

Last month’s events — at Worthing, Reading and Glastonbury — are not, despite the views of our self-appointed guardians, a plot to undermine Britain’s economy, morals, or international standing (though some of the organisers might disagree). Equally, they were not a long-term attempt to set up an alternative society, or a money-making proposition. What they were is difficult to understand or describe.

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Like anyone else, “alienated youth” — those of us who see no future in either Marx or Coca-Cola — seek out our own kind. We are a minority, highly privileged, to be sure, uncertain, dogmatic, thoughtless, generous, and loving. We seem to hold common ideas of how we ought to behave, which are superficially, at least, very different from the prevailing norms. Rock festivals are a way of trying to put these ideas into practice for short periods.

From that point of view, Reading represents the nadir, and Glastonbury, the apex of festivals. At Reading, the Marquee club, a London discotheque which caters to teeny-boppers thought they were onto a good thing. Gates were erected, tickets sold, and licences issued to stalls at what must have been exorbitant rates. Police and Marquee officials described one another as “fantastic”, “very helpful”, etc. None of this prevented the festival from announcing a colossal loss, or the police from arresting 143 people for drugs.

Glastonbury Fair was organised over a period of a year by people who had no intention of making a profit. (If they do, it will be used to set up an ecological foundation.) The event was intended to include theatre, a newspaper, spiritual exercises, and was centred on the audience rather than the music. From parking — with police help, all cars were kept a mile from the site, other than an essential few, to food — free from the Diggers, or at cost from “friendly” organisations — all planning was “for the good of the fair, not for money”. Since the only advance notice was, deliberately, by word of mouth, it was impossible to estimate how many people to expect. This fact, coupled with a shortness of cash, made for some problems, and may have contributed to minor difficulties with the local inhabitants, but with police help, and aid from Release and a number of Christian organisations, these were kept to a relative minimum.

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As one visitor told me: “Everybody’s so happy, there’s a sort of Glastonbury grin. Maybe that’s because we’re doing it all for ourselves.” He wasn’t entirely accurate; without the police, Red Cross, Civil Aid, and other outsiders, the fair could have been the sort of disaster that overtook several American festivals last year. Nonetheless, this was the first sign of the “underground” being able to organise anything more complex for itself than a joint.

Meanwhile, back in the world, Mr Robert Boscawen, MP for Wells, has tabled five questions in the Commons about the handling of rock festivals, particularly in relation to the police treatment of soft drugs. He seems concerned that there was only one arrest made for LSD, and none for cannabis at Glastonbury. Would he — and the Home Secretary — prefer the situation at Reading, where ADE, a voluntary legal organisation, are considering suing the police for indiscriminate arrests? (This is possible under the new Home Office directive which abolishes long hair and “outlandish” clothing as grounds for suspicion of possession of drugs. ADE claims to have had several complaints for “planting”, and many for unwarranted search.)

Presented with 10,000 “heads”, the police are in an impossible position. They can either make punitive arrests to discourage soft-drug users, or admit their impotence in that direction, and concentrate on using the goodwill gained thereby to control such nuiscances, violence, and theft as may occur. From the public relations point of view, the latter course seems far more effective, if the public will allow it. “The police at Glastonbury were fantastic,” said a spokesman for Release, “and the crowd responded very well. I really think both sides really benefited from it.”

The government will have to come to terms with, or suppress, more than one million young people who can reasonably be described as “heads”. Unless they, out of self-interest, decide on suppression (which would trigger a situation like Prohibition in the US) they may be forced to decide that respect for law is better served by the absence of its enforcement, in this case. If they do, they could get some very useful advice from some of the people who worked at Glastonbury. Perhaps the debate should be held at a rock festival. I’m sure their children can tell them where to find one.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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