Feature: The UK Free Festival Scene, 1986 – 1992

These days there is a plethora of festivals, from huge expensive ones (Glastonbury) to smaller more affordable ones (Green Man, Wicker Man), but I don’t know of many (if any) free festivals. The term itself conjures up images of halcyon days back in the sixties, of hippies sat in circles, nudity and free love. But there was a thriving free festival scene in the UK more recently than you think.
I discovered it when my band ‘Poisoned Electrick Head’ was introduced to it by some Liverpool squatters called ‘Radio Mongolia’. We were big fans of Gong and Hawkwind, but also loved Devo and Magazine, and wanted to deliver a visual freak-out, so it was the ideal platform for us. The thing about these festivals though, that continues to baffle me to this day, is just how “underground” they were. I’ll quote (if I may) from my book ‘Take Your Protein Pills’ (The Poisoned Electrick Head Story), where I explore this in more detail:
“Rave was still in its warehouses and its infancy, and the knee-jerk reaction of the Public Order Act had yet to happen, but through our contacts with Radio Mongolia and The Space Agency we found ourselves tentatively involved. It’s hard to imagine in these times of overpriced events and draconian police measures that such a thing could have existed, but every weekend throughout the summer an event sprang up in a different location.

Through word of mouth alone thousands gathered, stages and lighting rigs arrived and a ragged collection of bands descended on the public land. The police often made a half-hearted attempt to stop the thing happening but once it had gathered momentum they wished merely to contain it, and would stand quietly by as truckloads of party-ers filtered in, determined to let rip until Monday morning’s eviction notice.

But where were the media and the music journalists? An isolated incident would easily pass by undetected (and even then, no doubt the local rag would get wind of it) but this was every weekend, all summer, all over the country. Tens of thousands of people in garishly painted buses consuming every conceivable type of booze and drug, yet it went un-noticed, unspoken of. Ignored. In “under your very noses” terms it predated ‘Harry Potter’ by a decade but with one noticeable difference, in this hidden magical world everybody was Hagrid.”
Local newspapers didn’t mention them; they never made the national or even regional news. Surely the NME, who knew about all things music-related were onto this? Incredibly, no. Unlike today’s mainstream media blackouts, where protest marches are conveniently ignored, this was a case of no-one having a bloody clue.

The first one we attended was at Ribble Head in Yorkshire, (a rare northern event, the majority being down south) by the viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle railway. It was 1986, so we were already quite late to the party. The “Mongs” had said just turn up with your gear, and ask to play, so that’s what we did. Easier said than done when you suddenly find yourselves in a Mad Max movie. We didn’t know a soul but as we were a seven-piece band, with a couple of gobby sorts (singer A.F.) who were always trying to be pack leader, I felt only half-fearful for my life.

It took three days for us to persuade the stage crew to give us a shot, and inbetween we just got hammered and tried to take it all in:
“As night fell, a transformation occurred anyway as it always does. A benign yet malevolent force took up residence, mischief lurking in the shadows, and silhouettes conspiring to mutate the pastoral in to the primeval.

Perhaps there was more to these events than we’d given A.F. credit for, and just maybe that was the very reason the authorities so frowned upon them. Dark thoughts could fester and breed in such surroundings, shattering the docile equilibrium that has been cultivated by keeping the populous individually boxed away at night.

Me and Bill

Off I wandered into the makeshift city of flickering flames with A.F. beside me like a Yacqui Indian spirit guide. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a legion encampment the night before a momentous battle, a cacophony of strange sights and sounds illuminated by campfire light, the soundtrack changing with every step as conspirital murmurs behind canvas gave way to ghetto-blasters, then a sudden crackle of embers and the distant throbbing echo of a makeshift stage creeping ever closer.

Sudden unexpected wafts of heat emanated from every side, occasional relief from the crisp chill of the night air. Dogs snaked and foraged amongst the vehicles and guy-ropes, and the smell of wood smoke permeated all, creeping into your hair and clothes and your very pores until we were all one ragged smouldering pagan offering to the great oblivious creamy moon above.”

It was a world, the likes of we’d never encountered. The people running the ‘Wango Reilly’s Travelling Stage’ thankfully liked us when they finally relented, so we could generally play wherever they showed up. They explained that the whole thing was financed by benefit gigs during the winter, and that the sound and lighting crew all worked for nothing, as did the bands of course. Police presence was nil on the site so everything operated by a kind of jungle law. There was a hardcore of nomadic travellers who lived the life and held the community together, but inevitably there was also a rogue element of berserkers, known as the ‘Brew Crew’, an ever-present element of menace. Wherever the convoy set up camp, local kids from the surrounding area would come along to join the party. Due to police intervention, the site location could change three or four times, and as this was all in the pre-mobile phone/internet days, we were always furnished with a hotline number. Consequently, whenever we saw a red public phone box, someone jumped out and checked for any change of plan.

Stonehenge had been the daddy of the free festival circuit until the year previously when ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985 had resulted in some of the worst police brutality the UK had ever witnessed. After that, any attempt to approach the stones at Solstice was fraught with danger, but a festival managed to occur a few times some miles away from them.

For the next six years these huge anarchic, lawless, but joyous outdoor events continued, even permeating Glastonbury, where Michael Eavis allotted a field especially for the travellers (ironically, the only way a “hippie” band like ours could get to play there).
In 1992 however, things escalated:
“It started out just like any other event on 1992’s free-festival calendar, but being the first of the season maybe more people made the effort to attend. As ever, its location remained a guarded secret until the last minute but we knew it to be happening somewhere in the Malvern Hills; a series of phone calls along the way guiding us to the actual site.

I recall we were in two minds about going, but it was far too early for crusty fatigue to have set in, and as we had a gig in London that weekend we saw no harm in dropping in a few days earlier for an impromptu warm-up appearance.

Sightings of buses and other vehicles in the area told us we were on the right track and before long we found ourselves in a long tailback, which trundled infinestimably onto the site. These things were always occurring and were usually down to someone breaking down further along the path, thus blocking everyone else’s passage. In such cases A.F. or Billy would wander ahead to investigate the hold-up, where they would inevitably find some clapped-out shed on wheels held together by willpower alone, whose owner thought that M.O.T. stood for Marijuana On Tick and that the A.A. was only for wimps who couldn’t take their Special Brew.
Still, there was never any shortage of amateur grease-monkeys on hand to cast an eye over the antiquated pistons and rusty plugs, or indeed, pick-up trucks to haul it out of the way.

On this occasion however, the delay seemed to be purely down to everybody deciding to show up at the same hour, so by the time we’d got on and chosen a place to park it was already night, so we no doubt drank ourselves into a stupor and crashed out, leaving any exploration until the next morning.

Billy was first one up, being high on life and Armenian philosophy, and after a brief walkabout he returned with the news that there seemed to be a lot of people, but only as more of us investigated did the true enormity of the situation sink in. It was vast. Trucks and vans were crammed together in all directions and extended as far as the eye could see. There seemed to be no end to it.
We had managed to locate the Wango stage the night before, parking adjacent to it, and discussion with Marge and Scouse revealed that the gathering had exceeded everyone’s expectations and was still growing. One reason for this was the culmination of a trend that most fezzy-goers had noticed over the years; namely the growing presence of ravers or “cheesy quavers” as they were less than affectionately known.

Starting out as an indoor phenomenon with warehouse parties in disused buildings, the movement had felt the restrictive sting of the authorities brought on by the glare of sensationalist publicity, and had been forced ever further out of the cities and into the countryside. Once out there, ravers were bound to collide with the pre-existing and established new-age traveller circuit, resulting in a joining of forces, though not without some animosity. Some travellers felt their way of life had been hijacked and that the presence of ravers would throw a spotlight on a scene that had been allowed to flourish relatively ignored, and the ravers? Well they didn’t care much either way as long as the bass-drum eventually kicked in.

Basically everyone wanted the same thing – the freedom to party and the chance to escape, really escape into the wide open space, away from bouncers and door policies and four fucking walls. The hippies had always known that the countryside was where it’s at, and the loved-up ravers were beginning to realise that if you wanted to give your entire generation a group hug you needed somewhere big enough to do it.”

The combined presence of the travellers and the rave community joining forces, resulted in a gathering of 25,000 people at the now infamous Castlemorton festival. Finally this was too big to ignore. Tabloid journalists descended, police helicopters hovered, barking impotent amplified threats, and the establishment panicked. Within a matter of weeks (or possibly days) the Public Order Act was passed, with its nonsensical clauses of “repetitive beats” and powers to seize sound equipment. The party was over. Many travellers relocated to mainland Europe, and festivals slowly mutated into the over-priced, over-policed commercial events we know and love today.
In textbook fashion, about a year later the NME and Melody Maker were ablaze with the new Crusty phenomenon, and a brief feeding frenzy ensued. Our pals ‘Back to the Planet’ were signed by a major label, and did a national tour, (choosing us as their support act – happy days!) and even the likes of us landed a management deal, but it was all very too little too late.

Much interesting information about these times can be found at Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge’s fine site http://digitaljournalist.eu/ and at http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/

‘Take Your Protein Pills’ (The Poisoned Electrick Head Story) can be obtained at http://www.lulu.com/shop/brian-carney/take-your-protein-pills/paperback/product-6319409.html

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