"Lots of farmers go to the races, and go hunting and things. But for me, I prefer to do this. It doesn't involve me drinking, for a start, and also I'm at home. I can do it all from the farm." - Michael Eavis.
The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, to give it its full title, is a three day festival held most years on a 700 acre site in rural Somerset. The core of the site is Michael Eavis' dairy farm, augmented by land rented from adjoining farms. The entertainment consists of rock and pop on two stages, an acoustic stage, a jazz stage, the Avalon stage, a theatre/cabaret/comedy stage, a cinema tent, dance tent, circus, juggling and just about anything else anybody considers entertaining. This years' festival will be the 17th held across a period of 27 years.
"I wanted to pay off my mortgage and farm on a low-key, ecologically sensitive, green-orientated basis. Then I would have been a happy man for evermore. In fact, I lost so much money in 1970 that my overdraft got worse." - Michael Eavis.
The festival was first held on the weekend of September 19th/20th, 1970. It was known then as Pilton Festival, a name it is still sometimes referred to as locally. Michael Eavis was inspired by a visit to the Bath Blues Festival held nearby at Shepton Mallet, where he crawled through a hedge to watch, starting a great Glastonbury tradition. He decided to organise something similar on his land.
After The Kinks pulled out, T. Rex were booked as the main attraction, Marc Bolan turning up in a velvet-covered Buick. There were also appearances by Amazing Blondel, Quintessence, Sam Apple Pie, Steamhammer, Ian Anderson (no, not the one from Jethro Tull), Duster Bennett, Al Stewart, and Keith Christmas, some of whom had only turned up to watch but played anyway. About 2,000 people attended the event, enjoying an ox-roast and free milk from the farm as well as the music. Also in attendance were the local Hell's Angels, who had been inadvertently hired to do security. They set fire to a hay wagon and stole the ox from the roast, but left before causing any Altamont-sized problems.
"Imagine, we're going to concentrate the celestial fire and pump it into the planet to stimulate growth." - Andrew Kerr.
Andrew Kerr was what you might call an intellectual hippy. Former director of the research team which had worked on Randolph Churchill's biography of his father, Sir Winston, his interests now lay in the area of the earth's spiritual energies. This included ley lines, numerology, and the geometry used for ancient buildings such as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.
Together with Randolph's daughter Arabella, he now wanted to organise a 'fair in the medieval tradition' at the Summer Solstice, when the earth's energies are at their peak. Michael Eavis' farm was the obvious choice: it was in the Vale of Avalon, close to Glastonbury Abbey, a building and location of great power; and Eavis had shown his willingness to host an event by the previous year's festival. The centrepiece of the Fair was a pyramid, doubling as a stage, one tenth the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built over a 'blind spring', a place where the earth releases and absorbs energy.
The festival, which was free, attracted about 12,000 people. It was described at the time by Somerset's medical officer as having conditions like those in a refugee camp, and recalled recently by Michael Eavis as 'very pretty, very romantic'. The bands who played read like a Who's Who of the British hippy underground, plus some who had already gone overground: David Bowie, Traffic, Pink Fairies, Hawkwind, Fairport Convention, Edgar Broughton Band, Quintessence, Brinsley Schwartz, Family, Arthur Brown. And Melanie. The Grateful Dead famously did not show up, having to satisfy themselves with playing the real Great Pyramids five years later.
The Fair attracted local and national media coverage, mostly of an incredulous nature. The Observer, calling it 'one of the weirdest events ever staged in modern Britain', was more interested in Andrew Kerr's ideas. The Sun concentrated on orgies in the mud, naked hippies dancing on stage, and beetroot-dyed junior asprin being sold as LSD. The local press was more concerned with noise and damaged fields.
Michael Eavis went back to being a dairy farmer for the next eight years. Arabella Churchill is still involved with the festival, organising the theatre and circus events. If anybody knows what happened to Andrew Kerr, who will be 63 by now, I'd be fascinated to know.
"You'd think after 19 years it would get easier." - Michael Eavis (1989).
The next festival was held in 1979, in aid of the Year Of The Child. Peter Gabriel topped the bill, together with Steve Hillage, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Sky, and Nona Hendrix. It was not a financial success.
Undeterred, and after a year's break, Michael Eavis started the modern run of festivals in 1981, this time to raise money for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Another Pyramid stage was built, this time a permanent structure which doubled as a cow barn for the rest of the year, until it burnt down just before the 1994 festival. Since 1981, the festival has been held most years, with breaks in 1988, 1991, and 1996.
In the early eighties, the attendance was around 30,000. By the beginning of the nineties, about 75,000 were attending, limited only by the space available on Michael Eavis' land and surrounding fields rented for the occasion. The official attendance was usually boosted by tens of thousands of people hopping the fences, which has led to tighter security and more and higher fences. Local objections to the event have been reduced, if not completely overcome, as organisational problems have been resolved and the community has realised that the financial benefits to the area are quite considerable.
"The essential power within Glastonbury is fusion - the melting together of diverse ideas, attitudes and energies." - Steve Hillage (1979 Glastonbury programme notes).
Since 1981, the music has always been an eclectic mix of reggae (Aswad, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru), world (King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti, Bhundu Boys), new wave & indie (New Order, Elvis Costello, Pixies, The Cure), decent pop (Howard Jones, Style Council), rock (U2, The Black Crowes), old hippies(Gong, Hawkwind), old timers (Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Fairport Convention), and Van Morrison. The number of stages has steadily increased, both to accommodate the number of spectators, and also to allow individual stages to cater to narrower bands of taste, without affecting the overall diversity of what's on offer.
In the nineties, dance music has started playing a larger part, with a rave tent appearing in 1990, and bands such as Orbital and The Shamen on the music stages, all culminating in a dedicated Dance Tent in 1995. This was programmed by Steve Hillage of the System 7 dance crew, who had played the festival in 1979 as Steve Hillage, hippy guitarist.
Other regular attractions the festival has gained over the years include the Healing Field, with all kinds of alternative and complementary therapy on offer; the Green Fields, a marketplace of alternative lifestyles and ideas; and the Sacred Space, the most remote part of the site which now boasts an Ancient Stone Circle to help you chill out, and is definitely the place to be if you're still up at dawn.
With the end of the Cold War, the proceeds from the event now go to environmental and aid charities, mainly Greenpeace and Oxfam, plus a variety of local causes. The 1995 festival raised half a million pounds. As Michael Eavis has pointed out, Glastonbury is not a charity event, it's a business which happens to give all its profits away.
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