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The Archive : Obsession, Festivals and Time

There are so many regulations. I think the way the UK is policed these days it would be very difficult to do free festivals

A picture of a UK festival in the 1970s

Summer’s still here and people of all ages are still packing up tents, wellies, and preparing for weekends of loud music, questionable hygiene, random friendships, and the weather-drenched epiphanies that typify the English music festival.

For well over a decade The Archive has been a central port of call for people to reconnect with their memories and, sharing their own, increase the hazy recollections of a time half a century ago when in the main, if physically you were there, then your mind was tempted to be a million light-years from home.

A picture of the Reading Festival 1974Reading Fesival, 1974

“This is NOT a nostalgia site! Yes, we celebrate the past, but this is as much a sociological project as it is a musical odyssey. The Archive aims to eventually provide as much information as possible about all aspects of the major UK festivals, free festivals and outdoor concerts from 1960 to 1990 and scrutinize them from sociological and musical perspectives. Festivals are not divorced from society and they usually mirror changes in our general culture as well as in musical tastes. As music fans we also provide information on many of the groups who performed at the festivals, well, we do have to have some fun!”
– The Archive

The archive, with its homespun html, adheres to the long form ideals of page narrative. It starts at the top with the basic summary and then as new information comes in it’s added to the bottom.

Occasionally, it all

comes together and

transcends the mundane,

something cosmic happens

and a contact high is

achieved. Only music can

do that

Like an ongoing conversation, people send their reflections, clarifications and connections in a truly cybernetic fashion as empty spaces on the map are defined and then filled.

For connoisseurs of the live experience the archive is a fantastic dive into a place where, outside of the contemporary conventions of defining experiences before you have them, the music festivals (especially the free festivals) were places of liminal awakening, society, and discovery.

How much can you tell us about yourself, or is the curator of this amazing site usefully anonymous?

I have a job where I really need to remain anonymous until I retire (given that some of the content on the site is a bit contentious). When that blissful day comes round in four or five years time, I will post a revolting naked picture of myself on the site (perhaps covering up the naughty bits with black tape) and then I will feel free to reveal my true identity to the world.

What was your inspiration for starting the archives?

I had to learn how to make a website as part of my job. I’m not the type of cove who can just make something to learn techniques, I have to make a product that serves some use and that I am motivated to finish. I had some old music papers around that I’d kept from 1970 and 1972, so I decided I’d make a website on the Bath festival, as that was an amazing festival that had just been forgotten by the press, even though it was a huge festival with a better line-up than the Isle of Wight (in my opinion).A picture of UK Bobbies by Andy Wilson

The problem was, they didn’t make a movie of it. It was filmed, but the entire process was buggered up and I’ve been trying to get all the parties together to make a documentary on it for about a decade now, to no avail. Its incredibly frustrating!

What was your involvement in festivals at the time?

None, apart from going to the local WOMAD festival every couple of years. I just had a bunch of memories that I felt I had to preserve before they faded away. I’m glad I started as now I read the site to jog my rapidly fading memory banks!

Best memory of a festival?

There are a number, and they are all quirky. The first was when Tiny Tim sang, ‘there’ll always be an England’ at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. A hot air balloon emerged from behind the stage at precisely the right time and the crowd stood as one and went ape. A sea of peace signs and craziness.

Ironic really, the highlight of the festival was a stupid old jingoistic song sung by a vaudeville performer appealing to our sense of patriotism, when we were supposed to be rejecting all of that crap.

Just goes to show many of us weren’t all that different from our parents when it came down to it. Of course, it was more than patriotism, it was the synchronicity that got me on my feet and probably most of the others in the crowd too. But now I wonder how many in that crowd vote conservative or even UKIP. Sad really….A picture of a UK festival in the 1970s

The other was at Bickershaw in 1972 when The Grateful Dead played ‘Casey Jones’ as the set closer in the early evening. For once it had stopped raining, the sun was going down . We’d all dried off a bit, the gates had been opened and all the locals came to watch the Dead. Women in headscarves, men in flat caps, young girls with prams, mixed in with a sea of hippies in afghans and combat jackets, all leaping up and down to ‘driving that train, high on cocaine’.

It was a similar moment to the Isle of Wight, the audience and the band were as one and that’s really why I prize festivals so much. Occasionally, it all comes together and transcends the mundane, something cosmic happens and a contact high is achieved. Only music can do that. When a sporting team wins, then the supporters achieve something like that high, but then the other sides feeling like crap.

With music, almost everyone gets off, there are no sides,  everyone’s a winner.

Worst memory of a festival?

I haven’t really got many. But Sunbury 1968 as Arthur Brown was performing, a walkway that people were sitting on collapsed. Quite a few people were hurt, some might have even been killed. However, in a way it didn’t affect us as we’d hadn’t really seen it. So,  although it was a horrible thing to happen, the music went on and we weren’t involved.

The funny thing is you know, we went to festivals, we got wet, we got cold, but I never really disliked it. So for me the festivals they were nearly always positive. Possibly except for when I went comatose at WOMAD one year. I had had too much of everything really, and couldn’t move. I got stuck sitting in a chair at the end of a bar, hot as hell and very the worse for wear for having too much to drink.

I could not move and Jimmy Little was on. That was a really horrible experience, having to listen to his crap for forty minutes. That was probably my worst memory: having to listen to Jimmy Little.

A couple of good things happened as well, there were a couple of little kids ‘cos I couldn’t move. WOMAD is full of performance stuff and there were some people were dressed as gigantic insects, and the little kids interacting with them was really funny actually. So there was good and bad for that particular incident, but the bad probably outweighed the good.

There you go, Jimmy Little. Rest in peace, but I don’t want to listen to you mate.

What were some of the more common things to go wrong at festivals in the early days?

Putting them in stupid places. Like the Yorkshire Moors. The Krumlin Festival, it got blown away mostly. It was supposed to be Pink Floyd, The Who and a lot of other bands. The organisers said they booked them, but most them didn’t show up and some of them had been put on the bill before they actually had permissions or confirmations that they were going to attend.

Other things were lack of money, so people were going bust or holding the festival too early in the year. You don’t hold festivals in Britain in May ‘cos although it’s nearly summer, it’s not summer. In fact two of the festivals that were the most rained out were Bickershaw featuring The Grateful Dead (in fact the weather only cleared up towards the end when the Dead played, which was nice) and The Krumlin festival, which I was glad I didn’t go to. It was pretty bad, with people being hospitalised with hypothermia, the tents blew down… that was just a stupid site.

They had the Buxton festival on the Derbyshire Moors and again, you don’t put festivals in the middle of somewhere where you can get snow at any time of the year, where even at the best of times the weather isn’t that great. They had valleys there where the weather might have been okay if they’d got permission. Instead they stuck them on the top, which was the worst place you could possibly go to.

I think the way

the UK is policed

these days it would

be very difficult to

do free festivals

People put on festival when they didn’t have the expertise to do it. At Phun City a bunch of freaks from IT (International Times) magazine, Mick Farren being one of the main one, didn’t have the expertise to run it. They didn’t get the fences up, so what was supposed to be a paying festival ended up being a free festival. A bit like Woodstock I suppose.

At Bickershaw there were corrupt gate officials who just took the money and they also didn’t take the tickets, so when you got in you could get a pass out and then sell or give the ticket to somebody else. So security used to breakdown all the time.

The other thing they used to do was put the stages too low, or the speakers too quiet, or they would do both. Or then they were too high, so that if you were at the front you couldn’t see or hear anything (and you got a very stiff neck).

Sometimes stages weren’t very well built. Sometimes they had covers over them. So, general disorganisation. Too many people showing up and not enough facilities, or the wrong facilities. There was a lot of criticism from the music press about the attitude that he promoters had, that they were just trying to make a quick buck. Other promoters like Freddie Banister were pretty good. He provided a bunch of tents for people to sleep in at the Bath festival, but then people took the tents so he lost a lot of money on it.

The food was usually pretty crap. Fish ‘n’chips and Coke, and they charged an exorbitant amount for it. When that happened at the free festivals they got kicked off site or set on fire (Reading 1974).

A picture of a UK music festival in the 1970s

How did people find out about festivals in those days (y’know before the internet)?

Posters, flyers, word of mouth, music papers. Music papers were a big one. I used to buy the NME for about twenty years. The Melody Maker had a large circulation too. Record shops were another avenue; they sold tickets there and had posters up etc. Course, the problem was that sometimes they didn’t get the ticket sales back in and they didn’t know how many they’d sold.

Obviously radio, BBC Radio 1, Radio Caroline, things like that. So… yeah, before the internet you heard through things like that. Of course you could miss stuff. I missed the Dead at the Hollywood Festival. I would have gone to that probably, but there you go. You can’t catch them all.

Do free festivals still happen?

No I don’t think they do much, they’re very much under the radar. The act that Thatcher brought in killed that in 1992. More than a few people having a gathering is not on, so as far as I know there aren’t too many going on. We were thinking of trying to get one together. There are so many regulations. I think the way the UK is policed these days it would be very difficult to do free festivals. But then people are being policed via the internet these days anyway.

I‘m not sure about the (illegal) rave scene in the UK, whether they are still going on. If they are, they are going on in a small way.

How did the UK festivals archives start?

I was asked to make a website for work and I had to do something. Once I got started on the site it expanded a lot. I was only doing festivals in the 60s and 70s, the ones where I was around. I was determined that I would have a go at the Reading festival because it was such an iconic one, although I only went to the one in 1968.

Because I went to Windsor in 1974 I put up my recollections of that and then this guy Richard Arridge  who ended up living in China but at the time was in France, sent me a whole bunch of stuff about Windsor, press clippings and various bits and pieces. He had letters and things like that. He’s still sending me stuff that he’s got in his archive, which are now over in China.

Richard was a major inspiration. Roger Hutchinson (RIP), was an amazing character who did the Stonehenge free festival poster with the druid on it. He contacted me, he had been to so many free festivals from the 70s to middle 80s, but then he got married and stopped. But he did a lot of performance pieces and constructions for festivals and he had photographs of pretty much any festivals he’d attended. That really allowed me to get stuck into the free festivals and then the traveller scene.

Because the two were so intermingled it meant that I learned a hell of a lot more about what was going on in the UK with Thatcher and its effect on people that weren’t living in traditional accommodation. That whole subculture was created and thrived because of the free festival. People lived on what they sold at the free festivals and then they wintered up on farms preparing for the festival circuit again.

Because so many people were evicted from squats in the late 70s, where were they going to go? Thatcher was busy selling off the council houses, there was a shortage of rental accommodation and also, if you looked a little bit different, they weren’t going to rent to you.

So that was how it spread across into those subgenres. I did it because it was so fascinating anyway and I loved the atmosphere. I loved the idea that people would create something to come together and put it together despite everything, without police (or police it themselves) and do it in such a way that most people got something good out of it. By the time Stonehenge got busted it was getting a bit beyond the pale in some areas with heavy drugs coming in. There are some people that will completely ignore that and say it never happened, but we have enough eye witnesses to say that it did. The convoy sort of self-destructed because of a lot of the dealing that was going on – and so blatantly.

But again, compared to football hooliganism it was fuck all, basically.

The site expanded and got bigger and bigger and we had it on free sites. But free sites are pretty crap and you get viruses on there, intrusive adverts, slow connections. So we moved it onto Gator Host and they were pretty good. It used to be called Great British Rock festivals or something like that, but we changed the name.

By the time

Stonehenge got busted

it was getting a bit

beyond the pale in

some areas with

heavy drugs

coming in

We started in 1998. Neil Greenaway from e-festivals responded to our ad that we were looking for a sponsor, and gave us server space to do with what we wanted. We use about 30gb per month in bandwidth going up to about 200gb if there is a peak for some reason.

The site must be the start of many acquaintances getting back together over the years. Stories?

Yeah a lot of people have got together and it’s usually the small festivals. I’ve put them together.
I’ve also got in touch with some old friends via the site, in particular Andy Hope that does the Croissant Neuf festival – a very interesting little festival, all green and powered by the sun.

We did consider coming to the UK and doing a little documentary but that couldn’t happen for a number of reasons.

I guess one of things that is really nice about the festival is the photos that show the crowd. For close-up shots of performers it could pretty much be anywhere, but when you see  them with the crowd it becomes interesting and puts in context. So yeah, a lot of people have seen themselves in the photographs and see themselves in the photographs. Or they see their Dads in the photos.

I keep getting the son of Ginger John contacting me asking if I have any information on his dad but I don’t (sorry mate, I can’t help you).

Have you ever thoughts of putting a forum on the site?

No. No. They’re just too much to police and it’s such a load of crap that comes up, and people get their accounts hacked etc.

If you look at the e-festivals threads, people rarely stay on topic… if people stayed on topic then maybe, but I don’t really have the time to moderate it. I moderate a lot of stuff that goes onto the site and people have a strange memory of things that happen at festivals. Like [stoned voice] “Hey man, remember when Hendrix played at this festival in 1973?” and you’re like, ‘well that would be hard, as he’d been dead for a couple of years’.

Of course if someone else wants to do it, maybe. But it’d have to be very tightly run.

Hidden gems?

God knows. Lots. All The Zappa photos from Bath, five rolls of film that showed up in a record shop one day, done for a Swiss magazine. They were never actually published. There was a roll of film that someone found at the Hyde park festival, lots were taken from the photo pit and backstage. In fact we’re trying to find out who the people are in the photographs. The film was picked up a 16 year-old on holidays from the States (go figure) who went back, got them developed and then sat on them for 30 years before emailing them to me!

Al Stokes came up with hundreds of photographs. He was a reporter… and he went to various free festivals. He gifted them to the site. He was the maker of the Stonehenge 84 film that had Hawkwind and others.

Some of the photos from the free festivals, if there wasn’t a site like this they wouldn’t be on the net. Formby free festivals for example.

The worst things is when people say that they have all the magazines from the festival welfare services and they’re the ones I haven’t got, they have valuable information on each festival. And then you never hear from them again!

One girl helped the guy who was stabbed to death at the Queen concert at Knebworth, and then you never hear from them again. There are a lot of disappointments, but you have to learn to deal with it. A lot of things happen to people: they lose their jobs, they get sick, people die!  Especially in the free festivals,  so many of them have snuffed it in the last few year partly due to their lifestyles. It’s not conducive to a long life: living in a bus, taking lots of drugs and drinking lots of booze.

How many pages of content are there?

About 4000 pages, although a lot of them are photograph pages. As internet speeds have gone up I’m putting the photographs into the pages now. I’ve never done anything other than use the simplest page layout, as it’s very easy to update. One thing with this sort of site is that you never know what the content is going to be. You can have a page that sits there for ten years and then suddenly you’ve got 60-70 photos and you have to redesign that whole thing and put in link to photo galleries etc.

So I do it as simply as I possibly can. There are nearly 20,000 documents on the site… which is a lot.

How have you managed to keep it going over the 13 years?

I don’t know. I think I must be fucking nuts. But then new things come along and people send me stuff and my interest in rekindled again. I could work on it like a full time job and there are times when I’ve been working on it to three in the morning. It’s stuffed up my arms, I get a lot back and arm pain because I’ve spent so much time in front of a monitor.

I have an understanding wife and I’m a person that, when I start something I stick with it. I could have been a researcher I think, I really enjoy doing the research and finding out things. I don’t spend as much time doing that as I used to. To some extent there is less coming, people are dying, in some cases people are selling it, they’re not contributing it, but in the last 6 – 8 months we haven’t had so much stuff. It’s been difficult but I’ve mostly enjoyed it.

Plans for expansion and dreams for the future?

Going into the 1990s. There’s a lot of stuff online.

Every man and his dog is taking photos now, so what’s the point? But I’ll certainly go into the mid 90s. I might start doing some more of the European festivals. A guy has been in contact with me about some of the festivals in France and that’s pretty fantastic, but I’ve never had the chance to put it up. I could do Australian festivals near where I live….

But then there are other things to do with life – though I have a few years until I retire. It would be nice to put it on an e-book so that people could download it. I would love to make a book about it and also I’d love to make a film. No one has really done a good job of it, Festival Britannica was alright but you really need a series to do it justice.

Thanks very much!

Thank you.

5 Replies to “The Archive : Obsession, Festivals and Time”

  1. Avatar Stephen Lyons says:

    All credit to the man for this tremendous site. I am a veteran of the Bath Festival 1970 and we became friends over the lost film footage. We found some but are still massively frustrated that the interested out there are unlikely to ever see it.

  2. Avatar Nige Barton says:

    I have contributed to,andfollowed,this terrific site for a few years now.It really is a bona fide historic document of a generally cooler time and not just a hippie nostagia trip [man!]Apparently the site is running low on contributions/articles and photos,so if you have these or recollections of events,please submit them and help keep the site alive! Peace n boogie! Nige

  3. Avatar Al Stokes says:

    Hi, just for the record I wasn’t a Daily Mail reporter (how dare you sir/modom) but freelance. It just happened Street of Shame editors sent me to cover festivals (and Convoy) because I had long hair and they saw that as ‘fitting in’.
    Have loads of films wot I made around the scene and the whole wobbly heap went on Youtube (Al Stokes Veteran Film Maker). There are others, including some of Bath, but they are held back ‘cos of hectic copyright considerations.
    My 1984 film ‘Stonehenge – a midsummer night rock show’ is still in distribution with Floating World Records. Not to be confused with the (messy) Jettisoundz version of events – which I think might be what’s on your YT link; featured artists on my film are Roy Harper, Hawkwind, Here & Now and The Enid, semi-narrated by an interview we did with Nik Turner.
    My 463-page paperback memoirs, Random Acts of Senseless Kindness Never Go Unpunished, are available on ebay (£7.99 + p&p) and the eBook with over 250 photos (£2.99) will be out as soon as the seller can get round to it. These young people don’t seem to have heard of deadlines. The little scamps.
    One film I’d love to donate but don’t own – if it still exists – is from when me and a cameraman when up to Stonehenge in 1985 to see what all the fuss was about but weren’t allowed to stop the car. The shot is of the old festival field site covered in coppers playing Frisbee and strumming guitars – I kid you not – and we managed two drive-bys with the camera rolling before they figured what we were doing. We didn’t hang about. I wanted to put some festival sounds on it but the boss thought it in poor taste. Unknown to me at the time my crusty sons was being clobbered by the rozzers just up the road.
    If any of this info is useable please let people know. If you need any further info get in touch.
    Love, light & peas – Al Stokes (retired)

  4. Avatar Al Stokes says:

    PS: There’s a whole chapter in me memoirs devoted to filming and photographing various Stonehenge Festivals. We went to Stonehenge as warrior hacks and we survived!

  5. Avatar Sean says:

    Apologies Al, Ive taken out the reference to the Daily Mail. Nobody deserves to be associated with *that* unless they have to be!

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