A Brief History of the Summertime Festival

It’s raining. You lost a shoe hours ago to the suckling mire of mud underfoot. Your mates are marooned at the top of a broken fairground ride. And the stranger next to you – whipping their sodden hair around, leaving little greasy streaks on your thrifted shirt – bummed all your roll-ups. A glance at the human sea all-around betrays no familiar faces, no lovely lifeboat in the form of a friend.

originating with the ancient greeks, and defiled by the modern brits, our current day depravity can be traced to a few major musical events.

Such dubious circumstances would normally send you into a spiral. But not today. Today is your right of passage, your blow-out, your date with British summertime. But where did these festivities begin? Well, to explore that honourable enquiry, we must investigate their somewhat unlikely, and less filth-ridden, inception in society. Originating with the ancient Greeks, and defiled by the modern Brits, our current day depravity can be traced to a few major musical events.


Reading Festival appeared in 1961 as a National Jazz and Blues Festival, while the first Glastonbury Festival (then called Pilton Festival) was launched in 1970 by Michael Eavis, a farmer and metalhead. Having witnessed Led Zepplin perform open-air in Bath, he got thoroughly obsessed; coming home to his dairy farm and cajoling a dozen or so people into helping him erect a stage on his land. Included with the tickets was free milk for his punters. Hardly something one imagines drawing in a Glastonbury crowd now… but these were simpler times, pre-dating the philosophical question of: What milk would you like with that?


Nor was this the only music festival to be born on a farm. More recently, Freddie Fellowes started Secret Garden Party in 2004 on his dad’s land, an alternative to mainstream music festivals. They had gallons of glitter and strobe lights, as well as yurts, mermaids, unicorns. Catering, I think you’ll agree, very much to the Neo-festival nutter of today.


As these events grew, so did the authority’s meddling.

Music festivals have long since been associated with counterculture, probably stemming from the legend of Woodstock. Britain’s answer to hippie paradise was the roaring Isle of Wight Festival. Running initially from 1968 to 1970, the festival became a haven for the free love movement in the UK. In 1970 – its penultimate moment during the initial run – 600,000 people descended upon the island to see Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors, to name a few. The party was so wild that Parliament, in their infinite wisdom, shut it down. The threat of open expression, music and art, was just too worrisome.


As these events grew, so did the authority’s meddling. Parks, according to the University of Westminster, are ‘contested spaces’. Various academics have examined them, dissected them, analysed them. Wireless, in certain research, was cited as ‘an expensive and disruptive event, but one that celebrates urban and youth cultures, suggesting it may have positive as well as negative effects on park accessibility.’ A fair point, but certainly not one most of us, off our rocker, will be thinking about in the middle of regurgitating our cheesy chips.

Photos by Rachel Doughty

Not too long ago, the UK would see circa 28 million people attending music events annually, with more than 7,000 major outdoors events, a thousand of which were festivals. A mind-boggling 22,000 music performances unfold across London every 365 days, making it the biggest city for music across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.


London has lost a lot of its cultural venues over the last few years. There used to be somewhere for everyone, but now many places are sanitised, or gone at best. Operating in the city there’s only some 300 licensed music venues left. So, what’s happened in response? A boom of tailored and boutique parties for all walks of life.


There’s Cross the Tracks for jazz, soul and funk. Higher Ground for indie-rock and female fronted bands. Wide Awake for indie, post-punk, techno and jazz. City Splash for reggae and afrobeat. Mighty Hoopla for pop and LGBTQ+ icons. Not to mention a ruthless amount of dance events: Four Tet is taking over Finsbury Park, Eastern Electrics the Lee Valley Showground and Junction 2 Boston Manor Park…


It’s not that surprising this city does festival season so well. Diversity is one of London’s greatest blessings: where else might you find a writhing body of techno-heads, oscillating shirtless in the woods, whilst just down the road families are having a peaceful picnic, sublime and unaware amidst a puppet show, but wondering why London suddenly smells of body odour. People just coexist.


Packed tube services to unknown zones suddenly feature eye contact, tactical pre-drinks, and makeshift toilets in the corner of the carriage. Night buses become mobile raves with people chattering everywhere. It rains, a few of our mates get detained, but we’re out, running free. And here it comes again… for festival season is upon us.


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