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 bummed all your baccy. A glance at the human sea all-around betrays no familiar faces, no lovely lifeboat in the form of a friend. 

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 a British summertime celebration. 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. The first recorded festival in England is thought to be the Workington Music Festival which took place in an old tin plate works in Cumbria, 1869. Long before parks and country estates were getting refashioned for music venues, William Griffiths set his sight on the old factory and lined up his band of choir singers and local music outfits to perform. Not long after, festivals hit London. John Curwen, in 1882, spawned the Stratford and East London festival. This gem, still going today, is the oldest ongoing music and drama event in Great Britain.

Originating with the ancient Greeks, and defiled by the modern Brits

Reading Festival appeared in 1961 as the 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?

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 to allow.

As these events grew, so did the authority’s meddling. Parks and their usage, 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 cheesy chips.

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

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 set to take over the capital.

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.

Here it comes again… festival season is upon us.

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