In 1979, when is seemed that the hippie dream was pretty much over, the music press announced that there would be a Glastonbury festival that summer.
In fact, I think it may have been announced there would be a Glastonbury Fayre because that was what the previous two festivals had been called. The first two fayres had been real ‘bongos in the dirt’ affairs, as distant culturally as rock and roll or Merseybeat from the slick new pop of the late 70’s.
The hippie hopelessness stuck a chord with me and my old schoolmates Dunc and Phil. There really wasn’t a lot of festival action around, the only real alternative being Reading where you could have cans of piss thrown at you by weekend bikers from Burnley. There was a sense that festivals were a thing of the past, we were no longer stardust or golden, we were savy street kids from Norwich! Glastonbury sounded a bit of a soft option compared with the hell of the average British festival, and so we agreed to send off our cheques and hope we got some tickets sent back.
I can’t remember how much a Glastonbury weekend was, but I have heard the sum of £5 quoted. If this was the case it was still an incredibly good deal, you would be lucky to get a couple of LPs for that price and our tents and sleeping bags cost a whole lot more.
What ever the cost it was more than I could really afford. I had just finished my first year of polytechnic and would presumably have made acclaim for dole money. Phil and Dunc were still at university finishing off their second year. It was agreed I would go to Birmingham where Dunc was and we would hitch down from there. I couldn’t face the prospect of solo hitching from Norwich and so I blew a load of money on a train journey, spent a night in Birmingham and we set out hitching as early as we could face on a Friday morning.
Travelling was surprisingly good, there was a heart sink moment when we were dropped at a service station to find a long queue of hippie types waiting to depart. No matter, soon a car stopped next to us and we jumped the queue and we were off again, by tea time we were handing over our tickets and finding a place to pitch our tents.
Now, this may be stating the bleedin obvious but compared with today this was a very small festival. There were quite a few tents but nothing too daunting. I cant remember fences, the usual countryside barriers of hedges and ditches seemed enough to prevent us wandering too far. The hedges also doubled as toilets, for reasons that I will explain later.
Phil was a late arrival, I think he landed a day later having got a lift down with some friends from Warwick University. He had invested heavily in travelling light, all he had was in a plastic carrier bag. It was a brave and foolish gesture, after a night nearly catching alight by sleeping next to a fire he had to share Dunc’s tent. It says something about the size of the festival though that he was able to find us without the need for mobile phones.
I think the first night featured Steve Hilliage. I had been a fan of his Green Album, I still am, Hillage had become a bit more muscular with the advent of punk but he was a natural choice being both ancient and a bit modern. Most of the bands were on at the main stage, not yet a pyramid but situated in a slight dip. It was easy to stake out a nice comfortable place on the grass and still see what was going on.
Until I did a bit of internet checking I had forgotten the Footsbarn Theatre Company who were a feature attraction, that was probably the limit of Glastonbury’s multi media experience, I had no desire to see them. There was definitely more than one stage because I remember seeing a set from the Lightning Raiders on a smaller stage but that was during the day,at night there was one stage and that had to close by the time it was dark (I think the festival was still being held during the summer solstice) as Michael Eavis didn’t want to upset his neighbours.
So, bands I did see
Leighton Buzzards -A kind of punk/pop crossover-perfectly ok competent but a bit unmemorable
The Atoms- not sure if I caught them but mentioned here as they were a Nottingham band featuring Harry Stevenson from Plummet Airlines who still plies his craft round Nottingham pubs to this day.
The Pop Group- Challenging post punk from Bristol livened up by a guest appearance by the slits.
The Only Ones- probably the band of the festival- they blew the PA twice and had to abandon the stage on the second occasion.
Mother Gong-diluted version of Gong who I think were cobbled together for the festival, bound to be popular with the average Glasto fan of the time but I suspect I fell asleep during their set.
All star Jam- I remember this as being on the first night but it may have been on the last night. It featured Tom Robinson, Steve Hillage, Nona Hendrix, Alex Harvey possibly Peter Gabriel, John Martyn and Phil Collins. It was everything you might hope an all-star jam would be. There was an unintentionally hilarious moment in 2-4-6-8 Motorway where Robinson handed over the guitar solo to Hillage. Unable to manage a standard blues solo Hillage resorted to a psychedelic workout which was incongruous to say the least. Alex Harvey was a drunk as a skunk and pretty tedious in his efforts to involve the audience which led to quite a bit of abuse from him when we failed to comply.
Bands I didn’t see
Sky- a kind of classical fusion group featuring guitarist John Williams. I found them so uninteresting I couldn’t be arsed to make the 5 minute journey from my tent to see them
John Martyn- to this day I hadn’t realised he played, I think this was is Grace and Danger period where he had a band with Phil Collins on drums but in 1979 I wasn’t a fan (I am now).
Peter Gabriel-to this day I think that musically Peter G is a big shiney load of nothing so it’s possible I saw him and forgot it
After a nap one evening (I was probably lulled asleep by Sky) I swear I went for a wander and found a synth player set up (probably Tim Blake) officially he played the final set on the mainstage but I’m certain in this case he was just playing among the people.
It all sounds a bit low key, and it was. There was no 24 hour party going on. My main memory is sitting about a lot slightly exhausted by the camping experience. There was some food available because I didn’t starve but I can’t remember any bars. On the second day a guy came around on a tractor selling flagons of really rough scrumpy. One of the compares got a bit sniffy about this pointing out that people wouldn’t be drinking alcohol at Glastonbury Faye in the past. He had a point the crowd had got a bit leery but we calmed down once the cider ran out.
Being stupid young men, we had neglected sunscreen or hats. He still had an ozone layer in 1979 but being pasty after exams we were starting to burn which would have bad consequences later.
But back to the toilets, the facilities were basically a huge drum, Walls divided the drum like the segments of an orange, there was a door and a hole, and we sat suspended above gallons and gallons of human waste. I decided I could get around using them but simply not having a bowel movement for 4 days. Clearly a stupid tactic I was woken in the early morning with cramps and so made my way to the toilets of doom, which were thankfully deserted, (amazingly I had packed some toilet paper). Suspended over days of festival effluent I suddenly realised it was moving alarmingly. The organisers had taken the opportunity of an early start to empty the drum which they did by sucking everything out into a huge tanker. I had visions of being sucked down and either drowning or being mashed up by the suction action.
Clearly, I lived to tell the tale and, to be fair festival toilets have not improved that much.
Of course, festivals have become increasingly popular with fun for all the family, there are now phone charging points, saunas, massages, hot showers (at Glastonbury Fayre the only shower was to strip and tip a bucket of water over yourself). Killie Minogue is about to headline this year’s Glastonbury-it’s a far cry from Mother Gong.
In 1979 though, there was no violence despite no real policing of the festival, no one tried to sell me drugs and no one stole anything off me although arguably I had nothing to steal.
Leaving the festival was easy, the car to people ratio was a lot different to today in fact there was a concern all the cars would leave before I could get a lift. In fact, I was soon able to get away but it was a long journey from Somerset to Norwich. Mid afternoon I was stranded at a roundabout outside Swindon. In my memory this was Sunday afternoon as all the cars seemed full of three generations of families sailing past while I waited and waited. I must have been deluded, I’m sure now it would have been Monday but whatever, Swindon was dead. Alarmingly, the sun had awakened a dormant herpes virus which was starting on my lip but spreading alarmingly ( I don’t learn, the same thing happened at a festival 2 years ago), I needed to get home before I turned into the Elephant Man and no driver would give me a lift. Such is the nature if hitching, as soon as I had reconciled myself to a night of rough sleeping I grabbed a lift that took me right across country and a final stage got me all the way to Norwich. I took to my room for two weeks raved by a giant cold sore.
Apparently Michael Eavis had to put up his farm as a guarantee to get funding for the 1979 festival. It absolutely beggars belief that a dairy farmer would take that sort of risk on a festival. I’m sure he didn’t make much money on the venture, it was an amazingly altruistic gesture on his part.
Today, or this weekend to be accurate, Glastonbury is the biggest festival anywhere ever. It reflects mainstream society, the BBC have been all over it for years, it’s now an event like Ascot or Wimbledon. There are loads of other festivals more ‘alternative’, festival going is now an activity for everyone. Things aren’t better or worse. Festival going was a real adventure in the 1970’s but all I did really was lie on the grass, sleep, drink some cider and have a really scary shit.
Perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.