The rise of festivals
Going to Gigs Round 7
Wednesday 11th October 2017
by Trevor Locke
In this issue: How festivals changed the face of live music. We look at some of the festivals that shaped the music scene in Leicester.
Well it’s been a while. A while since the last issue of Going to Gigs was published. So, the last issue of this column went out on 9th August. So why the long break? Been somewhere nice? Sadly no. What happened in August was that I moved house. I went up in the world. That meant that the Internet got disconnected and then there was a long wait before it was reconnected. So, everything fell apart. The wheels fell off. No worries, back in business now.
Festivals. Where would music be without them? Everybody goes to them. At least once. Some people go several times a year. But when did they start? Who started them? Why did they make such a massive change to the live music scene? These days, over 450 rock music festivals are held in the United Kingdom, each year.
Now, this article is not intended to be the draft Wikipedia entry for this subject. It is simply a brief resume of a much larger work concerned with the history of music in Leicester. The Going To Gigs series of articles on MIL magazine provides shortened versions of much of the material that will form part of the book, when it is finished.
Before we dive into the history of Leicester, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. Britain. The 1970s. Music was changing fast. All around the country people were on the move. One group whose movements came under intense scrutiny were the travellers. Not the traditional gypsy folk but those of the new age. A lot of them travelled between festivals; small, often free, events held in fields with no boundary walls and no gates. This is music-making in the raw. Their origins lay in the counter-culture of the 1960s but they grew and started to become prominent in the 1970s and 80s. Old vans, barely road worthy, lorries, buses, home made tents, yurts, tipis; it was all about living on a very small budget. Some of these groups went to Stonehenge in Wiltshire for the free festivals that were held there before it became a protected monument. These were held from 1974 to 1984.
But if you think festivals were invented in the twentieth century, you would be mistaken. In fact, large outdoor-events that attracted big crowds and invariably involved some kind of music, date back to ancient times. The ancient Greeks, of the sixth century BC, were big festival-goers. In Delphi, the Pythian Games drew people from far and wide to enjoy sport and a bit of music. In medieval times, in this country, local fairs attracted a lot of people and music-making was a feature of these important local events. In the Victorian period, most music was performed indoors and concert halls took over from the public houses as the main venues for live music.
In England, the Reading festival dates back to 1961. Back then it was all about jazz and blues. Leeds was added by the organisers in 1999 and by this time rock was the dominant genre. The Isle of Wight festival was another event to have started in 1968. Glastonbury started a couple of years later in 1970. The first festival called Download got going in 2003. From 1979 to 1996, Donington was the location of the Monsters of Rock festivals. The events featured hard rock and heavy metal. Over 35,000 fans attended the first festival to hear a lineup of UK and international bands.
Why are music festivals so popular?
When it comes to rock festivals everyone had their own story to tell. For me, my first festival was a life-changing experience. I went to my first music festival in 2001, when I attended Reading. It was an experienced that changed my life. If it were not for that one unique experience of spending four days in the presence of tens of thousands of other people, all of whom shared a common love for the music that brought them there, and the bands whose music we loved, I would probably not be writing this article now. A little later I wrote:
Having just returned from three days in a field, I thought this might be a good time to ponder on the meaning of the festivals experience. Why do so many people love that experience of gathering together in the open air to listen to music that most of them would have heard before? What is it that makes listening to music quite different from listening to it at home with a pair of ear-phones or standing in the comparative comfort of a venue? Most of the bands I saw over the past three days I knew well. I have seen pretty much most of them playing live and in some cases, more than once. I have heard their tracks, listened to their CDs and watch them films on YouTube. So why bother going to a field, braving the cold, wind and rain (or even the burning sun) to see them?
After that experience I got into rock music in a big way.
Festivals of Leicester
The Abbey Park festival. In its day it was one of the most important music events in the city. When it finished, many people were sad and angry at its passing. It provided a launch-pad for many new bands. Its importance to live music in the 90s cannot be under-stated.
The Summer Sundae weekender. Held at the De Montfort Hall and gardens, this became established, in 2001, as a key local event for many new bands as well as the long-established ones. It was one opportunity where local bands could perform to very large audiences. It became an event of national importance.
Glastonbudget. From 2005, Glastonbudget established itself as one of the key annual music events for the fans and performers of Leicester, Leicestershire and the East Midlands. It has always been held in Wymeswold, near Loughborough. It was primarily a festival of tribute music but from its early days it also provided stages for new band and singers that performed their own music. Many bands of national significance performed on its main stage.
Strawberry Fields festival. It started in February 2010 at a pick-your-own farm near Coalville. An ambitious undertaking, the event saw some nationally important acts take to the main stage; almost every band in the local area either did play at one of the festivals or certainly wanted to. That gave some memories for fans to treasure. Over three days a very big line-up of bands and singers entertained the crowds.
Riverside festival. For two days each year, the River Soar has echoed to the sounds of live music. The event primarily celebrates boats and water but the stages on Bede Island have become a very popular attraction to thousands of Leicester people. The free event draws in huge numbers of people – many of them are people who would not normally go to live music events or even set foot inside a venue.
Oxjam. When it first started, the one day funding raiser for Oxfam took place in Braunstone Gate, near to the Narborough Road area. Later it moved to the city centre. There was a time when Leicester’s Oxjam was the biggest in the country. It has continued to be a feature of the Leicester scene to this day. Oxjam now showcases local artists, from bands to solo singers. Stages are in most of the venues situated in the so-called Cultural Quarter, in the vicinity of Curve theatre. The event takes place in October every year.
Glastonblaby. Several neighbourhoods within the city and county have held music events and one of the largest and best attended was the charity fundraiser called Glatonblaby. Held in a field in Blaby, the event saw many of the biggest bands of the day play on its stages. It also gave space to some of the smaller and up-and-coming bands and singers.
Out there is the county, there was a great golden era for the Foxton Locks festival. This was a general celebration for families designed to raise money for the Foxton Locks inclined plane preservation Trust. The canal-side event was big on music and it felt like a music festival in its own right. As with the Blaby event, it attracted all the big names in the local music industry.
Many other local areas have held one day festivals over the years. In the city of Leicester, there is a regular festivals season that lasts from May through to October. Many of these free public events involved sound stages. The City festival now occupies a slot in August and includes many stages, the main one being sited in Jubilee Square.
What is it about the outdoor festival that brings people together, often in large numbers, to get that extra take on bands? Everyone who has been to a festival has their own story to tell.
Like all outdoor events, we are all at the mercy of the English weather. My day at Glastonbudget [in 2015] was delightful. As I sat on a bench in the hot sunshine of late May, with a glass of cold cider in one hand and a pen in the other, I wrote ‘I could really enjoy this’. Sadly or otherwise, my experience of festivals is very different to that of the average fan. I go to festivals to work – just like the cohorts of sound engineers, security staff, stage managers and even the army of people who are there to serve food and drinks – for me it is a job. I kept thinking ‘I’m not here to enjoy myself.’ As I watched the fans standing in the rain over the past three days, seemingly immune to what ever the clouds could pour down on them, I wondered why. Why do people stand in the pouring rain to watch bands they have seen many times before? Why do people roll around in the mud?
As I watched the fans at the Riverside festival, as much as at Glastonbudget, which also benefited from hot sunshine, I could catch the essence of that out door, sun-soaked experience – as much about the beer, the food and the camaraderie as it is about the music. I supposed that it might well be because the guys on the stage are their friends and such as in the strength of loyalty to them, that they would happily get soaked to the skin on a cold day in June to show their support. Of course, we all hope that some of the people who stood in front of the various stages this weekend, were on a voyage of discovery, finding new music to listen to, probably quite by accident, that they would not have encountered in their local live music venue.
More than anything else, what strikes me about the festival experience is the crowd behaviour. There is a buzz about watching very good bands, as the light begins to fade and the stage lighting becomes exciting, when the music grips people en mass. Some of my most exhilarating music experiences have taken place in fields, as the headline band strikes up and their songs begin to light up the night sky as much as the audience.
So, whether that was peering into the distance to catch a glimpse of the actual person of Eminem on stage (some kilometres away) (at reading] or standing just yards from Example himself, there is nothing like seeing the reaction of a crowd of several thousand people to the music they all love so much and to the musicians they have some (in such large numbers) to see.
I caught something of the unique excitement of being at a very large public event when I joined 80,000 rock fans at Download. I love watching large crowds of people – for me it holds a fascination akin to watching thousands of birds flying together or the movements of colonies of huge numbers of insects in the forest. I can still see clearly the micro-climate of the main stage at Download, steam rising from the crowd in front of the stage watching Korn – a visible steamy vapour rising from the tightly packed mass of dancing bodies. I can see images in my mind of waves of movement spreading through a crowd as they push against each other, all trying to edge a little closer to the front of the stage.
I enjoy watching the people who go to rock festivals, as much as watching the members of bands either on the stage, or behind the scenes, as they prepare to face the adulation of thousands or having just come off stage and the looks on their faces after they have finished an hour of thrilling and delighting so many people.
Going to a festival confers a rich experience, much more than just hearing bands playing in a room. It’s about the beer and the food – the smell of chips frying and burgers sizzling – that distinctive barbecue-like aroma wafting through the air. It’s about being out of doors, watching the clouds above the fields, the sunshine beating down on the pitch, even the moon rising in the darkening sky at the end of a long day. It’s about the vast lighting systems that are now in use, the colourful theatre that is so much a hall-mark of the live experience.
What I see, which is not often witnessed by the fans, is the hours of painstaking and meticulous preparations that go into even a one day event. The huge amounts of paperwork, the vast and complex organisational arrangements that organisers have to be deal with, the army of people who have to be recruited and marshalled to being in the right place at the right time and doing the array of jobs that will make it all happen.
As someone who has had played a role in putting on events for crowds of up to 10,000 people, this has given me an astonishing insight into the weeks and months of work that are required to give people just one day of festival life.
As a music journalist, I have a deep fascination for the goings-on back stage. Having my ears plugged in to the radio channels, I know what it is to hear communications between event organisers, stage managers and those responsible for crowd safety and security.
I have, on more than one occasion, spent the entire day sat in a control room, laboriously checking people in and out, handing out radios and lanyards, filling in forms and making sure that mind-boggling levels of rules and regulations are being complied with and observed.
What continues to fascinate me is the personal, human experience that is the essence of festival-going. As the fans wend their way home, they take with them tens of thousands of memories, photos and stories of what they and their friends encountered on their day at the festival.
What makes a good festival?
It would be easy to say that a festival is all about the music. How true is that? The very best part of the whole process of organising and putting on a festival is the visualisation – forging the idea, the concept, setting the date, finding the location, thinking through the possible line-ups of acts.
Not all festivals happen is this way of course. If you look at the history of Glastonbury, you see a more organic picture – something that grew from an acorn. Something that happened, sometimes only on the day it took place. It was about the community as much as it was about the cause – the charity they were raising money for and the struggle that the organisers had to balance their books.
What about Summer Sundae, Glastonbudget, Strawberry Fields – why did these become established on our local calendar of music events? Why did two of them come to an end? The thousands of fan who have come back from Download or Reading – what did they bring back with them? These are questions I will talk about at length when my book comes out.
For many it was all about seeing the world’s great bands – several stages putting on the music that people have listened to in the past year and in some cases for many years. It is true that some of these bands appeared in UK stadia and concert halls but going to see them one at a time would be far more expensive and time-consuming than getting them all together in one place in the space of a weekend.
Does this hold true for our local events? Both Strawberry Fields and Summer Sundae offered acts of national and international significance. Not just the head-lining bands and artists but also local bands and the rising new stars of our local music scene.
Going to a festival is a total experience – so it not just about the bands, it also about the getting there, the facilities on site, the camp sites, the toilettes, the food stalls, the bars, the fun, the frolics, the all-night parties – these are things about which fans have fond experiences and opinions too. That night at Reading when the whole campsite stayed awake till six in the morning – shouting, screaming and laughing. On the last day of the event, some lads pushed over 100 portaloos, some with people still inside using them.
It may also be about the mix of the musical offerings – some, like Bloodstock and Download – veer towards those with a taste for metal. Summer Sundaes catered for more generalised audiences, with fans being more your family and all-ages constituency. Riverside is your archetypal family fun day out; those with a taste for punk and metal will not find their favourite fare at this weekend. This event is all about nice music for nice people.
Glastonbudget brings together the much-loved sounds of traditional favourites through the medium of the tribute band and those who cover the songs of the bands of the past – some of which might no longer be out there in their original form. Dead bands. Bands no longer with us in their original format. Bygone singers. Glastonbudget celebrates the best of the past with the finest of the new, offering slots devoted to the music of Abba or Queen alongside the most popular current, local bands.
We have also seen the rise of the ’boutique’ festivals – the one or two day gatherings aimed at those with a liking for folk and often clearly aimed at the smocks and sandals fraternity. And I believe that Womad is still going. Music of the world.
Local communities have come together to celebrate music – both in the urban areas – like the Clarendon Park events or those based in villages or the county towns like Market Harborough, Coalville or Loughborough. Eyres Monsell – with its annual Monsfest – was all about developing the spirit of the neighbourhood. Events like the Mela, Gay Pride or Caribbean Carnival celebrated the flavours of a particular cultural ethos. But still attracted people in large numbers from all walks of life.
The recent indoor festival organised around the venues of the central Leicester area and the October Oxjam, put together a city-wide event that is focused on a particular area of the city. The Summer Sundae fringe nights were, in their day, hugely popular events that saw every venue in the city working together to provide a huge line-ups of bands and singers.
In all of these events, music played a large and important part inside the wider community agenda that they shared. The Mela, Caribbean Carnival, the City festival – these became established annual events that add to the rick diversity of Leicester’s cultural scene.
Next time. On Going to Gigs. We look at singers and soloists. The women and men that put bands in their place. The individuals who brought their music talents and their personalities to the ears of thousands of people.