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One Man's Meat

Making Music's most violent pen, Mr John Morrish, discusses 'festivals'.

Is John Morrish's playpen. Making Music's resident opinion pounder lets fly at the open air festival.

"By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong" runs the famous tune, to which comes the riposte, "And 400,000 of us were already queueing up for the toilets." The other 100,000 were down on the ground trying to inhale the mud in case they could get high on it.

But summer is icumen in, in the words of the oldest song in the world, and icumen along with it are all manner of dodgy open-air events ranging from hard-nosed commercial efforts to the hippiest of throwback gatherings in a place where the ley-lines meet and the landlord's on holiday. For a few weekends every summer it is 1968.

Actually, the heyday of the big festivals was very short. It just seemed longer. A couple of summers saw the festival phenomenon sprout, blossom and fade. There had, of course, been open-air musical events before, especially in the jazz and folk fields, but at Monterey, California in 1967, music collided with the burgeoning hip counter-culture and a thousand myths were launched. And a few careers, too: among those turning up were Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas & the Papas and so on.

Symbolically, for the opening of the hippy era, it was a charity event. Symbolically too, someone scarpered with a signigicant lump of the profits. And this "annual" event was never held again. After that, the festivals grew and grew, as did the racketeering and mindless destruction and stupidity that invariably went with them. One highlight was John and Yoko's Toronto Peace Festival, where the star turn was due to be a supergroup composed entirely of aliens from outer space. But they were double-booked, and didn't turn up.

Woodstock spread the word throughout the world, on the basis of the glamorous album and film package. Best reports put the attendance at somewhere near 300,000 and the conditions something like that at a third world disaster: no sanitation, not enough doctors, more medical casualties than anyone could have anticipated. Oh yes, some music as well. I knew someone who had the album. It sounded like the sort of thing you'd use to frighten your children: "Don't play Star-Spangled Banner again, Daddy."

But everybody forgot about that in the great drug-induced hype called "peace and love". Even after Altamont all that was still talked about, though more in newspapers and record company offices than in the world where it had begun. Because for those in the know, Altamont was the beginning of the end. Held in the middle of nowhere by the Rolling Stones, stung by criticism of their ticket prices, this infamous free festival cost one man his life and lots more their illusions. For students of the macabre, I recommend Stanley Booth's exhaustive but monstrously egotistical "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones".

As we all know, the hippies went away. Some bought BMWs and business suits. Some floated off the edge of the world on a cloud of their own concoction. But the festivals go on, for business and for ideals. The business festivals are all Status Quo at Knebworth. The ideals festivals - their ideals, not mine - are all Gong at Stonehenge, or so it seems to me.

Playing at festivals tends to reflect that division, though some things are fairly constant. The niggling fear of electrocution. You've got to trust the guys who put the sound rig together. Then there's the sheer size of the audience, and the certain knowledge that they're all really there to see the Groundhogs reform or Boy George jamming with the Grateful Dead, or whatever else is this year's carefully nurtured rumour. Most people keep their heads down and plough on with a set designed for clubs and concert halls.

And that seems an inadequate response. There's something very attractive about music in the open air. It wasn't invented in 1967 to accompany a hippy ethic that was part marshmallow mysticism and part frontier spirit. But shouldn't there be some consideration as to what kind of music we should have in the open air? The usual pounding festival r'n'b doesn't do the trick, somehow.

Open air music needs space and dynamics, something to splash around on the slopes and the trees before rattling back towards the stage. Something like reggae, or African music: how much of that will there be at this year's festivals?

Most festivals promise Woodstock and end up more like Altamont. Festival organisers are always "surprised by the numbers who turned up". Festival facilities are always "unable to cope". Local residents are always "horrified", someone always starts throwing beer cans.

Well, not always. Once I went to a strange and semi-deserted festival called WOMAD on a permanent site at Shepton Mallet. The facilities were permanent, and not over-stretched. The music came from all over the world. I particularly liked the Burundi Drummers, Prince Nico and a Javanese Gamelan orchestra. No-one threw any cans, I doubt if there were any deaths, and people heard things they are hot likely to hear again. Oh yes, everybody involved in organising it was plunged into the worst kind of financial trouble. It's been rumbling on ever since. There must be a moral there, somewhere.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - May 1986

Opinion by John Morrish

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