In January 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Underwood, a 33 year old colonel, going on 103, formerly of the Queen’s own Cameron Highlanders and owner of a 47 and a half acre estate in the Kent village of Bishopsbourne announced it was to be the site for the Great Western Festival, to take place over the Whitsun Holiday weekend in May.
The locals were severely dischuffed with this turn of events and set about being beastly to our Colonel in what sounds more like the opening of an Agatha Christie story.
“A small minority have behaved with viciousness and in an abominable fashion,” said the colonel, from his 30 room Regency mansion. 30 rooms! “I have had all the signs leading up to my property torn down”.
I say, old chap, that is but one step away from anarchy. And it got worse. A small crowd had surrounded his wife’s car, as it drove up to the house and rocked it around a bit. The absolute beasts! Then there had been the bomb hoaxes, threatening letters and other “undesirable things sent through the post to my wife,” he said, hopefully while puffing on a pipe and wearing tweed. Do you think people sent them poo? An “undesirable thing” might merely have been a member of the working class.
Malcolm Nixon of the Great Western Festival company, which had been created to put a festival on, said there was no way the festival could be stopped from taking place in Bishopsbourne. “We are on a private estate . We have done our homework, legally and in every way. The fact that people don’t like it is unfortunate.”
But despite this, a few days later, they gave up the fight and promised not to hold the festival with 20 miles of the village. The narrow minds had won. The G & T brigade got their way, as they all too often do in Britain.
Then halfway through April a new site was announced – it was a long way away from Kent – it was a farm near Bardney in Lincolnshire, a few miles east of Lincoln. Once again the locals were quick to gather up cash and hire a lawyer to try to stop the festival. Not so many retired colonels in Lincolnshire, though.
By this time the festival had taken on a political angle, with the Night Assemblies Bill before Parliament and the future of festivals in general becoming a civil liberties cause celebre. The two sides lined up and both found themselves with strange bed mates. On the one hand were Lord Harlech , former British Ambassador in Washington and a shareholder in Great Western Festivals along with Stanley Baker, the actor, film producer, Mike Deeley, financier Chris Levin and Russell Taylor, another financier whose connections include De Vere Hotels and Restaurants and the Hambros merchant banking organization. On the other side were local landowners with pitch forks, the town councils of nearby villages and the more radical members of the underground who saw in Lord Harlech’s consortium, all the ingredients of a typical bread head, festival rip off.
The solution was a compromise. The festival could be held, said the court, but if it was done “In such a manner as to cause a nuisance”, then the promoters would face hefty fines and possibly jail sentences. The Vicar of Bardney agreed to hold a bond of £10,000 to pay for any damages caused by hooligans – yeah, because a vicar would never be in any way corrupt, would he? The church being famous for being full of pure, honest types. Pffft.
So what did they do to stop any nuisance being caused? They built a 7000 yard corrugated metal fence with searchlights on top! Yeah, that’s right. What did they think was going to happen? Who did they think would attend this? Didn’t they realise it would be their own sons and daughters? Ridiculous.
But it didn’t stop there. A 300 strong security force led by ex-Scotland Yard Det Supt Raymond Dagg was employed and in addition, the Lincolnshire police force made available 700 men, some of them being billeted at nearby air force and army camps. It sounds like they thought they’d have to deal with an army of goths and vandals, rather than some scruffy hippies.
A group of Hell’s Angels arrived, took one look at the 12 foot high fence and told officials it was obvious that they could manage without them and left. Rural folk y’see – they’ve no shortage of guns, pointy tools and scythes. They could scare the daylights out of a Hell’s Angel.
A couple of days before it all started somebody fired a shotgun after a construction worker got into an argument with a local man. Then the stage collapsed the day before the festival began and then the security chief left the site, never to return. Feeling secure yet? Not really, no. It all sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.
The roof of the main stage consisted of polyethylene sheets held up by a crane – yeah, high tech stuff. A large marquee had collapsed and had to be abandoned. The people running the concession stands were worried they would be lucky to break even. And they were right to be worried because no more than 40,000 people turned up in total and many of them did not stick out the full four days. The organizers were going to end up with a loss of a hundred grand. Ticket sales funds were sliced, diced and hived off by retailers in one scam after another.
Then there was the weather. Rain. And lots of it. For the whole four days. Fans huddled under polythene and did their best to get their rather damp groove on.
Which brings us to the music. Look at the line-up on the poster – it is easily the finest collection of bands ever assembled for a festival in UK, with perhaps the exception of 1970 Isle of Wight. Wonderful bands, one after another. And it seems it was this fact that kept spirits high, even despite the awful weather – that and the innate British ability to make the best of things, no matter what, even while grumbling a lot.
Nobody seems to have bombed and many highlights stand out. Rory Gallagher on the Friday had to cut his set short due to the rain but returned on Saturday to play some more – everyone loved Rory, who knew how to play this sort of gig better than most.
Wishbone Ash’s set was drawn from the newly released Argus album. As anyone who saw them back in the day will tell you, Ash were always tight and always on the money. Since Argus was already heading up the charts, no wonder their set was well-received.
Some say the highlight of Saturday was the Stone The Crows set. It was an emotional event because this was their first gig since the death of original guitarist Les (brother of Alex) Harvey, who, only a few weeks earlier had died after being electrocuted on stage in Swansea. Now, who’s up there on guitar? Is it who I think it is? Yup it is. It’s Steve bloody Howe, standing in, until they got a regular player – who would turn out to be the excellent Jimmy McCullough, in the fullness of time. Howe playing blues-rock sounds intriguingly odd. Maggie Bell, one of our finest singers to this day, knocked it out of the park – or out from under the polythene, possibly. Les was her man…so the blues really had hold of her soul that day.
Saturday was closed by The Faces, who did this sort of show a lot, at the time. Seemingly permanently just drunk enough to be loose, but never too paralytic to play, they did a ramshackle, but rock and roll set to huge acclaim. They were such a good time band.
Sunday saw Lindisfarne ALAN HULL T-SHIRT get a huge reception with a lot of Geordies having travelled south for the gig. Focus yodelled their way into people’s hearts, Slade turned up and rocked the socks out of everyone. Worth remembering that this crowd would have viewed Slade, totally wrongly, as a pop act, because they had hit singles. Slade always were a hard rockin’ band and set about proving it. SLADE T-SHIRT They were followed bizarrely, by the entire cast of Monty Python doing sketches!!!
Top of the bill that day was the Beach Boys, who must have thought this was as far from Southern California as it was possible to get. Their sunshine music went down really well and also, around this time, they were making great acoustic rock records like Holland.
Monday saw Vinegar Joe – a band I absolutely love (featuring Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks) – tear it up with their big R & B sound. Genesis played a great set
and Status Quo, STATUS QUO T-SHIRT who were just short of changing attitudes about them as a pop band, started up their piston engine riff-a-rama. Joe Cocker was top of the bill, but immediately before Cocker, came the group which, for many people, stole the show. Sha Na Na. High energy 50s pastiche rock n roll in rainy Lincolnshire – it doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good time, but you take the good vibes were you find them, right? People dug them big and, as though in response to that, the sun shone for a few seconds and the group had to do three encores.
Joe Cocker sang well, but by then, it was late and people were tired and some say his blasé attitude turned off the audience and, after the energy of Sha Na Na, it all ended a bit limply.
Throughout the weekend there was a black and white screen above the stage which showed movies when bands weren’t on. Hare Krishna’s gave out (presumably vegetarian) food.
The Bishop of Lincoln (Not a buddhist but prone to wearing a dress, all the same. I’ve always been a big fan of bashing the Bishop), Dr Kenneth Riches, toured the site and announced, rather pompously, “They have a lot to teach us, at least in the way they live so simply. These people have proved themselves.”
Hey, pal, you are not the arbiter against which we judge anything. Right? This happened so often in this era. The straights came out and said “ Hey these kids are alright. They believe in love and peace.’ Yeah, well why did you ever think differently? And who are you, again? And why are you not living by such high ideals?
Police chief George Terry said that in future he’d have to reconsider his decision not to let his men patrol inside the site. “The misuse of drugs on the site was so great it must be amounting to a threat to society.”
Oh do get over yourself. The degree of lack of comprehension about these events was remarkable.
Melody Maker called it “one of the most successful of all British Festivals.” The News Of The World called it the “Great Western Flop.” So you pay your money and you take your choice.
From what I can tell, the music was superb but the weather was awful and the vibe from the locals equally so.
Oh and just in case you were wondering, needless to say, young people sitting in field in the rain listening to rock music didn’t (sadly) overthrow society and replace it with some sort of love and peace nirvana. People just went home, had a hot bath and got on with their lives.
I wrote this based on reports on the superb UKfestivals website and other contemporary press articles.