Weeley Festival – It’s 1971, Ted Heath is Prime Minister, Arsenal have done the Double and Britain has just gone decimal. A festival is announced for the August Bank holiday weekend in a little-known Essex town, just outside of Clacton-on-Sea. When people hear the line-up, everyone wants to go.
The Weeley festival of August 27 – 29 1971 was organised not by a rock impresario or a sharp promoter, or even by a group of hippies: it was the brainchild of the local Round Table. Nothing to do with King Arthur, the Round Table is a sort of Rotary Club-type social / charity organisation, whose stated aims are to “To Develop the acquaintance of young men through the medium of their various occupations.” It all sounds very Mr Cholmondley-Warner, post-War austerity and not letting the side down old boy.
But fair play to them: they pulled off one of the most fondly-remembered of all British fests, and they did it against the odds.
The Round Table used to organise a Donkey Derby (!) every summer to raise money for charity, but this year, they decided to think that little bit bigger. They managed to get a licence for 10,000 to come to a pop concert, as they no doubt called it, in some fields outside the little village. Everyone looked forward to a local festival for local people.
Mungo Jerry, whose easy-going, loveable groove had seen In The Summertime go to number one the previous year, were booked. And then it all began to snowball from there. Festivals at both Canterbury and the Isle of Wight were cancelled that year, and as more bands started to show an interest, more and more people from around the country saw that Weeley (“Where’s Weeley?”) could be THE event of the summer.
Once people found out where Weeley was, they started to make their way down there, some folks coming down weeks beforehand to camp out. The locals were by and large friendly and happy to have Weeley put on the map and the event was also distinguished by some sensible, low-key policing. A nice vibe grew up between the festival-goers and the locals, with very little trouble, and spontaneous outbursts of random kindness from both sides.
It was soon clear that there were many, many more people there than the 10,000 who had paid their £1.50 to get in. Estimates are that around 110,000 came, although claims have been made for as many as 150,000 people. In the end, so many bands had been booked that the music just ran constantly, round the clock for the three days from midnight on Thursday/Friday with Hackensack, who were excellent, getting proceedings underway.
The line-up included T Rex, Rod Stewart and the Faces,
Mungo Jerry, Status Quo, Lindisfarne, Mott the Hoople, Rory Gallagher and Barclay James Harvest. The Pink Faeries turned up and played for free in the surrounding campsites. Sweet Irish folksters Tír na Nóg played and invited everyone back to theirs for tea!
One thing anyone who was there will never forget is the toilets, just long trenches with a bit of sack curtaining and scaffolding and truly horrific even by outdoor festival standards! Julie Felix – who played – remembers:
“It was one of those festivals that happened before people really got into the commercialised side of things. It was very spontaneous and special and a real privilege to be part of it. But I had never been in such bad loos in my whole life. Or since, thank goodness!”
And those were the artist ones, backstage! At least one poor devil fell in the public bogs.
The festival is fondly remembered for it’s “Where’s Wally?” chants, a trend started at the Isle Of Wight and carried on here, where the audience, sometimes thousands at a time, would start shouting for a mysterious figure called Wally. The number of people claiming to have been THE original Wally still grows by the year, like pizza houses in New York claiming to be the inventor.
Much less fun, though, was the trouble that flared up between Hell’s Angels and the catering staff. The Angels, as was their wont, had appointed themselves the event’s security and were throwing their weight around. Opposition came in the unlikely shape of the various stallholders and catering workers, who did not take kindly to the bikers’ behaviour. They not only smashed up several bikes, but also smashed up several Angels’ heads. There were serious fights, with iron bars and sledgehammers – witnesses say that there was blood everywhere, really bad scenes – and the Angels were driven away.
A lot of the bikers that didn’t get their heads busted in got arrested, and were taken to nearby Colchester police station where, one copper recalls, they were hosed down with a spray borrowed from the local cinema’s cleaners! There’s a very good BBC Radio Essex documentary called something like ‘Weeley – 35 Years On’ with some great recollections from locals and festival-goers, including a hilarious anecdote from some old girl who lived in the village and saw one of the Hell’s Angels leaders arrested by police and made to strip. She says that this tough biker burst into tears and refused to take his clothes off, until he was forced to reveal a spanking, sparkling clean white undershirt and underwear, which he considered – according to this old girl – to be a deeply shaming display of personal hygiene.
This same woman also recounts that Marc Bolan came round to her neighbour’s house to have a bath and that he gave her a quid for the privilege. It was a strange festival for Marc: there was a row with Rod and the Faces about who was going to headline, and it turned out a bad argument to win for T-Rex. Rod – resplendent in a pink satin suit – ended up going on before them to riotous acclaim and played five encores.
Marc, though, was thoroughly booed – the feeling at the time, of course, being that the beloved acoustic pixie had sold out and gone electric and commercial. John Peel attempted to quieten the crowd by threatening: “If you don’t stop heckling, Marc is going to walk off.” Not the great man’s wisest choice of words: the booing grew even louder and was joined by a hail of bottles and cans. The balls on Marc – he taunted the crowd: “Hi, I’m Marc Bolan – you may have seen me on Top Of The Pops.” In the end though, he won them over to a degree, especially with Hot Love and a nice version of Debora.
More universally enjoyed were strong sets from Status Quo and Lindisfarne. The Geordies’ drummer Ray Laidlaw remembers being blown away by Weeley:
“We climbed this ladder to get on the stage and looking out, the crowd just seemed to go on for ever. I got stage fright for a moment. But we got intoxicated from it, an amazing reaction. The band was just starting to happen and we didn’t realise how popular we were until Weeley.”
Other highlights were the little-known Stone The Crows, who played a magnificent show. Maggie Bell was described as being “like a Scottish Janis Joplin” by one fan. The Edgar Broughton Band and Rory Gallagher also put on good shows – and Mungo Jerry stuck in the mind for turning up in a double decker bus!
But probably the perfect moment belonged to Barclay James Harvest, who played at dusk on Friday.
They were a hot band then and eagerly anticipated; even the 90-minute delay while their 30-piece orchestra set up didn’t dampen enthusiasm. Woolly Wolstenholme remembers:
“The sun was going down and the stage lighting was just starting to have an effect. The timing was perfect. We just went on and filled the air with melodic sound on Mockingbird. We kind of stole the event.”
If you do a search for Weeley Festival 1971 you can find live tapes of Van Der Graaf but that’s about it. No live tracks seemed to have appeared on any records. Like so many festivals, it came and it went and briefly made a sleepy little place, sort of famous.