Here's a chapter extract from Festivalized: Music, Politics and Alternative Culture (Ian Abrahams, Bridget Wishart, Gonzo Publishing) where our contributors discuss the decline of the free festival scene at the end of the 1980s, early 1990s, and ruminate on its myriad causes. Commentators for this piece include Bridget herself, Jerry Richards (Hawkwind/Hawklords/Tubilah Dog), Jez Cunningham (The Levellers), Club Dog co-instigator Michael Dog, Simon Williams (Mandragora), Dick Lucas (Sub-humans, Culture Shock), singer-songwriter Nigel Mazlyn Jones, scene photographer Oz Hardwick, and the late Gary Bamford (2000DS - in probably the most extensive interview he'd ever given).
Conspiracies & Consequences
For every commentator who sees conspiracies lurking at the heart of the festival movement’s decline and collapse, there’s another who views the troubled second half of the 1980s as being at least in part due to the problems being experienced internally, even if those problems where then further exploited by the authorities in its own very publicly avowed intent to break the festivals, The Convoy, and those who furthered the free festival ethos.
Simon Williams: The scene was always under attack. There was always a feeling of, ‘We’re going to do this despite the fact people in suits or in uniforms don’t want these things to happen.’ People didn’t want it on their doorstep; they didn’t understand it, as far as they could see it was a bunch of troublemakers, hippies. People these days would find it difficult to believe you could get a great line-up of bands together and it would be completely free. Now there’s only one festival that I know of, that’s the Burning Man, which costs a lot to get in but there’s no trading once you’re there and even the performers pay to get in.
Oz Hardwick: Somewhere on the outskirts of Oxford in 1987. Hardly anyone got through all the roadblocks, we were camping on tree roots, constantly aware of the police threat, and finally awoken by a helmeted head thrust into the tent about two hours after we’d got to sleep, telling us to clear off within the hour. Helicopters and full riot kit – they meant it. Just felt tired, beaten and very sad.
Jeremy Cunningham: I was living on buses until I moved off the travelling scene when the Criminal Justice Act came in and it got so hard… I’d done it to live a ‘free’ lifestyle but at the end you became less free living on the road than if you lived in a flat. You got so much grief, everywhere you went. The Levellers had got a lot bigger than we ever thought we would, and made that crossover, and I was getting just a bit too well-known on that scene. I didn’t like that, I liked to be quite anonymous, so I left [the scene] in the end and just moved into a flat, though I still kept in touch with a lot of people. I still know people who are living in buses today, but not many. But I was living on the road from the mid-80s to the early 1990s.
Oz Hardwick: In the later years, say 1985 – 1989, there was always the dodging about to get to sites. Generally at small gatherings there wasn’t much hassle once you were there, though after Stonehenge ‘85, which I’ve mixed feelings about having missed, there was always the threat of violence. At Oxford, for example, things looked like they might turn nasty, with the [police] shield wall and so on, but… I think most people had a sense that if it came to violence, the government-trained thugs were going to have the upper hand. A sense that face-to-face confrontation wasn’t going to further any cause.
Dick Lucas: One night during the post-Henge time of high police paranoia, June ‘87 or ‘88, the local Warminster / Culture Shock crew, about fifteen of us, crammed into a large van at 5am and set off to find a gathering place that Tim Sebastian had located on a map showing the edge of the army territory that extends across Salisbury Plain. This was a hillside a few miles away. A helicopter buzzed over the van on the way there, and by the time the sun came up a dozen cops had come to join in. They let us stay there, tolerated our argument that this was common land and we had the right to assemble, and positioned themselves by the barbed wire at the top of the slope that marked the start of army territory. Behind them were some curious cows wondering what all the fuss was about, which made a great picture! A Channel 4 camera team didn’t turn up, but Tim said they were interested in having someone talk about all this over the phone, and suggested I do it; later I called them, but as they were after a ‘serious sun worshipper’, it was all over before it began. Tim was older than us, full of intense passion about the Stones, a leading Druid by the time he died, and inspired a lot of people into action. RIP.
Chopper over Stonehenge 1987
Jerry Richards: You really did have to look out for the authorities because they were coming for people and infiltrating. Some of the stories of MI5 being part of the instigators are true. There was a guy from MI5 who tried to sell guns to ‘The Convoy.’ Now, who was the ‘The Convoy’, well, everybody and nobody, right? But he’d wormed his way in there, looked the part. Walked the walk and talked the talk, and tried to sell guns thinking we’d be paranoid and bloodthirsty enough to want to take his weapons to defend ourselves against the police. Absolute madness and he was chucked off site and exposed for what he was - an MI5 mole.
Michael Dog: There was a train of thought that suggested the Stonehenge Campaign itself had been infiltrated by agents-provocateurs, people who were associated with the government. It’s not impossible, though you’ve got to beware of going on a paranoia trip with this sort of thing. In my view the post-1985 festival scene destroyed itself. I don’t see that it was brought down by outside influence. I don’t see that it died because the police made it hard to run festivals in certain parts of the country, because in other parts of the country, like Hampshire, they didn’t give a hoot. That last Torpedo Town, the police didn’t stop people going to the festival; the people themselves wrecked the festival. But it’s hard not to wonder whether elements of straight-society, or people in Government, had decided the way to break this scene once and for all was from the inside. You can go one way and say, ‘Oh that’s just paranoid nonsense and it was actually just a bunch of irresponsible people who let this thing slip through their fingers.’ Or you can see the other point of view, that there were people who were put into this situation and had pressure put on them, or maybe incentives were offered to them to wreck the movement from inside. The fact was that heroin use and dealing became a bigger and bigger aspect of the festival and traveller scene, seemingly unregulated and unstoppable… and unstopped by the authorities. The establishment seemed happy to allow an element of the scene, basically travelling junkies, to just carry on what they were doing. On the Stonehenge Campaign there seemed to be individuals hell-bent on wrecking that movement on the inside, prominent individuals who spent more time creating dissent within than actually doing something useful.
Jerry Richards: I think there were a lot of political diversions. There’d just been the Falklands War and [the authorities] were looking for people to divert attention on to. The police that came at us were the ones that had been on the miners’ strikes, at Orgreave, and they were tough people, I mean really tough. So the authorities used these people on the hippies, on the travellers. If you think about it, this could have been one of the reasons why Thatcher was deposed, because things had to change. The police were under a spotlight where they had to answer to things in the press, people asking difficult questions. But they also had to look at themselves and decide whether they were going to be used by whichever political party to be their political assault force and do the party’s bidding. Now, the police may be whatever the police are, and I’m not anti-police, but they don’t want to find themselves used as political pawns, because they’re going to get a bad rep. The police are there to stop people ripping you off or attacking you, that’s what they’re there for, not to protect property but to protect us. But they find themselves at the end of some politician’s tryst up in London, who wants to make office again next time the election comes and who’ll use any diversion available. They’d use the miners’ strike, Falklands War… Thatcher had been elected three times, John Major after her, and we were a happy distraction whilst they did whatever they did – like selling off the nation’s assets. So the Americans own the Royal Train – how do you figure that one out? The French, the Spanish and Germans own our gas… then there’s the telecommunications, so they’d flogged off the silverware. And this was the legacy from the Second World War, that sense of social conscience that tackled Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ [want, disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness] which is where we got the National Health Service from. The people who’d fought the war had rebuilt the country’s infrastructure. In some sense, all of us festival crew were children of that sensibility, we’d grown up with all of that. We might have rejected part of it in wanting to live the alternative lifestyle but the values were there, that you helped your fellow people. Now it’s all about ‘me’ and ‘I want it now and I want it faster’ and if you make your own stuff it’s kind of looked down on, seen as a bit naff. Now, for me growing up, if you wanted embroidered jeans, you embroidered them yourself, you didn’t go to GAP or Prada! You did it yourself and that was what was cool about it. People would say, ‘Bloody hell, man, where did you get that?’ Well you went down the shops and got some needle and thread. Stitch one, purl one! That sort of sensibility where you made your own stuff has a thrill to it. So, if you were a fashionista at the festivals, hey, get real! You’d see all of these wonderful, colourful shirts all dyed, and special fatigues, and be aware of the amount of creative energy in these art students, or former art students, potters (as I was) – all these talents.
Michael Dog: My personal conspiracy theory is that if you accept that there were elements within the Thatcher government that set out to change the face of society, then they got what they set out to achieve. If you study the history of society, then the key to effecting a transition to any kind of totalitarian regime is to create a generational break. Suddenly there’s a huge gap between an older generation that knows how it used to be and a younger generation that have no idea how it used to be. That’s what we’ve come to now. For the people who came of age between 1990 and 2000, and even really to the present day, there isn’t an alternative culture any more. There’s nothing for them to slot into. I feel very fortunate; I came of age at a time when that culture still existed and I just fell into it. There were lots of festivals, underground publications, bands and all the political movements were there. I just found them and went, ‘that’s me’ and I joined the club. For people coming of age in the 90s, that club wasn’t there any more for them to find some sense of purpose or belonging. And now, that whole culture is a thing of the past. It shouldn’t be, but for young people now, there’s nothing for them to slot into.
Taking a break during the walk to Stonehenge, 1987
Nigel Mazlyn Jones: I’ve been travelling around Britain and Europe since 1975 and I’ve been in a good position to compare things and I’m completely outraged about the way the country is and its [lack] of rights and freedoms. The counterculture movement, complementary medicine, alternative thinking, has always been there, it’s never gone away. A lot of what it espoused has now become both mainstream and very corporate: Body Shop, Centre for Alternative Technology as advisors to ICI, ethical investments, the huge graphic industry that is employed by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the massive administration structure right the way up through the qualified people who are on immense salaries for Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It’s a huge corporate structure turning over millions, or billions, of pounds. A constantly moving volcano that’s being fed from underneath and lots of elements of it are bubbling and difficult and not accepted by society. But out of the top of it eventually comes the heat and steam that creates your Greenpeace or your Friends of the Earth that has an impact to the viewer. You can’t see what’s going on in the volcano but you can see the point at the top. I think that’s how the counterculture does feed how we move forward as a society, that’s how we are still vaguely a democracy; people are forced to debate issues because everybody’s got so much knowledge on-board. I go back to Harry Hart, who started Green Deserts, and I was twenty-eight years of age and I came across all this information. I saw all the slides he’d taken, and I’d made a point of going to find the core people and listen to them sitting around the campfires, what was being debated, what they were going to do, and I was deeply inspired by the core issue. Yes it was an entertaining cross-cultural event with tepees over there and Romany caravans over there – but for that melting pot of humanity, think of all the youngsters who learned stuff. Move forward to the rave culture and you will have pockets… the early Whirl-Y-Gig raves were set up by humanists. Those humanists booked me to do the Parachute Chill-out Tent in the 1990s; I first met them at Rougham Tree Fayre in the 70s, sitting playing under the trees. Those humanists became very impressive social workers, dealing with drug addiction in the heavy parts of London. They didn’t start Whirl-Y-Gig to make money; they started as a like-minded group of adults, and all from that counterculture, who’d got older and recognised there was a huge youth problem. They thought, ‘Let’s not have thump, thump, thump, mechanical auto-robot music, let’s use world roots music. It’s wonderfully educational, it’s a lovely vibe, it’s great to dance to, and you can get the same rhythms as the thumping auto-music.’ So, wonderfully successful Whirl-Y-Gig raves, running at Hammersmith Town Hall, all the festivals, all the mainstream things like Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD, mainstream acceptance. They got through their doors at their raves over a million people, I’d have thought. Now, I remember being at events with Whirl-Y-Gig and being there before my gig, which wasn’t going to be until three o’clock in the morning because I was doing the chill-out, and listening to youngsters of all backgrounds and they’d be chilling-out drinking flavoured mineral water, because there was no alcohol. They’d be in the café or in the chill-out rooms and they’d be discussing stuff and it would be absolutely mind-blowing to hear their intelligent terms, talking about different issues that they were active on, like green activities or raising money for some socially-aware event that wasn’t being funded.
Michael Dog: [Unemployment] galvanised people into either feeling pissed-off about the situation they were in or wanting to react against the yuppie ideal, whereas now the yuppie ideal has become the norm. The Thatcherites forced the bulk of British society to go and get a job because they had to pay rent and it became almost impossible to claim benefit and to lead that alternative lifestyle, which requires you not to be doing a nine-to-five job. I debate this with my son, who grew up very much involved in the things I was involved in. He went to festivals from when he was two and, for his peer-group, has a fairly privileged upbringing in that he just about remembers what it was like and is very frustrated with the apathy of his own generation. But he understands that as they left school and went into life they were immediately obliged to get jobs and settle into a nine-to-five. It takes up so much of their time and brain-space that they don’t have the time or energy to do very much else. He figures it’s completely down to that. He’s forever ranting and railing that anybody he knows who is involved in art of any sort be it music, video or fine art feels so obliged to produce art that will sell that they see it as pointless to produce art for art’s sake. That if it isn’t going to sell, there’s no point in producing it at all. So the Thatcherites got want they wanted.
Jeremy Cunningham: I got a lot of hassle [on the road], everybody did, but I learned early on to play the game with the police. The police were quite happy, as long as you’d go along with them. When I first started getting pulled over on the roadside, which used to happen all the time, the immediate reaction was to lean out the window and start shouting obscenities but I remember doing that once and this copper started to look around the front of the vehicle and he said, ‘If you carry on shouting at me like that, I can think of a hundred and twenty violations for this vehicle’ and pulled out this long sheet of paper. I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right way of going about it’ so after that, when I got stopped, I’d be going ‘Oh, how are you, officer? Everything alright?’ We called it ‘playing the game’, as long as you showed that they had some kind of authority and were nice to them, they usually moved on to the next guy, who was pissed and wanted to fight with them! They used to let us go, most of the time. We did have trouble but it was usually only when you’d get a lot of vehicles all together, before the days of mobile phones when we were all trying to find a festival site or a rave. You’d have fifty buses going up the road one way, then coming down the other and you’d see the ones coming down the road, ‘Oh, they must know the way.’ Eventually pagers came in and we could find the sites straight away! I’d usually travel with a group of about six or seven vehicles, not a big group. When we’d go to a festival it might end up as a big group, the Peace Convoy and all that, but I didn’t live with a big group.
Bridget Wishart: I think there was the thing of people taking over the Convoy and moving in and the Brew Crew becoming an ever-bigger element. Other people who had been part of the scene and had put up with a certain amount of anarchy and drug-dealing just moved away, moved to Spain… ‘This isn’t why I moved onto the road or moved into a vehicle.’
Martin: I went to the last Elephant Fayre, in ’85 or ’86 and the reason [the organiser] never had another one was that the Peace Convoy turned up there. It definitely wasn’t a hippie, ‘Save the Earth’ kind of thing. My memory of it was a very kind of punk, ‘I’m in it for what I can get, fuck the lot of you.’ But then, if you take a group of people who are very alienated in the first place, and then herd them around with a heavy police presence then you may well push them in that direction. Now, that was definitely my experience, having said that, and I visited quite a few sites that my brother was at, and there were family people there. I’d say the common factor that linked everybody was drugs, was a lifestyle, but there were family people there, I wouldn’t say nobody there was looking after their kids. There was a mix of people, but most of the places I visited were places that had been found for people to park up. I think at the time, the strategy was to try and break up this huge entity and try and make life difficult for them. In Longwell Green, in Bristol, a piece of wasteland that’s now a big industrial estate, there were a lot of vehicles there for a very long period of time and it was just Smack Central, it was a really bad place. So it went from that Haight-Ashbury idyll of ‘If you’re going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear flowers in your hair’ to just a really degraded, everybody washed out, drugged out sort of place, really.
Hippie Van Man: Winter ‘91-‘92, I bought and converted a Bedford Vega 31 Coach and moved in full-time, with the intention of spending 1992 on the road. I got the job of taking a load of jugglers down to Glastonbury. We had the vehicle pass and were told to pick up the people passes when we got there. When we got there we had to wait in line outside, oddly enough the TK behind me in the queue was owned and lived in by a girl who lived opposite me when I was a kid. Neither of us knew about each other living on the road! After fourteen hours of queuing we were eventually let in, just to be booted out again after three hours for selling cider… I never really wanted to be there anyway. On the upside, we found our way to the free alternative, which was at the old airfield near Smeathorpe. There were loads of folk there and a few very loud raves. I moved the bus after a few hours because the sound system near us was so loud and always seemed to be turned up to number 11 even when there was nobody dancing; it seemed the owners or folk who ran these systems didn’t give a toss about other festival-goers. We went into the village for some bits and bobs and in the grocer’s shop we got talking to a few locals. They were disgusted at how much money must have been spent on policing the site; the police helicopter was causing a greater disturbance to them than the noise from the festival. I’d become disillusioned with the whole thing. Raves seemed to have taken over and I was sick of the sight of police helicopters. In early ’93 we were staying in a lay-by on the A34 and a mate turned up in his Hedingham bus on his way down to the Avon Free Festival; this ended in fiasco in a service station on the M5. We were eventually forced onto the motorway and pushed north, the police kept overtaking the convoy and blocked off the exits, again and again. When folk ran out of fuel they were arrested… what a load of bollocks. This marked the end of the festivals for me, I sold the bus and moved into a Commer Walkthru [Van], then in late ’94 I moved onto the canal and finally in 2004 we moved to Orkney. I thought I’d happened upon a way of living in the UK that was kind of Utopian, and sometimes it was, but I’d discovered it too late. For me, the raves killed off the real free festivals. I’m just glad I saw a few old style festivals before they disappeared. To quote [Radical Dance Faction] ‘I caught a glimpse.’ The whole experience of the festivals and living on the road has had a lasting effect on me. I still keep a living van and I’m proud to say have never stayed on a campsite. After nearly twenty years I still have dreams where I’m at free festivals… maybe subconsciously I’m still longing for those days… I’ve absolutely no regrets.
Smiley coppers, White Horse Hill, 1985
Simon Williams: A lot of us all went out to Europe after Thatcher started attacking our scene, went to festivals in Italy and Germany and Holland. They were fun and comparatively new and it was a good scene to be a part of. But it was different in that it wasn’t so linked to the Pagan calendar and the hippie vibe that was prevalent in Britain. In Italy, because they have such a right-wing government at times, to have parties or festivals, the organisers will actually identify themselves as being very left-wing. The reason for that is because if it’s seen as hippies with no specific agenda it’s easy to shut it down. If they say, ‘You are suppressing our human rights because we’re left-wing people,’ then that’s a political card they can play. They’d have two-thousand-capacity venues with their own radio station and their own printing press and do everything themselves. It was comparable from that point of view, but probably better organised! The British way was to say, date, place and everything else would just happen, provided everyone turned up.
Gary Bamford: After the clampdown in 1990 we ended up living in Berlin for a few years. It was as close as you could get to that free festival thing. Berlin was something else. We’d gone there about a month before the Wall came down, with something like ten vehicles, and did one show in the East one night, and then one show in the West. We ended up moving onto a site on no-man’s-land in an area of Berlin called Kreitzberg which was like a white Brixton. If you went to West Berlin, you didn’t have to join the German army, so all the freaks and people who wanted to drop out went there. There were lots of squats, lots of bombed-out streets, and a massive punk scene. It was like a free festival just being in that city, hundreds of vehicles parked on no-man’s-land. Lots of squatted streets in the East, the place was in chaos. Six months later they were demolishing streets with people in them. There’d be helicopters overhead, and you’d hear sirens going off all the time. There weren’t many bands, no site bands, but people were living in bowvans, big trailers that get pulled into construction areas for workmen to have their breaks in. You’d find a couple of fields and there’d be twenty, thirty bowvans all quite tidy and organised; we’d turn up with that British mentality of madness, and people falling out of vans and heaving beer cans around. So we’d look out of place, not up-to-date or tidy enough, because we were still used to being evicted once a week whereas they’d stayed still for a while and got quite organised.
Jeremy Cunningham: We all lived in Amsterdam for a while, on a big travellers’ site there. When it started to get bad in the late 80s we thought, ‘Just fuck it, we’ll go abroad’, because we’d heard there was this site in Amsterdam and the laws there were a lot more liberal than they were in Britain, so we lived over there for six months until it got bulldozed. When you went to a squat in Amsterdam, it was nicer than most people’s flats… I couldn’t believe it. Whereas squats in the UK were pretty rough and ready affairs, people over there, because they had been living in them for ten or fifteen years, they were much more together about everything. There was a big free festival there, called the Last Bus Shelter which was the name of the travellers’ site in the East Docks and was the last stop on the bus route; now it’s a big housing estate. 2000DS were over there with us as well, I knew Gary [Bamford] very well. They had this huge old Greenpeace coach that they lived in, a massive great thing, towing a trailer on the back of it with a recording studio in it. When they turned up it was always guaranteed chaos! When we were in Amsterdam, Gary and the DS of the day, because they frequently changed line-ups, went off to live in Berlin… probably because they found living in Amsterdam too easy, not confrontational enough, so they went to live in Berlin! Everyone else was just looking for a peaceful life!
Oz Hardwick: I was affected on a very deep, personal level. I felt a profound despair. For a long time, I lost the belief that one could make a difference. It took a very long time to regain a sense of purpose.
Michael Dog: I think the scene imploded on itself by becoming too cocky. I don’t think becoming too big was the problem. I don’t believe it attracted lots and lots of nasty people. My memories are that on the whole, people were there for all the right reasons and very respectful. It’s only the later festivals, post 1985, that slowly but surely attracted people who weren’t there for any of the right reasons. But people had taken it for granted that you could do these things and cock a snoot at the authorities and in retrospect I saw that that had brought about the demise. People didn’t realise how brutal the Thatcher regime was, until it was. We were blessed in the 60s and 70s with relatively benign governments and nobody was prepared for how brutal and how hard-line the Thatcherite regime would be. I’ve always wondered whether there was some Tory think-tank at the time that realised there was this quite large and relatively influential alternative scene based around squatting, the underground press and free festivals and other aspects of that scene, that wasn’t exactly a threat to them but couldn’t be allowed. The mid-80s were really the darkest days of Thatcherism and I guess it pulled people to either being a part of that or not being a part of it at all. Stonehenge being a victim of its own success, with more people hearing about it and wanting to go, and the hardening of the political atmosphere, probably forced people to decide which camp they were in. Of course, after 1984 fewer and fewer people went to the festivals. I personally feel the government set out to fragment that movement and they were very successful at doing so. It was no accident that they made squatting illegal – it wasn’t really about protecting the rights of property owners, that wasn’t their prime motivation, they realised that squatting was a key element of the alternative scene. When I was a kid, or a teenager, when you finished school you could leave home and go and live in a squat and live on very little money and pursue the lifestyle that you wanted to pursue. If you wanted to do music, or arts, or politics, or whatever, on a cheap budget, you could squat. By taking away squatting, it falls to people to have to earn a living and get a job. And by forcing people into having to get a job, they couldn’t devote time to these other things unless they had money from other sources. It was a quite deliberate policy. Of course, what happened after 1985 was that they used more and more Draconian powers to break up the festival movement. But sadly, from my own point of view, I think the festival movement destroyed itself.