It’s reckoned that the UK holds around 250 music festivals each year, attracting almost 4million people and raking in an estimated £2.3billion.
From the mud-and-wellies glamour of Glastonbury, to the mosh-pit madness of the Download Festival, there’s something to cater for virtually every musical genre, style, and taste. These events can be so popular that tickets for bigger festivals, often retailing for around £250 a pop, can sell out on the day of release, which can be months in advance. In fact, many of the major festivals can sell out before the official line-up has even been announced.
Stories of legendary festival gigs are part of the myth and folklore that surround the UK music scene, from Hendrix’s last live UK appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival, to The Wombles’ bizarre performance at Glastonbury. Music festivals are such a part of our cultural DNA that it can feel like they’ve been around forever.
However, in the UK, music festivals have a definite history. Whether you’re a fervent festival fanatic or about to be wearing the coveted wristband for the first time, here’s the Music Poster guide to the history of music festivals in the UK.
Despite this being about the history of UK music festivals, all roads lead back to Monterey.
The idea for the Monterey International Pop Festival came from paper magnate and producer, Alan Pariser. In 1966, he’d attended the Monterey Jazz Festival, to see the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Don Ellis, and Carmen McRae. However, also part of the line-up was Jefferson Airplane, who became the first rock band to play at the festival.
While jazz and folk fans had enjoyed festivals for almost a decade, until that point there had never been an out-and-out event of a similar sort for rock fans. In part, this is because, at the time, the general consensus was that rock and pop were transient trends, not built to stand the test of time.
A year later, Pariser had established a board of governors, including music legends Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Brian Wilson. After pulling a few strings, the line-up was finalised, to represent the past, present and future of rock and pop. Among the artists who performed Monterey’s inaugural gig were The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ravi Shankar and The Mamas and The Papas. This concert is generally credited with kickstarting the Summer of Love.
Good news travels fast and it wasn’t long before the UK got wind of this extraordinary festival, which was to have a significant and lasting impact on its music scene.
In typical British style, the UK’s first music festival wasn’t founded for anything other than humble reasons. After having heard of the success of Monterey and with whispers of something called Woodstock underway, brothers Ron and Ray Foulk decided that something of this sort would be a good way to raise funds for a swimming pool on the Isle of Wight.
Ray said that
“my brother, Ron, was engaged as a fundraiser for an organisation called I-WISPA (the Isle of Wight Indoor Swimming Pool Association) and we were looking for ideas on how to raise funds. The idea of concerts… we used to have dances in those days, where you’d put a band on at a local parish hall or something and people would turn up and pay to go in and you’d make a profit. We were always quite robust in our thinking and a bit over the top in our ideas and we decided that a festival would be a good thing.”
Neither Ron nor Ray could guess at how much of a good thing UK music fans thought this was. More than 10,000 people bought tickets (costing £1.25 each), to see rock and pop giants, including Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Fairport Convention and Monterey trailblazers, Jefferson Airplane. The first Isle of Wight Festival was held in 1968.
After its success (and securing sufficient funds for the swimming pool), demand was such that the Foulk brothers decided to repeat the event. This time, the jewel in their musical crown was securing Bob Dylan to headline.
At this point, Dylan had gone into hibernation after a motorbike accident. His management had been trying to get him to play live and legend has it that Woodstock was arranged to pull him out of semi-retirement, as it was not far from where he lived. However, the Foulk brothers got there first, and Dylan flew to the UK on the day that Woodstock opened its doors.
Since 1968, the Isle of Wight Festival has attracted audiences in much greater numbers, with estimates of between 150,000 and 250,000 making the trek. It’s also maintained its status as the place to play, with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, and Queen gracing the stages.
To trace the origins of the world famous Glastonbury Festival, we need to stay on the Isle of Wight for a little longer.
By 1970, the Isle of Wight Festival had become massive. That year, the line-up included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, between 600,000 and 700,000 people attended, making it the biggest musical event of its time.
However, 1970 presented its own problems for the organisers. Back then, the population of the island totalled around 100,000 people and, with six times that many expected to appear, the residents set about opposing the festival. Similarly, there were logistical issues surrounding the ferries due to transport swarms of fans to and from the mainland. On top of that, on the day itself, the wind carried the sound sideways from the stage and The Who’s sound system was pressganged into service, to boost what was already there.
In the audience was Andrew Kerr, a biographer and journalist, with hippy tendencies. He declared the Isle of Wight Festival “shambolic” and left with ideas of starting his own.
In 1969, dairy farmer Michael Eavis had snuck into the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music, to see Led Zeppelin play. He left that concert with the same idea as Kerr and set up a small festival in 1970, called the Pilton Pop Folk and Blues Festival, on the grounds of his farm.
Kerr got wind of Eavis’ endeavour and went to him with the idea to set up a free festival: “a giving event which sought a spiritual awakening and a demonstration against greed.” Also declaring that “Glastonbury was the New Jerusalem”, he requested that the festival name be changed to the one we all know and love.
The first official ‘Glastonbury’ Festival was held in 1971, with Hawkwind, David Bowie, Traffic, Joan Baez, and Fairport Convention as the main draws. Since then, it’s gone on to host rock, pop, and hip-hop royalty, such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Stormzy, Jay-Z, Metallica, and Paul McCartney. Check out the Music Poster collection of Glastonbury images to see some of the greats in action.
Charting the history of UK music festivals is virtually impossible without paying a visit to Knebworth. One of music’s most hallowed hotspots, it’s acted as a temporary home to everyone from Elton John, to Oasis.
What Michael Eavis didn’t know when he snuck in to catch Zeppelin in 1969, was that the Bath Festival of Blues had been organised by a promoter called Freddy Bannister. That event was Bannister’s first and he decided to up his game the following year, by getting bigger and better bands. By 1970, he had managed to secure the likes of Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, and Jefferson Airplane.
After moving out of London in 1973, due to the difficulties involved with setting up festivals in the capital, Bannister chanced across Knebworth House and saw it as the perfect venue for an outdoor gig. Within a year, he’d booked an extraordinary range of artists, including Allman Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, and Tim Buckley. The first Knebworth festival went under the name of the Bucolic Frolic and attracted over 40,000 people.
With its sprawling 36 acres, Knebworth has hosted colossi of the rock and pop world. However, Bannister’s dream was for Led Zeppelin to headline, an ambition that he achieved in 1979. With 125,000 people attending this was, for a time, the biggest event in its history. Arguably, this was bested in 1996, when Oasis played for two consecutive nights, to full capacity at each gig.
While there are those that would argue that the Reading Festival is the oldest festival in the UK, it didn’t become the Reading Festival until 1971. Before then, it was the National Jazz and Blues Festival and was without a permanent home, hosting jazz and blues bands at a variety of venues, including Kempton Park, Plumpton, and Windsor Racecourse.
The National Jazz and Blues Festival was founded by Harold Pendleton, in 1961. He’d already founded the legendary Marquee Club three years earlier and had some festival experience, after being asked to organise the UK first open-air jazz festival by Lord Edward Montague.
Riding on the back of its success, Pendleton approached the Richmond Athletic Association with a view to holding the country’s inaugural National Jazz and Blues Festival. It was held here until 1966, when it moved to Windsor Racecourse, before throwing down the anchor at Richfield Avenue, in Reading. The line-up of the first official Reading Festival, in 1971, included Lindisfarne, Rory Gallagher and new kids on the block, Genesis.
Although the Reading Festival had become famous for hosting rock groups, ’78 saw it embrace the punk wave and fans were treated to performances from punk’s leading lights, including The Jam, Penetration and Sham 69.
In its 50-year history, the Reading festival has chalked up some historic events, including Nirvana’s last UK concert, in 1991. However, it’s not all been farewells: in 2010, the festival was the site of choice for The Libertines’ comeback concert.
1999 saw promoters Mean Fiddler put on a sister celebration in Leeds, on the same day as the Reading Festival. The two events are now synonymous with each other and major events on any festival fan’s calendar.
During the Seventies, the Reading Festival had cemented itself as one of the UK’s leading destinations for rock and pop bands, both new and established. However, as the Eighties dawned, a resurgence of interest in heavy rock created demand for a new, metal-centric festival.
The legendary Monsters of Rock festival started out as a concert at Castle Donnington, marking the final night of the Down to Earth tour, by Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Conceived by promoters Maurice Jones and Paul Laisby, the plan was to hold an open-air gig, featuring rock heavyweights and finish up with Rainbow, fresh from their penultimate date in Denmark. The line-up included bands such as Saxon, Judas Priest and The Scorpions. Originally, the festival was supposed to be a one-off.
The event was an ear-splitting success and, a year later, Laisby and Jones found themselves organising a second bite of the cherry. Thanks to Jones’ association with Aussie-rockers ACDC, ticket sales went through the roof. ACDC had just reformed after the death of their lead-singer, Bon Scott, with Brian Johnson stepping into his shoes. The album, Back in Black, was fresh off the presses and there was huge interest in this new version of the band. Castle Donnington was redrafted as the venue of choice and, over the years, has become the spiritual home of metalheads and rockers, who gather every August to see metal megastars such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pantera. It was renamed the Download Festival, in 2003, but is still the heaviest festival in the UK.
UK music festivals don’t stop at the Eighties. The Nineties saw an explosion of festivals during the Britpop era, such as the V Festival, T in the Park, and the Big Chill Festival. The Noughties threw the net even wider, with family-friendly events including Wireless and Latitude putting themselves on the map.
Music festivals are part of the UK’s musical heritage and there are plenty more that ought to be mentioned. What have we missed from the list? Let us know in the Comments below.