|Memories of Free Festivals
It's easy to view the seeds of the free festival scene that spang up in the UK in the late 60's as a snapshot in
time. A gathering of tribes touting peace and love vibes, that gained momentum largely through word of
mouth on the periphery of the more structured "Straight" music industry.
The imagery is alluring: loose-limbed ravers bedecked in frayed denim and kaftans, their unkempt long hair
flailing through clouds of hashish smoke while similarly attired dudes on a makeshift stage thundered
through yet another extended free-form improvisation. It's a far cry from the cosy carpeted corporate
sponsors' tents that have become such a familiar presence on the 21st Century festival sites.
Yet, were you to ask Hawkwind's enduring mainstay Dave Brock, he'd suggest the free festivalsâ€™
beginnings scratch back a further half century and across a large body of water, to the streets of New
Orleans in the 20's, when vibrant jazz echoed along every sidewalk.
"That would be the roots of it for me," he says. "We were trying to emulate what they used to do in New
Orleans, where you'd have jazz bands playing on the backs of wagons on street corners. There were proper
clubs and bars where you could hear music, but the real action, the beating heart of the city, was what was
happening outdoors. I'd say that scene was as much the template for what we were trying to do as
The Hawkwind name is synonymous with free festivals, figureheads of a ragbag coterie of like-minded
musicians operating at the outer limits of the recognised music biz, and occasionally outside the law. The
band's surprise hit Silver Machine, which reached No. 3 in the UK charts in 1972, registers as a curious blip
on an otherwise off-the-populist-radar CV.
To this day, Brock is at the helm of a band the flies the flag for the free festival ideal. It may not be quite
the same as it was, as several events demand an admission fee, but Brock likes to think his group remain
relatively true to the spirit, the intentions and the ethos of the movement. Hawkwind can be found in a field
somewhere in the world almost every weekend this summer.
They're still seen very much as outsiders, a self-sufficient industry whose majority of record sales come
from stalls at their gigs of via their website. The band's latest album, Onward, came out a couple of months
ago, but Brock is already working on three other studio projects - an unthinkable workload compared to the
lumbering pace of the mainstream music industry. More than anything, though, Hawkwind have built their
reputation by playing live, and their first tentative steps to becoming festival perennials was taken in Bath on
28 June 1969.
Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Ten Years After and Led Zeppelin; that's who you would have seen if youâ
€™d secured a ticket for the Bath Festival of Blues, but beyond the gates of the city's unimaginatively named
Recreation Ground there was a more humble satellite scene that wouldn't have cost you a shilling.
RC: Was that the birth of the free festival movement, as far as Hawkwind were concered?
Dave Brock: Yeah, that would have been the start of it, I suppose. We played outside the perimeter on a flat-
back lorry, just us and our good friends the Pink Fairies. The two bands did a lot of gigs like that together,
we were very close - partners in crime. We'd set up anywhere we could, there was a really good one on the
common at Wormwood Scrubs, and of course we did the Isle of Wight on a big yellow parcels van â€“
again outside of the official festival site. You could get away with stuff like that a lot easier back then: there
wasn't heavy security trying to shut you down every five minutes.
Would it be fair to say that some of these festivals came together on a wing and a prayer - i.e.
without the luxury of the well-drilled support mechanism the bigger events might have had?
That is putting it mildly - it wasn't always easy, no, because the shitty little generators we used would run
down with the more power you tried to get out of them, and you'd find yourself cut off midway through a
song. Mind you, sometimes when the power was draining down, you'd get this great, spacey effect you
hadn't planned on.
There was another great one we played called Canvas City, which was basically a big inflatable dome.
Again, the generator was winding down, and all the crowd were tripping - and then the dome started to
deflate. We had to get everyone in the audience to hold it up with their hands, which wasn't ideal but it
looked really cool, all these people freaking out with their arms raised, literally supporting the ceiling.
We played in some awful places, really bleak, windy , boggy stretches of land where you had to really work
hard to have a good time. We played one festival in Wick, not far from Bath, which was actually set up on
an old rubbish tip. That wasn't ideal, but it wasn't as bad as one we played in France, where theyâ€™d
loosely covered a giant landfill site with earth. When people started jumping about the whole bloody site
started moving like a big dirty carpet. Then all the vehicles started sinking down into this whole morass of
rubbish. We spent most of our time trying to pull each other's vans out of the mud, and we got totally
covered in the stuff. Happy days, though; there was a real Dunkirk spirit.
Another dodgy one was the White Horse in Westbury. The authorities wouldn't let any festivals too near
Stonehenge, so we all wnrt up the road to what we thought would be an ideal site. It turned out to be a
really difficult place to get to, it was on quite a steep hill. All these buses and battered old vehicles were
precariously parked on a hell of an incline, it looked like they were about to roll down to the bottom any
Roy Harper doesn't have happy memories of that one. It was his birthday, but it was pouring with rain and
we were all stuck in a tent. Someone had given him a box of After Eights as a gift, so we were all tucking
into them. Things were getting a bit jolly -we were celebrating, if you get my drift- and someone knocked
the mints all over the ground. What no-one had noticed was that one of them had landed in some dog shit -
and that was the one that Roy ate! He became very badly ill, he looked absolutely terrible, but he couldn't do
anything about it. It was pissing down with rain and no-one could leave the site because the police had, to
all intents and purposes, hemmed us in so that we didn't head off to make mischief anywhere else - what's
known as kettling these days. The generators had packed in, so none of the band could play. It was a total
nightmare. And Roy was really, really sick.
The sheer economics of keeping the band going when so much of your work was at free festivals
must have been tough.
We played for nothing a lot of the time, as most bands do in their early days: our financial priority was
always to get a little bit of money for diesel for the van - we had to feed the wheels before we fed
ourselves. I like to think we were the first of what you'd call the alternative bands. We were a porper
fringe set-up, certainly not part of the mainstream.
We kept costs down by communal living, our yellow parcel van would practically be our home. It wasnâ
€™t exactly comfortable, the lot of us huddled together in our sleeping bags. Some people might think that
kind of life is romantic and wonderful, but bloody hell it was difficult. People get grumpy through lack of
sleep, or over-indulgence but, all-in-all, we got on all right, we managed to put up with each other. We
persevered when there were a lot fewer ups than downs. I've lost count of the number of times we were
fiddled out of money in the early days. I dunno, maybe we were too trusting.
It's been said that Michael Eavis was inspired to set up Glastonbury in 1970 having been in the
audience at earlier free festivals. What are your memories of playing there over the years?
We actually played the very first year, but my recollections of it aren't particularly happy ones, because I got
diarrhea and had to go home early. If you think festival toilets are bad today, you'd have been completely
horrified back then - it was literally a plank of wood over a ditch. I'd eaten something extremely dodgy, as
had a couple of others in the band.
Michael Eavis is a good guy, although we've had a few run-ins with him in the past. He went as far as
banning Hawkwind a couple of times. It's still a pretty good vibe over at the traveller's stage. It seems to
have managed to resist going as corporate as the rest of the festival, but he gave us our marching orders one
time because we supposedly broke a curfew we didn't know anything about. We knew the curfew started
at midnight, but no-one had told us when it ended.
We also got into a bit of trouble when we topped the bill in 1981 - we got to headline the Pyramid Stage and
put on a full show with lasers. It didn't quite go according to plan, though, because the chief constable of
Avon was there making sure we didn't go over the midnight curfew. Michael Eavis ran on to the stage and
said "Dave, you've got to stop playing in about five minutes," and we were only halfway through our set. I
had to make an announcement to the crowd, and they went bananas and nearly wrecked the place. After
that, we weren't allowed anywhere near the main stage again.
Then there was the Glastonbury collaboration that never was, when Buzz Aldrin, the second man on
the moon, came close to becoming an honorary member of Hawkwind. What stopped that plan
from, erm, taking off?
We've done a lot of strange things in our time, and one of them was recording some music for NASA. It
was for a fantastic book called Kids To Space, which answered loads of questions put by children; things
like how do you brush your teeth in space, what happens when you fart, all those sorts of things. We did a
CD of music to go with a slide show that toured schools all over America [titles included Uncle Sam's In
Space, What's That Noise? and Out Here We Are], and loads of astronauts went along to answer the
questions personally. A few years later, Buzz Aldrin was in the UK for a series of lectures, and it coincided
with us playing Glastonbury, so we thought it would be brilliant to have him join us on stage for part of the
set, to do the whole presentation that had only ever been seen by American schoolkids. How fantastic an
idea was that? Buzz Aldrin joins Hawkwind! He was well up for it, he also wanted to recite some of his
own poetry, and Lemmy was going to rejoin us for it as well.
It didn't come off, though. Because there were arguments about money. Buzz wanted a certain fee, which
he intended to give to one of the charities he supports, but Michael Eavis and the Glastonbury organisers
wouldn't stump up the extra cash on top of what they were already paying us. I think they were probably
worried that if word got out then all the other acts would start asking for more dosh. But it has to go down
as one of life's great missed opportunities.
You talked about a Dunkirk spirit earlier, presumably there was a strong sense of camaraderie
between the various bands on the free festival circuit.
It was never a competitive environment, no-one turned up with the intention of blowing their rivals off
stage, nothing like that. For a start, most of us were just grateful to have somewhere to play, because weâ
€™d all been overlooked by the typical gig circuit of clubs and colleges. It was a very positive community,
for both the punters and the bands. You could always rely on other musicisina sto help you find parts of a
PA if your sound system got knackered, or there'd always be someone who'd turn up with scaffolding to
help build a stage. No-one had mobiles back then, obviously, but the level of communication and co-
operation was fantastic. You never felt isolated or out on a limb.
The underground press, magazines like International Times, Friends/Frendz and Oz played their
part, though. How important were they in terms of communication for festival-goers?
We did a lot of fund-raisers for the radical underground press, we would "bucket" the crowd, wandering
through them asking for donations, rather than charge any kind of admission. The journalist Mick Farren
wrote for IT, and he was also involved with the Pink Fairies, so he was always part of the scene. We felt it
was important that the underground had a voice, to keep people informed as to what was really going on, so
we'd do whatever we could to keep the magazines afloat.
One of the reasons we wanted to help keep the underground magazines going was because we felt they
were very responsible and informing publications. They would run reports about drugs so that people could
actually understand what was going on. Today, most of the cocaine you buy is cut with all sorts of crap,
and at the other end of the spectrum you've got skunk, which is really, really strong - stronger than your
tolerance might be able to handle. The underground newspapers were very good at advising people of what
they were taking, so they didn't get too screwed up, unwillingly. There was a wide variety of marijuana and
hash doing the rounds in the 60's and 70's, but the likes of International Times would always give you the
low-down on what was out there, it was a really useful consumer guide.
They'd have articles giving you a well-researched overview of what would happen to you if you smoked
this, or took that. They probably saved a hell of a lot of lives.
Beyond the underground press, which was very educational, there was an added support mechanism at the
free festivals. There would always be someone around to talk you down if you went off on a particularly
scary LSD trip; it was like a big family - we all looked out for each other.
Is it fair to say that Hawkwind never had what might be called a "no drugs" policy?
Actually, we did, to a certain extent. I mean, you've got to keep yourself reasonably together if youâ€™re
gonna go on stage and try to play music with other people, to make sure you've got enough about you to
actually play the same song at the same time. We were fine about smoking a bit of dope, but heroin became
majorly rife on the free festival scene, and we were seriously against that. We got into a load of fracases
over that: we wanted those dealers out of the picture.
When we were first doing the free festivals it really was all about peace and love: everyone was working
towards a common goal, we'd help each other out, and make sure there was space for people to set up
stalls, selling whatever they wanted. Nobody was trying to screw you over, and that was beautiful, but
things started to get tainted by bad drugs, and then there were the brew crews - people getting stupidly
drunk and ruining it for everyone else. But the biggest problem was the heroin dealers, really heavy types
who just corrupted the whole scene, they spoiled it.
Presumably, run-ins with the law were part and parcel of the scene.
I think the police have always been very wary of the free festival circuit, but they were probably at their
most oppressive during the Thatcher years. We did a lot of gigs during the miner's strike to raise money for
the families to buy food. When they weren't trying to break up picket lines they were trying to shut down
the festivals, loads of them with black tape covering up the numbers on their uniforms. They were really
quite vicious, hitting people left, right and centre. It was a scary scene. The authorities have always viewed
rock'n'roll with suspicion, but this went beyond anything like that.
We had an injuction served on us not to appear anywhere within 20 miles of Stonehenge during the solstice,
and there were other court orders against us down in Devon and Cornwall. We've had a lot of problems
over the years. We've had our phones tapped, we've been followed - not with any kind of subtlety, it has to
be said, you could spot 'em a mile off.
It baffled us, to be honest, because we didn't think holding free festivals was such a bad thing, but because
we were drawing an audience there was always a suspicion that we were doing something subversive.
Free festivals still exist in one form or another, but it's not the same as it was, surely?
The world's a different place now, but I think the spirit of the free festivals lives on, even though the
authorities, heavy drug dealers and all sorts of obstacles stand in the way. As with all things, it changes as
time goes on, and it's hard to turn back the clock.
Our own festival, Hawkfest, was originally set up to bring it back to how things were in the 70's. Our first
one was held in 2002, and it was a very family-orientated affair. We wanted people to feel safe enough to
bring their kids along, which is what it used to be like. We only started with a few hundred punters, and
even today we try to cap it to 1,000 people. We even got to do Hawkfest on the Isle of Wight last year,
about 40 bands over three days, on a spot where they'd never let any festivals take place in the past. It was
a historic moment.
We're playing loads of festivals this year, almost every weekend, so there won't be a specific Hawkfest in
2012. Hopefully we'll get one together for next year, because they're a lot of fun. We try and make it a
family-friendly vibe - me and my wife actually got married at a Hawkfest. We've also got people in our road
crew today who are the kids of our old roadies.
So, it goes without saying that you favour the cottage industry over the corporate ogre?
It's always a better vibe at any festival when the numbers are kept low; everyone gets to know each other,
there's a real sense of belonging, and you'll see the same faces at the next festival a few weeks later. They
were places where you could make friends - really good friends.
|"Remember when the summer meant great music for free? Hawkwind do. Dave Brock tells Terry
Staunton about the fun, fear and flatulence of the original festival scene...¦" From Record Collector,