The first festival at Worthy Farm was called the Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festival and took place in late Summer 1970, opening the day after Jimi Hendrix died. It was attended by 1,500 people. Admission was £1, which included free camping and free milk. Audiences enjoyed performances by Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex who played in place of the Kinks who were due to headline.
Michael and Jean Eavis, festival co-founders, had been inspired by the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in Shepton Mallet, Somerset and by the success of the Isle of Wight Festival and Woodstock in the US the previous year, and decided to host a festival at the Eavis family dairy farm.
By 1971 the festival had been renamed The Glastonbury Fayre and the date was changed to coincide with summer solstice, an anniversary celebrated at nearby Stonehenge, home to the world-famous Neolithic monument. Key organisers now included Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill. The team drew up a manifesto which set out the environmental and spiritual focuses at the heart of the Festival’s ethos.
The Festival founders saw the event as a place for the “expression of free-thinking people”. In the same year, the first Pyramid Stage, a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, was designed and built by Bill Harkin and crew out of scaffolding, expanded metal and plastic sheeting.
The location of this now iconic stage was determined by the Glastonbury Abbey and Stonehenge ley line, an invisible line that runs through the Vale of Avalon and is commonly believed by esoteric traditions to demarcate ‘earth energies’. The founders acknowledged Glastonbury’s 3,000 year history and its importance as a destination for pilgrims for centuries, captured by William Blake in his poem Jerusalem, later used as the words for Hubert Parry’s 1916 hymn.
Bowie and Quintessence performed on the first Pyramid Stage in 1971. The 1971 Festival was captured on film by Nick Roeg and David Putman in Glastonbury Fayre (1971). The film is a great record of the Festival and reveals how it attracted hippies who identified with the counterculture movements that emerged in the late sixties. Sadly it does not include Bowie’s memorable performance.
For the following years there were a few impromptu gatherings in the Worthy Farm fields with performances by Ginger Baker and Jimmy Page, but it was not until 1979 when the Glastonbury Fayre team decided to stage a three-day festival around the Year of the Child, led by Arabella Churchill and establishing her Children’s World Charity. The festival was attended by 12,000 revellers paying £5 a ticket, with Peter Gabriel top of the bill.
Battles in the 1980s
The Festival began to gather real momentum in the 1980s under Michael Eavis’s guidance, establishing itself as a powerful voice for social and political change and for raising money for good causes. In 1981, proceeds went to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a partnership that continued up until the end of the Cold War. The Festival attracted activists who were campaigning against Margaret Thatcher’s government and seeking a fairer society. This year also saw the second incarnation of the Pyramid Stage and the first festival licence issued by the Mendip District Council, who sought to regulate issues such as crowd numbers, water supply and hygiene.
In the 1980s Michael and Jean Eavis continued to battle with the local council to ensure the Festival could go ahead, successfully defending five prosecutions in 1984. They also overturned the council’s decision to refuse a licence in May 1987, just before the Festival was about to open. As the Festival grew in size and reputation, it began to attract some of the biggest names in music at the time with performances by Van Morrison, the Boomtown Rats and The Cure. The Mutoid Waste Company, pioneers of art, performance and parties, also found their home at the Festival. However, despite its ongoing success, obtaining a festival licence each year continued to be a struggle for the organisers.
From the mid to late 1980s, the physical site of the Festival continued to expand as travellers began to make the annual pilgrimage to the Festival. The year 1990 marked the Festival’s 20th anniversary and adoption of its current title, Glastonbury Festival for the Contemporary Performing Arts. Michael Eavis had decided that describing it as a ‘theatre festival’ to the local council would help him obtain the licence. It also reflected the breadth of performance from theatre and circus to rock and pop. The ticket price was now £38 and the official capacity was 70,000.
Broadcasts and popularity
The Festival took another leap in its development in the early 1990s as it attracted the new wave of Britpop bands and became an important destination for the emerging dance and rave culture. In 1994 Oasis, Pulp, Blur and Radiohead all made their festival debuts as Glastonbury embraced the rising stars of the burgeoning British music industry. In the same year a new Pyramid Stage was hastily erected after the original stage was lost in an accidental fire just days before the Festival was due to start. This seminal festival year also saw Glastonbury’s first television broadcast by Channel 4 – a significant moment in establishing the Festival’s ongoing success and popularity (continued by the BBC from 1997). In 1998, TV audiences could join festival-goers in watching Tony Bennett take the stage on the new Sunday afternoon ‘legends slot’, reserved for established, well-loved artists, often from a different musical world to the more traditional Glastonbury fare.
The 90s saw the Festival programme continue to extend across multiple stages and areas, each bringing its own character and nurturing its own audience or festival tribe. Stages, including the Other Stage, Avalon, Jazz World Stage, Cabaret Acoustic Stage, and Dance Tent, offered a variety of line-ups, with areas like the Cinema field, Lost Vagueness and the popular Kidz Fields also taking shape.
By 1999 the Festival had reached a capacity of 100,500, the ticket price was £83 and Coldplay made their first appearance. However, this year’s Festival was also overshadowed by the death of its co-founder Jean Eavis. A winged wicker sculpture was ceremonially burned in her honour.
The fence and the next generation
The new millennium was marked by a new Pyramid Stage in 2000, baptised by former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. This year David Bowie performed, dressed in the same style of flowing coat he had worn for his last performance in 1971. The Festival was becoming increasingly popular and as a result faced serious security problems when the five-mile long perimeter fence failed to keep audiences out. In 2000, the official attendance was 100,000 but unofficially estimates were around 200,000, which prompted the building of a new fence in 2002 costing £1 million. In 2003, with the new fence and limited capacity, 100,000 festival tickets sold out for the first time in just 24 hours.
The noughties saw a shift in the vision for the Festival with conscious decisions to remove branding and sponsorship, and to encourage a range of global and vegetarian festival food. The artist Banksy also created several iconic and witty artworks across the Festival site, including fighting hippies on the Festival fence and a Stonehenge installation created from portaloos.
Michael and Jean’s daughter, Emily Eavis with her husband Nick Dewey took a greater role in the Festival programming. The Festival map was expanding again as they experimented with new areas, encouraging creativity and innovation across the site through art installations and site-specific staging. They created The Park in 2006, with the landmark ribbon tower; brought in Block9 in 2007, who created extraordinary stage sets inspired by the New York drag scene; and introduced the Common and Unfairground areas. In 2008, Emily and Nick made the then controversial decision to invite Jay-Z to headline the Pyramid Stage. Traditional festival-goers who favoured rock bands were initially unsure about a hip-hop headliner, but his performance was a great success and changed the direction of future line-ups.
The decade also saw the passing away of several key figures who were memorialised in various ways across the festival site: Joe Strummer is remembered in the area known as Strummerville; the New Tent was relaunched as the John Peel Stage in 2005 in his memory; and Bella’s Bridge was built in 2010 in memory of Arabella Churchill. In 2010, for the Festival’s 40th anniversary, ‘Glastonbury’ was spelt out Hollywood-style across the slopes of the Festival site.
Infrastructure and ideas
In the 2010s, the Festival continued to be hugely popular, with tickets selling out in less than 30 minutes, even before the music line-up had been announced. In 2019, the Festival capacity was 203,500, and required a temporary infrastructure with power, food and sanitation similar to a city the same size as Bath. In a matter of weeks, the Festival organisers transform the green fields of Worthy Farm into a festival town which becomes a 5-day home to the festival-goers.
As well as attracting a range of global superstars from Kanye West to Adele, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones, the Festival continues to showcase rising talent and emerging genres. London’s Grime artists made their debut at the Festival in 2015, paving the way for Stormzy headlining the Pyramid Stage in 2019. Over recent years, the Shangri-La area has become an increasingly active interdisciplinary space at the Festival, inspiring the new generation of cultural revolutionaries and pioneering new trends that extend beyond the Festival.
Glastonbury continues to be bigger than the music or the artists, thriving as a global platform for creativity, ideas and performance, across all disciplines. The Left Field, with its Tony Benn tower, is a stage for political debate and provides an active programme of talks and performances, and the Green Fields provide a space in which green politics and environmental issues are brought to the fore. In 2015, Glastonbury welcomed the Dalai Lama, and on Friday 24 June in 2016, festival-goers awoke to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Many artists responded to this shocking news in their sets, including PJ Harvey, who read out John Donne’s poem No Man is an Island on the Other Stage. In 2019, Sir David Attenborough took to the Pyramid Stage to draw attention to Seven Worlds One Planet, a project that draws attention to the impact of Climate Change. This year also saw the Festival successfully remove all single use plastic bottles from the site.
The Festival continues its philanthropic mission of donating its profits to three main charities: Greenpeace, Oxfam, and Water Aid, as well as supporting other worthwhile local causes, including social housing projects. Performing at Glastonbury is a rite of passage for many of the world’s performers who identify with the Festival’s ethos.
2020 is the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury and would have seen debuts by American performers Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift, and another phase of creative developments across the Festival site. Unfortunately, the Festival had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus Pandemic but plans are underway for Glastonbury 2021.
The V&A is working with Glastonbury to document this unique history, and to create a digital archive which will provide for the first time the opportunity to trace its rich and diverse performances across stages, performers and decades. This project will also include the capture of memories by festival-goers.
The story of the first ever Glastonbury Festival, by those who were there
Glastonbury Festival is one of the best-known and most-loved musical events in the world. It’s also one of the biggest, and for the six days that it takes over Worthy Farm in Pilton in Somerset, it creates a site roughly the same size as the centre of Bristol – the eighth largest city in the UK – for its 135,000 visitors to lose themselves in.
The triangular Pyramid Stage – the festival’s main stage – is an iconic symbol of British music culture, and has hosted headliners such as David Bowie, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Cure, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and Oasis.
When Glastonbury does occasionally have a year off – to let the farmland it takes place on recover – it is missed. It is the undisputed daddy of the UK festival season.
It’s taken almost half a century for it to earn this grandeur, though. 2019 marks the 49th anniversary of an event which, back in 1970, started life as the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival (it was called the Glastonbury Free Festival the following year, before finally landing on the simple but effective Glastonbury Festival in 1979). Its co-creator, Michael Eavis, was a dairy farmer with grand ambitions and a hefty overdraft who, inspired by the nearby Bath Blues and Progressive Rock Festival that had recently hosted Led Zeppelin, decided to put on his own event despite having no prior experience in organising such a thing. “I managed to get through without falling over,” he told local paper the Central Somerset Gazette, shortly after the festival finished. “But by the end I was really spinning.”
Eavis originally booked The Kinks to headline but they pulled out, allegedly after they saw the event dubbed a “mini-festival” in a newspaper. They were replaced by Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, who were working on their first studio album as T.Rex at the time. Psychedelic rock band Quintessence, Worthing blues-rockers Steam Hammer, east Londoners Sam Apple Pie, blues singer Duster Bennett and Scottish folk artist Al Steward were among the other acts on the first ever bill. Ahead of the headliner, there was a hastily arranged minute’s silence for Jimi Hendrix, who died the day before the festival took place.
But before all of that, on the morning of September 19 1970, Bristol-based prog-rockers Stackridge played Glastonbury Festival’s first ever live slot. “We knew nothing until our manager told us we were booked,” says Mutter Slater, the band’s vocalist and flute player. Their manager, Mike Tobin was part of a bookings and promotion company called Plastic Dog Agency, and helped out Eavis with promo for the festival. Stackridge agreed to hang out in Pilton for the entire weekend, and were briefed to fill in any gaps in the schedule. “Eavis was not confident that every band booked would arrive,” Mutter says. “Or that the timings would not go awry.”
And indeed, timings immediately went awry, which is how ‘Teatime’ by Stackridge became the first song played live on the hallowed turf of Worthy Farm.
At this first ever Glastonbury there were 25 toilets (compared to the 4,800 there will be this year) and 30 stewards (for 2019: thousands), and Eavis’ farmhouse doubled up as a dressing room for bands. Entry for punters cost £1, the equivalent of £15 in today’s money, and for that you got a carton of milk from the dairy farm.
There was no super fence to keep out gatecrashers. In fact, when a group of hippies walked all the way to the farm from London thinking it was a free festival, the crowd all chipped in for their entry fees. Advertising for the event was minimal, and info was spread by word-of mouth. Attendance was far lower than the 3000 people expected, and Eavis didn’t break even, let alone earn enough to clear his overdraft. “It hasn’t been a disaster,” he told the BBC afterwards. “But it hasn’t been as good as I hoped.”
As Glastonbury has spiralled into the cultural force that it is today (now run by Michael’s daughter, Emily), Stackridge’s opening set has become embedded in legend. But it didn’t feel like a history-making moment in 1970. “The festival comprised of one scaffold constructed stage, with a tarpaulin roof at the end of one hedged field,” Mutter says. “Security was a bobby standing at a five-barred gate. I felt sorry for Michael Eavis, as it was obvious he had lost quite a bit of money on this whimsical idea of being a festival promoter. There were fewer than 1000 people, plus about 5 dogs and a goat. ‘Poor chap’, I thought. ‘He’ll never do this again’.’’
He certainly never thought the set they played would one day acquire legendary status. “Our contribution is down to a fluke on that day in September 1970 and should have been instantly forgettable,” he says. “The fact that it has become part of festival lore is down to Michael Eavis’ vision and tenacity. ‘Surreal’ sums it up quite well.”
Lynne, a Bristol resident who went to the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival when she was 17, remembers it like so: “The circles we went in – we went about with some musicians and that, and played in bands – got to know about this thing going on. It wasn’t very well advertised, if I remember rightly. Just a few posters up in pubs.”
By day Lynne had an office job in the north Bristol suburb of Brentry, but she and her mates were “hippies by night and weekends”. They set off to Pilton on the Friday night, not sure what to expect, and found about 100 other early arrivals lazing around in a field. “I probably had salmon-pink bloomers on with bells and fringes and things,” she says. The rest of the festival-goers arrived on Saturday morning, before the bands began at midday. “There was a lot of space,” she says. “A lot of people sitting about playing guitars, and it was just generally very chilled.”
“I think ‘genteel’ would best describe the atmosphere of the crowd,” agrees Mutter. “I don’t mean the upper-class sort of gentility, but the courteousness and deference that would usually pervade a gathering of young heads back then. The ones there were never going lose their cool and ignite insurrection.”
DJ Mad Mick, who spun records between bands, concurs. “It was like an English country fete with longer hair and no green teas,” he told the BBC. “Everybody was high,” recalled a member of the band Quintessence, who also played. “Everybody.”
So not much has changed there, but pretty much everything else has. In 1970 there was nobody flogging garish pop-up tents or bedazzled wellies, and there was nobody wheeling tinnies through mud-clogged gates on specially modified off-road trollies. In fact, as Lynne recalls, there were barely any tents. “We used to just take a sleeping bag, back then, with a change of underwear, a toothbrush, and maybe a sheet of polythene to put over you in case it rained,” she says. “You’d sleep where you fell.”
Mutter has similar memories of low-key camping arrangements. “Some people arrived in battered vans equipped with dubious primus stoves, others erected army surplus bell tents and lit fires whilst a few were like me, trusted to luck and ingenuity and arrived with nothing.”
Stackridge disbanded six years after that first Glastonbury, but reformed in the late 90s and returned to play Glastonbury in 2008. The difference between the events was “mind boggling,” says Mutter. “That one-field festival of 1970 had now become a small city of entertainments. There was too much on offer for my simple needs.”
49 years on, Glastonbury is a meticulously planned operation. In total, 68,000 performers, stage managers, bookers, technicians, sound engineers, security guards, volunteers and all the other on-site workers needed to hold the festival’s infrastructure together go to Worthy Farm, along with 135,000 regular ticket holders.
To this day, the majority of profits are donated to charities such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid, and despite how big the festival has become, its biggest influences – environmental sustainability, anti-establishment counterculture – remain the same. The green generators – which supply the entire festival with electricity – pack enough punch to power the city of Bath, and run off waste vegetable oil. In 2019 plastic will be banned at the festival for the first time.
Lynne has been back to Glastonbury a few times since 1970, and still watches it every year on TV. “What makes me laugh the most is the fact that everybody takes everything but the kitchen sink! “ she says. “When I see them trundling along with these great big trollies and all this stuff, and then I think about us… I mean, they probably are very sensible. We weren’t organised like they are now. You took your beer with you, or your cider, and just enjoyed yourself.”