This article was originally published in 2019
Glastonbury Festival – which returns this week – 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.
- READ MORE: Glastonbury: The ultimate guide to every inch of the Worthy Farm site
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. 2022 marks the 52nd 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 (in 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 five 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.”
Over half a century 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 was 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.”
And that, if you’re going for the first time this year, remains a good place to start.