Country Calling looks at the West Country’s long association with rock n roll.
The year is 1964, a long, hot August night. Mick Jagger appears on the steps of Longleat House dressed in a white shirt and pale pink jeans; the sixteen thousand strong crowd goes beserk. Girls faint, ribcages are squashed, feet are trampled and a nearby policeman is heard to remark:‘We could easily have some dead on our hands if things go on as they are.’
The South West has a long association with rock n roll and arguably it was Henry Thynne, the sixth Marquess of Bath who began it. Pre Woodstock, pre-Glastonbury, the Rolling Stones’s open air gig at Longleat was one of the first of its kind, heralding the start of an enduring obsession with outdoor music.
Back then the Longleat Pop Concerts – there were four that summer – were a novel means of keeping the lead on the roof. The following year, the forward thinking Marquess opened the Safari Park and a whole new commercial enterprise was born.
Incredible to think The Stones had actually made their live debut in Wiltshire in October 1963, playing fourth on the bill at Salisbury’s Gaumont Theatre to The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and Little Richard.
Within a month, the long-haired, sex-toting antithesis of The Beatles already had a top 20 hit and a huge female following when they played again at McIlroys, a famous department store in Swindon.
They were to play another four gigs in Wiltshire before the legendary concert at Longleat on 2 August. These were the far-off innocent days of old when girls simply couldn’t handle their crushes; more than two hundred female fans fainted at the sight of Mick and Keith parading in tight jeans and the Great Hall at Longleat metamorphosed into a last-minute First Aid room.
Then, five years later, it was a gentle, mild-mannered farmer who turned to rock and roll in an attempt to boost his dwindling income. Inspired by the Blues Festival which had been held down the road at the Bath & West showground in June, Michael Eavis invited Marc Bolan to play an open air gig at his farm in Pilton, Somerset. Punters paid a miniscule one pound entrance fee which included free milk from the farm and slept in the open air under the stars.
There were only one thousand people there that year and photographs show laughably empty crowds gathered around the ramshackle stage. Yet, for those who were there it would prove an unforgettable two days. It also became the blueprint for rock festivals throughout the world.
Stonehenge Free Festival began a couple of years later, based around the iconic, ancient stones and a counterculture alternative for those who could not afford Glastonbury or Reading. The festival ran from the beginning of June culminating at solstice on the 21st and it became an essential gathering for pyschedelic hippies who wanted a dose of mysticism alongside their hardcore drugs. For at least a decade it was a peaceful and hugely successful event where many big name bands - Doctor and the Medics, Thompson Twins, Crass, Selector, Dexys Midnight Runners - took a break from touring to play for free. The pinnacle year was 1981 when the weather was perfect and Hawkwind and Gong were among the line-up. With its open sale of illegal drugs – (there was a self-policing rule against heroin but cocaine, amphetamines, LSD and marijuana were readily available) the festival’s days were always going to be numbered and in 1985 it was banned by Thatcher’s government. This was not the end, however; that came sadly and bloodily on 1 June in the infamous Battle of the Beanfield. Despite the ruling a convoy of around 450 travellers, including many women and children, had set off to establish the 12th annual free festival at Stonehenge. They were ambushed, assaulted and arrested by a 1300 strong police force who were said to have acted with unprecedented brutality.
If there was one festival that could be excavated and brought back to life then surely it would have to be Cornwall’s Elephant Fayre held at the Earl of St German’s beautiful estate near Plymouth. It began in 1981 and was modelled on an ancient fayre, featuring a mix of music, theatre and visual arts. There were just 1500 at that first event but once the bigger acts like The Fall, The Cure and Siouxie and the Banshees came to play it quickly grew to 30,000. In the end it was the travellers, known as the Peace Convoy yet by now anything but peaceful, who brought about its demise. They had nicknamed the Earl of St Germans ‘The Good Lord’ because of his tolerant approach at a time when the Government was aggressively clamping down on the traveller movement. In 1986 the violent element of the Peace Convoy, known as the ‘brew crew’, wreaked havoc at Port Eliot, both at the estate and in the local village where they smashed up the school and broke into the doctor’s surgery. They were even said to have mugged one of Lord St German’s children and finally his patience ran out. The Elephant Fayre was put to rest and with it the spirit of albion was lost forever.