Glastonbury Festival: Peace, Love and Conflict

Aaron Bliss | Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Glastonbury Festival: Peace, Love and Conflict

Glastonbury was birthed the day after the spirit of the 60s incarnate Jimi Hendrix died, and has arguably carried the torch for the post-60s 'peace and love' counterculture ever since.

Michael Eavis founded the iconic event as Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festival at Worthy Farm in 1970 for a mere £1 entrance fee, with free milk thrown in for good measure. Both the mystique surrounding Worthy Farm's intersection of leylines, and aligning itself with the summer solstice cemented the new festival's reputation as an embrace of new-age and Pagan culture. But despite these foundation ethics, Glastonbury has encountered its fair share of trials and tribulations, some threatening to put an end to the festival for good.

With sporadic appearances in the 70s, the festival - assisted largely by the visions and ideals of iconic charity devotee and Winston's grand-daughter Arabella Churchill - grew into a popular alternative to the more commercial music festivals burgeoning at the time. Representing elements of renaissance fairs, as well as a 'British Woodstock' vibe, the first decade of Glastonbury Fayre saw consolidation and growth, with attendances from 500 rising to over 12,000, although the last event of the decade saw Glastonbury's first major setback. The 1979 Fayre, spearheaded by Eavis, Churchill and Bill Harkin, was based on the theme of 'Year of the Child', and connected to Churchill's own charity: Children's World. It made huge losses, despite the bumper attendance and £5 ticket prices, which threatened its continued staging.

1980 saw a year of contemplative chin-scratching and soul-searching from Michael Eavis particularly, and it was decided that the event would be re-Christened the Glastonbury Festival. Eavis demonstrated his social concerns had not waned in a decade, as he tied the festival to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in the wake of the Cold War. Despite a struggle to convince the National CND of the festival's potential as a profitable venture, and all responsibility falling on Eavis, the bash was a great success, and even included a newly-constructed pyramid stage which doubled as a cow shed in winter months. The first profitable Glastonbury donated £20,000 to the CND, and formed a long-term alliance.

The next tribulation for Eavis came with the Local Government Act of 1983, stipulating that a Public Entertainment Licence must be obtained for the event. Mendip Council set a maximum attendance of 30,000, and outlined restrictions for noise levels, as well as various health and safety guidelines for the site. Despite these obstacles, Eavis raised some £45,000 for CND and other local charities.

Unfortunately, Mendip District Council did not share in the festival's triumph, taking Eavis to court for five alleged violations of the Public Entertainment Licence, which Eavis managed to successfully defend himself against. MDC responded by charging £2,000 for the 1984 licence, although they allowed the attendance figure to rise and designated specific parking areas. 1985 saw the purchase of the adjacent Cockmill Farm to accommodate the growing infrastructure. Over £100,000 found its way to CND and local concerns, validating the expansion. The next year saw the introduction of the first classical music tent, and Glastonbury appeared to be on a seamless upward curve, but another problem presented itself the next year when the festival's licence was revoked. Michael Eavis and his loyal tribe worked tirelessly to have the court overturn the decision only the month in advance; again, the event proved a resounding success.

After a 'fallow' year to contemplate the logistics and problems connected with such rapid expansion, Glastonbury returned in 1989, with the police officially involved in planning and organisation. Although this seemed to be the ideal solution to the licensing issues, the festival once again faced huge challenges at the turn of the decade. 1990's event was renamed Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, and saw the 'Battle of Yeoman's Bridge': ugly confrontations between security and new-age travellers apparently looting the emptying campsites, leading to 235 arrests and £50,000 worth of damage. Eyewitnesses from the travellers' camps claim security personnel were equally to blame, but fortunately nobody was killed, although these violent incidents led to a hiatus until 1992, where it was decided to remove the travellers' free field from future festivals, which some argue removed Glastonbury's last authentic roots to its origins.

A fence was erected for the 1992 festival, and it signalled another shift in ideology: the dispersal of charitable donations. In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament did not appear to be so pertinent, and Michael Eavis declared Greenpeace and Oxfam as principle beneficiaries of future donations. The biggest Glastonbury yet saw over £250,000 raised for the pair, as well as local concerns.

After a trouble-free year, disaster struck when the iconic Pyramid Stage burnt down days before the 1994 festival. Although this was replaced promptly, joined by the debut of the main stage wind turbine and first coverage on Channel 4, the event was unfortunately tarnished by a minor shooting incident, and its first death - by drug overdose - in Glastonbury history. Folk rock giants The Levellers created their own piece of history by attracting the largest ever stage-front Glastonbury crowd.

The dance tent was introduced in 1995, and the festival revelled in the Britpop era, featuring heavyweights Pulp, Oasis and Portishead. Tickets had sold out within a month, but the festival was marred once again, this time from the dismantlement of a perimeter fence barring access to adjoining land. There were estimates of attendance doubling from gatecrashers.

After the obligatory fallow year, 1997 was renowned as 'The Year of the Mud', as widespread flooding left festival-goers knee-deep in mud; quite how effective the solar-powered showers proved to be in the circumstances is debatable. Radiohead's infamous Pyramid Stage performance was a highlight, and BBC2 broadcast the festival for the first time. Water Aid and Mid-Somerset CND once again were amongst the list of charity recipients, while the next year's event saw Glastonbury Festival's own on-site bank. After the two previous years had been plagued by torrential rain, £150,000 was spent on flood defences and drainage, only to see dry weather at the turn of the millennium, tragically in the wake of the passing of Michael Eavis' wife Jean.

At the turn of a new century, a third, silver Pyramid stage was constructed, but the major bugbear was once again the issue of gatecrashers. This led directly to licence suspension and fines imposed on the organisers for attendance and noise restriction breaches. In the wake of the Roskilde festival tragedy of the previous year where nine people were crushed to death, 2001's fallow year negotiations led to Mean Fiddler being controversially delegated to deal with logistics and security issues; their major implementation being the huge 'superfence' enclosing the site, keeping unauthorised attendance and crime down to minimal levels. The success of this scheme saw tickets sell out within 24 hours for 2003.

By 2004, Glastonbury was proud to declare 32% of all festival waste was recycled, and over 100 tons of organic waste was composted. Over £1 million was donated to the usual charities, with an additional £100,000 going to the Sudan appeal. The Unsigned Performers' Competition was launched and the World Cup football tournament was screened.

After these massive steps in eliminating crime and improving atmosphere and safety, a familiar troublemaker returned with a vengeance in 2005 when Glastonbury was struck by indomitable storms; this lead to flash floods and the Acoustic Tent being struck by lightning. Despite these acts of God, Mendip District Council declared it the safest festival yet, while environmental measures were stepped up still further. Legions of fans were to be left frustrated as tickets sold out in less than three hours. The Levellers set their second stage-front attendance record, and John Peel's memory was honoured with a new stage.

Following the fallow year, 2007 saw anti-touting photographic registration for tickets, but it still proved to be a sell-out - this time in under two hours. Attendance passed the 135,000 mark, and Climate Change was on the agenda as well as the familiar concerns. Another death from a drug overdose was sadly recorded, and persistent rain meant the conditions were unpleasant.

The big talking point of 2008 was, of course, the headline booking of Jay-Z, which many blamed for the uncharacteristically torpid ticket sales. Tragically, early Glastonbury Fayre pioneer Arabella Churchill died in December 2007, and 'Poetry and Words' tent organiser Pat V.T. West two weeks before the festival. Despite these tragedies, the festival did sell out, and new innovations like biodegradable tent pegs in line with the 'Love the Farm, Leave No Trace' initiative, assisted in Glastonbury winning the 'Greener Festival Award' for 2008, although the festival's estimated production cost hit £22 million.

2009's Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts saw early storms and the death of Michael Jackson dampen the mood literally and figuratively, though by the time of Blur's emotional comeback performance the festival crowd had made known their appreciation. The utilisation of a new 'ticket deposit' system appeared to be met with widespread approval. Michael Eavis typically titled it: 'the best Glastonbury ever'. And perhaps his hubris was justified. No festival has had to face such turmoil and reinvention over such a long period, whilst still retaining its core values.

So what troubles lie in wait over the next decade? Overpopulation; climate change; political disillusion; economic ruin; technological leaps? How will these affect the festival in years to come? Will it even be recognisable from its original form by its 50th anniversary? After all, having survived financial ruin, prosecutions, running battles with gatecrashers and accusations of selling its soul, Glastonbury prepares for 2010 with its iconic lure and prestige still very much intact.