Glastonbury 1971: when the stars aligned for David Bowie and Michael Eavis

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CREDIT: GABI PAPE

In June 1971, Andrew Kerr was thirty-eight. Well born and privately educated, Kerr had spent ten years working with Randolph Churchill, spendthrift eldest son of the wartime Prime Minister, as he penned his father’s official biography. Kerr was far from the standard clubman. Coming from farming stock himself, he was one of the bohemian tendency among England’s landed gentry. These were people who saw the possibilities of a conjunction between their traditional duty to steward the land and the more nebulous aims of the long-haired tribes who were beginning to leave the cities to establish a new way of life in England’s countryside.

Returning from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Kerr felt there ought to be a gathering which did more than draw six hundred thousand people to a massive field to bob their heads in time to Jethro Tull and Johnny Winter. He craved a festival with a nobler purpose. Unlike most people returning from rock festivals Kerr didn’t forget the idea after a good bath and a hot meal. The first thing he looked for was a site. He wanted one with significance. He inspected Stonehenge, not yet fenced off from visitors, and rejected it because it was surrounded by arable land. He was eventually directed towards Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset. Here the farmer, thirty-six-year-old Michael Eavis, had organised a very small rock festival in 1970 in the vain hope of paying off his mortgage. Entrance on that occasion was a pound, the headliners were Tyrannosaurus Rex and the handful of campers were invited to buy their morning milk from the farmhouse door. This venture didn’t clear Eavis’s mortgage; it actually left him with more debt to pay off. Welcome to the festival business.

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Michael Eavis on Worthy Farm in 1970, the year of the first Glastonbury Festival CREDIT: LOCAL WORLD/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

 

Kerr reached an agreement with Eavis to mount a second festival in 1971 at Worthy Farm and moved in to begin planning. He invested his own money and brought on board Randolph’s daughter Arabella, who did the same with a small family bequest. In 1954, Time magazine had proposed the infant Arabella as a future bride for Prince Charles. By 1970 she had swapped debutante’s pearls for the kind of hippy chic which only a handful of hippies could actually afford and joined the trickle of upper-class dropouts in the direction of the Vale of Avalon. The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw had astutely remarked that it is impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without another Englishman hating him, and the Aquarian Age didn’t change this. Eavis regarded Kerr and Churchill with the inverted snobbery which is the standard English response to those whose speech brands them as toffs. All this was relative. For singer Linda Lewis, who was born in the East End of London and joined the throng, Eavis was by some distance the poshest person she had encountered in her twenty-one years.

Pilton is seven miles distant from Glastonbury, the storied settlement where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have journeyed after donating his tomb to Christ. Kerr decided that was close enough to justify calling the new festival Glastonbury Fayre. In making this kind of stretch he was only following in the footsteps of Woodstock, which actually took place at Bethel, New York. Kerr and Churchill attempted to organise the succession of New Agers, chancers and sundry lost souls who began to arrive. Some were in place months before the festival was due to start on 20 June, at the time of the summer solstice. These pioneers included Bill Harkin, who devised the pyramid stage, a one-tenth scale version of the great pyramid at Giza. This was placed on the site of an ancient spring located by dowsing. It was that kind of festival.

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The first pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 1971 CREDIT: IAN TYAS/KEYSTONE FEATURES/GETTY IMAGES

Read the rest of David Hepworth’s Glastonbury article at the Telegraph