Glastonbury at 50 - half a century of mud, tents and cheers

Nile Rodgers at Glastonbury 2017

Nile Rodgers at Glastonbury 2017 - Credit: Archant

The 50th Glastonbury festival should be in full swing this weekend. Nick Richards looks at the history of the festival which has come to define our musical summer while we hear from some Glasto-goers who offer the positives and negatives of a long weekend at Worthy Farm

Beyonce on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2011

Beyonce on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2011 - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

It began the day after Jimi Hendrix died, was supposed to feature The Kinks as headliners and was originally conceived to clear the overdraft of a hard-up Michael Eavis.

This year Glastonbury turns 50 and this weekend we should’ve been looking forward to seeing the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Noel Gallagher and Kendrick Lamar appear alongside an array of other diverse entertainment acts.

However, like so much of this year’s summer plans, the festival was scrapped in March - the second time in three years there will be no festival following 2018’s fallow year.

Instead the BBC are showing classic sets across this weekend with plenty to satisfy all musical tastes.

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Back in September 1970, Glastonbury was a far different spectacle to the multi-media extravaganza we see today. Eavis originally charged just £1 a ticket and expected a healthy turnout to his Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival half a century ago. He was hardly a savvy entrepreneur looking to make a quick buck, more an opportunist music lover who wanted to create something that may make him a bit of a profit as well as keeping to the sort of ethics that went along with music festivals at the time. It is reported that a mere 1,500 turned up to that first festival, despite the lure of free milk from the farm’s dairy.

Star billing would have gone to The Kinks who dropped out and were replaced by Tyrannosaurus Rex, then a real hippy outfit with bongos backing and lead singer Marc Bolan sitting cross-legged on stage in front of that small crowd.

Ed Sheeran performing on the Pyramid Stage in 2017

Ed Sheeran performing on the Pyramid Stage in 2017 - Credit: PA

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Within a year the ‘Glastonbury Fair’ was born, by the early 80s the festival was making money with some profits going to charities like CND and Greenpeace while links were forged with other charities like Oxfam and Water Aid that still exist today.

As the festival expanded, farmland next to Worthy Farm was purchased to allow for more fans, tents and stages. By the 1990s the attendances were breaking new records every year, despite the fact that tickets were snapped up in record time, much to the frustration of music fans who wanted to experience the festival for themselves.

Ironically this year the weather gods seem to have been smiling on the special corner of Somerset with wall to wall sunshine, unlike the infamous years where heavy rain turned much of the farm into a vast muddy wasteland.

Mud, queues and the chance to check out of real life for a long weekend seem to be part of the appeal of Glastonbury.

Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow, who performed on the Pyramid Stage in 2011 said this week: “Glastonbury is the very best party in the world. It tops up my faith in human beings for the whole year, it’s such a lovely environment. It gives UK musicians a pinnacle – playing the Pyramid Stage it doesn’t get much bigger.”

But another popular entertainer, East Anglia’s own alternative musician and columnist Martin Newell disagrees. He said: “Glastonbury is a terrible pop-up city in the mud, populated chiefly by office jocks pretending to be crusties. It’s an ongoing embarrassment, especially when I hear BBC Radio 2 presenters in late middle-age, gurgling on about their best Glasto moments. It’s like being confronted by the prefects on your way into the school dance.”

Amy Winehouse performing on the Pyramid Stage during the Glastonbury in 2008

Amy Winehouse performing on the Pyramid Stage during the Glastonbury in 2008 - Credit: PA

Whether you love or loathe it, there are some great performances to savour this weekend without needing to pack your wellies or smother yourself in sunscreen.

Some of the Beeb’s highlights today and tomorrow are Adele’s 2016 headline set, with all those massive anthems from the theme to Skyfall to Someone Like You mixed in with plenty of swearing. Tomorrow night there’s a chance to see David Bowie’s second and final performance from 2000, Amy Winehouse’s Pyramid Stage show from 2007 and Ed Sheeran’s impressive 2018 set where he managed to entertain thousands by himself with just a guitar and loop pedal for support.

Hopefully Glastonbury will be back next year but until then, tune into the BBC this weekend

Co-organiser Emily Eavis said this week: “Personally, I’m looking forward to a weekend of reflecting on the history of our festival and going back to some classic performances from David Bowie, Adele, REM, Beyonce, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Billie Eilish and lots more.

“Me and my dad will definitely be watching!”

Rescue services at the scene of flooding at a campsite during the Glastonbury Festival, 24 June 2005

Rescue services at the scene of flooding at a campsite during the Glastonbury Festival, 24 June 2005, at Pilton in Somerset. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA. - Credit: PA

Glastonbury regular David Powles sums up what he loves most about a long weekend at Worthy Farm while Emma Lee recounts her one and only time in the famous fields when it didn’t quite go to plan

David Powles - Put in the effort, and Glastonbury is fantastic:

It was 1997 and I was literally celebrating my 18th birthday on my very first day at Glastonbury Festival.

That year, it rained and then rained some more. I had a fantastic time, despite at one point getting completely lost and walking aimlessly in a circle for three hours.

It did the same 12 months later and by 1999 I knew I had to attend for fear of missing a sunny one.

The clouds gather at Worthy Farm in 2007 (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The clouds gather at Worthy Farm in 2007 (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The thinking was that if Glastonbury was still great fun under swamp-like conditions, imagine how great it would be with decent weather.

The decent weather arrived and it says all you need to know that more than two decades later Glastonbury 2020 was set to be my 15th visit to Worthy Farm.

Alas, it wasn’t to be and I’m gutted, but if there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that at least I have my health and my family and friends and ultimately that’s the most important thing in life.

So what is it about Glastonbury that makes it so special?

Where to start.

Initially, as a pretty free-spirited teenager, it was all about the party. Being with your friends, being away from home, staying up late, enjoying great music and having a great time.

And while much of that still holds true, now, being a 40-something dad-of-two with a busy life and pretty stressful job, it’s also about getting away from it all.

Leaving the stresses and strains of life behind and for five blissful days and entering a vortex where pretty much all you have to worry about is whether it is actually possible to make it from a set by one band you love to the other side of the festival where you desperately want to see another.

Of course, there are downsides. There are times when it all becomes too much and perhaps feels like too much effort.

The long queues to get in, the toilets and, occasionally the mud, are not things I would recommend.

But I always think that if you are prepared to put in the hard yards at Glastonbury - the rewards are massive.

And these moments never last long before you experience something that instantly lifts your spirits and reminds you why Glastonbury Festival remains such a special placed in which to be.

Emma Lee - It rained so much I haven’t been back:

With teenage rite-of-passage trips to Reading and a jaunt to T in the Park on a luxury tour bus (I won a Radio One competition) under my belt, I considered myself to be a veteran of the festival circuit. But I still had to tick the biggest of them all off the list: Glastonbury. And in 2005 I managed to get a ticket.

It all started so promisingly. It was a gloriously sunny midsummer Thursday morning when I boarded the train with my rucksack at King’s Lynn station. The temperature was still rising when I joined hundreds of other festival goers in the queue at Paddington for the train to Castle Cary, the nearest station to Glastonbury.

Normally a headphones in, eyes shut, please-do-not-disturb type of traveller, I chatted, full of excitement with the American girl sat next to me on the shuttle bus to Worthy Farm and we gasped in wonder as we were greeted by the sight of thousands of tents which were already pitched, the scale of it like a mini city.

Last of the great hedonists - I have always put a good night’s sleep ahead of having any kind of fun - the festival started to work its magic on even me. That first evening I found myself in the Lost Vagueness area, despite it being way past my bedtime.

The next morning, I awoke with the sunrise and somewhere in the vicinity I heard someone say ‘I think it’s going to rain’. Their prophecy turned out to be an understament of laughable proportions. The beautiful weather broke in the most spectacular fashion possible - thunder, lightning and hours of torrential rain - two months’ worth was the estimate. My phone started pinging with messages from concerned family and friends who had seen the news and wanted to check I was okay.

When there was finally a let up, and we emerged from our tents, it transpired that camped at the top of a hill, we really were among the lucky ones. Others had seen their tents and all their belongings washed away.

But what I quickly learned was that the Glastonbury crowd doesn’t let even the worst weather get in the way of their pursuit of a good time - and that’s infectious. By late afternoon, in between writing and phoning a story through to the paper’s copytakers as the newsdesk had been tipped off that I was there, I was pogoing with some complete strangers to Bloc Party and later on reunited with my friends to see Pyramid Stage headliners The White Stripes. To this day I will still, after a tipple or two, insufferably hold forth about how they are “just the most instinctive musicians I’ve ever seen”.

Fittingly, the sun finally made a reappearance and the site started to dry out on the Sunday when it was time to go home. By then I was exhausted from wading through the mud to get between stages and was really looking forward to a bath, some vitamins (it was in the days when my festival diet alternated between the beige goodness of chips and jacket potatoes) and a proper bed.

I’m glad that I had the full Worthy Farm experience. But from then on I’ve been more than happy to enjoy ‘Glasthomebury’ from the comfort of my sofa.

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