8 Historic Music Festivals

From struggling to put a tent up in the pouring rain to dancing to your favourite band with your mates, music festivals have become a highlight of summer.

Here we look at eight historic music festivals in England.

1. Glastonbury Festival

Pyramid stage and tents, Glastonbury 1971
Glastonbury Festival 1971, Worthy Farm © Alamy

Originally called the ‘Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival’, the first Glastonbury festival took place on 19 September 1970 with an audience of 1,500 – tickets were just £1!

Founder Michael Eavis was inspired to set up an outdoor festival after seeing Led Zeppelin at the Blues Festival at the Bath & West Showground.

Photograph taken 22 June 1971 by Jim Hancock. The second year it has run with an attendance of around 12,000 © Historic England, ref: jeh_22064_003

1971 saw the festival renamed to the Glastonbury Free Festival (tickets were free as the event was paid for by sponsors!) and the first use of the Pyramid stage. The festival has been held every 5 years with a ‘fallow year’ to give the ground a rest, since 1981. Around 200,000 people now attend.

2. Reading and Leeds, (formerly The National Jazz Festival)

Reading Festival 1975
Reading Festival 1975, photograph courtesy of Wiki Commons

Reading and Leeds Festival started life very differently in 1961 as The National Jazz Festival. It was started by Harold Pendleton, founder of the prestigious Marquee Club in Soho. The first festival took place at Richmond Athletic Ground and was a showcase for British and US jazz.

In 1964 the festival changed its name to ‘The National Jazz and Blues Festival’, reflecting the changing musical tastes. By 1967, it featured more progressive rock, with the likes of Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Jeff Beck performing, whilst the jazz groups were relegated to an afternoon session. By 1975, some reggae artists were received with hostility.

The festival found it’s permanent home in Reading in 1971 and the name was changed from ‘The National Jazz, Blues and Rock Festival’ to ‘Reading Rock’ in 1976. Due to popularity, the sister festival in Leeds started in 1999.

3. Cheltenham Music Festival

Cheltenham Town Hall, photograph taken by David Lovell

Cheltenham Music Festival is one of the oldest music festivals in the world, started in 1945.

At the time, Cheltenham Music Festival was at the forefront of the music scene. World-renowned composer Benjamin Britten premiered his opera Peter Grimes at the very first festival – so new, it wasn’t completed.

Initially consisting of just three concerts, the music festival now features more than 60 events in venues across the county and sees classical music joined by jazz, folk, electronica, spoken word, film and family events.

4. Aldeburgh Music Festival

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 1969 © Hans Wild

Benjamin Britten was also the father of the Aldeburgh Music Festival, founded in 1948 with the aim of making music accessible to the public.

As the festival grew in size, Britten felt the small venue was holding them back so went about converting the Snape Maltings into a concert hall. It was opened in 1967, in time for the festival’s 20th anniversary.

5. Isle of Wight Festival

Photograph by Neil Theasby Geograph

The Isle of Wight Festival was built as a series of festivals between 1968 and 1970 and was soon known as the ‘Woodstock of Europe’.

Over 600,000 people attended in 1970 to watch the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors and Joni Mitchell perform. However, the festival was banned by Parliament in 1970 in fear that the growing numbers and wild partying would negatively impact the island.

The festival was relaunched in 2002 by John Giddings.

6. Beckenham Festival

David Bowie performing at Beckenham
David Bowie on 16th August 1969 performing at the bandstand in Croydon Road Recreation Ground © Ray Stevenson

Soon after his first hit single ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie and friends organised the iconic Growth Summer Festival in August 1969.

Thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, the festival inspired Bowie to write ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, a seven minute song for his second album released later that same year, in homage to the day.

The hope was to raise money for a permanent base for his and Finnigan’s Beckenham Arts Lab project, which began life as a folk club in the backroom of the nearby Three Tuns pub. The one day festival was free, emulating Woodstock’s style and feel with its emphasis on freedom of expression for artists and musicians. The bandstand is now listed.

Beckenham bandstand
Beckenham Bandstand, Beckenham Park, Bromley, Greater London © Historic England, ref: DP251248

7. The 100 Club Punk Special

100 Club
100 Club, Oxford Street courtesy of Wiki Commons

The 100 Club started life as the Feldman Swing Club in 1942 and has been putting on live music ever since, making it one of the world’s longest-surviving live music venues.

The humble basement was the jewel of London’s jazz scene after the Second World War, with BB King and Louis Armstrong dropping by to perform. In the 70s, still at the forefront of the music scene, it hosted the first ever UK punk festival on the 20 and 21 September 1976, featuring performances from the Sex Pistols, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash and more.

The 100 Club was one of our 100 Places, learn more about the historic venue.

8. Black Music Festival, (formerly Leeds Reggae Concert)

Black Music Festival 2017
Black Music Festival 2017 © Guy Farrar

The annual Leeds Reggae Concert started back in 1985, to compliment the annual Leeds West Indian Carnival. It is now Europe’s biggest free open-air reggae concert showcasing the best international Reggae performances (and other genres such as R&B and Hip Hop). The concert evolved into Black Music Festival in 2015.

The annual Leeds West Indian Carnival was founded in 1967 by Arthur France, a young student who had arrived in Leeds from Nevis, to ‘combat his crippling homesickness.’ He set about organising a street parade; the first West Indian Parade, organised by Caribbeans and consisting of predominantly black people to take place in England. The route now starts and ends in Potternewton park, where Black Music Festival takes place.

Further Reading

2 responses to 8 Historic Music Festivals

  1. Rob Wall says:

    Ummm….I think that the Royal Albert Hall may pre-date the 100 Club. And the Three Choirs Festival beats any of the stuff mentioned here.

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