Festivals go back to antiquity, when the Romans indulged in wine-fuelled bacchanals and the Greeks showed off their athletic prowess. The age of pop and rock, however, gave birth to the music-loving mass gathering, though the line-ups have never mattered as much as the collective belief that there is something essentially very good indeed about lots of people coming together for a few days in a field, without having to take up arms, support rival teams, or generally hate one another.
Love is the true spirit of the festival season, even now when the sponsors are all over the biggest shows, and not so youthful festival-goers spend serious money on tickets, glamping site fees, gourmet grub, chilled plonk and cool new clothes desperate to be muddied and messed-up. It all began long ago on a little island in the English Channel…
Banner Image Credit: iStock.com/kruwt
Isle Of Wight – The First Of The Season
Born in 1968 as a countercultural festival for the burgeoning hippie generation and seen as a kind of British Woodstock, the Isle of Wight festival was the first mega-gathering of music and is still the first big UK festival in the annual calendar. Just four miles off the Hampshire coast, the Isle of Wight is blessed with a balmy microclimate. Often perceived as a somewhat staid, even square place to live or to sail around in a posh yacht, it’s curious that some of the loudest and largest festivals have been sited here. The 1970 event, for instance, featured Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors, and played to over 600,000 people – widely considered the largest rock music event held in Britain.
This year: June 9-12, with The Who, Stereophonics, Adam Ant, Buzzcocks headlining.
Glastonbury – Hippie Living As A Global Brand
It started in 1970, with tickets costing just £1, Glastonbury rose to prominence on the back of the “free festival” scene of the early 1970s. That pound note aside, the idea was that no one except the flower-scented youth who showed up really “owned” the event (or “happening”). Britain’s best known and most widely publicised festival takes place at Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset – six miles east of Glastonbury and overlooked by Glastonbury Tor, a low hill with assorted Celtic and mythological associations. Famous for its bad weather and mud-fests, Glastonbury has been the backdrop for some seminal performances, including Johnny Cash’s 1994 turn on the Pyramid stage and Pulp the following year on the same platform. Proof that you don’t need a supporting brand to be a major success, Glastonbury is no longer particularly youthful and is not even close to free – tickets for 2016 cost £228 – but it still sells out in half an hour and resale tickets are in great demand.
This year: June 22-26, with ELO, Coldplay, Muse, PJ Harvey and ZZ Top among the headliners.
Leeds And Reading – Rock Rolls North And South
Since 1971, Reading’s musos have been pogoing to punk, sticking their thumbs in their pockets to Status Quo and shaking their lank locks to Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. Leeds kicked off its sister event in 1999, running the festival over the same August Bank Holiday Weekend and sharing artists. The Reading event actually evolved out of the National Jazz Festival, which always floated around Home Counties venues to the west of London. Gradually, the jazz police allowed in some blues, and then permitted a few complex bars of progressive rock and clever bands like Hawkwind proved to the organisers there was big audience potential – and lots more money. Having seen the hippies getting all the fun, rockers were eager for their own love-in, ideally with volumes turned up to eleven, at least three (ideally twin-necked) guitars to every band and solos that were so long you could go to the loo and get back before the final note was flanged to death.
This year: Jun 26-28, Foals, Disclosure, Biffy Clyro and Red Hot Chili Peppers lead at both festivals.
Knebworth – Sonic Booms, Recently Silenced
Major bands started blasting audiences away in the gracious grounds of Knebworth House (“The Stately Home of Rock”), in north Hertfordshire in 1974, when mellow MoR strumsters The Doobie Brothers and avant-garde legend Tim Buckley headed the bill. A hard rock seam would develop as the likes of Lynryd Skynyrd, Todd Rungren and, most famously, Led Zeppelin, strutted their shouty stuff on the Knebworth stage. Punk and new wave bands were also welcomed here, and in 1981-2 Knebworth turned its attention to jazz, before becoming just another megagig venue for superstar acts such as Genesis, Oasis and Robbie Williams. Metal acts have dominated at the more recent Sonisphere showcases, while, in August 2013 the site hosted an Eastern Electronics festival, making Knebworth arguably the most adaptable of all the UK’s festivals.
This year, rumours swirl that Sonisphere will be back but no dates announced yet.
Donington Park – Dark And Devilish And Dangerous
Born in 1980 as the Monsters of Rock festival (which went on to become a global franchise) and since 2003 as the Download festival, Donington Park’s hard rock/heavy metal extravaganzas have featured all the loudest, lairiest bands in the genres, including Rainbow, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Whitesnake, KISS and Metallica.
This year, June 10-12, features major acts such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Napalm Death, Rammstein and Korn
Womad – Worldly Wisdom
The Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival came about in 1982 through an initiative led by rock star Peter Gabriel. Always a canny operator, he and some likeminded pals saw that, as punk and new wave dwindled and pop and rock became dominated by major labels, audiences were keen to explore new worlds of music – aka world music. The first Womad line-up featured Gabriel himself, plus Simple Minds and Echo & The Bunnymen, but also introduced rock audiences to percussion ensemble The Drummers of Burundi, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Indian sitar maestro Imrat Khan. The UK event is now hosted at Charlton Park, Wiltshire, but there have been major Womad outings in Adelaide, Australia and Cáceres, Spain.
This year, Womad UK falls on 28-31 July and features headliners Baaba Maal, Roots Manuva and Sidestepper.
Latitude – Boutique Festival Of The Future?
Born in 2006 and perhaps the best known of the millennial eclectic festivals aimed squarely at the middle-classes who like their music accompanied by strawberries and cream, theatre, art, politics, poetry and cabaret. Snow Patrol, The Zutons and The Lemonheads appeared at the first event, along with yurt tents, global cuisine and craft ales on tap.
This year, 14-17 July, sees New Order, The Maccabees and The National head the bill.