Festival Week is a time of reflection; a time to look back at festivals gone by and look forward to the festival experiences yet to come. But it’s certainly not a time for looking down at the present, where we’re currently sat glued to our desks and not able to enjoy the debauched liberation of any of the festivals mentioned below. However, music festivals don’t just have to be about a hedonistic good time – although they certainly should be. Many of the most iconic festivals we’re familiar with started out as something very different from what they have evolved into today. Take Burning Man’s humble beginnings as an annual congregation of friends and family, for example, who gathered on a San Francisco beach to burn a human effigy. Or Serbia’s EXIT festival, the first incarnation of which was a celebration of the end of Milošević’s regime and now accommodates up to 200,000 revellers.
The background of the first festivals may not be something that you think is worth learning – when you’d rather lose your mind than create new synaptic connections within it – but knowing the history of the hedonistic jamboree you’re about to embark on gives the experience an added dimension. Check out how six of the world’s best festivals got their start below and see which festival’s coming your way in our Ultimate Summer 2014 Festival Guide.
The lauded Glastonbury Festival has come a long way since its humble beginnings of around 1,500 attendees, now witnessing up to 200,000 revelers in attendance. A series of concerts, lectures and recitals, called “The Glastonbury Festivals,” was first established in the Somerset town of Glastonbury between 1914 and 1926. The first incarnation of the music festival as we know it today was held at Worthy Farm on September 19, 1970, referred to as the “Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival.” The line-up featured Tyrannosaurus Rex, before they were known as T. Rex, amongst others. The following year, the “Glastonbury Fayre” was initiated, which conceived the first iteration of the iconic Pyramid stage. The stage was a one-tenth replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, constructed from scaffolding and metal sheeting. Free milk was included in the £1 ticket price, courtesy of Worthy Farm’s very own cows.
During the ’80s, the festival became an annual fixture and the music presence began to evolve as unofficial sound systems sprung up around the site playing electronic, acid house music which saw in a new era of festival tents and dance music appreciation. After a number of hiatuses, Glastonbury has continued to grow in size and remains one of the most legendary festivals in existence.
The original Woodstock Festival is regarded as one of the most pivotal moments in popular music history. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” it took place, like Glastonbury, on a dairy farm outside the town of Bethel, New York from August 15 – 17, 1969. Over the course of the weekend, 32 acts played to around 400,000 people, which was a definitive point in history for the larger counter-culture generation and was immortalized in film through the 1970 documentary, Woodstock.
Initiated by Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfield, Roberts and Rosenman financed the project after placing a vague advertisement for investment opportunities in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal which the others saw and quickly responded to.
The festival is famed for the number of setbacks it faced, several of which are satirized in the film Wayne’s World II. Troubles included licensing the festival’s location, which resulted in the town of Wallkill passing a law on July 2, 1969 effectively banning the event from its vicinity. After finally settling on a location, the estimated number of attendees quadrupled to 200,000, resulting in a threat from New York governor Nelson Rockefeller to send in 10,000 New York state national troops to the venue. Thankfully, the festival still went ahead but not without leaving the promoters $100,000 in debt.
The annual festival held over three days during two weekends in the middle of April was inadvertently created off the back of a concert Eddie Vedder held at the same venue, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, in 1993. As Pearl Jam performed in front of 25,000 fans on a vast, undeveloped desert lawn, they proved it befitting for what was to become one of America’s most popular music festivals. The inaugural Coachella took place October 9 and 10, 1999, and with acts such as Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, Richie Hawtin and DJ Shadow, the festival quickly cemented itself as having its finger on the pulse of electronic dance music.
Following financial troubles at the inaugural festival, there was no Coachella in 2000 but the festival was to return in 2001. This time it took place in April in order to avoid the searing heat of mid-summer and performers included Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and Paul Oakenfold. The 2004 edition of the festival saw the first sold-out weekend, and dance music-enthusiasts among you should remember 2006 for Daft Punk‘s most memorable live American performance, with the French duo taking to their iconic pyramid. Although the festival continued to peak in ticket sales, 2012 saw the launch of identical weekends in order to capitalize on their growing success, leaving no question of Coachella’s current domination of the market.
Isle of Wight Festival
The Isle of Wight Festival takes place on the island of the same name off the coast of southern England across a weekend during early June. The first iteration of the Isle of Wight festival was a one-day event that took place in August. The major act on the line-up was Jefferson Airplane, although T-Rex joined them. Tickets were available for just £1.25 and the event attracted some 10,000 people who came to see the acts perform on a stage constructed from two trailers. It was perhaps the first great rock festival in the UK and laid the formations for what was to be a much larger one the following year.
1969 saw the promoters embark on a much more ambitious festival. One of the head promoters, Ray Foulk, pestered Bob Dylan for over six months in order to persuade him to headline the event. Dylan was unimpressed with the idea of his comeback show after a three-year hiatus to be on an unknown island off Britain. Foul flew to NYC with a color film of the Island, depicting its natural beauty and literary history – both of which appealed to Dylan’s artistic side – and he finally agreed. Joined by acts such as The Who and Joe Cocker, the festival attracted almost 200,000 attendees. The following year was regarded as Britain’s Woodstock as it saw a mammoth 600,000 people attend, thanks to a killer line-up that included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis to name a few.
Situated in the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada, Burning Man is known as being more of a rite-of-passage event than a traditional festival. The week-long annual event begins on the last Monday of August and runs until the first Monday of September, ushering in a new season. The celebration began as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice of 1986 organized by Larry Harvey and Jerry James, who burned a nine-foot wooden man on Baker Beach, San Francisco, accompanied by their friends. The effigy grew in size over the next four years until 1990 when the occasion was stopped by park police. The closure of the beach event triggered its evolution into the festival we know now, with a new location, date and meaning.
Northern Nevada’s desert space was decided as the location and the event became a particularly ad-hoc affair, with some people bringing almost all of their belongings and others bringing nothing but a massage table; a truly communal spirit was the result. The Burning Man “playa” is seven miles away away from the nearest town, its desolation contributing to the temporary utopia its participants are able to co-create. Burning Man is a rare festival that has continued to enforce the majority of its original core principles; there are no paid or scheduled performers or artists, no separation between art and living spaces, and no rules other than an inherent appreciation for everyone’s wellbeing. The result is a truly individual, and some might say spiritual, experience.
Located in Petrovaradin Fortress on the right bank of the river Danube in Serbia, EXIT Festival has grown tremendously during its short lifespan. It was started by three like-minded students as a politically-motivated protest to rally against Serbia’s brutal Milošević regime and was the first place youth gathered from all parts of the former Yugoslav Republic after decades of civil wars.
The beginning of the end of Milošević’s reign commenced with a 100-day countdown at the bank of the river Danube. Over these 100 days, there were 34 concerts where some of the most popular bands in the country performed, alongside 12 theatrer performances, over 120 film projections, discussion panels and more. The last concert was held on September 22 – two days before the first steps towards the government’s takeover – with the message “He’s done” displayed in front of the 20,000 attendees. EXIT festival presented a symbolic exit from the decades of oppression. The next year the festival relocated to the other side of the Danube, to the Petrovaradin Fortress, and was regarded as a full-fledged music festival, which only continued to grow and improve throughout the following years.
Take a look at the 10 festival fails to avoid this summer, the 10 people you’re sure to run into at your musical getaway and the rest of our Festival Week features here.