Andrew Kerr and the Origins of the Glastonbury Festival
From the Last of the Hippies. An interview with Andrew Kerr, who died on the 6th October 2014. "It was the most blessed thing in my life," says Kerr now. "The chance to live out a dream, a really crazy dream."
The first Glastonbury Festival took place on the 19th September 1970, after the young Michael Eavis had visited the Bath Blues Festival earlier in the Summer. He was suitably impressed. He decided he wanted one of his own.
Perhaps the only mystery is how a person like Michael Eavis came to be at the Bath Blues Festival in the first place. He was a church-goer, a Methodist. He was also a dairy farmer, working the land that had been worked by his family since 1894. I imagine that his background had been severe; or strict, at least. I imagine that he would have been a cautious man – cautious and practical – being from hardy, hard-working Yeoman stock. So how come he was at this festival? That's easy. He hopped the fence.
Well no: he didn't really hop the fence. But the fences had come down, and he walked in for free. I only wanted to say that because it became a feature of my stay at Pilton this year, watching the countless hordes hopping over the fences. It was nice to think that – though he didn't actually hop the fence himself – Michael Eavis had actually blagged his way into his first festival.
He was 35 years old.
Anyway, he came away from this festival in love with the whole thing. The light and colour of the scene must have impressed him, probably because it did contrast so severely with his own background. He'd never seen hippies before. He'd never seen clothes like that before. Here we have a bunch of people having fun. A bunch of people ideologically opposed to the very work-ethic he'd been brought up to worship, dressed in flowing robes, with patchwork clothes and dangly hair-do's. Many of them would have been dancing. Some of them, indeed, may have been dancing naked. Dancing naked was the thing to do if you were a hippie. On top of which, he loved the music. Actually he'd always loved the music. He played Radio One to his cows, and had made a record himself many years before: a 75, which he refuses to let anyone hear. But it crossed his mind that here might be a way of making money, to supplement the income from the farm. So he set out to recreate some of the ingredients on his own land. He booked the Kinks to headline the show, in September that year. In the end they backed out, and Marc Bolan and T. Rex played instead.
The show was not a great success. Only 2,500 people turned up. And Jimi Hendrix had just died, so there was a kind of gloom over the event, an atmosphere of mourning. But Eavis provided free milk, and the proceedings must have gone smoothly enough for him to think that it wasn't such an unmitigated disaster. He must have thought that since he was to host a similar event the following year. And that subsequent event has since become a legend.
According to the official programme of the 1997 festival, it was called the Glastonbury Fayre, and held over the solstice period in June 1971. I said it was a similar event. It was similar in that bands played and hippies attended. But in every other way it was entirely dissimilar. It was one of the earliest free festivals.
This second festival was Andrew Kerr's idea. Kerr had been the personal assistant of Randolph Churchill from 1959 until his death in 1968. After that he became a free-spirit, a hippie. I met him. He came to visit me in my van. He's a dapper little chap, not much younger than my Dad, but a Universe away in terms of his attitudes. Very sprightly, very sparkly, very alive.
He isn't "little" really. He's 5' 10". I only said that because he reminds me of my Dad, and my Dad is little. And also because "dapper little chap" as a phrase suits him. Anyway, it sounds better than "a dapper medium-sized chap".
We met up so that he could correct some of the errors which have accumulated around the event over the years. There's been a number of official histories written. Not one of the writers took the trouble to consult with Andrew Kerr.
The first thing he told me was that the spelling was wrong. All the books I consulted spelled it the same way: as "Glastonbury Fayre".
"It was Fair," he said to me: "F-A-I-R. Glastonbury Fair."
He'd gone to the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, he told me, and had been appalled at the rank commercialism of the event. It was in his Rover driving back that it had occurred to him that he wanted to create a festival of his own. The car was full of people, and he started telling them of his idea. He said, "well it's definitely not going to be like the other festivals. We've got to have a festival that's not a hype, that is a celebration of life and gives respect to the environment."
He'd come by what he described as "a little money". I expect it was quite a large sum of money by my standards, but a little money by the standards of those circles he moved around in. He'd been reading the New Testament. "Give all that you have and follow me," it said. So he decided to do that. He decided to give his money away in the form of a free festival.
"Something was kind of inside me over this period," he says to me now, "and I will definitely not say that it was to do with drugs."
So, together with Arabella Churchill (Randolph's daughter) and a number of other people, he formed Solstice Capers Ltd., in order to execute his fantasy. That's when the festival was planned to take place: Summer Solstice the following year.
Well I was interested in this. I was interested in how the cult of the Solstice began. I mean, it's such a commonplace now. Almost a whole generation have grown up to recognise its significance. It has become something of a tradition. But back then, when Andrew Kerr was planning his event, there was no such tradition. I was hoping for some mystical revelation, of the kind that Ubi Dwyer had had, before the Windsor Free, or Wally Hope before Stonehenge. But actually he'd read it in a book. It was The View Over Atlantis by John Michell, a very influential book amongst the hippies at the time. But it was definitely revelations he was looking for.
And his first thought, in fact, had been to hold it at Stonehenge, on a round stage. It was only later, in the wake of Michael Eavis' mini-festival, that he considered Pilton and opted for the pyramid.
Jimi Hendrix was asked to play. "I'll be there," he said. But, of course, he never lived to fulfil that promise. However, the World Première of Rainbow Bridge, Hendrix' film, took place at the festival. So perhaps he was there in other ways.
By now someone had suggested that Kerr approach Michael Eavis, and an appointment was made. The day before, however, Kerr climbed Glastonbury Tor, along with the usual carload of people. They spent the night there. Someone offered him an oatcake. That was Bill Harkin, later to design the pyramid stage. He stayed up all night – "the excitement of the occasion prevented me from sleeping" – and in the morning he went over to visit Eavis.
There was no rainbow, note. This is one of the myths that he wanted me to clear up. He did not see a rainbow over Worthy Farm from Glastonbury Tor, as previous histories have stated it. The rainbow came later.
So, arriving in Pilton Village, and parking up, he met Michael Eavis for the first time.
His first impression was that Eavis's face was shining. "Open, genuine, blazing, out-going": these were the adjectives he used to describe the young Michael Eavis that day.
Kerr told the farmer of his plan, and offered to pay for the use of the land. "We don't have much money, but we'll pay what we can," he said.
And Eavis didn't even think about it. He just said yes.
"It was the most blessed thing in my life," says Kerr now. "The chance to live out a dream, a really crazy dream."
I met Michael Eavis too, a little before I met Andrew Kerr. It was Michael Eavis who gave me Kerr's address. I interviewed him at Worthy Farm, in his office: the same office from which he runs the festival every year. It's tiny, not much bigger than your average toilet, and packed with files, as well as a desk and two chairs, a computer, telephones, notice boards, all crammed in there, like a pile of junk stuffed precariously into a cupboard. It seemed extraordinary to think that, year after year, that huge event has emerged from this tiny space.
What puzzled me was why Eavis had gone along with Kerr's idea. He wasn't exactly going to make his fortune. He was a straight-laced Somerset farmer, and a Christian to boot. He didn't even drink or smoke cigarettes, let alone go along with the excesses of the hippies who came along with Andrew Kerr to invade his farmhouse that year.
"That's a good question," Eavis said. "I'm puzzled about this as well. But I had an affinity with the hippies. I mean, I can always talk to hippies, anywhere I go. Maybe it's that I get more of a dialogue with these people than I do with a lot of other people. But it was all very romantic at the time. It was a very romantic thing to be doing, all lovey-dovey, and I was in love."
Des told me a good story. He said he was driving around the back lanes near Pilton one year, just after the festival, when he came across Michael Eavis, carrying a plastic bag, and scouring around the hedgerows.
"What are you up to, Michael?" he asked.
And Michael showed him what was in the bag. It was human excrement. Apparently one of the local farmers had told him that he would object to the festival unless Michael did this: unless he went round the hedgerows himself to collect the shit. He was not allowed to get contractors in to do the work. He had to do it himself. And such was his dedication to the festival that he had actually agreed. Maybe it was the same spirit that had urged him to accept Andrew Kerr's proposal all those years before.
Anyway, whatever the reason, Worthy farm soon became the stomping ground for the counter-cultural elite of the time. Kerr sold up his house on the Thames at Chiswick and moved into the farmhouse. And it was while he was entering the farm gates that first time that he saw the rainbow spanning the house.
All sorts of people were coming and going during the nine months leading up to the festival. Hawkwind practised in the barn, as did the Pink Fairies. The cast of Hair turned up. Members of the Grateful Dead. Friends of John Lennon. Some thieves and plenty of phonies. Even a guru or two. Some of them had peculiar aliases, like Zee and Toad. It was the Beautiful People, hair and floral dresses wafting in the breeze, odorous with patchouli oil. Headbands and sandals. Flappy flares. Waistcoats. Scarves. Frilly shirts. The smell of hemp and garlic. I'm certain they would have indulged in late-night philosophical conversations under the influence of some high-grade stimulants. Eavis was just tending his herd, letting them get on with it. But there they were, in all their full-blown hippie splendour, talking heaven down from the stars, the Lords and Ladies of the revolution.
What the local people thought about this hippie invasion in the months preceding the festival is not on record. The police were fairly sanguine about it, however. Kerr had to speak to them to make arrangements about traffic flow and access and the rest, and a number of officers came to see him at the farmhouse. In order to get to Kerr's room they had to pass through Bill Harkin's room, which was full of people sitting on the floor blowing chillums. So they tip-toed gingerly through that, like it was an obstacle course. As Kerr stood up from his desk to greet them he glanced out of the window. He was confronted with the sight of a naked female draped against the wheel of a cart which was parked in the middle of the lawn outside. And there, in front of her, "with a lazy-lob on" (it's a naval term), dancing and wobbling his buttocks about, completely naked, performing what looked like some sort of magical-sex rite, was the High Priest. Yes, the High Priest; the same High Priest we've met before. He was obviously practising to be a High Priest even then. Kerr was embarrassed. He didn't know what to do. The policemen just leaned over to get a better view through the window, and spluttered with laughter. After that they had to pick their way back through the chillum obstacle course in Bill Harkin's room again. No one had moved an inch.
Later they said, "we know they're all smoking pot. But we're not interested in you lot. It's the big boys we're after." They were West Country policemen. A different breed in those days.
The actual festival, the following year, was a high-camp hippie to-do. Kerr had planned it "in the medieval tradition, with music, dance, poetry, theatre, lights and the opportunity for spontaneous entertainment." When he introduced the bands to the audience he said:
"Glastonbury is a place far too beautiful for yet another rock festival. If the festival has a specific intention it is to create an increase of awareness in the power of the Universe, a heightening of consciousness and a recognition of our place in the function of this our tired and molested planet. We have spent too long telling the Universe to shut up, we must search for the humility to listen. The Earth is groaning for contact with our ears and eyes. Universal awareness touches gently at our shoulders. We are creators being created and we must prove our worth."
Bill Harkin designed the Pyramid stage, one tenth the size of the Great Pyramid itself. It was built out of scaffolding covered with expanded metal and plastic sheeting, and placed on a blind spring, near the so-called Michael-line which joins Glastonbury to Stonehenge, in a natural amphitheatre. Kerr dowsed the spot himself. It was certainly a spectacular structure. Officially the festival ran from the 20th to the 24th of June, but what with early arrivals, and late departures, actually managed to stretch out for over a week. The acts were Hawkwind, Traffic, Melanie, Fairport Convention and David Bowie. The Grateful Dead were supposed to have turned up, but never did. 12,000-15,000 people attended.
So far, so good. A fairly typical rock festival at the time. But it was also a celebration of this peculiar new culture. And that's where things seemed to get a little crazy.
I used the expression "high-camp" to describe it earlier. That's because I've seen the photographs. There's something theatrical about the whole event. People are decidedly in costume. The usual things: flowery robes and Afghan coats and bangles and beads and dodgy-looking hair-do's. But there's an air of play-acting about the scenes that are presented to you, a feeling of "look at me". One oft-used photograph shows a bunch of people worshipping the rising Solstice Sun. Their hands are all raised in the air, and one or two are kneeling. Is it ecstasy? Or just amateur dramatics? I'd had the same feeling on that traffic island at the solstice this year. A bunch of people play-acting for the media.
Well why not? By 1971 the media were all-powerful, as they are now. Why not play them at their own game by adopting costumes - or no clothing at all - and posing in order to set your own agenda?
The photographer was a freelance at the time, working for various West Country publications. He's virtually made a living out of re-cycling Festival memorabilia ever since. He just happened to turn up at the festival. His name is Brian Walker. There's another photograph of his which appears regularly, and which he has re-sold many times. The magazines always pick the same sets of photographs it seems. It's of three men in a naked embrace, with a Gay Liberation Front poster beside them. "Right On!" the poster says. But the picture editors usually crop the picture. In the full version there's a heterosexual couple looking at them. And their eyes are a picture: a mixture of surprise and distaste. You forget that so much of this was actually very new at the time.
One day Kerr was talking to the men from the Milk Marketing Board. They were running a milk stall on site. Suddenly someone called Gyp turned the corner. He was this classically beautiful man, with a profusion of hair, shrouded in a cape, with a top hat and high boots. Kerr considered him a nuisance and was hoping he wouldn't come over to talk. But he did.
"Hi," he said. "Do you like my clothes? But they are wonderful."
At which point he raised the cape above his head to reveal that he was only wearing the boots and a shirt underneath.
"Go away Gyp," said Kerr.
But it broke the ice with the Milk Marketing Board men. They were cackling with laughter. They couldn't contain themselves.
That night Gyp went into the village and picked someone's prize Gladioli. Then he rang on the door.
"Look," he said, when the woman answered it, "I've brought you these beautiful flowers."
So there was some suspicion amongst the villagers, naturally. Most of them had no idea what to make of it at all. One farm manager accused the hippies of trampling crops, damaging hedges and turning a field into an open lavatory. People were kept awake by the noise, and complained to the local vicar. The vicar's wife said, "but what can he do about controlling pop music which continues into the early hours?" Eavis tried to impose a 12 o'clock curfew, but the hippies always managed to stretch things out. On one occasion he could clearly be seen through the back-lit plastic sheeting chasing the stage manager about, trying to get the music turned off. And the police warned the festival-goers not to walk around naked in public places. Chief Inspector Lewis Clark said, "if people were trying to get into a place with no clothes on we would send them back because it could annoy the residents." And then he added, darkly, "there are laws concerning nude persons in a public place."
The Sun's account is the best. "LOVE IN THE MUD ORGY" says the headline. And then it goes on to describe a 20 year old girl making love to a series of men in a mud pool:
"A police spokesman said, 'It was an amazing sight. Our men saw this girl making love in the mud with one man, then several others joined in.
'About a thousand people stood by and watched.
'We're not interested in that sort of thing – they weren't annoying anyone or causing any offence as far as we know.'
Later, 'Magic Michael', a 24 year old hippie from a Welsh commune, danced naked on stage for an hour to the accompaniment of bongo drums and frenzied squeals."
Which begs the question, really, of why the Police didn't arrest "Magic Michael"?
In memory of
29 November 1933 – 6 October 2014
- Andrew Kerr - obituary - Telegraph
Andrew Kerr was an ex-public school dropout whose New Age idealism inspired the original 1971 'Glastonbury Fayre'
- Andrew Kerr, writer and festival organiser: The man who helped make Glastonbury Festival a stunning
At Midsummer in 1971 a group of 12,000 people gathered on fields at Pilton in Somerset for the Glastonbury Fair, watching musical acts that included David Bowie, Arthur Brown and Hawkwind.
- Andrew Kerr. Glastonbury Festival Co-founder. November 29, 1933 - October 6, 2014. Aged 80 | Obituar
ALONGSIDE Michael Eavis and Arabella Churchill, Andrew Kerr organised the first Glastonbury Fair in 1971, paving the way for the world-famous Glastonbury Festival.
- Glastonbury Co-Founder Andrew Kerr Dies
Andrew Kerr, who helped organize the first Glastonbury in 1971, died after a lengthy illness.
- Andrew Kerr | The Times
One of the founding fathers of the Glastonbury festival whose vision of a new-age gathering in 1971 attracted an audience of just 12,000
© 2014 Christopher James Stone