The British Festival Phenomenon

Summer and music festivals are closely linked in the British psyche. Come rain or shine (and more often than not it is rain) thousands of excited music fans descend upon what for the rest of the year are innocuous fields to see the biggest stars of the day, as well as exciting new artists, perform at a weekend of musical excellence.

British music festivals have their roots in the American hippy counterculture of the 1960s which spawned festivals like the cultural icon Woodstock. These events, alongside their ethos, quickly made their way over to Britain, with perhaps the first major British music festival recognisable to today’s events being the Isle of Wight Festival in 1968, which was headlined by American band Jefferson Airplane, but also featured British rock artists like The Move, Smile and Tyrannosaurus Rex, who would go onto headline the first festival at Worthy Farm in Somerset (which would go on to become Glastonbury) in 1970, by then renamed T. Rex. David Bowie performing the following year signalled that these events would become the showcases for Britain’s biggest rising and successful musical stars.

Glastonbury is probably the most famous of these, taking place fairly regularly (albeit with fallow years) since the 1980s. Throughout the decades it has remained the centre of British music performance culture. An obvious example of its significance was the 1994 festival, when, at the pinnacle of Britpop, Oasis, Blur and Pulp all took to the stage, capturing a British musical phenomenon in one weekend. Away from Glastonbury, numerous festivals take place every year across the UK. Reading and Leeds in August provide a more rock and alternative angle on the British music scene, whilst the Isle of Wight Festival made its return in 2002 with British icons ranging from The Rolling Stones and David Bowie to Boy George and Paloma Faith having performed over the years. The festival scene even reached Norwich in 2015, with Radio 1’s Big Weekend bringing the likes of Muse and Taylor Swift to Earlham Park.

The place of festivals in British culture goes beyond music though. They originated in the left-leaning youth culture of the 1960s and their political significance has never faded away. Glastonbury in particular has seen key political moments in recent years, such as the cheers of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” which greeted the then Labour leader on his appearance in 2017 highlighting his popularity with many young Brits. That was a British cultural moment as much as the musical stars.

This year’s Glastonbury, which took place last month after two years off due to COVID-19, showed that festival culture is as glowing as ever in Britain. Some of the country’s biggest stars took to the stage, from Sam Fender to Paul McCartney, whilst Greta Thunberg’s appearance on the Pyramid Stage continued the festival’s tradition as a political arena. It was a melting pot of Britain, both cultural and political, and it is that essence which makes music festivals so important to this country.

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Matthew Stothard

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August 2022
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