The Stonehenge Free Festival ran throughout June in the field opposite the monument and its peak was the solstice on the 21st. The gathering was unlicensed, unpoliced and quite unbelievable. It may have had vague links with the Glastonbury spectacular but, other than the presence of rock bands, there was almost no similarity.
No tickets, no entrance fee (the clue’s in the name I guess), the only things any attendee need pay for were food and drugs. Ah, yes – drugs. It is no great exaggeration to say this event was less a music festival and more a celebration of any and every narcotic available to humankind. Indeed, the sight which greeted my arrival was a large, tarpaulin tent emblazoned with the advertisement ‘Dangerous Drugs For Sale’. Curiosity roused I tramped over and was rewarded with the vision of a dreadlocked white man, stripped to the waist, cross legged before two planks. If he had eaten at any time in the preceding year it didn’t show. His huge pupils bulged from a sunken skull and darted as he weighed, bagged and distributed powders and herbs to a large, willing customer base. In broad daylight and with great efficiency, he exchanged packets for crumpled notes which he added to a brick-sized wedge in his combat trousers. I stood and watched this merchant of medicine for a full half hour – my eyes as wide as his, although mine were expanded by sheer amazement alone.
Although, as I moved across the site, he became just one member of the staggering cast that made up the festival’s populace. Hell’s Angels grouped around choppers and smoked giant chillums. Semi naked girls danced by seething cooking pots and shouted about mushrooms. Punks inhaled white dust off the bonnet of a van. Wardrobes with giant woofers fitted to their backs, powered by truck batteries thumped out dub reggae and phasing psychedelia. It was akin to strolling through a medieval village with an unattended modern pharmacy and a Record and Tape Exchange. I stopped at a caravan and bought a fried egg sandwich.
It is pointless to discuss the morality of this carnival. Nobody was having the drugs forced upon them, I witnessed no violence and everyone was present by their own choice. Besides, the dubious moral standards of others would be forced on the festival soon enough. It doesn’t really matter whether this party was a good thing or a bad thing – and it would be stupidly glib to make that call, even there in its midst. What matters, to me at least, was its sociology – the incredible structure of a large group of people living in the absence of rules. One would imagine anarchy to be relentless threat and savagery, but it struck me this was a close approximation to a lawless community and it operated quite successfully that way. Even at 19, I found that surprising, intriguing and rather impressive.
But this wasn’t Utopia, not by a long way, and I still wonder who owned the cars which burned through the night (smack dealers was the official line) and whether the dusty children I saw running about one camp were really enjoying an appropriate upbringing. But it was wild, it was otherworldly and it was tremendously exciting. Clearly, many folk were making a goodly amount of cold hard cash – and to that extent this community wasn’t quite as anti-establishment as it aspired to be. Amusingly, my companion brought a wholesale box of king size cigarette papers with him, imagining the site would be running short and he would make a handsome profit! His plan didn’t really work out, so we remained untouched by the corrupting hand of capitalism.
There were bands of course. I recall Hawkwind and Wishbone Ash and countless other nameless groupings, jamming and riffing on improvised stages. But for some reason, my recollection of these shows is a little hazy. Subsequent bootlegs would suggest this wasn’t really the place to catch an act turning in a searingly accomplished set, but that wasn’t the point. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the point was to catch a glimpse of an attitude and a lifestyle that had risen in the late sixties, mutated in the seventies and was about to be extinguished by the authoritarian eighties. And I’m glad I did, because it left an indelible mark on me. Not long after, I spent some time travelling with the Peace Convoy and while the festival would never take place again, I did manage to absorb some more of its atmosphere there.
I’m glad I was only 19 in 1984 when the last free festival was held on Salisbury Plain, opposite the ancient stones just off the A303. Because if I attended today, it would scare the runes out of me.
Magnus Shaw – December 2014
(This article originally appeared on an older version of the Rocking Vicar website in 2010.)