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In 1970, Methodist dairy farmer Michael Eavis accidentally founded what would become the world’s greatest music festival. Now approaching its 50th anniversary, we take a look back at the highs, lows and mud-caked years of Glastonbury.
G lastonbury was over almost before it began. In September 1970, Michael Eavis decided to stage his own outdoor concert. He had the room – 150 acres of prime Somerset farmland. What he didn’t have was any experience of the music business.
Blessed with the same blind optimism which a few years earlier had seen him take out a bank loan to save the family farm, Eavis booked an impressive line-up. Unfortunately, the headliners failed to turn up.
“The Kinks were going to play,” Eavis later recalled. “But they pulled out because they rightly thought we were amateurs.” They weren’t the only ones to bail. While that very first festival had a 5,000 capacity, just 1,500 were willing to part with the £1 entrance fee which famously included free milk.
This year, the tickets cost £248 and all 175,000 were snapped up within half an hour of them going on sale. Glastonbury and Eavis have become an institution and demand will be even higher for next year’s 50th anniversary event, which will be both a celebration of music and the man who started it all.
“The whole thing has always been very homegrown and everybody knows who we are and what we stand for, and we’re not ripping people off,” Eavis told the Guardian. “I like to think that I have passed that social conscience on to subsequent generations.”
Even in the early, slightly shambolic days when the main stage was made from corrugated iron, Glastonbury has always been a little different to other festivals. An early supporter of CND, it has always had a political bent and with a commitment to various charities it pays its acts much less than other festivals.
“We probably pay them one per cent of what they would get from playing any of the other major British festivals,” says Eavis’ daughter Emily, who is now co-organiser.
“We’re really grateful for the bands we get because when they come here they’re basically doing it for fun and for the love of it.”
And while this year the Pyramid Stage will be packed as the sun goes down on headline sets from the Killers, the Cure and Stormzy, it’s not just the music they come for. They also come in the hope of stumbling across the secret underground piano bar where Eavis sings each year or finding enlightenment in the hedonistic fields of Shangri-La.
Glastonbury hasn’t always been peace and love though. As the festival grew, Eavis regularly found himself pitched against the local authority. In the 1990s, following a succession of licensing breaches and clashes between New Age travellers and onsite security, Eavis was given an ultimatum – call in the professionals or close the festival down.
He opted for the former, but even the giant metal super fence can’t keep out the rain and roughly every 10 years, Glastonbury becomes one giant mud bath requiring every single bit of wood chip in the south of England just to keep the site moving.
“I drove round the whole site last night,” he said during the 2016 downpour. “It took right up until 4.30am and the sun was up and there were just thousands of happy people with smiles on their faces despite the adverse conditions. It is extraordinary. I do not know how they do it, but they love it so much.”
While Eavis is still very much the heart of the festival, it’s Emily along with her husband Nick Dewey who now run the show. It was they who brought the likes of Jay-Z, Beyonce and Kanye West to the fields of Worthy Farm, a move which outraged some festival stalwarts, including Noel Gallagher who famously said, ‘I’m not having hip hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong’.
“Every year when we announce who’s playing at Glastonbury, there are complaints and often outrage,” wrote Emily in a rare editorial for the Guardian. “Scrutiny of our headliners has become something of a national pastime. We even had it in in 1984 when we booked the Smiths because people wanted Hawkwind again!
“We try to keep the line-up as varied as possible. That’s the thing about Glastonbury – it’s so diverse, not just one type of music.”
Eavis has always been aware that if Glastonbury is to survive it has to stay relevant and there are talks of launching a new event called the Variety Bazaar.
“The festival is subject to fashion – it could come and go in a blink, 200,000 people could decide it’s not fashionable anymore.”
It seems unlikely, but if it does, it will have been quite a ride.