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Music

50 years on from when the Grateful Dead showed up in Wigan

@TomTaylorFO

On the sleeve of the Jack Kerouac novel On The Road, there is a testimony from Bob Dylan that reads: “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” The reason it had such an impact on the wayfaring troubadour who would soon become ‘The Voice of a Generation’ – beyond any other work of art that he had picked up to that stage – is because it took culture out on the road. No longer did art linger in the libraries and museums, it was out there seizing the zeitgeist—it made art popular, hence pop culture. 

This philosophy would be picked up by Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and the likes and taken a step further. As Wolfe once said, “The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” Thus, he set out on a wild tour bus with his merry brethren and would stop off at gatherings around the country where people would drink acid-laced Kool-Aid. Rock bands would also play—the Grateful Dead, of course, being one of them. Surely, the maddest trip that this mind-expanding band ever made was winding up in bloody Wigan of all places.

This northern English town on the banks of the River Douglas has a population of only 330,000. And it is, in short, a place that may well have even left Jack Kerouac himself lost for words. It might have been the town’s rugby players that Colin Welland was describing when he said, “Even Princess Di would think twice about getting too close to that lot,” but many cynical ‘grim up north’ folks have reflected the same sentiment to the little town itself.

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Not the Grateful Dead though—the Grateful Dead were bringing culture to the people and their wild trip took a drizzly turn as they arrived to rock the Greater Manchester town. 50 years ago today, back in 1972, the melon twisting musicians were backstage in Wigan when a festival compere announced: “For all our muddy friends, the Grateful Dead!” Thereafter, the Dead graced the drizzle-drenched crowd with a whopping 245 minute set at the legendary Bickershaw Festival. 

For the festival, fittingly, a Manchester businessman came together with a Wigan market trader and the soon-to-be-famous presenter Jeremy Beadle. For the festival, Beadle opted for a West Coast vibe and booked the likes of Captain Beefheart, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Country Joe McDonald alongside British acts like The Kinks and Donovan. However, the Dead’s set was the jewel in the crown. 

Amid the mucky masses in attendance that day were Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello. Strummer declared it his favourite concert and Costello later said that the dazzling five-hour journey unleashed by the Dead convinced him to start a band. That says a lot considering that the crowd were wading through a sea of mud, under a grey sky, in grey Wigan. And they were also joined by a swarm of locals who simply walked onto the festival site to watch the Dead after any sort of security essential dissolved into the mud. 

Unperturbed or perhaps unaware that the site was flooded – which was added to when the organisers simply emptied a huge water tank that a high dive act had used earlier – the Dead remained their rattling best. Beginning with ‘Truckin’’ the band blitzed through all of their hits to that day and just about everything else too as they amassed two sets. It was a show that enchanted the masses to such an extent that you’ll still hear echoes of fables about it in the lore of Wigan pub chatter. 

And the beauty is, it was recorded, and you can listen to it below. What’s more, there’s even some video footage out there, which you can also catch below. 

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