Today, a handful of music festivals hold hegemony over the bulk of the concert-going public. In the UK, Glastonbury is king; in the US, Coachella dwarfs even the most established festivals.
But it wasn’t always this way. Especially throughout the 1960s and ’70s when festivals were still a relatively new phenomenon, there were countless small-scale or free events which, despite their lack of budget, managed not only to bag performances by the biggest names in rock music but to attract dedicated audiences.
We’ve trawled the archives to bring you a selection of festivals lost to the mists of time. In their heyday, these five events were essential features of the musical landscape, offering a stage to established and emerging artists alike. For whatever reason, the festivals listed below failed to endure, collapsing under the weight of controversy, public disorder or just plain old lack of interest. The important thing is that they are remembered by those who were there.
Five forgotten music festivals:
Harlem Cultural Festival
The 1960s was one of the most turbulent decades in Harlem’s history, one that saw shocking levels of police brutality and numerous race riots, including those of 1964, which were sparked after a white off-duty police officer shot and killed a Black teenager. Six years later, Harlem would find itself hosting one of the most important and shamefully ignored music festivals of all time, The Harlem Cultural Festival.
Organised by the St. Kitts-born singer and actor Tony Lawrence, the Harlem Cultural Festival quickly established itself as one of the most politically and culturally significant stages for Black artists in America. B.B. King, Mongo Santamaría, David Ruffin, the Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Chuck Jackson all took to The Harlem Cultural Festival stage. In 1968, around 300,000 people attended the event, making HCF’s numbers around those of Woodstock. You’ll be pleased to hear that the Harlem Cultural Festival is set to make a comeback in 2023.
The Fantasy Fair
Originally planned as a benefit concert for the Hunters Point Child Care Center, the Fantasy Fair, held at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on top of Mount Tamalpais State Park, expanded into a two-day event after organisers managed to secure an incredible lineup of acts consisting of Dionne Warwick, Canned Heat, The 5th Dimension, The Grass Roots, Captain Beefheart, Country Joe and the Fish, and The Byrds.
But the biggest draw was a relatively new LA group known as The Doors, who had just released their hit record ‘Light My Fire’. Little over a month after Jim Morrison and company performed the track for the Fantasy Fair crowd, ‘Light My Fire’ landed the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane: pretty much all of the iconic artists of the 1960s performed at Fantasy Fair. Indeed, a number of bands treated the event as a warm-up for the Monetary Pop Festival, which was held just a week after.
The Festival of Flower Children
Despite being held during the height of the Summer of Love, the Festival of Flower Children in Woburn Abbey is now almost entirely forgotten. The event took place over the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1967 and was essential in helping Britain’s hippie festivals to flourish. The Sunday Times reported that over 25,000 festival-goers travelled from all over Europe to attend what was regarded as the British Monterey Pop Festival.
The three-day lineup featured a range of British and international acts, including Bee Gees, Blossom Toes, Breakthru, Dantalion’s Chariot, Denny Laine, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Family, Small Faces, The Big Roll Band, The Dream, The Jeff Beck Group, The Marmalade, The Syn, Tintern Abbey, Tomorrow, and Zoot Money. The artists performed under the watchful eye of the Duke of Bedford, who pocketed £5,000 for providing the gardens of his stately home for the venue. Anyone who’s ever forked out £300 for a Glastonbury ticket will wince to hear that the 25,00 people who attended the Festival of Flower Children paid just £1 for a day ticket and £30 for the full three days.
Bath Festival of Blues
The first Bath Blues Festival was held in 1969 and featured the creme de la creme of British blues and prog artists, as well as a few pop outfits. The original 1969 lineup featured co-headliners Led Zeppelin, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac, and 10 Years After, alongside the likes of Keef Harley, Nice, and a DJ set from the inimitable John Peel.
The 1969 Bath Blues Festival took place in the heart of the city, later moving to nearby Shepton Mallet in 1970. While the expanded festival ground allowed for larger numbers to gather, the reduced single-stage set-up led to lengthy waits as bands hauled their equipment on stage. The 1969 event, which attracted around 12,000 audience members, is generally remembered more fondly, with a particular highlight being Jimmy Page’s violin bow solo. It didn’t even rain. Unheard of.
Held in Port Eliot, Cornwall between 1981 and 1986, the Elephant Fayre combined music, theatre and visual arts, bringing audiences performances by some of the biggest names in rock reggae, folk and punk, including The Cure, The Fall and The Banshees. Nestled in the idyllic grounds of the Port Eliot Estate, Elephant Fayre gained a reputation as one of the most eclectic and immersive festivals of the 1980s, boasting a giant wooden elephant which could be accessed via an internal ladder.
Unfortunately, Elephant Fayre’s success was also its downfall. As the event got bigger and bigger, violence and extreme drug use became more common, forcing organisers to close down the event in 1986. The 1970s had been a golden age for UK free festivals like the Fayre. Unfortunately, the government became much less tolerant in the 1980s, with new public order acts banning mass gatherings on public land. Many new-age travellers had been radicalised by their experience at the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’, in which Wilshire Police successfully prevented the so-called ‘Peace Convoy’ from setting up the Stonehenge Free Festival on land a tract of Wiltshire farmland. By 1986, many of the original Peace Convoy members had cut ties with the increasingly violent community, meaning that, when 100 banned Convoyers invaded the Elephant Fayre site in 1986, things got ugly pretty quickly.