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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, June 13, 2016

Festivalized- buy this book!

Big thanks to John Serpico. Photo shows Root Boot at Stonehenge in 1984, not the Poison Girls in 1979 - as the original photo by Big Steve confusingly said. 

Music, Politics and Alternative Culture
Ian Abrahams and Bridget Wishart

This book is an essential purchase. Even a vital purchase. Buy this book here. Read it. Stop reading it…the resulting excess of sorrow will make you laugh while the simultaneous excess of joy will make you weep. Following this road of excess will lead you to the free festival of wisdom. Because as Mr. Blake once said “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

I could go on to fill this whole review of ‘Festivalized’ with William Blake quotes, but I won’t. For any one who ever went to a free festival this book will evoke a host of powerful memories. Freaks, hippies, Hells Angels, punks, travellers, squatters, peace campers and ravers- all are here in a psychedelic collage woven from the accounts of over 40 participants.

But if you weren’t there, if the scent of wood smoke doesn’t trigger acid flashbacks, what does ‘Festivalized’ have to offer? The most recent reason I can give is provided by Anthony Barnett who  argues that the pressure for the UK to leave the EU comes overwhelmingly from England. The anti-EU movement, Barnett says, has gained traction because unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, England does not have its own devolved parliament. As he says “England’s frustrated desire for democracy has turned it against the EU rather than the real culprit, the British state.”

In Scotland the same frustrated desire for democracy was able to express itself through a demand for independence. The British state offered a devolved Scottish parliament as a substitute. The demand for independence did not fade away though and had to be bought-off again in 2014 by an offer of a more powerful devolved parliament. Significantly, the Scots have tried to distinguish their nationalism from ’blood and soil’ nationalism through an emphasis on the cultural and civic distinctiveness of Scotland - that Scottishness is an identity of choice rather than one given by place of birth.

For people living in England, it is much harder to disentangle Englishness from Britishness. This makes it more difficult to create an English identity which is not entangled with the reactionary myths of Empire. The Scots, Welsh and Irish all contributed to the British Empire, but can claim ‘the English made us do it’. So long as no distinction between Englishness and Britishness is made,  Englishness remains reactionary rather than liberating.

If a post-imperial English identity existed, what would it look like? The outlines of an alternative England began to emerge in the 1960s, partly through a revolution in popular culture. As a key text of the time, Jeff Nuttall’s book ’Bomb Culture’ (1968) explained, the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1963 shocked his post-war generation into the realisation that, at any moment, everything in their world which seemed so solid could in an instant be vaporised and turned into radioactive air.

As the 1970s got underway, the ‘Bomb Culture’ explosion gave rise to many fragments. One -see ‘Radical Technology’ (1976, edited by Geoffrey Boyle and Peter Harper)- evolved into the Green movement. Another was the free-festival movement.

As Andy Roberts ( Albion Dreaming, 2008, p. 155) put it

Free festival were a response to a variety of emerging needs within the counter-culture. Night clubs and commercial festivals did not appeal to the sensibilities of acid sensitized hippies  who were questioning ideas of profit and control; wanting to be more  than just consumers of what the entertainment industry produced. There was a demand for events self-generated by the counter-culture , which would provide hippies with gatherings where they could live out there life-style with like minded people in a spirit of celebration and purpose. Another factor in the development of the counter-culture was the growth of communes  and the squatting movement in London. By necessity this had led to a more communal way of life; who, streets in London had been colonized by squatters and it was a natural progression from community in the cities to communality in the countryside.

The Albion of Andy Robert’s book is William Blake’s Albion (2008, p.8). Although Blake’s Albion encompassed the whole of Britain, in the same way that his contemporary Robert Burns’ poetry encompassed universal themes from a Scottish perspective , so Blake’s poetry encompassed universal themes from an English one. [Blake 1757-1827, Burns 1759-1796]

As ‘Festivalized’ shows, the countryside of the free-festival movement was the English countryside. Its Albion was an alternative England and the free-festivals by their very existence rejoiced in Blake’s vision of the British Empire’s end.

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov'ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry'd,
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressor's scourge.
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream,
Singing, 'The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.'
[William Blake, ‘America: A Prophecy’]

But as Philip K Dick knew (VALIS, 1981) and the free-festival movement discovered, the Empire never ended. For the British state in the 1980s and 90s, the alternative England of the counter-culture’s Albion Free State, the post-imperial Englishness of the free-festival movement were a threat to the established order and so had to be eliminated.

Although mentioned only in passing by Steve Lake of Zounds in ‘Festivalized (2015, pp 107-110),  The Mob, a free-festival/ punk crossover group from Somerset, anticipated what was to happen with their song ‘Witch Hunt’ released in 1980.

Stubbing out progress where seeds are sown
Killing off anything that's not quite known
Sitting around in a nice safe home
Waiting for the witch hunt
Idle plans for the idol rich
Knitting the economy, not dropping a stitch
Destroying anything that doesn't quite fit
Waiting for the witch hunt
Still living with the English fear
Waiting for the witch hunt here
Still living with the English fear
Waiting for the witch hunt here
Changing your course for another way
You better stop that or be willing to pay
Never mind son, you'll come around some day
Under pressure from the witch hunt
Killing off anything that’s not quite known
Stubbing out progress where the seeds are sown
[The Mob, Witch Hunt, 1980]

Under pressure from the British state’s witch hunt, progress towards an alternative Englishness was all but stubbed out.
It is perhaps only now, as the British state writhes on the horns of the European dilemma, that we can see what was lost. Without the existence of alternative forms of Englishness, England’s frustrated desire for democracy has become regressive.

There is no future in Ukip’s vision of England. In the absence of any alternative visions of Albion, Ukip’s dreaming will become a nightmare from which we cannot wake. Yet, as ‘Festivalized’ shows, when liberated from the single vision of Empire’s sleep, hundreds of thousands of English people were able to create the antithesis of Ukip’s England.

Yes, as ‘Festivalized’ also shows, under increasing pressure from the British state it became impossible to sustain the free-festival movement. But the very fact of its emergence and existence shows that England already has within itself the dream of a time it must now possess in order to actually live it.

Clifford Harper, illustration for Undercurrents magazine, No. 20, February-March 1977


Anonymous John Serpico said...

Hi Alistair. I know who the band are in the photo at the top of the article and no, of course it's not Poison Girls. They were called Root Boot, and they played at Stonehenge in '84. I remember watching them on a hot, sunny afternoon playing a kind of white reggae style of music, a bit like the Police in some ways. They were peroxide blonde as well, just like the Police.
A totally new band to me at the time and I never heard anything about them again. I thought they were actually very good. I can recall snatches of their lyrics, including such lines as "Why must we always be running from the Law?" and a title of one of their songs being 'Sunday joint', with its double entendre, of course.
I remember the vocalist (the guy in the pink jumpsuit, in the photo) leaping from the stage at one point and down into the audience; then climbing back up onto the stage and saying "And I haven't even done any drugs yet!" And in our stoned ambience it was quite an amusing thing to witness because it looked like he was leaping out from a cinema screen, like a 3D effect.
So there go. Another mystery of life solved for you. Take care.

5:18 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks John Serpico - most appreciated. Have now upadted photo text.

1:45 pm  
Blogger John Serpico said...

Oh, and I remember at Stonehenge that year Spirits In The Material World by The Police was being played over the PA from the main stage and I can recall thinking, isn't there anything better that could be played? And then Root Boot came on and they played a song called 'Put a Boot Into Babylon' which seemed much more conducive to the general undercurrent of the festival...

9:21 pm  

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