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My weekend at Bickershaw.
Bickershaw, ah , how that name stirs up the memories. 

       Yes I realize its not exactly an exotic name, in fact if it conjures up images for you of an ugly Lancashire mining village with one street and one pub , then you're spot on. But for three days in May 1972 , this was the location of one of the best Rock festivals I EVER attended. This was partly due to the fact that I was treated to some absolutely stunning performances by some the decades finest rock bands , but the reason I remember Bickershaw so well is mainly down  to the appalling weather and the crazy people who were with me. Oh ,and the fact it was the first time I ever saw the Grateful Dead .

Major event. 

   The main attraction of Bickershaw was of course the bands. I really wanted to see Captain Beefheart again following the wonderful Leicester concert I had witnessed earlier on in the year, Dr John was a major draw card, but most of all I desperately needed to see the Grateful Dead, who were and continue to be, my fave band of all time. Throw in the Incredible String Band, Family, Kinks and a half dozen other good bands and it was little wonder that I found myself in the back of a Bedford van on the motorway en route to a wet Lancashire mining village . 

THE CAST.
      Being an impoverished  student without the money to see the Dead at the Lyceum for  a series of shows, I was going the el cheapo route . A once off hit , so hopefully the band would be on form.  Not being able to persuade any college people with cars to go, I was sharing petrol costs with my friends Charlie, Ann, the Skull and the Other One. All of these folks were pretty crazy  in their various ways and the Other One was probably certifiable .

   Charlie was a frizzy ginger haired loveable rogue who I'd met somewhere in town , he was a very good guitar player, who never seemed to get it together enough to form a band. He was tall , thin and had a fine line in biting repartee. His attractive girlfriend Ann was American, a part time model at the art college who had no inhibitions  and was quite capable of doing almost any sort of crazy stunt without warning. The Skull was not really ALL that skull like, but he got his moniker from the combination of his cropped head and his habit of removing his frontal dentures on occasions which left considerable gaps in his front teeth.A real nutter in the grand British tradition.

   The Other One was ( we presumed) an acid casualty who had lost it some time ago. A sad case, he took forever to complete even the simplest of activities . This was due to his habit of making precise calculations and observing obsessive rituals which took excessive amounts of time over the simplest of tasks. He was also incapable of any sort of generosity, so whilst we folks were busy sharing out food, etc as was the custom in those times , he hoarded and kept his things to himself. This didn't exactly make him Mr Popularity, especially with Charlie, who brooded on it , and eventually his miserliness was to rebound on him in spades.

     We dubbed him The Other One, after the Dead song of that name, mainly because he seemed set  apart from the rest of the group. I realize now that he needed help , but at the time I was a callow youth of but 20 summers and I just had not enough empathy to spare for a casual acquaintance who was very hard to get to know. 

      Myself ?well, I was known as The Shark in those days and I think I deferred to Charlie & the Skull to some extent as they were older than me. Certainly I did tag along during the many visits to the local pub, as I felt that if I was separated from the main group I would never find them again. However, this would prove disastrous at  times as it would mean that I would miss some parts of sets by my favourite bands . 

Friday
       Passing the outskirts of Manchester on the motorway we noticed that the landscape was not particularly attractive, but we were sure that the festival site itself would be set in verdant English  countryside. We were of course, completely wrong in every aspect. Bickershaw could very accurately be described as a DUMP. One row of ugly semi detached and terraced council houses all finished off in grubby pebble dash , unpromisingly set in a treeless landscape of marshy low lying fields.  The sole pub was a stolid mid 50s number with little in the way of charisma . We were, however, to get to know it intimately over the course of the weekend and it did at least serve good beer . Of course, it had been raining on and off most of the way to the site.

We parked the van on the edge of a muddy field and wended our way to the main gates.

      Of course, muggins had already bought a ticket and I handed it over at the turnstile to a disinterested security guard, whereas the others breezed straight through without handing over their tickets. .They then got a pass out on the way out and promptly sold the tickets to ticket less punters at a discount. Drat!. It was all a portent of things to come.  By Sunday  the security force had vanished and everyone was free to come and go as they pleased.

      Friday night was cold and wet. I remember Hawkwindas being all thumping bass, endless space jams and Stacia undulating nicely in the nude during Silver Machine. She must have been frozen stiff !! No doubt she was insulated from the cold by whatever she had been ingesting earlier. 
Jonathon Kelly was one of those acts that should never have been booked for a big rock festival. Nice enough, but better in a small club. 

      I never did like Wishbone Ash all that much and I can't remember anything about their set. They did however , go down very well with the crowd . The twin guitar sound was what got em ! I think we went down the pub. Certainly there were big enough gaps between sets for one to walk over to the pub (which was packed to the gills at all times) endure the endless wait to get served ( we usually bought about three pints each to avoid having to go back to the bar ) swill back the beer and then return in time to see the chosen act. Which was of course the esteemed DR JOHN
 

  This was one of the most successful sets of the entire weekend. The Dr was gussied up  in a white suit and top hat. The band was tight and the lady singers were fun. The Dr often threw handfuls of what he termed -'goofer dust 'around into the crowd . The material varied from his early eerie voodoo tinged stuff  from the Night Tripper albums to his later  funky  N'Orleans bonaroo, good time pieces. It was probably one of the best times to see this artist as he was including material from both eras in his show. 

      EVERYONE seemed to grok on the good Dr, I've yet to hear of a bad opinion of this set. We were ecstatic. However, that feeling can rapidly evaporate after a show when its bloody freezing , which it was.......so, it was back to (a sort of ) reality .They wanted everyone out so we dutifully left the arena. We were fortunate to have the van as it was a dry place. I pity the poor buggers who were out in tents or huddling under sheets of plastic or tin .No wonder lots of people left by Sunday. 

Saturday 
      Hazy recollections of the morning , I THINK  I watched Mike Westbrook but this is probably wishful thinking. I did see the band a few years back at Swansea University when they did a fantastic mixed media event , so I guess I'm confusing the two events. More likely we were asleep in the van ( as the previous night was a mega late finish) or back down the pub. I do remember the Incredible String band, who were charming, fey and delightful as usual, it was a tragedy when they folded, although they were past their best . 
   Donovan and Linda Lewis were a bit too pretty for my taste , they needed sunny days to make an impact. We went down the pub, where bikers and freaks were reeling around , drinking from their boots, brazenly smoking dope in the packed lounge  and generally amusing/revolting the locals with their antics. 

       Really, given the weather, I suppose the festival organizers should have concentrated on hard  rock acts to boost the spirits of the frozen hordes. Its hard to dig laid back solo acts when your extremities feel like they're about to part company with the rest of your body, its then the mind needs diverting with mindless boogie and /or power chords and thats where the likes of Wishbone Ash and The Flaming Groovies worked quite well. Its not that either group were terribly original , but they were loud and lively and that counted in the circumstances . The Groovies were pretty derivative, but not as bad as the Melody Maker review suggested they were and the crowd generally responded well to their set. .
 

    Family had originality enough for a dozen bands and although I'd say that  by  1972  they were past their best ( their line-up with Jim King on sax /flute was phenomenal and never beaten in my humble opinion) they still were a great band . Roger Chapman always seemed capable of exploding on-stage, full of bottled up energy and madness. His voice, a cross between a strangled sheep and half a dozen black soul singers , was probably only behind Beefheart in power and memorability. If you have never heard this band check out their first album , Music from a Dolls House a psychedelic classic, with amazing producion by Traffic's Dave Mason.. 

      This and the more conventional Family Entertainment  are some of the most original British rock albums from the late 60ís and early 70ís . 
     The Kinks were pissed and I thought they were just too sloppy at times , but lots of people liked them . I have few recollections of their set, but I do know they didn't impress me and since I liked most of their music it must mean they were generally Naff. Beefheart blew them off the stage, but then, he blew almost everyone off the stage. One of the best shows I ever saw, ANYWHERE. Go here to read this full review.
 

  It was after the Beef set that we got led into a lake by Ann. We were damn cold and we were tempted sorely by the blazing timbers of an old barn that had been set on fire up the back of the field. But there was an ominous area of black out there and anyone with half a brain would have come to the conclusion that if there were no people or tents, it would be pretty inhospitable . 
    But the intrepid Ann piped up, "hey guys follow me , I'll lead you over there ".Why we figured Ann knew the way any better than anyone else I don't know, call us gullible ( or under the influence ) but we followed her blindly and after a while it starts to get damp, then wet and finally we're getting our feet wet. 
Ann's lake, how could we let her lead us into this!

  So far Charlie's strategy of moving us all to the pub when it got really wet had worked and we had managed to stay relatively dry. So this sudden wetting of our lower extremities did not go down well. We griped like crazy , especially the Skull. In fact,  his false teeth started rattling  , but Ann insisted, "hey c'mon guys, what are you ? some sort of fuckin' wimp's , its only a few more yards and we're home and dry".

    So we went on and it got deeper and deeper until eventually we figured we might as well continue as it was further to go back than it was to go forward . After about 20 minutes enduring bloody freezing feet and wet legs we reached the promised 'land of the Burning barn'. Around this structure were some of the hard core weirdo's of the festival, guys with shaven heads and thin  Buddhist robes ,  half naked women with kids running around barefoot , it was bedlam, and they were all dancing round this sodding stinking burning barn , but at least  it was warm and we stayed awhile and tried to dry our feet. Trouble was it was so hot we scorched our clothes on one side, whilst we froze on the other. So it was  back to the van and a futile attempt  to get some shuteye, because tomorrow was to be the Day of the Dead
Sunday.
        Well, it was  also the Day of the PUB , in fact it could be said it was the Weekend of the Pub, as we spent so much time there. The line up of Sunday morning was pretty weak, so after lying in for quite a while, we moseyed on down the pub, which was not quite so crushingly crowded at that time of day. We sunk a few pints and then sloped off back to see Country Joe, who got  everyone to say the dreaded four letter word a la Woodstock., but somehow it wasn't quite the same three years on. The New Riders were fairly quiet, it started to rain again so Charlie insisted we all go down the pub. I acquiesced , but on the strict understanding that we got back in time for the start of the Dead's set. 

New Riders of the  Purple Sage, generally too low key for my liking on the day.

   Once in the pub , the usual huge queues to get served meant that we were longer than I would have wished, by the time we started back I could hear songs which were familiar -the bloody Dead were ON-STAGE, we rushed back and were in time to see most of the first set. 

       By this time most of the fences were down, the security was non existent and the villagers were in the festival grounds watching the good old Grateful Dead and seemingly liking a lot of it too. The first set finished with a rollicking  Casey Jones  and the assembled multitude erupted in a spasm of chorus singing and dancing , villagers and all. The weak evening sun highlighted the whole weird mix .Frizzy haired freaks in the crowd playing soaking wet, tuneless hand drums next to flat capped miners, women in the traditional northern housewife's headgear of curlers and headscarves and their kids in prams all singing and leaping and becoming one in a flat out good old bacchanalian romp that would have done the ancient Greeks proud. 

      There was the inevitable break and then the Dead came back and launched into the stellar stuff, first a warm up with a few rockers like Jack Straw and Greatest Story and then into the REAL pudding -DARK STAR, followed by The Other One- both seriously out there versions and as the fireworks and the video screens got worked up nicely in the gloom  it finally cleared enough so the entire second set was free of rain . The boys were then getting down to the seemingly endless conclusion of Lovelight > Going Down The Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away when Charlie dropped the bombshell. "We gotta go", he said " I have to be at work tomorrow and its three in the morning. Either stay or come with us. ""

     I didn't feel like a long hitch back to the Midlands, so I reluctantly agreed to go. But what about the Other One ? He had not been seen for hours, in fact most of the time we'd only seen him back at the van at the end of the days festivities. " Sod him " said Charlie  "he can make his own way back, if he's not at the van he can lump it ""
    So , with me looking back over my shoulder and walking backwards when possible so I could savour the last glimpse of Jerry and the lads, we made our way back to the van. Of course the Other One wasn't there and how he made it back I do not know.

    Charlie drove , how he could find the energy I know not, but he was looking pretty chipper and at the service station he nicked a can of oil ,not a good idea considering how much booze was in his system and given the contents of the van. But I was too tired to remonstrate, it had been three long days, with hardly any sleep, long waits between acts , cold, wet, much booze and filthy smoke. It was time to get the head down, sleep and dream about the mess that was Bickershaw.

    And yet. there was something magnificent about the whole thing. I don't know whether it was the fact it was my first Dead show, but overall ,despite the discomfort and the vile weather, it was one of the best times of my life and if I had a chance to go again , I'd jump at it, mud and all. 

The Bickershaw Menu

If you have any info regarding the festival please get in touch Contact us

Other Bickershaw links.
 
  • The Bickershaw diaries-

    Mike Plumbleys saga at Bickershaw, with more photos and extensive first hand observations of his time at the festival. 

  • Repfoto- massive collection of commercially available photos of Bickershaw for sale and view
  • Mothergrumble Magazine-article on Bickershaw and Lincoln 72

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