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The Weeley Festival.
Clacton On Sea . Essex.
August 27th-29th 1971.
Lin Bensley's Recollections .
We went to Weeley - three days of lager, crisps and constipation. Three days without a wash or change of underwear. Three days of magical music from some of the best British bands around at the time - and all for £1.50p! It was the season of innocence. I was seventeen and evergreen and still wet behind the ears, but I knew a good time when I saw one. As Richard reminded me, it was also a time when greatcoats, bush hats, bumpers and tie-dye shirts were de rigueur. You had to be there, among the flags and banners, the idiot dancers and air guitarists, to understand the affection some of us still nurture for Weeley - one of the most momentous post-psychedelic festivals of the early seventies.
Nine of us travelled down from Beccles, near Lowestoft. Peter and Sylvia, along with their daughter of a few months, drove down without a map! I went with John in his clapped out Ford Anglia with floor pan air conditioning and suspect handbrake. We took a map and several wrong turnings, but eventually found our way there by early Friday evening. We met Andre, Richard, Glenn and Kathy at the railway station, adjacent to the festival site. They travelled down in the post van of the train, squeezed in among the mail bags. Andre remembers swinging about on the straps and netting upon the metal arms used to eject the mail sacks. Miraculously, or so it seems to me now, we all met up on the campsite, where we erected an enormous ex-army bell tent that I had managed to scrounge from a workmate. This brown canvas monstrosity dwarfed all the ridge tents nearby and served as a reference point whenever I lost my bearings - which was frequently. Once we had claimed our piece of turf inside the main arena ( a rough mowed cowfield), we decided to stay put with our sleeping bags. Only Peter and family used the tent at night, where they were constantly aroused from sleep by passers-by either tripping over or garrotting themselves on the guy ropes.
unknown band onstage at the festival
By late evening everyone was in a festival mood and either full of hope, dope or strong alcohol - though I hasten to add that apart from booze, we were a drug-free contingent. If the atmosphere was not quite electric it was at least very English. Where else would you find a crowd of about 30,000 or more revellers who were prepared to sit and wait until midnight for the first band to appear? It was already way past my bedtime and I wanted my cup of Ovaltine when the opening band, Hackensack, took to the stage. They received a warm welcome and played a reasonable set. The Edgar Broughton Band followed and played a storming gig that moved the whole event into top gear. I remember them playing Apace/Dropout Boogie and of course their signature tune: Out Demons Out. They may well have played some of their lighter songs like Hotel Room and Evening Over The Rooftops, but I'm not really sure now.
Hereafter I'm vague about the running order of the bands that played, and all lists I've seen do not correspond with my memories of the event, and either omit or add bands that did or did not perform. I kept the music paper ads and festival reviews from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. for severals years before eventually losing them.
I think Juicy Lucy were next up, whether or not they were, I do recall that they also played a great show. They were followed by Principal Edwards Magic Theatre who seemed to me to be like a cross between the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band meets Captain Beefheart after a night on the tiles with the Ballet Rombert; very eccentric and very entertaining in a moonstruck/madcap sort of way. Andre says they were a load of crap! We moved closer to the stage to see Status Quo who riffed their way through a stonking set, which, if I remember rightly, included Forty Five Hundred Times and Junior's Wailing. I vaguely remember Gnidrolog who didn't impress me that much. But Ricotti Albequerque were excellent. John and I had particularly wanted to see this band who I belive were an offshoot of The James Litherland Express and Mogul Thrash, two other highly underrated bands of the time. Tir Na Nog, an Irish folk duo, put in a good perfomance; quiet and subduded, but very listenable. I can hardly remember Mungo Jerry playing, but Richard has since informed me they were awful. Glen tells me that Gringo, a three piece hard rock band, were very good. I recall watching them play but again only vaguely. Though billed to appear, no one I know can remember seeing Fairfield Parlour - a band I would definitely liked to have seen at the time - so I presume that for one reason or another they never made it.
I think it was around a bout this time that we moved closer to the stage again to see the Pink Fairies. No list that I have ever seen mentions the Pink Fairies, but they certainly played, and played well. Richard and Glenn were keen on the band, and as I had a soft spot for the Pretty Things I wanted to see Twink who was on drums with the Fairies at that time. I seem to remember something about their lead guitarist who was supposed to have a withered arm. I never worked out which arm it was, but it didn't affect his ability to play more like a demon than a fairy. Glenn tells me that a C.D. of their Weeley set is now available.
I can but dimly recall seeing Al Stewart play, but have vivid memories of watching Mike Maran who I thought turned in an engaging performance. One of umpteen singer/songwriters around at the time, he always deserved more recognition than he ever achieved. I believe he now ekes out a living writing music for television. Stone The Crows were bloody marvellous, giving one of the best perfomances of the whole weekend. Maggie Bell was magnificent, as was Les Harvey on lead guitar. Barclay James Harvest, complete with a thirty piece orchestra, graced the stage in the later half of Saturday afternoon. Andre was very much a fan at the time, and I though I was never over struck on their music I have to admit that I enjoyed it very much. By the time they got around to playing Mockingbird they almost stole the show, and their performance as much as any other captured the spirit and good feeling of the festival.
Obviously these vibes never extended to the local chapter of the Hell's Angels who arrived in limited numbers bent on causing trouble at any given opportunity. We witnessed one incident in the enclosure. A group of a about a dozen Angels set fire to several bales of straw near a row of burger vans. After getting the fire under control, the heavy gang; a group of muscle-bound bouncers hired by the site organisers, set to work and smashed up a couple of the Angel's motorbikes with sledgehammers. The Angel's watched helplessy as their machines were trashed, and I have to admit, if somewhat guiltily (I felt sorry for the 'bikes), that I enjoyed the spectacle. Having come to do nothing but antagonise the situation I merely think they got what they deserved. Soon after this episode the Angel's were all driven off site much to everyone's relief. Andre remembers the rumour circulating the site that one of them had been killed, and though I remember reports of futher incidents backstage, I don't recall that particular story.
An appetising gourmet repast prepared for the festival goers of Weeley
There were a fair selection of food stalls including one or two that were selling pizzas, cooked on large hot plates in the Italian style. Being a simple country boy, this was the first time I had ever seen or tasted Pizza, and so began a life long addiction. By and large the food was of a reasonable quality and price, unlike the rip off prices people often have to pay for pap at rock festivals nowadays. Among the stalls selling the usual clothes, jewelry and bric a brac, was a marquee selling bootlegs. Despite the fact there was a vast selection including Pink Floyd, Santana, Hendrix etc., everytime we went in they were always playing Led Zeppelin's Live On Blueberry Hill. Bootlegging was still in its infancy back then and most music fans were tempted to add to their collection with recordings that were unavailable as official releases, even though prices were extortionate. It was here that I first came across copies of Dylan's Great White Wonder and Eat The Document and several others, the titles of which now escape me.
In a row of farm buildings nearby, part of the hippie element had set up a temporary commune. They had soon rigged up clothes lines, makeshift tables with bottles for vases filled with wild flowers, and lit campfires around which some were cooking. Such a simple, but ingenious idea. I only wished we had thought of it first.
The highly salubrious ladies loos
The toilet facilities, at least as far as the male gender were concerned, were abysmal. They consisted of nothing more than a long, stinking trench with boards placed across at intervals for those wanting a crap in full view of any curious onlookers who happened to be passing at the time, (Ha! And they worry now about a few dead cows polluting the water table!). The rest of us, (except Andre who braved it out and walked the plank) in the interests of dignity and hygiene, made our way into the woods on the site perimeter - usually after dark.
But back to the music. I had already begun imitating a dormouse by now; nodding off had any available moment and so missed the beginning of Colosseum's set. I remember them playing a blistering version of Walking In The Park, and they probably featured a selection of numbers from Valentyne Suite and Daughter Of Time, but sadly I can no longer recall any other specific songs.
King Crimson finally arrived on stage at about midnight - two hours late due to unforseen circumstances - their hire truck had broken down en route! Most of the crowd, including myself, had fallen asleep by now, but thankfully, Andre ( who never seemed to sleep - what was that boy on?) woke me up. Though Crimson were the main band I had come to see, I can but now only remember fragments of the playlist. They opened their set with a superb rendering of Formentera Lady and closed with a demonic reading of 21st Century Schizoid Man. In between they played The Letter, Ladies Of The Road and The Sailor's Tale - but not the extended version they had been playing on their earlier tour of that year. I'm fairly certain they also played In The Court Of The Crimson King and Cadence And Cascade. And I have a sneaking suspicion that they also performed an abridged version of Islands (I could well have dreamt this), if so, it would be one of the few times, if not the only time, that they ever played it on stage. In my recollections it was a very good, but very conventional set (in Crimso terms), as I don't recall any improvisations nor their rambling, jamming interpretation of Groon that they often featured at that time. It maybe that they curtailed the improv's in order to appeal to a wider audience; it's a crying shame the majority slept through their entire perfomance. Unlike myself, few ever received the wake-up call - either then or now.
I now have only faint memories of seeing Mott The Hoople and Rory Gallager; who I'm told were very good. I saw both acts live several times around this period, so why I cannot better recall their performances at Weeley seems odd to me. Even more disturbing, considering how much I liked them at the time, is that I don't recall seeing Curved Air at all, even though Richard informs me they played a fine set. Glenn says they did not appear, so it could be that Richard's memory is on the blink - he did see them earlier that year at Lowestoft Tech. I know we moved up front again to see the Groundhogs who gave a stunning performance which I vividly remember - long hair and loud music - this threepiece were at their peak when they played Weeley. This was around the time of Thank Christ For The Bomb, Who Will Save The World... and Split; when Tony Mcphee was rated as a blues/rock guitarist in the same league as Gallager and Kossoff.
Caravan gave a classic performance. Like the Groundhogs they were then passing through their most creative phase; releasing one fine album after another, and this was probably one of the best times to catch the band live. Quintessence were surprisingly well received. An assortment of hippies from a commune in Notting Hill, they turned out to be one of the unexpected successes of the festival. The Grease Band didn't do too badly either. Without the benefit of Joe Cocker as front man, I imagined them to be nothing more than a bunch of has beens, but was soon proved wrong. Henry McCulloch on lead guitar acquitted himself with skilful ease. A twee folk singer like Julie Felix was surely one of the last people most of us wanted to see at a rock festival, a fact of which I believe she was also quite aware when she nervously made her entrance. But I must admit she did not disgrace herself, and the audience gave her a fair reception. Lindisfarne, on the other hand, were just the sort of crowd pleasing band that many of the audience had been waiting for; singing along to Meet Me On The Corner, Fog On The Tyne and especially We Can Swing Together.
I've read somewhere in the past that the legend of Wally began at the Isle of Wight festival the year before. For my part, I can remember that during a lull in proceedings on the Saturday morning, the compere announced that a local yokel named Wally wanted to come on stage and regale us with some of his ditties. Time passed with several pregnant pauses and Wally failed to make an appearance, despite repeated encouragements from the compere. The restless crowd, by now besides themselves with excitement, began to chant "We want Wally. We want Wally. We want Wally from Weeley." At this point; Wally, realising that he could not live up to the happy throngs expectations, must have suffered his first attack of stagefright and headed for the beer tent. A tragic victim. He was a fallen idol even before he reached the dizzy heights of stardom. At gigs and festival over the ensuing years I often heard his devotees calling out his name in triumphal tones. And once I even saw "We want Wally" daubed on the walls of the London underground - could it have been by the same prophetic hand that declared "Clapton is God" I wonder? Like The Moles and Spinal Tap he has entered the annals of rock and roll mythology.
It is true that when T. Rex took to the stage they were initially greeted with some hostility from several quarters of the crowd. Marc Bolan stood up to the jeering and booing, but when some dozy pillocks started throwing bottles and cans he wisely retreated. When after a while calm was eventually restored, he returned to give a brilliant performance and won over most of the audience. I particularly remember them playing Jeepster, Spaceball Ricochet and Life's A Gas.
The Faces topped the bill with a highly polished set that the majority of the audience had clearly come to see. The band were tight and exceptionally slick, and whatever you may think of Rod Stewart nowadays, back then he had the energy and enthusiasm to work a crowd to maximum effect. Apparently there was some friction between T. Rex and The Faces as to who should top the bill, but in view of the crowds reaction it was probably as well that The Faces took the top slot.
Much later that night Van der Graff Generator finally appeared. I had dozed off again by now and woke up about half way through their set. I know they did one or two songs from The Least We Can Do Is To Wave To Each Other, and I'm fairly sure they performed Killer from H To He, Who Am The Only One, but the rest of their set was a sleepy eyed blur. Though we all stayed to the end, no one can now recall seeing Stray, but Richard and Glenn have vague recollections of seeing Arthur Brown. Several bands that were billed to appear, none of us can now bring to mind. Can anyone out there enlighten us as to whether Argent, Assagai, Comus, Natural Acoustic Band or Third Ear Band did actually perform, or which of the other lesser known acts put in an appearance.
The festival finished in the early hours of Monday morning. We wrapped up our gear, and Richard and Andre came home with John and I in the battered Ford Anglia. Now the feastival was over I was wide awake, and on the journey home I kept leaning out of the back window trying to wake up the rest of the countryside with a hand cranked klaxon - Ah, the joys of being young and stupid.
Weeley was promoted as the Peoples Festival, and in many ways it was. Discounting the skirmishes with the Hell's Angels there was none of the large scale violence that had marred the Isle of Wight festival the previous year, nor the bouts of rowdyism I ocassionally witnessed in later years at Reading. However, thirty years on it seems like a collective hallucination now, and The Forgotten Festival is perhaps a more fitting epithet. But for those of us who experienced the musical delights of that August bank holiday weekend, we can hold our heads up, and with more than a hint of pride we can look the world in the eye, and repeat altogether; We Went To Weeley!
With thanks to Andre Brown, Richard Walden and Glenn Wickham who jogged my memory and filled in the gaps
Updated Jan 2021
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