The Bickershaw Festival May 5-7, 1972, (Wigan, Lancashire)

A cherry red Doc Martin slams down the kick-start. The resultant whine is less than pleasing but, due to the Governmental tinkering of the day, the 16 years olds of blighty are confined to a gutless 50cc. It is crushingly embarrassing, when mates of one month older are happily zipping about Greater Manchester in mirror-bedecked Lambrettas or throaty mid-range biker contraptions. But it is 1972 and we are feeling our way. Such is the case on this day…on Sunday May 7 as, eager and Crombie-clad, the 16 year old pootles through the dank roads of Stockport, Salford and Leigh, suffering three swamping deluges along the way. As an outing it seems peculiarly lonely, at least during the hour-long journey, as cars splash past with contemptuous disregard for the sad site of a moped in the rain. But the boy on the Puch is seeking a comradeship, of sorts. At home he has a treasured copy of the three album Woodstock set; an evocative artefact indeed and brimming with the sounds songs and announcements that had already gained worldwide infamy. “It’s like I was rapping to the fuzz…can you dig it? New York State Freeway is closed, maan. Can you dig that? Lot of freaks.” That was, I always thought, Arlo Guthrie…not that it really matters. And, best of all, the fully energising, politicising, random anti-ism ranting of Country Joe MacDonald and his celebrated ‘fuck’ cheer. How that changed the dynamic of million teenage bedrooms, back in the days of glorious hope and innocence. But the boy seeks more than that. He needs to see it for real…the sights, the aromatic allure, the squalid scrambling in the mud. The Woodstock spirit, so exotic when booming from the stereogram – or alive on the cinema screen which he has yet to witness – has ludicrously arrived in Bickershaw, Wigan. And yes, the boy knows full well, that Sunday afternoon will indeed see a spirited set by Country Joe MacDonald. It will also see him befriended by Hells Angels of the Nottingham greaser variety… a delightful tribe who steal him through the fence in pure Mick-Farren-at-The-Isle-of-Wight fashion and who supply him with a rolled protrusion of questionable strength, on which he puffs as The Grateful Dead produce hour after hour of hypnotic Americana. Not a bad introduction to the festival experience. It’s a little story I have told many times and I sense a few yawns from close friends. However, I make no apologies as memories of that trip provide me with a direct link to a one-off festival frozen in a glorious naiveté. The mere fact that there was only one Bickershaw Festival and that it balanced an eclectic artistic success with rather shambolic management – not to mention three days of unremitting downpour…all this seals it in a unique time capsule.

These were among the things discussed at Wigan’s Museum of Life recently, as Chris Hewitt – he of Ozit Morpheus Records and Deeply Vale Festivals - provided a talk that glimpsed perceptively into a festival that hinged so warmingly between aghast locals and the arriving weirdo hoards. Ferocious activity from the local baker and fish’n’chip shop saw a peculiarly northern edge to the festival fayre while, post fest, the local grubby oiks scurried in the mud, hustling away with discarded posters and sundry ephemera. All this comes to mind on the fortieth anniversary of The Bickershaw Festival. A fact celebrated with the release of a sumptuous Bickershaw box set from Hewitt’s Ozit Morpheus that has taken over ten years to painstakingly piece together. Generally speaking, I am not over-fond of the box sets…more often than not they tend to prey on the lust of sad completists, much to the detriment of the original music. (Do you really need to submerge your beloved seventies album in the thick fog of hastily recorded demos?). However, now and then one stumbles across such a package that really does carry you back to an age that now seems to belong on a different planet.

This is even addressed by Bickershaw Festival organiser, Jeremy Beadle, on one of the DVDs included in this package where he warns of the evils of ‘gigantism’, where festivals are concerned. Maybe even at that point, as he surveyed the dampened spectacle before him, he really knew that the future lay, not in eclectic events that might challenge and undermine the system, but in the pitiful commercial hierarchy that governs the gargantuan festival circuit today.

The box set allows you into that rag-taggle world, without pretension nor superfluous recordings. Included are Tom Hewitt’s original film, itself a two hour spectacle of footage, from the extraordinary to the mundane complete with an audio splicing that delivers sizeable chunks of music from The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Donovan, The Incredible String Band, Country Joe MacDonald, Dr John, Captain Beefheart, The Flamin’ Groovies and a lurid selection of performing lunatics. (Hewitt revealed that broadening the showcase from music to music and performing arts was sufficient for the festival to seize a helpful ‘arts’ grant). Best of all, however, is the somewhat wry relationship between the craggy folk of Bickershaw and the aforementioned freak influx. Interestingly enough, and this certainly settles with my fading memories, despite the atrocious weather, lack of facilities and any sense of organisation, there was very little tension hanging in the air. Other factors help set the scene. While a few did manage to camp, the vast majority simply sat down in the mud for three solid days, rather nobly accepting all that horrors that nature could provide. Miraculously, no one was killed…a fact that is especially striking upon the musicians who performed on a stage amid spaghetti strewn live wires, a primitive PA system and, most incredible at all, no main stage roof. Hence three days of heavy Lancashire rain fell on those speakers before The Grateful Dead took the stage.

The box set provides a further four hours of DVD footage; a feverishly assembled mish-mash which zips by in dizzying fashion. Some of it exceedingly raw, which one might expect from a film largely built from personal footage although recent interviews prove reflective while adding direct links to personal tales of enjoyment and trauma. Interesting to note just how people hang in winsome nostalgia for a festival that had often been given the unfortunate name, ‘Mudstock’. But the fact is that Bickershaw – and a number of early seventies festivals such as Hollywood, Deeply Vale, Buxton, Rivington Pike et al – provided a simplicity of purpose that is no longer relevant. All we can do is watch these DVDs, listen to the audios – six of them, containing items of varying quality from all of the major artists and scan through the accompanying hardback book. This, in itself, proves to be an archive of bewildering depth. I recall visiting Mr Hewitt’s Northwich home, a few years back, as this material was being assembled. This entailed-literally-wading through acres of Bickershaw press cuttings ranging from the hilariously local – the Leigh Journal remains a warmingly quaint publication – to national and underground press. Literally, it was like walking into the heart of the book. From the underground sections you will discover a Bickershaw underbelly, as pinioned by such writers as Charles Shaar Murray and Mick Farren. How interesting to discover just how seriously the mainstream and underground press took Bickershaw. Maybe it was seen as a genuine riposte to southern magnets such as The Isle Of Wight. Or could it have actually been the allure of Beadle, who had spent the previous months attempting to establish a North West edition of Time Out, then a feisty and subversive organ rather than the tepid what’s on guide of today. It is difficult to say but, intriguingly, the backstage caravans were a bustle of music writers and sundry sycophants from across the world.

The book, which is unpretentiously assembled and punctuated with notes and memories from Hewitt himself, allows you to spend innumerable hours filtering through the resultant press articles without actually having to wade through that living room. Indeed, the book alone provides an opportunity to float back to a lost cultural universe, a place that existed beyond the control of the powers that now so silently govern the modern equivalent. In truth, there simply is no comparison. True enough, the food and facilities of a Download or Glastonbury are beyond compare – although are always depressingly familiar. At Bickershaw, as stated, you had to make do with a pie, chips and gravy or, specially imported into the people’s republic of Wigan for the festival, a weird new sticky concoction called yoghurt. “We had heard of it,” said a local shopkeeper, “But we didn’t know what it was.”

The same, perhaps, could be said of The Grateful Dead, who’s unique and endlessly drifting Americana had yet to fully penetrate the UK. Perhaps it never did. For they were never really a band for this side of the pond, even if their familial approach to their fans caused knots of ‘Deadhead’ to spring forth in unlikely areas of England. This may all sound rather hippyish but, squint hard at that bill and, like attendees Joes Strummer and Declan MacManus, you may just see the first shards of punk shining from the stripped down attack of The Flamin’ Groovies or Brinsley Schwarz, featuring a young Nick Lowe.

The greatest irony of all, perhaps, being the established fact that the Grateful Dead’s idealistic approach to their own commercial viability would actually establish them as the most successful tumble of touring and merchandise of all time. More than that, even Apple Mac famously chose to emulate the Dead’s marketing technique in recent years. Now there is irony for you. A darker irony perhaps, is the undeniable fact that events such as Bickershaw helped trigger the path to festival gigantism. Of this, Jeremy Beadle was sadly perceptive..

Review by Mick Middles

August 2012