“By the time we got to Bickershaw we were 60,000 strong”
It was Friday 5 May 1972 when the Grateful Dead and 60,000 like-minded souls descended on the pit village of Bickershaw near Wigan. Despite fears, scare stories and downright hysteria in certain quarters the festival (that was to prove to be one of the last all-night festivals) kicked off in the usual inclement Wigan weather. Backed by anonymous businessmen but headed up by a young Jeremy Beadle – yes THE Jeremy Beadle – tickets were sold at £2.75 for the three-day festival. And whilst 60,000 may have attended the festival it is estimated that only 20,000 paid. But that’s part of the story. The story of the Bickershaw Festival, and the weekend that the hippie dreams (maybe) died.
The Wigan Observer, on the day of the festival, reported that some had: “Come by boat, others by plane and still more have hitch-hiked from France, Greece, America, Scotland, the Netherlands and cities from all over the Western World.” There was also a considerable local contingent. As local lad Stuart Fenton explains: “We were all really excited about going.
“Because at the time Wigan had a healthy music scene and the week before Curved Air had played at The Ritz.”
Curved Air’s appearance had been preceded by rumours that their beautiful lead singer Sonja Kristina would appear half-naked. Sadly this wasn’t the case but the gig was heralded as a huge success. Curved Air was not scheduled to appear at the festival but the list of performers read as follows:
FRIDAY: Dr John, Hawkwind, Roy Harper, McHendry Spring, Memphis Slim, Jonathan Kelly, Third Ear Band, Tom McMasters, Dave Anderson, Staircase
SATURDAY (morning): Jazz – Brotherhood of Breath, Mike Westbrook Big Band, Maynard Ferguson Big Band, Annette Peacock with the World of Rock – featuring Paul Bley
SATURDAY (afternoon): Donovan, Incredible String Band, Al Stewart, Linda Lewis, Stackridge
SATURDAY (evening): Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Family, Stoneground, Pacific Gas and Electric, Cheech and Chong, Sam Apple Pie, Captain Beyond, Flaming Groovies, Kinks
SUNDAY (morning): Neophonic Symphony Orchestra, Haydock Brass Band.
SUNDAY (afternoon/evening): America, Country Joe, Brinsley Schwartz, Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage
Well that was the plan. The playing order was altered as is the way and there were no-shows, most notably America. As well as the bands there were various theatre troupes, brass bands and various religious groups and loonies. As Viv Derbyshire remembers the Children of God were the most prominent: “I remember dancing around in circles with the Children of God at Bickershaw.”
In fact Haydock Brass Band were given a tumultuous reception as the assorted freaks got their heads together on a damp Sunday morning. Not that anybody had come to watch them. On reflection the major attraction would undoubtedly be the Grateful Dead. Yet for many Wiganers it was the simple attraction of this great festival on our doorsteps that got them to pay their £2.75 for the weekend.
Stuart: “I paid the full whack to get in and the real reason I went was a band called Quicksilver Messenger Service who were my favourite band at the time but they didn’t turn up!”
The fact that many didn’t pay ‘full whack’ was due to the organisers entrusting the security on some notorious local characters. Legend has it that the only people to make money from the festival were the local residents that were selling local produce and beers at four times the going rate and the security people who had a simple but effective scam with the tickets. They simply let people in ‘cash in hand’. Meanwhile people inside were coming out with handfuls of passes.
Tony Lowe also paid for his ticket and as he explains that year was a good year for music and all the local fans were really enjoying themselves: “That year coming into Wigan the ABC had (had) T Rex, King Crimson, Curved Air on.
“The festival was simply a culmination of all the things that were happening within Wigan.”
That said nobody seems to know how Jeremy Beadle and the other organisers chanced upon this green field near Wigan, nor indeed why. By the time these Wigan lads got to the site it already resembled a meeting of a motley crew as people searched out their territory and pitched there tents, glancing skywards at the darkening clouds. Not that territory or secured tents seemed to matter to anybody.
Tony: “There were 17 people in our tent when I woke up. It was a big tent but it wasn’t that big!”
Tommy Ward: “I was one of them.
“I’d been the Casino and just got a taxi up there on the Friday night, bunked in, found my mates and stayed the weekend.”
But really it didn’t matter -, as it was the music they’d come for – and as Tony remembers: “Hawkwind were awesome as was Jonathan Kelly.
“I also thought Donovan was good despite the sound. It was better than watching Leeds and Arsenal in the FA Cup (that was showing at the time).”
Stuart: “Ah Stacia with Hawkwind – a great pair of tits.
“The Kinks were good, but they were drunk.
“Ray Davies later said he ‘was completely out of it at Bickershaw’ as that morning they had heard that one of their tour operators had died in America.”
Prior to the event the talk from the Wigan top table had all been about drugs and how these hippies and freaks were going to corrupt the local Wigan youngsters. Not that they needed any encouragement. As Tony and Stuart remember: “There was drugs everywhere and everything.
The likes of Glastonbury are conservative in comparison.
Meanwhile Tommy recalls: “All I can remember is it pissing down and I can remember this hippy shouting: ‘Shelter, shelter from the rain’ and then he put a biscuit tin on his head and went pottering off into the distance.
“I thought: “What the hell is he on?
“One of our lot had to go to the medical centre and when the doctor asked him what was wrong he said ‘I’m spinning on an LP’.”
Sailor Jack, a local character and veteran of many early festivals said:”One person dressed as an old bloody soldier, dragging a miniature cannon about.
“I think he fired it in the end.
“But I was full of acid at the time.
“ELP played – well I think they did, I can’t really remember any of the bands.
“And there were no problems, no trouble whatsoever.
“It was two days of absolute hedonism.
“I think I paid to get in but I know I didn’t give it to Jeremy Beadle.
“I think I paid the security something.
“It was a great festival, better than any Glastonbury”
Stuart concurs that it was full of characters: “From all over the place and there was loads of Yanks who, I guess, were there to see Grateful Dead.
“There were no real casualties over the weekend.
“Some mental ones maybe but no real health issues”
Tommy remembers: “A little girl went missing, there was all sorts of panicking and then her parents remembered she’d gone to sleep in their tent.”
Tony: “Al Stewart also went missing – it was a case of ‘Al Stewart report to the stage’ and he was out of his head in somebody’s tent.
“His band carried on playing classic tunes until they found him.
“And to think he’s something like 24th in line for the throne.
“Match that Prince Harry!”
Needless to say the weather was appalling with the only break coming when Linda Lewis was on stage. This turned the green fields into a sea of mud merging into the toilets. People were literally caked in shit. It did give rise to the Bickershaw Beachcombers. Three young men, who said they spent the summer as deckchair attendants at seaside resorts, wallowed through the site collecting 98p worth of returnable bottles. Meanwhile typical prices on site were Fish and Chips 30p: half pound of bacon 19p: Coca-Cola cans 10p: Can of Newcastle Brown Ale 20p: Hamburgers 20p: Pint bottle of milk 12p. The high cost of a pint of milk might have led to the story emerging from site that one local farmer, with a field near to the site had all his cows milked. Meanwhile police reported that the going rate for cannabis was £10 an ounce whilst one youth made his load lighter when being chased by a Drug Squad officer by throwing a 2lb block of cannabis worth £300 at him.
Back on the musical front Stuart explains that: “Gravy Train was the main local band to play at Bickershaw.
“They were a great band.
“They had about five albums and the sleeves were all designed by Roger Dean – later of Yes fame.
“In fact the drummer drinks in The Anvil in Wigan town centre now.”
The general consensus was that whilst the archives show that Grateful Dead were the stars of the show Bickershaw was more about the festival itself. It was the weekend that 60,000 people got together for the weekend without any need for violence or conflict in a field in Wigan. The event was a success in all terms except the financial sense. Even the locals were impressed and got into the spirit of things. According to Stuart, however, the biggest disappointment was that: “Afterwards nothing really took off in Wigan.
“It was like the pinnacle.
“We were expecting the music scene to take off but it didn’t.
“And then of course Northern Soul took off”
So 38 years later, with their memories blurred by age, drink and (in some cases) drugs we must always remember that there is a generation of Wiganers that had ‘their own Woodstock’ in a little pit village up the road…