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Was it Mick Jagger, or Robin Williams, who said: “If you can remember the sixties you weren’t there”? Or maybe it was Doctor Timothy Leary? That’s if it wasn’t John Lennon, of course. Thinking about it, it could’ve been John Lennon. For the life of me, I can’t remember, so I must’ve been there.
Even though Christmas Day is still a whole bunch of Thursdays away, here’s another Trivial Pursuit question you probably won’t be able to answer. I couldn’t, even though I was definitely there. I’m beginning to sound like a tripped-out hippy, aren’t I? Anyway, let’s get on with it, where was the world’s very first rock festival staged?
Though I was present, I only became aware of the significance of the event a few months ago. It’s official. Folk attending the Human Be-in at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on January 14th 1967, might dispute the claim, but according to none other than the BBC, the very first rock festival on the entire planet was staged at Spalding’s Tulip Bulb Auction Hall. And I have to agree, otherwise I’d have nothing to write about this week.
Click on here for: Spalding Rock Festival 1967 BBC TV clip with poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who now lives in Spalding. The clip features the evergreen Geno Washington chuckling about it.
It was my second year at Loughborough Art College. Posters announcing the gig had been slapped up all over the town months before. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, The Move, Pink Floyd, Zoot Money and Geno Washington, all on the same bill; all playing at the Lincolnshire market town of Spalding. All on the same day. Though we’d heard of the bands, and knew it was going to be very special, none of us could actually pinpoint Spalding on the map, despite the fact it was little more than fifty miles from our home county. Once we found it, George sent off for tickets. That’s the sort of thing George always did.
In 1967 great changes were ‘blowin’ in the wind’ on both sides of the Atlantic. The year was set to become the Summer of Love. If you went to San Francisco, you had to wear a flower in hair, instead of your lapel. Hippies and flower-power were on the verge of firing up a generation. A generation that would tune in to free love, turn on with marjuana, and drop out of mainstream society.
The sleepy, little county market town of Spalding lies in the aptly-named South Holland district of Lincolnshire. Aptly-named because much of Lincolnshire is very flat, has dykes, windmills and is renowned for its own flowers, tulips. Officially designated as part of the East Midlands, it would be more appropriate for it to fall under the rule of East Anglia, as both geographically and historically, that’s where it is and always has been.
Once populated by the the early Anglo-Saxon tribe know as the Gyrwas, Spalding lies just a few miles west of The Wash, on the North Sea coast. Schoolchildren, who may not be so familiar the early morning wash in the bathroom, usually know of the The Wash, where evil King John got caught by the tide, only to lose England’s Crown Jewels, a year after being forced to signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. They were bad hair years for him. Very nasty, and extremely careless, John should have boned up on King Canute, and local tide tables, before setting out. Now, there’s a couple of paragraphs bulging with answers to Trivial Pursuit questions.
I digress a digression too far. As far as I can remember, the morning of May 29th 1967 dawned in typical English fashion in the little town of Syston, north of Leicester. Misty, damp and chill, only one thing was different. A fixed Spring Bank Holiday had been introduced to Britain for the very first time. To be celebrated on the last Monday of May it would replace Whit Monday. Up until then the annual public holiday had always been dictated by the moveable feast of Pentecost, which marks the end of Easter.
I hardly had time to splash my face before George Blynd picked me up in his 1950s Morris Minor. The same Morris Minor I’d almost crashed into a granite stone wall by Swithland reservoir a few months earlier. George was trying to teach me to drive, but I did it my way. It was the very first, and very last lesson, he gave me.
George’s little Mog headed down Barkby Road to Leicester Road, where we picked up Mick Kouzaris. Mick lived above the family fish n’ chip shop. From there we went into Leicester to meet Terry Bryan. We’d all spent our last school years us at Longslade Comprehensive in Birstall. Terry, George and I went on to study graphic design at Loughborough Art College, while Mick attended the town’s newly-built Tech. In those days the art college comprised a motley assortment of tumbledown Victorian buildings and shacks around Ashby Road. Discounting the print department, with its big, old Heidelberg Platen press, the entire graphic design department was housed in one room in a virtual Nissan hut on William Street.
In another bit of rock n’ roll trivia, Geoff Griffiths, bass player and vocalist for Satanic rock band Black Widow, also studied graphic design at Loughborough. He was in the year below ours. Geoff was playing with Arnhem Bloo at the time, and even asked me to audition as vocalist for Black Widow. I chickened out.
As we headed out of Leicester, on the Uppingham Road towards Spalding, entirely unrelated, and unbeknown to us, Peggy Gallagher was lying in bed in the leafy suburb of Longsight in Manchester eighty miles away. She was about to give birth to her second son, Noel. With his younger brother Liam, Noel Gallagher went onto to lead legendary band Oasis in 1991. While Mrs Gallagher writhed in pain, trying to expel the stroppy little bugger, George and we pootled along the country roads to Spalding.
George’s Morris had that oil rag and petrol smell old cars developed over the years, back in those days. It came from too much tinkering about after too many break-downs. Mingled with smoke produced by plenty of Player’s Navy Cut, Piccadilly and Gold Leaf cigarettes being puffed merrily away, the atmosphere got almost unbearable. A fifty-mile drive along winding country roads at forty miles an hour, full throttle, in a smoke-choked tin can on wheels, starts to seem endless after the first ten minutes.
Eventually, we got there. Though early to arrive, we were not the first by any means. The town was already packed with ticketless knots of young people wandering about hoping for tickets. We learned the event had been advertised over the entire country. Though there were no official figures, contemporary estimates point towards thousands of people from all over the UK flocking to the venue. So many without tickets, there might have been a riot, were it not for the fact there were so many forged ones available. Police presence was virtually nil.
An unlikely place for musical revolution, the inhabitants of Spalding had no idea what had hit them. A small group of bemused local youths stood leaning against a wall trying to appear nonchalant, yet it was blatantly obvious they were getting nervous. The town gave the impression that not much had happened in Spalding over the seven and a half centuries since King John lost his jewels. Most people were probably still talking about it. All that was on the verge of changing.
As soul and R&B had been all the rage among mods and students, before the Summer of Love came along, there was little surprise at Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band topping the bill at Spalding. Their very first album Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt … Live! had been in the charts for 38 weeks in 1966, which made them the big draw. However, it was some of the other bands that led to Spalding going down in history. Within a couple of years, three of them would number among the best-known bands in the world.
The Move were not one of them, failing to break into the US market despite their popularity in the UK and Europe. By May 1967 they had already scored two hit singles in the British top ten. Night of Fear reached number 2 in January 1967 and the psychedelic I Can Hear the Grass Grow reached number 5 in April the same year. In common with nearly all the bands listed on the bill, The Move hadn’t been playing together very long before Spalding. Formed out of members of several bands playing in and around Birmingham in England’s Black Country, they started life as a mod group, in a similar vein to The Who and The Small Faces. And, like The Who, part of their set involved smashing things up. I can vaguely remember Carl Wayne taking an axe to a pile of old TV sets at the freshers’ ball in Loughborough Town Hall in the autumn of 1966.
Though they the band had yet to release a record, Pink Floyd had been together two years before they played at Spalding. In the middle of recording their first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, they arrived only days after laying down See Emily Play at Sounds Techniques studios in Chelsea on May 23rd. A single of the number was released on June 16th 1967. Featuring a line-up that included Rick Wright on keyboards and backing vocals, Roger Waters on bass and backing vocals, and Nick Mason on drums, Syd Barrett, who wrote the song, played guitar and sang lead. Despite attending recordings of See Emily Play, Dave Gilmour had yet to join the band.
In early 1967 Jimi Hendrix was virtually unknown, despite having backed the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Elvis Presley on tour and recordings. Yet there were those who recognised the extent of his talent. July of the previous year, had seen Chas Chandler, bass player of the Animals, in New York scouting for musicans before the group’s last tour. The Animals had agreed to split up the previous year. A disillusioned Chandler was planning a move into band management. He’d already heard Tim Rose’s version of Hey Joe on vinyl, which Rose claimed the credits for having written, and was thinking about recording the song with another artist, when, by sheer coincidence, he saw Hendrix playing it in Greenwich Village’s Café Wha? Chandler had the vision to see Hey Joe was made for Hendrix and invited him to England to front a new band and record it.
English lead guitarist, Noel Redding, had been performing in public, one way or another, since the age of nine. By the time Chandler persuaded him to change over to bass for a new band he was forming, Redding had already played lead in five bands.
Drummer Mitch Mitchell was another English musician, who started his career early, as a child actor on TV. When he joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience he’d already spent periods drumming for a long list of bands as a session musician, including The Who and Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames. Mitchell was to complete the line up of one of the most famous bands in the history of rock music.
In the the same year, just a few months earlier, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had founded Cream. Clapton was already known from his days with the groundbreaking group of the 1960s The Yardbirds. He also played with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Born in Scotland, Jack Bruce was an accomplished musician, who had studied cello at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. After playing with a series of blues bands, including Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and Graham Bond, he joined Cream as bass player. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Cream, Mick Kouzaris and I had seen them at one of their very first gigs at the Il Rondo on Silver Street in Leicester on August 26th 1966. They played a blinding set, with Ginger Baker doing one of the long solos he became so famous for.
Despite being virtually unknown beyond the blossoming UK underground scene in early 1967, by the end of it Hendrix and Clapton were well on their way to becoming the world’s most famous lead guitarists, eventually topping Rolling Stones magazine’s list of the 100 greatest rock guitarists of all time.
George Bruno Money, known as Zoot Money, was well-known in the underground scene of the sixties. A recognised keyboard player and vocalist he has been associated with some of the all-time greats including, Eric Burdon, Steve Marriott, Kevin Coyne, Mick Taylor, Spencer Davis, and Alan Price.
Mick Kouzaris and I were to lucky enough catch Zoot Money play with Dantalian’s Chariot at hippy mecca Middle Earth London’s Covent Garden, later that year. With Andy Summers on guitar (later to join Police) the band only lasted a few months. My clearest memories of Middle Earth were hippies on acid wandering about the cellar venue, and the band’s light show, renowned for being the best in Britain. Between sets, a rare recording of Dylan singing This Wheel’s on Fire was played. As far as I can recall, the club’s door was locked after all the acts were finished, and an old silent movie was shown, until we were all ejected into cold dawn.
In the 1960s a US airman, known only for his impromptu performances at nightclubs in London’s Soho, was asked to join Les Blues by their guitarist Pete Gage. Geno Washington was stationed at Bentwaters American Base, near Ipswich in Suffolk. It wasn’t long before the newly-named Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band were favourites on the club and college circuits all over Britain for their amazing act, which consisted of cover versions covers of numbers by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Lee Dorsey.
According to Voices of East Anglia the first rock festival in the world proceeded like this:
The Sounds Force Five came on stage in-between the main acts whilst roadies re-arranged the equipment for each new band. Pink Floyd were first on stage followed by The Move, they were billed as the ‘psychedelic bands. so were grouped together, next up were the ‘blues’ performers – the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Hendrix’s performance is generally considered not to be one of his finest but he did manage to set light to his guitar which was promptly put out with a fire extinguisher and the frazzled instrument was then dumped in a bin from whence it was never claimed. Somewhere under a large pile of landfill deep in rural Lincolnshire lies a potentially very collectible guitar. Cream with Eric Clapton on lead guitar were on next and by all accounts Clapton, who had been the subject of recent media attention comparing his skills with Hendrix, was on top of his game that night and blew Hendrix off the stage. After Cream came Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band and then, the guys who stole the whole show – Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. As seasoned performers and non-stop tourers these guys knew how to get a tulip hall full of mods and rockers going and they tore the roof off the place.
My recollections of that historical day at Spalding have dimmed over, what has become, almost half a century. The Sounds Force Five did not impress. We’d become too used to groups playing cover versions of Beatles songs and went outside when they came on between sets. To be honest, I don’t remember much of Pink Floyd, or The Move, who immediately preceded Hendrix.
The first time Hendrix burned his Fender Stratocaster was on 31st March at at the Finsbury Park Astoria in London. According to his press officer of the time, Tony Garland, the stunt was Chas Chandler’s idea. The second time he burned a guitar took place at Spalding.
To see anyone treat their guitar strings as though they were dental floss is quite amazing, to see Hendrix play a Fender Stratocaster with his teeth was unforgettable. Right from the start it was clear he wasn’t happy with his guitar. He seemed unable tune it quite the way he wanted. That wasn’t helped by the large number of fans, who had come solely to see Geno Washington. Not far into his set, they began chanting “Geno, Geno, Geno!” at the top of their voices, which was quite usual at Ram Jam concerts. They had done the same through Cream’s performance. So frustrated did Hendrix appear to become, towards the end of the set, he began tearing at his guitar strings. Used to such antics from The Who, the crowd cheered him on to the point he started slamming the guitar against the amplifiers till it broke. It was at that point he delighted the Geno fans by pouring lighter fuel over it and setting it on fire. Years later it’s become difficulat to know exactly how much of Hendrix’s showmanship was intentional that day, and how much was born out of the frustrations he encountered. Certainly, to judge by the Monterey Festival, which he played later that year, the ritual destruction had become part of his act.
Having seen Geno quite a few times before, George, Terry, Mick and I wandered into the town once more. We had been dazed by Hendrix. He may not have been on top form, but we’d never seen anything like it. Besides, Mick and I been spoiled for Geno by seeing the Stax Vox European tour at Leicester’s Granby Halls the on March 25th. We were lucky enough to catch one of Otis Redding’s last performances before he died in a plane crash in December of that same year. Geno Washington never seemed the same after that. The European tour had included Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley and Eddie Floyd backed by Booker T, with Steve Cropper on guitar and the Mar Keys providing the horn and keyboards section.
Nineteen-sixty-seven was certainly a year to remember for life. The sixties were one of the best times to see rock music ever. A period when it was still possible to see the bands that changed rock music forever playing at small venues before they took the world by storm.
Out on the crowded streets we ran in to Phil Eden. Phil was studying at Loughborough University. He had come to Spalding with a girl called Sue – I forget her last name – with whom I’d had a very brief fling. She was also a student at Loughborough, Earlier in that afternoon, before he went on stage, Sue had chatted to Hendrix in the bar of The Red Lion Hotel, where he was staying. She told us the man we had just seen take his temper out on a Fender Stratocaster by smashing it to pieces on his amps, before burning it, was in reality very polite and well-behaved.
Below is one of the only recordings made of the first rock festival in the world. It features Cream.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
Readers, who were at Spalding, are invited to tell me their stories by contacting me through the comments section. I will be only too happy to add their memories to this article, with credits. Make yourself history, before you become history!
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