It’s August 22nd 1975. Fifty miles west of Central London on the outskirts of Reading, thousands of vehicles are heading from all over the UK towards a non-descript lane called Richfield Avenue. Among them is a cream coloured, open-top Morris 1000 with red interior. Tony’s driving (it’s his car), I’m navigating, Al stretches out in the back watching the clouds. Tony and Al are not Mafiosi, but my best friends from school, which we’d left a year before. Car by car, in single file, we are admitted into a vast field. It’s late morning and there’s plenty of room. We pick a spot, park and set up our tent, check our tickets.
The 1975 Reading Rock Festival. It was the first festival we'd been to.
At some point that afternoon we walk from the camping ground to the arena, chatting and looking forward to the music. My memory of the bands on that first day is a little hazy, colored by what happened later. I vaguely remember the Heavy Metal Kids singing a song called ‘His Head Fell Off’ and that Hawkwind were headlining. Recently I found the map I’d used to get us to the Festival, on the back of it I’d written brief notes about some of the bands we saw. Next to Hawkwind it says ‘Cosmic shit’.
At the end of their set we turn to go - and the whole world has changed behind our backs - 4 hours before when we’d walked into the arena and sat down on the grass, we were the back row. Now the crowd stretches behind us to infinity. We shuffle our way out of the arena under the pitch dark sky. We don’t have a torch. When we get to the camping ground that too is transformed - there are tents and vans and benders, bumper to bumper, guy rope to guy rope - the whole field is clogged. There are no routeways, we have to pick a path between the temporary dwellings as best we can.
After ten minutes of painful progress (tent pegs are very easy to trip over, and even worse to fall on) we admit that not only do we not know where our tent is, but that we no longer have any idea of which direction we are heading. There is no moon or stars to help guide our way. The world around us quietens as those with a more highly developed sense of direction or the instinct of homing pigeons find their nests. Lamps are turned out and fires die down. It becomes very, very dark.
We are not alone. There are tens, maybe hundreds even, of us moving like ghosts through the shadowland we now inhabit, gracious enough to stumble on in silence so as not to disturb those who sleep. We pass a girl with hair that reaches below her bum. She seems to be laughing quietly to herself. Or crying. Or maybe praying. ‘An angel,’ I say matter-of-factly. In this world anything is possible.
Thirty minutes further on Tony declares that we have just passed the same tent for third time. I don’t know how he can tell; they all look the same to me. ‘We must be walking in circles’ he says.
‘Are you sure it was the same tent and not just the same make of tent?’ Al asks.
Tony gives this some thought. ‘How the fuck do I know?’ he says.
Occasionally from out of the darkness there comes a bubble of manic laughter as the effect of drugs or alcohol consumes another poor soul.
‘Or wears off,’ Al suggests. The angel passes us again. She’s not laughing now.
I begin to have some sympathy for the ‘walking in circles’ theory as we’ve been going for a hour now and surely if we’d been walking in a straight line we would have fallen off the edge the world by now. Or at least reached the perimeter of the field.
Then the miracle happens. The Morris 1000 appears right in front of us and the tent is next to it. It feels less like we’ve stumbled upon it and more like it’s been carefully placed in our way. This is possibly as near as I’ve ever come to a religious experience.
At some point, far too close to dawn, we are awoken by the mantras of Hare Krishna and the sound of splashing as the devotees take their early morning bathe in the River Thames. At breakfast (dry Weetabix) I can tell from the silent glares that the Mafiosi blame me for last night. I am the one with the geography A-level.
On our way from our tent to the arena that Saturday we plot our route with the care and precision of military strategists. Turn left at the tent with the flag of a brown bear. Go straight for fourteen paces till you reach the yellow van with the, well, painting of huge breasts on the side. Right then, till you reach the blue tent with the Scottish flag on it..... Tony is writing all this down in orange crayon in a child’s coloring book. He has done a trade with the six year old daughter from the tent two down from us. If anyone lowers their flag or swaps it for another I know I will kill them. We also acquire a torch, which costs us half our weekend’s supply of food and some of the better cassette tapes Tony has in the Morris. We all agree it is a good deal.
For the rest of the weekend the music takes over. As it should. There are some great moments: Janita Haan the vocalist with Babe Ruth belting out ‘Wells Fargo’. The word ‘raunchy’ could have been invented for her, Probably was. Twenty years later I interviewed her in her classical record shop in Hereford. She was as demure and polite as a librarian. John McLaughlin, dressed incongruously in an immaculate white suite, burns up the fretboard of his Gibson. Lou Reed is billed to play but doesn’t show. In the inevitable gaps between sets we become obsessed with coloring in the pictures in the coloring book. Everything is orange.
The Canterbury sound (Canterbury is just up the road from our then home town of Ashford) is represented by Soft Machine, and Caravan whose set is rendered all the more beautiful as the sound comes and goes on the breeze. And with the serendipity of these things, sitting directly in front of us as Caravan play is Angel Long-Hair.
While we are waiting for the Saturday headliner’s, Yes, the legendary, and now sadly departed, DJ, John Peel, leads 100,000 of us in a rendition of ‘Nellie The Elephant’ which probably still echoes in the streets of Reading to this day. Yes come on stage to the sound of The Firebird Suite - and as soon as they start playing it is obvious that they are in a league of their own. Not just the sublime musicianship and the imagination of their song writing, but their vision of a holistic show. The light display is breathtaking - it is the first time I’ve ever seen lasers and they look all the more impressive for the rain falling through the beams. A film is projected onto a screen behind the band - an innovation then. The movie is a fantasy - a white horse running through a storm. Steve Howe’s guitar screams in time with the lightning, followed by the drums and gongs for the thunder. It is astonishing stuff.
And with the torch and coloring book instructions we have no trouble in finding our way home.
The Sunday headliners are Wishbone Ash who are terrific, but the vision and memory of the festival belong to Yes.
Maybe time has mellowed my mind, for I recall nothing of the reported can fights, the quagmire, the dubious food or the horrendous toilet facilities. And I only remember that it rained because of the drops falling through the lasers of Yes’s light show. Yet on the back of the map, beneath my single sentence critiques of the bands we saw, I wrote, in summing up, “Reading 1975 - three days of mud, squalor and starvation’.
Next summer, Evelyn, will be going to her first festival. Glastonbury. Judging by the television pictures of this year’s ‘Festival experience’, very little has changed thirty years on. I’ll ensure she takes a coloring book.
Jamie Field, 2006
(a version of this article first appeared in Olympian Shadow Farm)