This article was first published on Bryan Hemming’s blog.
The famous Summer of Love took place 50 years ago this year. Out of those who were there, who can remember whether it was Mick Jagger or Harold Wilson that said: “If you can remember the sixties you weren’t there”? That’s if it wasn’t John Lennon. Or maybe it was Doctor Timothy Leary? Remember him? Of course, you don’t. For the life of me, I can’t remember, so I must’ve been there.
Here’s another Trivial Pursuit type question you probably won’t be able to answer. I couldn’t, even though I was definitely there. Where was the world’s very first rock festival staged?
- San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury
- The Isle of Wight
- The Tulip Bulb Auction Hall at Spalding, Lincolnshire
- or Monterey, California
I only became aware of the true significance of the event a couple of years 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.
Click 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.
1967 was my second year at Loughborough Art College. Posters announcing the gig had been slapped up all over the town. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, The Move, Pink Floyd, Zoot Money and Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, all on the same bill. All playing at the small Lincolnshire market town of Spalding. All on the same day. Though we’d heard of it, none of us could actually pinpoint Spalding on the map, despite the fact it was little more than fifty miles from where we lived. No matter, we knew it was somewhere not far away, so George sent off for tickets. That’s the sort of thing George 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 your 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 LSD, 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. British schoolchildren, who may not be so familiar with a 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 sign 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 series of sentences 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 what was basically a tumbledown 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, our gang of four pootled merrily along the country roads to Spalding.
But it wasn’t all fun and joy, as the four of us insisted on enriching the oil rag and petrol fumes clinging to the old Morris’ interior, with clouds of nicotine-enhanced fumes. A fifty-mile drive at forty miles an hour in a smoke-choked, rusty old can on wheels, stinking of petrol, begins to seem endless after the first ten minutes.
Smoked and choked we finally arrived. Though early, we weren’t the first by any means. The town was already packed with knots of ticketless youths wandering about in the hope of scoring tickets. The event had been advertised over the entire country. Though there were no official figures, thousands of people from all over the UK had flocked 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 Britain’s Summer of Love and a musical revolution to kick off, the inhabitants of Spalding had no idea what had hit them. A small group of bemused locals stood leaning against a wall, trying to appear nonchalant. It was blatantly obvious they were getting nervous at the numbers of strangers gathering on their patch. Giving the distinct impression not much had happened over the seven-and-a-half centuries since King John lost his jewels, it became evident they were looking for the right opportunity to slink off unnoticed without losing face. As they melted into the mass, we new arrivals surveyed our freshly-won territory, like the invading army we had become.
Soul and R&B had been all the rage among mods and students, before the Summer of Love came along, so there was no surprise Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band were topping the bill. The band’s very first album, ‘Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt… Live!’, had been in the charts for 38 weeks in 1966, which made Geno one of the biggest draws in Britain. However, it was the rest of the line-up that led to Spalding going down in history. Within a couple of years, three of them would number among the best-known rock bands in the world.
The Move was not one of them, failing to break into the US market despite their popularity in the UK and Europe. By May 1967, the fomer mod band had already scored two hit singles in the British top ten: ‘Night of Fear’ reached number two in January 1967 and the psychedelic ‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’ reached number five in April the same year. In common with nearly all the bands listed on the bill, The Move hadn’t been playing together long before Spalding. Formed out of members of several bands playing in and around Birmingham in England’s Black Country, they started life in a similar vein to The Who and The Small Faces, appealing to mods in the main. And, like The Who, part of their set involved smashing things up. I can vaguely remember singer 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. But things changed swiftly back in the 60s.
Though they 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 a vision about ‘Hey Joe’ having been made for Hendrix, and he invited the guitarist to England to front a new band and record the song.
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 Yardbirds, and he’d 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 renowned for.
Despite being virtually unknown beyond the blossoming UK underground scene in early 1967, by the year’s close 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 60s underground scene. 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 60s 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” and 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: 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.
There are at least three claims to the title of being the first venue where Hendrix burned his Fender Stratocaster. The first is that he burned it on 31st March 1967 at the Finsbury Park Astoria in London. According to his press officer of the time, Tony Garland, the stunt was Chas Chandler’s idea. Another claim is that he first burned it at the Monterey Festival in June 1967. Well, I know that isn’t true, and I’m not convinced the Astoria story is true either – the main reason being the series of events that led up to the burning at Spalding.
To see someone use steel guitar strings as dental floss would be shocking, and to see Jimi Hendrix play a Fender Stratocaster with his teeth really was mind-blowing. That said, at the Spalding gig it was clear right from the start he wasn’t happy with the instrument. Unable to tune it quite the way he wanted, he seemed unsettled by the large number of fans who had come just to see Geno Washington. Their impatience overflowing, 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 that he began tearing at his guitar strings towards the end of the set. But it was only when he started slamming the Strat against the amplifiers that he caught the Geno fans’ attention. Used to such antics from The Who, the entire audience began cheering him on. It was at that point Hendrix won the Geno fans over completely. Getting one of his roadies to squirt lighter fluid over the Strat, he pulled a box of matches from a trouser pocket to set it aflame. The crowd erupted into an ear-splitting roar of approval. Hearing all the noise, those that had been hanging outside smoking spliffs, while waiting for the Ram Jam Band to come on, began flocking in to add their voices to the tumult. Hendrix had truly arrived on the scene. The roadie with the lighter fluid could easily have been Lemmy Kilmister, who went on the front the legendary Motorhead, as he roadied for Hendrix at the time.
Years later, it has become difficult 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, by the time he played the Monterey Festival 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 back into town when he came on stage. 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’d been spoiled for Geno by seeing the Stax Vox European tour at Leicester’s Granby Halls the on March 25th earlier in ’67. 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. 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. Geno Washington never seemed the same after that.
Back out on the crowded streets, we ran in to Phil Eden. Phil was a friend of mine studying at Loughborough University. He’d come to Spalding with Sue. Sue and I had been sort of an item for a very short time. Things got a teeny bit messy between us. Just to get back at me, she told me she’d spoken to Hendrix in the bar of The Red Lion Hotel, where he was staying. She said the man I’d just seen take his temper out on a Fender Stratocaster by burning it, was in reality very polite and well-behaved. Just imagine, if only our brief fling had lasted a little longer I could’ve met one of the greatest guitarists in rock ‘n’ roll history. I still blame her.
1967 was certainly one year in the 60s to remember. It truly was the golden year of rock on both sides of the Atlantic, never to be repeated – a period when it was still possible to see the bands that changed rock music forever playing small gigs before they took the world by storm.
Copyright © 2014, 2017 Bryan Hemming. This article has been re-edited.
You can hear one of the only sound recordings made at the first rock festival in the world below.