Historic Photo: Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984.

stonehenge free festival 84 by salix alba

This group of counterculture-y looking people gathered around the ancient monoliths of Stonehenge may look like something from the ’60s, and certainly it has a lot of continuity with that era. Actually, though, this picture was taken on June 21, 1984, during the summer solstice and the occasion of the very last occurrence of a famous rock concert and “be-in” called the Stonehenge Free Festival. I like this picture because it’s so evocative of what this event was like, with lots of long-haired dudes, women in earthy colors and flowing dresses (and one topless), bright colors, music, and a connection with the mystical and spiritual past. But note that being far from a simple retread of 1960s-70s counterculture events, the clientele in this picture appears to be pretty young. It would be one thing if these were aging hippies reliving old glories. But obviously that’s not what’s going on here, and I find that very fascinating.

The Stonehenge Free Festival came out of various political and social movements in Britain in the early 1970s, when much of the Western world was undergoing a great deal of change. An earlier event called the Windsor Free Festival, first held in 1972, was organized by rent-free and squatters’ activists to highlight what a loosely-organized, peaceful communal event would be like, and of course band performances were key, taking the example of the American Woodstock from 1969. There are reports of counterculture people gathering at Stonehenge on the summer solstice in 1972, but the first true Stonehenge Free Festival occurred two years later after Windsor was violently broken up by police. Over eleven years numerous bands and musicians from Hawkwind to Roy Harper to Jimmy Page played at Stonehenge. As with Woodstock and other similar events, drugs played a major role at the Free Festivals.

The 1984 festival was the largest ever, with 65,000 attendees by some accounts. Hawkwind (Lemmy of Motörhead fame’s old band), Here & Now, The Enid and Roy Harper played. Evidently the relatively laid-back drug scene of the early days had given way to a much harder edge, with heroin and other hard drugs more visible than before; by the 1980s the punk scene was occupying part of the void that hippies had vacated since their decline in the 1970s, and some biker gangs were also in attendance (that had been a problem at ’60s festivals as well, such as the infamous Altamont). Nonetheless a lot of people have very fond, positive memories of Stonehenge ’84. I found some interesting reminiscences on the web here and here. Whenever I do an article about a long-ago rock festival people who were actually there tend to turn up in the comments section, so that may happen in relation to this article too.

Unfortunately a British court ruling in 1985 prohibited the Free Festivals from returning–at least legally–so the June 1984 gathering was the last of them. I wonder if any Free Festival veterans from the 1970s-80s eventually turned up at Wacken Open Air in the next decadeThat would be an interesting story!

This photo is by Wikimedia Commons user Salix Alba and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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3 Comments

  1. I didn’t attend the festival but am reminded of growing up in Wiltshire at a time when Stonehenge wasn’t fenced off and was free to access. I have fond memories of wandering through the stones at different times of the year. Well worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the world, especially if you combine with a visit to the less well known, but older and equally impressive, neolithic landscape at Avebury which has a larger stone circle, Silbury Hill (Europe’s largest man-made mound), and the West Kennett long-barrow.

    1. I was there, aged 26. I recognise two friends in the top left of the photo. I managed the main stage – don’t suppose you have any photos of that?

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