Sunday, 26 June 2022

Up On The Downs, Across The Bridge And Into The Festival

After my confession yesterday on A History Of Dubious Taste that I've never been to the Glastonbury festival, today's selection focuses on a festival that I did go to lots and lots during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Officially named the Bristol Community Festival, no-one I knew ever called it that. To us, it was the Ashton Court Festival…even in 2001 when it had to temporarily relocate to suburban Hengrove due to the foot and mouth crisis.

The Ashton Court Festival was a highlight of the summer traditionally taking place in mid-July, sandwiched between the St. Pauls Carnival on the first weekend of July and the Balloon Fiesta (also in the grounds of Ashton Court) in August.

The festival was as much about the journey as the being there and as much about the coming together of friends and random reunions with people you hadn't seen for ages as it was about the music. Wherever we lived or were starting out from, the initial rendezvous was occasionally The Bunch Of Grapes in the city centre, but more commonly one of the pubs skirting the edge of Durdham Downs. 
After a couple of pints whilst waiting for everyone to turn up, it was then on foot across the Clifton Suspension Bridge and into the grounds of Ashton Court. One thing that never changed was underestimating how bloody far it was from the entrance gate to the festival itself, usually necessitating one or more of the party to make a swift detour into the trees for a piss en route. It was quite a feeling though, as the journey there would gradually build to a critical mass of people all making their way to the same destination.
In the early days, the festival was free and unbound; festival volunteers would come around with a collection bucket at some point and that was your "entrance fee". Eventually, rising costs and security requirements saw the introduction of fences and admission fees, but it was still bloody good value, even if you only went on one day as we invariably did. It was pretty much Saturday only for us, for the simple reason that we could drink, dance and generally get off our heads (chemically assisted or not) all day long with the promise of a lie-in, full English at the local greasy spoon and hair of the dog at the pub the following afternoon and no worries until Monday came around.

The festival increasingly started bringing in 'big name' headline bands towards the end, from the brilliant (Stereo MC's) to the truly awful (Simple Minds) before coming to a sad end in 2007. It always remained a great showcase for local bands, arguably playing to their biggest audiences, even if the vast majority were either occupied with reunions, making out with complete strangers or expanding or contracting their consciousness in a variety of ways. And then there was the inevitable sighting of Thong Man, the pot bellied, heavily tanned and bearded man, all-but naked but for sunglasses, biker boots and a black leather codpiece. I long suspected it was Roy Wood of Wizzard fame trawling the festival incognito but I never had definitive proof. 

I usually left the festival with happy memories, friendships rekindled, a mother of a hangover and sunburn, but it was always a no-brainer that we'd be back there again the following year. 

Today's selection draws on a few of those Ashton Court Festival highlights, mainly from the 1990s and 2000s as, to be honest, I can barely remember those and the late 1980s are almost completely blank. With the exception of Lush and Smith & Mighty, I'm struggling to recall if I've seen any of these acts again outside of the festival. There's a very heavy sprinkling of local bands, several of which are still going strong today. I'd recommend checking out Kid Carpet if you've not had the pleasure before, including his brilliantly bonkers Noisy TV shows on YouTube
1) Rubber Dub: Babyhead (2003)
2) Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do (Album Version): Goldie Lookin' Chain (2004)
3) Hide U (Album Version): Kosheen (2001)
4) Skunk Song: Skunk Anansie (1995)
5) Bumble Bee: Citizen Fish (1997)
6) Nelson Street Space Invaders: Kid Carpet (2004)
7) The Anti-Racist Dub Broadcast: Mad Professor (1994)
8) Heroes (Album Version): Roni Size Reprazent ft. Onallee (1997)
9) Zion Youth (Dreadzone Mix): Dreadzone (1995)
10) Guiding Star: The Rhythmites (1988)
11) Ladykillers (Demo/Ruff Mix '95): Lush (1995)
12) Jacket Hangs (Album Version): The Blue Aeroplanes (1990)
13) Positive I.D. (Album Version): Renegade Soundwave (1994)
14) Flash Of Joy: Smith & Mighty ft. Tammy Payne (2002)
15) Roads (Monk & Canatella Remix): Portishead (2009)*
16) Something 4 The Weekend: Super Furry Animals (1996)

* Yes, a cheat I know as it's a 2009 remix, but Portishead did perform Roads back in 1998.


  1. Great to read more about this after your mention of it recently at mine, it sounds brilliant. Interested to hear too about how it started as a free festival and the collection bucket - how lovely and uncorporate, imagine trying to do that now.... Last night, in keeping with festival season spirit, we watched the film 'Message To Love' about the Isle Of Wight 1970 festival, and where it all kicked off when a load of people didn't want to pay the admission fee, how it all got a bit ugly and chaotic, especially on the other side of the fences... fascinating to see how much everything has changed.
    Great selection of music too - good to see Skunk Anansie here and I'm looking forward to catching footage of them from this year's Glastonbury.

    1. Thanks, C, yes there was a lovely feeling that somehow it all just came together but even then must have required immense planning and, as Mike notes below, support from the Council as it seemed more about reputation than profit. Unthinkable, now.

      Also, incredible to think that the early years were pre-mobile phones, let alone social media. Any missed rendezvous at the pub would be "by the dance tent" or some other on-site landmark or occasionally completely random, hours later, but somehow it always worked out.

      I haven't seen the Skunk Anansie Glasto set on iPlayer yet but have seen photos. That's some headpiece Skin's wearing!

  2. re: the bucket - I think it often ran at a loss and Bristol County Council effectively bailed it out. As rising costs hit then there was a charge but it was nominal. TBH I loved the early versions and got a bit less into it when there had to be a 'headliner' at the end. As 'C' suggests it was lovely and uncorporate and just a joy to be there. I'm not a great 'festival' fan and i think i always compared festivals i went to after the AC festival and i just thought they weren't as good... it was the rambling, unkempt amateur nature of it that kept me interested.

    1. I agree, Mike, I liked the fact that it was a chance for the likes of Citizen Fish, The Rhythmites and Rita Lynch to play to a festival crowd. That said, I did enjoy some of the 'big' names - Renegade Soundwave weren't even on the main stage but were superb.

      I had it in mind that they'd crossed the line with planning James Brown and Lee 'Scratch' Perry one year but a quick Google and that seems to have been the unrelated Essential Festival (also at Ashton Court) in 2002.

      What I also remember is that it always seemed to be a lovely, sunny day whenever we went...although the temperature dropped rapidly when the sun set! Always fun trying to dance to keep warm in the failing light, then stumbling back out of the estate towards the city centre when it was all over.

  3. Replies
    1. Now that you mention it, who else could it have been, really?

    2. Actually it wasn't really me, I was just hoping to set off a chain of "I am Spartacus" style comments. Unsuccessfully as it turns out.

    3. At 5.44am on a Monday morning, popular cultural references were way beyond this blogger's mental capacity, Ernie. Not sure they're much better at 6:47am on a Tuesday morning, even after a brew...