The festival that rocked: from humble beginnings to the Rolling Stones

The Roskilde Festival is now so old that its first attendees are now approaching senior citizenship

Norwegian pilot strike causing a mess this Pentecost weekend (photo: Cargado por Denniss)
June 28th, 2014 9:00 am| by admin
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Just ask any young Dane weaned on the rock music of the 1970s, 80s or 90s and the chances are they have a story about Roskilde Festival: camping on the commissary grounds, the people they met and the bands they enjoyed.

Tomorrow, the Roskilde Festival will open, as it has every year since 1971, to the rich anticipation of rock music fans from all over Europe. Come rain or shine (or mud or hangover), Roskilde Festival guests are ready to pitch their tents, get dirty and spend nine days in the singular worship of music.

A latecomer to muddy fields

Denmark was a latecomer to the world of outdoor festivals. Famous open-air music events such as Woodstock, Thy, Isle of Wight and Newport had already made their mark on the young generation of American and British music lovers when the trend moved to Denmark.

After a string of popular outdoor music events at venues such as Hillerød, Nyborg and Randers, the very first Roskilde Festival opened in the summer of 1971 under the name ‘Sound Festival’.

The organisers were two shady ‘music promoters’ from Copenhagen, who made such a mess of managing the show that the festival went on without them the next year. The inaugural festival lasted just two days, with 20 bands taking turns on a single stage, and attracted 10,000 concert-goers each day.

The first festival was crap

The ‘Sound Festival’ is fondly remembered for its thoroughly ‘70s spirit, but also for totally lacking any sort of quality, focus or even the bare minimum of public facilities. The 1971 list of performers read as a hodgepodge of every possible genre of music being played at the time, from fold and jazz to pop and rock.

The first festival did, however, mark the debut of a modest four-piece outfit from Christiania: Gasolin, whose name would become this country’s great hope for international rock stardom in the 1970s, often being compared with the British band Queen.  

A badly-needed change of organiser

In 1972, the city authorities decide to hand over management of the festival to the Roskilde Charity Society, a public service organisation that had worked tirelessly in Roskilde since the 1930s.

Following the Roskilde Charity Society’s management takeover in 1972, the event magically morphed into the ‘Fantasy Festival’. Some 25 bands were featured on a single stage over three days, with 15,000 music fans in attendance daily.

The future was Orange

A watershed year for the festival came in 1978. By this point, the hippy volunteers running the show had gained enough experience to know what they were doing. Festival organisers acquired what would become one of the trademarks of the Roskilde show, its Orange Canopy stage.

The stage was purchased by the Roskilde Festival from none other than this year’s headliners, the Rolling Stones, and has been a fixture of the event ever since.

Pride of the city

By the end of the festival’s first decade, even Roskilde locals began to take pride in the big summer happening. Early festivals drew a few angry ‘letters to the editor’ from Roskilde citizens who disliked the ‘strangeness’ of the event.

In the mid-1980s, festival organisers devised a plan to offer Roskilde senior citizens free admission to the festival on Sunday. The attempt to regain the support of the local community was apparently a success, and these days Sundays are free entry to all over-65s, regardless of where you come.

Firmly established

Besides the big names, Roskilde Festival became one of the premiere venues to see up-and-coming bands over the next decade. Talking Heads, U2, Elvis Costello and The Cure were all featured at Roskilde in their relative musical youth. By 1994 the festival was attracting more than 90,000 attendees per day.

Today, Roskilde’s name and reputation rank among the heavy-hitters on the European summer festival circuit. The fatal events of the 2000 Roskilde Festival, in which nine young people were crushed during a Pearl Jam set, is regarded by festival regulars as a tragic aberration. Today, the festival ranks as one of Europe’s safest outdoor music venues.

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