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Phun City Festival…

LP Hartley’s 1953 novel ‘The Go-Between’ famously opens with the line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The phrase was never more apt than looking back at Phun City Festival, which took place on Ecclesdon Common, near Patching, between Friday 24thand Sunday 26thJuly 1970.


It was a time when the counterculture was in its pomp, when blurred utopian ideals of anarchy, LSD and personal freedom held glorious sway among the young and young-headed. Who could imagine a 21stCentury festival where a badly typewritten newsletter circulated among the crowd informing that, “Acidheads from Brighton recognised at least 10 plainclothes policein the audience last night… keep your eyes open, they’re mostly working in couples and can be dangerous.”? Or where the security’s overseen by Hell’s Angels who help themselves to the bar whenever they fancy? Or where festival-goers decide to stay on afterwards to form a temporary hippy micro-state? Such was the way of things at Phun City.


The idea first cropped up one cheerfully stoned evening at underground musician/writer Mick Farren’s Maida Vale pad, with his Finnish girlfriend, Ingrid von Essen, cartoonist Edward Barker and others. They took the idea to the popular underground zine IT and posited it as a fund-raiser. IT bit and Farren found backers, even nailing down the first ever European date by Detroit ‘White Panther’ proto-punks The MC5, of ‘Kick Out The Jams’ fame. Farren knew the Worthing area as he’d attended the local boys grammar school, and persuaded local farmer J Fitzroy Somerset to lease him a field for £1500.


Unfortunately, a couple of weeks before the event, West Sussex County Council placed an injunction on it. They withdrew it 10 days later but the damage was done and the festival’s backers pulled out. Undeterred, the decision was taken to go ahead, propped up by money from Ronan O’Rahilly (who’d owned the then-defunct pirate station, Radio Caroline), with the vague idea of making a ‘Woodstock’-style film.


Worthing, at the time, had a thriving countercultural scene, with regular concerts by acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Cream, and Black Sabbath, as well as a local arts lab who persuaded Deep Purple to come and play a benefit for them. Such people were persuaded to pitch up in the woods near the festival and assist in its construction in return for food vouchers, alongside itinerant freaksand lysergic nomads from around the country.


In his autobiography, ‘Give The Anarchist a Cigarette’, Mick Farren refers to the forest-dwelling Phun City hardcore as “boggies” (“a Neanderthal form of hippy”) building their own Narnia. They certainly existed on not much. The writer John May was among the Worthing countercultural vanguard and recalls, “A lot of acid went round in pill form on a dinner plate in the woodland.” His memories chime with many others, in that food was thin on the ground but hash and acid plentiful. However, wasted as everyone was, under the watchful eye of Pink Fairies roadie ‘Boss’ Goodman, they managed, en masse, to bodily carry the entire stage across the site since it had originally been built dangerously close to some powerlines.


Of the Hell’s Angels, it depends who you believe. The local papers, The Worthing Herald and Worthing Gazette, were keen to write of bikers bullishly patrolling the site “sporting studded leather jackets, some carrying motorcycle chains” and referring to them as “thugs” who “roughed up the hippies”. However, anecdotes related by festival-goers are more positive, although reports of them nicking copious booze from the bar and burning the site’s polka-dotted, giant mushroom art sculptures as firewood, appear to be true.


The local press were also keen to emphasise the importance of “the Jesus Tent”, and links with local churches. They did not report that this tent was briefly taken over by the festival’s poetry line-up, whose venue was never erected. Thus narcotic writing legends William Burroughs and Alex Trocchi, and anarchist art maverick Jeff Nuttall, held forth until outraged Christians objected and a tussle ensued. Burroughs, clad in a leather great coat, collapsed in a corner due to his excesses and was carried, comatose, to the medical tent to be revived.


Bands were told the financial situation on arrival and offered the opportunity to play for expenses and “a good time”. Most accepted this, in the spirit of the era, although the inappropriately named Free turned it down and drove away. The MC5 performed a ballistic set on Sunday night, by all accounts, despite rain falling heavily on the previously sunny event. Other highlights included the Edgar Broughton Band, who turned ‘Out, Demons’ Out’ into a half hour jam, assisted by Kevin Ayers; Mungo Jerry, who jovially dismissed their own monster hit, ‘In The Summertime’ and didn’t play it; and The Pink Fairies, who, after asking why the audience weren’t stripping naked and “being free”, did so themselves.


Other musical attractions included Mighty Baby, Third Ear Band, Michael Chapman, Cochise and Demon Fuzz, although it’s unclear if Gerry Rafferty & pre-fame Billy Connelly’s folk band The Humblebums made it. Many who attended had as much fun hanging out in the Fairground inflatable dome, 100 feet across and 50 feet high, boasting lightshows, jammed music, films such as ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and vast quantities of all-night marijuana smoking.


At some point seminal Middle Earth/UFO DJ Jeff Dexter span some tunes, meanwhile era-defining zines such as IT, Oz and Friends also had a presence. An event that many remember, and which was reported in the local press, was when a small group of plainclothes police were pointed out from the stage. Festival attendees roundly abused and chivvied them until they left.


Originally conceived as an event for 20,000, Phun City was eventually attended by around 3000, most of whom were hardcore heads. So much so that a few hundred decided to stay in the woods afterwards and wait it out until the Isle of Wight Festival at the end of August. Worthing’s local Old Bill, having none of it, went in mob-handed and evicted them.


Phun City was not the first free festival, but it was a small milestone in countercultural history and, as one of the local papers put it at the time, “the biggest thing that has ever happened in Worthing.” Now that our local outsider art scene is gathering pace, perhaps we should see that as a challenge.


Phun City 2017, anyone?


Thomas would like to thank John May, the late Mick Farren and for their help. This article was previously published in the Action Zine.


By Thomas H Green