Festival founder Pete Lawrence talks about how the Big Chill was born out of London’s eclectic music scene, and why there’s been a reaction against corporate interests eroding the festival’s free spirit.
Before the ubiquity of the festival scene, with a slew of companies now capitalising on outdoor music events, the Big Chill was one of the original multi-media summer events. The festival grew out of a series of parties hosted at Islington’s Union Chapel in the ’90s. ‘It had an atmosphere that was halfway between a good squat party and an arts centre so in many ways it was a perfect ramshackle environment where we could do a multi room Big Chill,’ he says.
The parties became so popular they broke out of London. ‘We were trying to break down some of the clichés of festivals, such as big stages and audiences and create a more involved event. It had comedy, book readings, spoken word, before festivals like Latitude came along. It broke a lot of new ground and inevitably a lot of people copied it – as you find with good ideas.’
Lawrence left the Big Chill four years ago, after selling his remaining shares. So following its cancellation this year, does he think the festival is in decline? ‘One of the reasons we started was to provide an alternative with more attention to detail and gave people a bit more pleasant, considered experience – and things have been slowly drifting away from that into a more corporate money-making environment.
‘There are a lot of new festival goers that don’t know any better, I’m not denigrating teenagers at all. But if you go to the Big Chill, or did go before it was cancelled, there was a huge influx of teenagers that didn’t know anything about the history or what our original intentions were. And to them it was probably still a good experience because it still has a few vestiges of the original spirit although most of them have fallen by the wayside.
‘People don’t want a faceless bash put on by a huge corporation or monolithic company. I’m really sure there’s been a bit of reaction against them.’
Lawrence moved to London in the ’80s after receiving a call from a company he’d dealt with when working at a record shop in Reading. ‘I was returning the keys to my flat at uni and if I hadn’t walked through the door at that moment I probably wouldn’t have come to London. This was days before voicemail, it was 1983. Life is full of happy accidents.
‘When I moved here the music scene was very exciting. We’d gone through the punk thing and come out at the other side so it was getting very eclectic. I went to Glastonbury the same year I went to London and things gelled around a whole load of different sounds, whether it was folk music, or the African sounds that were coming through. The electronic thing was happening, with Herbie Hancock’s Rockit; and although Two Tone had happened, The Specials were still entering one of their interesting phases. It was just a really exciting time. Blues gospel, jazz, bluegrass became my musical diet.’
Although Lawrence has now opted for a quiet life in the country, he says there’s plenty he misses about the capital. ‘I spent the majority of my time in Stroud Green/Finsbury Park way and so I miss the neighbourhood. It’s great to live in a village and wake up seeing sheep rather than sirens but I definitely miss the buzz.’
Pete Lawrence is fundraising for his memoirs The Big Chill & Other Al Fresco Stories through publishing company Unbound, which allows authors to pitch directly to the public for backing.