Rugby Rag Blues Festival in 1969
A big thank you to former Advertiser reporter John Phillpott who has written this week’s edition for us - reflecting on the 1969 Rugby Rag Week Blues Festival, which he covered at the time.
You might remember John helped us with that mystery postcard earlier this year, having investigated the original story 50 years ago.
He mentioned the anniversary of this huge music festival was coming up and has given us this a fascinating account...
Sam Cutler. Now that’s a name to conjure with. It’s got a sort of 19th century ring to it… the kind of moniker you might encounter in a music hall ballad about a Whitechapel villain.
Except that it wasn’t the case. Well, not on this occasion. Because this particular Sam Cutler was not only the road manager for the Rolling Stones, but actually stayed at the grimy flat in James Street, Rugby, where my mates and I dossed back in that late, long-lost summer of 1969.
Two months previously he’d done the announcing at the Stones in the Park gig. This had been the requiem for Brian Jones, the band’s founder and former guitarist who three days previously had died in mysterious circumstances.
But now the man who famously labelled the Stones ‘The greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ had smaller fish to fry… The Rugby Rag’s Blues Festival.
Yes, I know, perhaps too incredible to believe. But it’s true.
This festival would prove to be a three-day event that has – perhaps unjustifiably - gone down in history as the most obscure, least known open air event of the era.
Bath, Knebworth, Isle of Wight. These are names that render many a baby boomer’s eye to become dewy-eyed, but Rugby? Never heard of it mate.
But you should have. Because for three mainly rain-drenched days in the middle of September, 1969, some of the soon-to-be greatest names in rock music would appear in a muddy field somewhat appropriately called Rainsbrook on the outskirts of a Midlands town better known for giving its name to a certain game involving an egg-shaped ball.
Pink Floyd, The Nice, Taste, King Crimson and Free. The Groundhogs, Alexis Korner, John Dummer Blues Band. Diz Disley, Mike Cooper, The Strawbs.
Phew. What a line-up. And it was here in this field that the template would be set for several score of quagmire prone rock sludge-ins over the following next few decades.
Back in 1969 I was a reporter on the Rugby Advertiser. One of my duties was to write the weekly show news page, which under my care was increasingly reporting on rock, folk and jazz gigs being staged in the town and surrounding area.
Earlier that year, a chap by the name of Chris Poole had joined the reporting staff and we soon discovered that we had similar tastes in music.
We had travelled to London to see the Stones that July and it was this momentous event that gave him the idea to stage a festival along the same lines in Rugby.
That’s where Sam Cutler came in. He was employed by Blackhill Enterprises, a management company representing a number of British top acts. And not only that - Chris knew him quite well.
Enter a woman called Maggie Gibson of the Rugby Rag Committee and the seedling of an idea soon started to grow.
The ‘Rag’, by the way, was the name given to a traditional yearly celebration staged by the town’s students and apprentices, usually marked by a carnival through the streets topped off with a ‘Beggars’ Ball’ held in the local Bridget Street drill hall.
But this year would be different. A three-day music festival would be the main attraction.
Events gathered pace. Under the stewardship of Maggie Gibson, Chris booked the bands, various others did the admin, and I was appointed press officer. Sam Cutler would be the main compere and supremo-in-chief of the whole enterprise.
Each of the three days of entertainment was categorised under the labels of rock, blues and folk. The Edgar Broughton Band from nearby Warwick was granted a prominent slot, and Rugby’s own Big Idea also featured, playing their own distinctive blend of soul-pop.
The festival started early on the Friday evening just in time for the heavens to open. Despite what seemed like an endless monsoon, around 3,000 people attended, a few brave souls even managing to spend the three days under canvas.
As for the music, the sheer variety was destined to be an indicator of what the future held… the advent of prog-rock courtesy of The Nice, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, with Taste and Free signposting the advent of heavier, blues inspired hard rock.
Edgar Broughton meanwhile laid the foundations of punk and agit-prop rock with extended choruses of Drop Out Boogie, his voice becoming ever more Captain Beefheart-esque as the song wore on… and on.
My memories after almost half a century have understandably become slightly clouded. But I do vaguely recall having a long conversation with Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs in the beer tent as we both sheltered from the rain and cold.
Later that Sunday night, I hammered out my festival report on a Remington typewriter. This would eventually translate into a two-page broadsheet spread in the following week’s edition of the Rugby Advertiser. Rock was here to stay…
But the one thing that does remain crystal clear in my memory was the next morning when Sam Cutler and I bumped into each other in the disgusting cave that we called a kitchen. The look on his face spoke volumes as he surveyed the pile of dirty dishes in that grimy little sink.
And although history records that he would have to endure the far worse horrors of Altamont speedway a few weeks later, somehow I feel that the memories of that rain-soaked field in little old provincial Rugby would forever be indelibly inscribed in his mind.
Yes, it was the end of an era. But it was also the dawn of a new one.
Footnote: Chris Poole later become pop impresario Jonathan King’s press and PR manager. John Phillpott would go on to work on a number of newspapers and contribute articles to many magazines across Britain and abroad in a career spanning more than half a century.