For anyone who has ever been to Stonehenge for one of the four solar festivals – Summer or Winter solstice; Spring or Autumn equinox – it is impossible to think of it without thinking of some kind of music: the drumming circle that sometimes last all night, building up to a crescendo at dawn (and then continuing as the perpetual soundtrack of the sunrise celebration); the melodies of a wandering minstrel, strangely-attired saxophonist, opportunist young band with full kit, community choir, or scratch protest band; the chanting of Hare Krishnas, Pagans, Druids, and enthusiastic crowds; or even just the countless pilgrimage mixtapes listened to on the way there and again. It seems the unique Neolithic monument was designed for sound, as all who have stood within the inner circle when a great chant or cheer has been raised would agree – the stones act as tuning forks, and the circle seems to come alive with song.
Archaeacoustic theories about Stonehenge, and other prehistoric monuments, have been around for a long time, but a 2020 study by the Salford Innovation Research Centre, based at the University of Salford, confirms the design intentionality of this. The researchers rebuilt a precise 3-D printed scale model of a complete Stonehenge in their sound lab, and used this to recreate the acoustics of the third phase, when all the trilithons were locked into place, and the inner ring of bluestones from West Wales stood sentinel like a ready-made (or reconfigured) stone audience. As an aside to the latest discovery of what appears to be the proto-Stonehenge at Waun Mawn, it is interesting to note that to this day the National Eisteddfod of Wales conducts its bardic inaugurations in specially constructed stone circles, as a symbolic recreation of the ‘pocketful of stones’ its spiritual founder, Iolo Morganwg, used to create a sacred circle on Primrose Hill, in 1792. The Cornish scholar, Alan M. Kent, has noted how the Kernow Mystery Play tradition had their own equivalent Gorseth circle, the Plen an Gwari, or ‘playing place’ (with two surviving, the Plain in St Just, Penwith; and St Pirran’s Round in Perranporth). And across the Greco-Roman world the amphitheatre took this basic concept to its zenith, such as in the theatre of Epidaurus, which could seat 14,000 people, who were able to hear a stage whisper from a performer standing on its proscenium stage. And yet, according to the scientific modelling of the Salford researchers, it seems Stonehenge was not designed to enhance this acoustic effect for a large gathering, but only those standing within the inner circle. Susan Greaney, senior properties historian for English Heritage, concludes that: ‘the results show that music, voices or percussion sounds made at the monument could only really be heard by those standing within the stone circle, suggesting that any rituals that took place there were intimate events.’
Writer Paul Deveraux has made an in-depth study of archeoacoustics, which he summarises in his 2001 book, Stone Age Soundtracks. It is hard to disavow the heightened acoustics of sites like the underground Neolithic temple, Metageum, in Malta, or of Newgrange (where, it has been noted, drumming creates observable patterns in the dust-mote laden shards of sunlight that seem to be encoded in the chevrons and spirals of the petroglyphs adorning its passage and entrance stones). The ‘vibes’ of such places have led to artistes like Julian Cope actually recording within chambered barrows (‘Paranormal in the West Country’, from his 1994 album Autogeddon, was recorded in West Kennet long barrow). The Beatles visited Stony Littleton long barrow, while the guests of Sergeant Peppers’ cover artist, Peter Blake, in Wellow. Whether they made any music there is unknown, but Ringo apocryphally said, ‘It’s a great place to get stoned.’
Yet, even with a plethora of educated guesses there is a telling absence of instruction tablets from the archeoarchitects, So, pending the discovery of a ‘Rosetta Stone’, the jury is still out on whether prehistoric monuments were sonic temples, or if the phenomenon is just an interesting side-effect.
Nevertheless, the Counter Culture has not shirked in providing its own Stone Age soundtrack for Stonehenge. Most people associate Stonehenge with one song, the satirical rock anthem, ‘Stonehenge’ from This is Spinal Tap (1984). It is hard not to think of it without images of diminutive descending megaliths and pratfalling little people being conjured from the dry ice of movie memory.
And yet in the same year as Rob Reiner’s comedy classic, the prog-rock band who is entwined with Stonehenge more than any other, Hawkwind, was playing an epic summer solstice set at what was to be the last Stonehenge Free Festival. With their lysergically-enhanced sci-fi flavoured psychedelia, legendary light shows, epic lyrics by New Wave author Michael Moorcock, body-painted dancers, and Warp Factor 10 wildness, Hawkwind were the unofficial laureates of Stonehenge.
When the Stonehenge Free Festival was smashed in the Battle of the Beanfield of 1985 it seemed like the silver machine of the Counter Culture had been shot down in flames, but its spirit re-emerged in the road protest movement that was to be a rallying point throughout the late 80s and 90s. During a 15 year exclusion zone around Stonehenge during the times of the solstices, raggle-taggle bands like the Spacegoats and the Poison Girls kept the spirit of the Free Festival going, their pixie-punk offerings conveying messages of ecological awareness and anarchy.
With the opening up of access for the summer solstice in 2000 many old veterans were reunited and new bloods were initiated into the Stonehenge family, a Hakim Bey ‘temporary autonomous zone’ or Brigadoon that continues to manifest (excluding periods of pandemic lockdown) at the solar festivals once more, albeit in a more civilised, co-ordinated way – with infrastructure such as parking, toilets, lighting, and walkways, provided by English Heritage, to manage the often large crowds. And new stars have emerged in this Neolithic platform for a new millennium – made internationally famous by the news crews and, increasingly so, by the smartphone footage shared on social media – including the striking crimson ensemble known as the Shakti Sing Choir, who introduce some quality harmonies to an often ragged, and discordant, free-for-all. Yet Stonehenge is nothing if not a broad church, and all are welcomed – whatever their ability. This is part of its popularity, resilience, and unique ambience – it offers a chance for everyone to shine, to have their moment in the sun, ‘under the eye of light’ as the druids say. It offers a world-famous platform for exhibitionists, the ultimate busking spot, but also for everyone to dress up, strut their stuff, and have a good time. Some have used Stonehenge as a backdrop for their own pop videos or comedy routines – the Norwegian comedy duo, Ylvis, combined the two in their own mock-anthem of 2013, ‘Stonehenge’; Germanic rapper Kellegah throws Stonehenge into the mix in his song of 2019 without any apparent significance; while Soundgarden’s grungy ‘Exit Stonehenge’ of 1994 starts with the memorable line, ‘Jesus I can’t feel my penis.’ And yet, in contrast, gentle, heartfelt songs such as Kellianna’s ‘Stonehenge’ evoke the spiritual feelings of many a pilgrim to the stones. Without a doubt, music and spirituality go hand-in-hand at Stonehenge – it provides an expression of belief system, ideology, and lifestyle.
Let us end our brief foray into the music of Stonehenge with a song which, although it doesn’t mention the iconic stone circle and was composed amid the concrete sarsens of the capitol, seems to evoke the spirit of the very best of the gatherings to have graced such places over the years – David Bowie’s ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ from his second self-titled album of 1969. This was actually inspired by a free festival he had helped organise at the bandstand of Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16th August, 1969, to raise funds for the Beckenham Arts Lab, which was formative to his artistic development. Both a paean and a eulogy for a golden day, it ends with a chorus that could sum up the hopes of many a pilgrim-reveller, making their way to the stones for the solstice, ‘The song machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party…’
Guest Blogger: Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Herepath: a Wiltshire songline. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of the Marlborough Downs (where he lives) and beyond. www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk
Spinal Tap – ‘Stonehenge’ (1984)
Hawkwind – ‘Hawkwind Solstice At Stonehenge’ (1984)
Shatki Sings Choir – ‘May We Live in Peace’ (2015)
Ylvis – ‘Stonehenge’ (2013)
Spacegoats – ‘Thirteen Moons in Motion’ (1994)
Soundgarden – ‘Exit Stonehenge’ (1994)
Poison Girls – ‘Stonehenge’ (2004)
Kellianna – ‘Stonehenge’ (2004):
Paul Oakenfield – ‘b2b CARL COX at Stonehenge‘
Relevant Stonehenge Links:
Heavy rock music: Stonehenge was a ‘neolithic rave venue’ – Daily Mail
The first-ever scale model of Stonehenge that lets researchers explore how the monument would have sounded in its heyday has been created by UK researchers. – Stonehenge News Blog
Salford scientists reveal the ‘sound of Stonehenge’ – The Guardian
Stonehenge Private Access Inner Circle Tours – Stonehenge Guided Tours
Stonehenge enhanced sounds like voices or music for people inside the monument – Science News
Scientists recreate prehistoric acoustics of Stonehenge – The Independent
Stonehenge enhanced voices and music within the stone ring – Science for Students
Stonehenge Solstice and Equinox Tours – The Stonehenge Tour Company
The lost sounds of Stonehenge – BBC