When Dance Music History Was Made: The Real Story Behind Paul Oakenfold’s Stonehenge Set
You’ve seen the videos, you’ve read the hype, you’ve heard the tales. But the actual details of how Paul Oakenfold’s set at Stonehenge come to be, stretches much deeper and is much more significant than you might initially assume…
In the beginning..
Stonehenge’s 5500-year-old story comprises countless significant chapters. Thousands of footnotes happen there every day as tourists flock from all corners attracted to its rich mystique, history and energy. They propose there, scatter ashes there, they pray there, they mediate there. On September 21st, 1915 people even auctioned there as the stones were sold when the last private owner died in the World War One.
They were bought by a man named Cecil Chubb. He paid a cool £6,600 for the sacred monument (the equivalent of around £485,000 today). Three years later, in one of the most significant and pivotal chapters in the historic site’s story, he donated them to the nation. There was just one proviso; that the site was maintained, respected and open to the public.
That was on October 26th, 1918. Almost exactly 100 years later, on September 13 2018, the stones would be home to another significant and pivotal chapter. Both for Stonehenge and contemporary music: the first ever official concert performance was held there. Not just on the site but directly among the ancient stones themselves.
While tens of thousands of revellers visited the site every year between 1974 and 1985 during the site’s famous free solstice festivals where a stage was erected in an adjacent field, no one had ever held an official gig actually on the monument site. Rumour has it Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones had both attempted to do it in the late 70s and the only act to ever come close was Ryan Adams. In 2008 the US singer announced he would perform in stone circle… Only to cancel it weeks later due to fears of crowd safety.
11 years later, it finally did happen. But it wasn’t a pop star who’d take the claim. It wasn’t even one of the UK’s many influential heritage acts. It was a DJ.
A whole other Universe
“When English Heritage asked me if I’d consider organising events for them I jokingly said ‘I’ll only do something if it’s Stonehenge’. I honestly thought ‘no’ would be their only possible answer,” laughs Alon Shulman. The man behind the event, Alon has a decorated history in a variety of fields. Literally; not only did his company produce and promote events like the game changing Tribal Gathering in the early 90s and continue to stage events under his iconic Universe brand, but he’s also, among myriad other capacities, a special advisor to English Heritage. “I was unaware that they had been considering exactly how to showcase the organisation to a wider audience. Where else would you do such a thing but the jewel in the English Heritage crown? They almost instantly agreed – at least I felt they did. And I almost instantly called Paul.”
That’s Paul Oakenfold to you and I. A man whose own decorated history includes, among myriad influential manoeuvres, performances on The Great Wall Of China and, just last year, base camp Mount Everest. If any DJ was on track to be the first play at the monument on ground that’s united people and provided them with an energy for over 180 generations, it was Paul.
“When Alon called me I couldn’t believe it could happen. But of course I said ‘yes!’” said Oakenfold. “Alon makes the impossible possible, so I knew that his attention to detail would make this work and that it would be amazing. Of course I wanted in! I was incredibly honoured that English Heritage were so behind this and me. I flew in straight from DJ duties at the World Cup in Russia to London for their Summer Garden Party and could see that we all had the same excitement starting to build up. Suddenly I realised that It was all systems go!”
“We all came into alignment at that moment and suddenly everyone was working together,” agreed Alon. “The artist being on board is one thing but the land owner also wanting to do the event? That was an exceedingly positive thing.”
It was positive in a number of ways. Positive for dance music but also the very reason for this event was even more positive on a larger scale. The whole MO was to advertise English Heritage. Previously funded by the government, the organisation is now a business and a charity that’s tasked to reduce their subsidies to zero within the next five years. This event was done for all the right reasons. It wasn’t for a big corporate brand to increase dividends to shareholders, this was to promote one of England’s most prized organiations and ensure the country’s rich cultural landmarks are respected, maintained and enjoyed by generations to come.
Ancient & Justified
“Then there was the question of exactly how we were going to actually do it,” reflects Alon. “This had never been done before. The bureaucracy alone was beyond anything that you’d normally ever have to deal with. Every single detail had to be considered and agreed, signed and insured. But most importantly, it had to be kept completely, and I mean absolutely, confidential. That being said – I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to deliver it – all I had to do was to turn my concept into a shared vision.”
Here’s where this particular chapter of the Stonehenge story gets interesting; the cat could not be let out of the bag at all. If it did, the event would go the same way as Ryan Adams’ attempt. This was to be a private, invite only, event that no one, besides tech providers such as Denon DJ, the authorities, the military (due to the air space permits for drones) and a few key members of Stonehenge staff, could know about.
Details, dates and times were kept strictly on a need to know basis, the circle needed to be kept tight. Which is no mean feat when you’re working on a Neolithic site where there’s no power or facilities and any type of marquee or construction was completely out of the question. Let alone the fact it’s one of the UK’s busiest landmarks that attracts well over one million visitors every year.
“Members of the public who maybe have flown from as far as China and have booked up to a year in advance want to see Stonehenge in all its glory and spirituality, and quite right too” admits Alon. “They don’t want to see us, or deserve to have us disrupt their experience, setting things up. Also we didn’t want to give the game away. If anyone saw us then word would spread and it would be mayhem. This meant we had a very tight window to set up.”
Especially in September when the sun sets around 7.20pm and the monument closes at 6pm. This gave Alon and his team just over an hour set up the DJ equipment, lights, lasers and mapping projectors and get their guests on site. Oh, and no vehicles were permitted within 100 metres of the monument, meaning kit had to be carried manually. In the case of the DJ booth, it had to constructed manually on site.
“Everything had to be rethought,” explains Alon “I sat down and realised that I had to look at why no one else had managed to pull this off, look at what they had tried to do and go in the opposite direction. We also started worrying about sound; how the vibrations might affect the stones and how the audience would hear the sound. Even with a top quality system, the wind on that plain would take the sound away.”
While Alon worked on a silent disco solution and many other production puzzles, Paul was investing just as much attention to detail on his side as he watched over 30 sunsets in Ibiza over the summer experimenting with records and ideas that would complement the unique one-of-a-kind set he was about to perform. He and Alon also wrote a track that would become the set finale. Titled Stonehenge, the evocative set piece features the sound of druidic chanting and sounds influenced by the site.
“I always put a lot of thought into my music but I’ve never had to plan a set quite like this,” explains Oakenfold. “I’d watch the sunset every night with a bag over my shoulder with thousands of tracks loaded up inside it so I could flick through and see which tunes would fit with a sunset and also at which point. I was still perfecting this the night before the gig itself! The difficulty with a sunset is that timing is vital, there are no second chances and the when the sun drops it starts to move faster than you realise. And remember, this was also being recorded for a live album. Alon kept sending me sunset timings and various charts so that I could tap into the various stages of sunset from twilight to the nautical sunset and everything in between.”
Practice makes Perfecto
While Paul was absorbing and considering every solar detail, Alon’s phone was beginning to heat up. In late August, DJ Mag had announced that Paul’s performance would happen in September. “It didn’t stop ringing. Everyone wanted to know about it,” explains Alon who’d made the decision to bring a few key publications and broadcasters into the fold while hinting at a variety of different dates.
Everything then went into overdrive on September 12 as they conducted a rehearsal. “It went incredibly well… Eventually,” laughs Alon. “Nobody knew, even the people at Stonehenge because they live locally and might tell their friends. There was also a private session at the stones. They didn’t think anything was going on, neither did the security, so they let them carry on. We didn’t actually get moving things in until 7.30pm and by 7.45pm it was getting dark. We were running three, 100 meter cables as the sun sets, plugging in the lights and hoping it all gets working. We were moments away from not being able to rehearse at all.”
But they did rehearse. And even that came with its own problems… This was the first time they’d seen the projections mapped onto the ancient stones. They were more overwhelming than Alon or Paul had expected. Or, for that matter, the traffic on the nearby dual carriageway the A303.
“There was a huge amount of social media chatter. Aliens have landed! What’s going on at Stonehenge? Something’s happening! And there we were with great big flames projected onto Stonehenge! To be honest, as I watched a virtual waterfall cascading down the stones, I was worried we’d overdone it and also that the cat and the bag were suddenly not in the same hemisphere!”
At 6am on Thursday September 13, the big day, that worry became an all-out concern. “I had a call from my assistant who simply said ‘Stonehenge is trending’ and hung up” Alon explains. “The immediate reaction was ‘it’s got to be do with us’ and for a moment it was panic stations.”
It turned out to be a false alarm. Stonehenge was trending due to Twitter’s reaction to a Russian state TV interview with two agents stating they were tourists on holiday in nearby Salisbury and that they had planned to visit the monument. In some ways it created a suitable diversion but in Alon’s words the day was running away with them. His job now was to keep a lid on the event until it kicked off, keep press at bay, make sure the production was set up in time for his guests to arrive and to hope that the UK weather was going to play ball.
Starry Eyed Surprise
“It exceeded expectations,” smiles Alon who paid attention to the last detail. When the guests arrived, who ranged from fellow seminal selectors such as Terry Farley, Danny Rampling, Mark Moore, Nancy Noise to various industry figureheads from the world of entertainment (movie star, Andy Serkis for one), they were handed sunglasses so they could watch the sun setting behind Paul as he played and lanterns for once it had finally set. They were handed headphones as they alighted and walked up to the monument to the sound of Andrea Bocelli from the start of Paul’s set. Alon explains how they continued walking up to the rope that wondering when they’d be told to stop. “They kept getting closer and closer and that’s when they realised I’d arranged that they could dance in the sacred circle. It was out of this world. The booth wasn’t fenced off, if you wanted to talk to Paul you could. People were crying in the stones, people got very emotional.”
Paul’s final draw was his and Alon’s Stonehenge track. As its evocative intro erupted so did the projected flames on the stones. Then, like a magician’s final trick, Alon pulled out one last surprise as Carl Cox stepped up to perform a full back to back set with Paul. As if the event wasn’t quite unique enough, the two foundation DJs took the small gathering to another level with a timeless selection that complement both of each other’s styles. “Obviously people had seen him there, he was a guest like everyone else,” says Alon. “But few people knew they’d be playing together.”
“It was magnificent actually,” he continues. “I’m there looking at Carl and Paul and people dancing. I can see a row of cars on the A303 looking at what’s going on. There are drones flying overhead, the stones are up in flames and I can almost hear Steven Spielberg overhead shouting ‘cut!’”
in 30 years time it will be looked back on as a moment when electronic dance music was finally fully accepted
Alon and his team had done something no event organiser had ever done; they’d secured a location steeped in history, mystique and spiritual energy, an ancient monument that no DJ had every played before, and they turned it into an immersive, unique celebration of both ancient heritage and dance music heritage.
“A journalist from Rolling Stone said it was one of the most important music events of all time,” says Alon. “I disagreed with him at first, but they explained that in 30 years time it will be looked back on as a moment when electronic dance music was finally fully accepted and understood by the powers that be. I had to concede that. This was approved right that way up. More importantly, the support meant we could concentrate on delivering the experience that this deserved to be. I mean they could have booked any number of artists to do the first concert there; Ed Sheeran, Adele, McCartney, Elton …”
They could have. But it was much more foresighted to have dance music as the first Stonehenge concert. This was the perfect way to engage younger audiences and expose them to something that genuinely is great about Britain; its beauty and its deep ancestral historical landscape. The event will also raise money for English Heritage as Paul’s sunset mix is being made into an album that generates funds directly for the organisation.
“I’ve credited every single guest individually at that event on that album,” explains Alon. “That’s unheard of but we were all part of something incredibly special. After the performances Paul and Carl brought me up between them and as everyone cheered told me “You did it!” But I didn’t as I pointed out to them and the audience – WE did it! Thinking about it now … To be dancing in the stones, with my headphones on, the circle all lit up, in a place where 5000 years ago someone’s ancestors were there….” He pauses for a moment.
“You connect with your history don’t you? I mean this is where man has been before and will be in the future. It makes you realise how insignificant you are in the much grander scheme of time. We’re preserving Stonehenge for the future. This is just one small part of a much larger story.”
Insignificant yes in the grander scheme of time, but significant in the acute and essential nature of the present; thousands of footnotes may happen there every day, people have proposed there, scattered ashes there, prayed and meditated there. Once people even auctioned there, now we can also say we’ve danced there. Stonehenge’s 5500-year-old story continues…