Posts Tagged ‘festivals’

Monday, June 15th, 1998

Rock Festivals

(This piece first appeared in a festivals supplement in The Guardian Guide in 1998. Someday I will blog about my various Glastonbury experiences)

It used to be just the three – Glastonbury, Reading, and, for those bringing up the rear on the evolutionary scale, the metalfest at Donnington. Now, to cope with the sludge-like, eclectic spread of indie culture, there seem to be festivals every weekend during the Summer months in Britain – from T In The Park to Phoenix to Fleadh. Every weekend, under leaden skies between June and late August, some ferret-faced, saucer-eyed little Shed Seven fan will be turning green at his first tote on a spliff, some bleary, denim clad fat bloke will be sinking into the horizontal slime, clutching a half-empty can of Guiness and bellowing “Blleaaooorraagggghhhh!!” at anyone who will listen, some hapless bassist from a declining Britpop band will be dodging handfuls of mud at 1.20 in the afternoon on Second Stage. Once upon a time, the music industry practically took the Summer off – now it seems like the busiest time of the year.

Rock festivals are predicated on idyllic notions. They foster the idea that there is such a thing as a rock community, a “we”, a counter-culture, who periodically gather together in a field to show “our” strength in numbers. They represent a slight, ecologically friendly return to a halcyon age before the poisonous sprawl of the City stamped out the peasantry of Merrie England, their fiddlers, their troubadours and their stilt walkers in jester’s hats. Glastonbury especially hints at this, with its fieldfuls of herbalists, tree-worshippers and near-naked 50 year old hippies whittling sticks and so forth. The suggestion is that England was a happy land of tye’n’die, lentil stews and jugglers before the horrors of the machine age.

Bull-shit. Rock festivals are actively the reverse of all of this. Counter-culture? A generation ago there was cynicism about that phrase. Today’s hard-bitten adolescents are no more aware of the existence of the phrase counter-culture than they are familiar with the details of the Profumo affair. “We” has given way to “I”. I wanna get stoned, pissed, shagged, up the front , out of the house for the weekend. Holding hands and forming a human daisy chain of peace, love and understanding is about as high on the list of priorities of today’s festygoer as remembering to pack a cummerbund.

If this spirit of hippie brotherhood ever existed, it probably died after punk. Back in 1978, Steve Hillage, formerly of Gong, joined Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey onstage for a rendition of “If The Kids Are United”. The cross-generational symbolism should have been obvious. However, as they reached the last chorus of “They will nevah – be divid-ed!” an enormous punk skinhead bounded on stage and bellowed into the mic, “And if the hippies don’t like that they can fuck off!”

Ecologically sound? I think not. With their lethal combination of electricity generators, queues of second-hand cars with dodgy exhaust pipes, discarded condoms and cracked plastic beakers and veggieburger-induced flatulence, all slowly marinating in the rising, acrid stench of unwashed crusty, festivals are as ecologically sound as a rusty ex-nuclear sub washed up in Hackney Marshes. The only thing that’s recycled at festivals are the riffs. Seen from above, the vast, filthy, unkempt sprawl that constitutes a festival gathering can be witnessed for what it is – an indelible, embarrassing skidmark on the underpants of Nature. You suspect that Mother Nature is sending out a strong hint of Her own in that, even when droughts and hose-pipe bans prevail elsewhere in the country, She always ensures that festivals are entrenched in unfeasible amounts of mud. All it ever seems to take, for instance, is a light shower in February to ensure that Glastonbury’s fields are reduced to the consistency of quicksand come June.

Far from representing some bucolic idyll, festivals are a grim, apocalyptic hint at the shambles society would fall into if we were ever to be damnfool enough to give up the bourgeois, man-made benefits civilisation has bestowed upon us. Who wants to live in the 13th century? Take the toilets. One doesn’t wish to come on like Private Godfrey but – well, last year, rows of pleasantly antiseptic-looking blue tardis-type kiosks were provided at most festivals. Step inside and you realised that among the luxuries they provided, drainage was not one of them. As one urinated, one was forced to stare down a metallic hole to a river collective waste akin to the Styx. The toilet chain also provided hung there with deadpan irony. And this was backstage. I ventured out among the poor wretches lying prostrate in their own body fluids out front and couldn’t find any facilities whatsoever. I’m told they’re there somewhere but evidently I wasn’t hiring the right firm of private detectives.

The notion of festivals as a great leveller is also false. A class system as rigid as that observed circa World War 1 prevails. Up on the hills, you have the folk in the big, fuck off caravans with picket fences and propane accessories. Further down the valleys you have the wretches, cannon fodder for the moshpits, subsisting as best they can in flimsy tents at the mercy of roaming thugs, drunks, bikers, drug-dealers and TV crews looking for “atmosphere”. There’s backstage, where we, the journalists quaff, chatter and occasionally venture out from the marquees to stare out in horror at the wretched civilians being kept at bay from us by burly stewards, marvelling at the sheer frightfulness of it all. Then there are the bands, who no longer deign even to appear backstage any more but buzz down by helicopter, bound onstage and bond fraudulently with the throng, affecting to be just ordinary la’s like them, before helicoptering straight off again to the nearest four star hotel where they’re on the phone to reception if there’s no mint on their pillow.

Of course, there are things to see and do at festivals. You can buy things. If ever you feel the urge to buy a flowing, tassled, purple scarf, for instance, festivals are your place. There’s food. If you fancy a portion of chips arranged in those cone containers which ensure that only the first seven chips are properly salted and vinegared then, hey nonny nonny, get thee hence to the rock festival. You can see bands. This is an experience that can easily be simulated at home, however. To recreate the sight, place an album sleeve of your favourite combo at the bottom of your garden and marvel that those faraway little figures are actually your heroes. As for the sound, insert the CD and attach your sound system to a garden swing, pushing violently back and forth to get that unique, what-a-band-sounds-like-at-a-festival event.

You’re better off watching it all on TV – indeed, with this in mind, festival organisers have actually been considerate enough in recent years to provide television sets backstage. Not that I’m suggesting that music journalists would dream of reviewing bands from the comfort of the beer tent rather than join their comrades, the kids, out in the mud – that would be a libel on an overworked and under-regarded body of men and women. However, it’s nice to know they’re there.

After all this, there may be a handful of you who will turn up regardless at Glasters, Reading, Phoenix and the rest. You may, perhaps, be young, naive, prepared to rough it, suffused with a zest for life and a wide-eyed curiosity for new experiences and unorthodox types – and above all, desperate for a shag. In which case, there’s no talking to you . .