First of all, I should come clean: much as Mariah Carey doesn’t ‘do stairs’, for many years I simply didn’t ‘do’ music festivals. In this, as in so many matters, I had long fallen in, as it were, behind The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. The Salford bard would routinely dismiss the festival scene as the unconscionable preserve of hippies (Smith’s avowed nemeses) and has often contended that music is ‘supposed to be heard indoors’. While ‘the Fall did occasionally backslide (on one notorious occasion they graced the main stage at the Reading Festival with a drummer recruited half an hour before show time), such disdain for the lotus-eating festival ethos will be familiar to anyone brought up on punk rock and its urgent, angsty aftermath. For them, the term ‘music festival’ means old-school rock decadence and – the ultimate heresy – apathy. Hard-won, urban street smarts, they would argue, count for zilch in a clarty cow field. Like them, mine was an apparently immutable prejudice, although I very nearly made it to Glastonbury once in the late 1980’s. By then Michael Eavis’s (almost) annual jamboree was a two-decade old bastion of the summer music calendar, even if it was yet to take on the ‘gap weekend’ adolescent-rite-of-passage significance it would enjoy over the ensuing decades. It was the era of Acid House and impromptu raves in ‘hijacked’ fields; the idea of an ‘organised’ rock festival was already beginning to seem a mite anachronistic. Several friends were heading west, nonetheless, spurred by the prospect of performances from the likes of Fela Kuri, The Pixies, Throwing Muses and, er, Fairground Attraction, all of it no doubt filtered through a hazy prism of Class Bs and a high-octane scrumpy. I was almost persuaded; then, in typically British fashion, the weather intervened.
It started raining steadily on the Friday morning just as I was supposed to be trekking Glasto-wards. I had yet to address the issue of a tent. En route to Millets by bus I began idly flicking through Time Out. Outside, the desultory drizzle was becoming distinctly diluvian. Suddenly growing from the pages of the TO film section like hot coals was a preview of a Werner Herzog season running all that weekend at a (suddenly invitingly roofed) west London cinema. I knew a little about the great German director, but had yet to see any of his movies. The prospect of epic European art films about misbegotten odysseys in unforgiving South American landscapes (with a numinous soundtrack courtesy of Krautrockers Popol Vuh, the preview promised, alluringly) seemed infinitely more appetising than traversing the sodden Somerset acres to commune with The Waterboys, Van Morrison et al.
I never reached Millets, still less Glastonbury. Werner’s Meisterwerks, meanwhile, would prove transcendent and phantasmagoric – no questionable stimulants required. In the most startling of the films, Fitzcarraldo, the vainglorious ‘hero’ (played by mad-eyed Klaus Kinski) dreams of building an opera house deep in the Peruvian interior and spends the majority of the movie failing to drag a 300-tonne steamship across a vertiginous isthmus in the midst of the Andean jungle. All of which seemed – or so I persuaded myself – like a resonant metaphor for rock festivals. Transplanting metropolitan culture to the rural hinterland, so I reasoned, was an equally foolhardy indulgence and one doomed to end in Fitzcarraldian disappointment.
Of course, part of me regretted not experiencing the mighty Fela and his Egypt 80 unleashing their febrile West African polyrhythms across the rain-softened meadows (and The Pixies were supposed to have been transcendent that year …), though being introduced to the bizarre, agonised genius of Woyzeck, Aguirre, The Wrath of God and the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo seemed like a more than reasonable price to pay. I felt even better when I was later informed that that year’s Glastonbury had been heavily peppered by uniformed police constables, their presence required after several years’ worth of petty thieving from tents threatened to escalate into a Scally contagion. Despite its relative ‘organisation’, gate-crashing the ‘pre-security’ Glastonbury had long been part and parcel of its quasi-anarcho culture. But now a rot had obviously set in and the festival’s free-spirited (and yes, hippy) idealism- so much a part of the Glastonbury ethos ever since Michael Eavis, inspired by a Led Zepplin show at the Bath and West Showground, had launched the first ‘Pilton Festival’ on his Worthy Farm acreage in 1970 – was beginning to cede to the harsh socio-economics and gimlet-eyed cynicism of Thatcher’s Britain.
Since then, brutal socio-economics have become very much the norm and British musical culture has been largely annexed by Thatcher’s Children. Today, nominally ‘edgy’ music events are routinely sponsored by credit-card companies. The prime minister has to pretend to adore the Arctic Monkeys, while the leader of the Her Majesty’s Opposition would have us judge his ‘credibility’ on an avowed penchant for The Smiths. Rock music no longer carries the charge of the cultural ‘alternative’ and is in danger of becoming merely a set of universally acknowledged, fatally sanitised gestures – a bit like Dixieland jazz. Thus Glastonbury, in common with the myriad simulacra that now blacken the British summer calendar, has steadily become packaged, processed and sponsored to the point of numb homogeneity. For all that, Michael Eavis, god bless him, is still trying. A few years ago he lamented that his beloved festival was becoming the preserve of an older, middle-class clientele and sought ways to redress the balance. This year he’s been under fire (mostly from the world’s second least cosmopolitan musician, Noel Gallagher – his younger brother just edges him) for booking a hip hop act — albeit a stellar one, Jay-Z – as a headliner. For the first time in two decades, Glastonbury tickets failed to sell out in a trice. `Traditionally we’ve had a very white line-up and I’m moving away from that,’ Eavis told the BBC. ‘I’m trying to redress the balance otherwise the festival will die out with the older people.
Saturation point may have been reached. On any given weekend between the middle of May and the end of September there is a music festival happening somewhere in Britain – not to mention a tranche of European alternatives. Festival fatigue is a looming issue. That said, the lack of take-up for Glasto tickets might equally be down to some other, distinctly superannuated, headliners that rather cut against Michael Eavis’s laudable quest for youthful relevance. Seventy-four year-old Leonard Cohen and, a mere stripling at sixty-seven, Neil Diamond are unlikely to get Klaxons fans hot under the collar. Ditsy seventies pop star Gilbert O’Sullivan is also promised (while, in a boon for people who don’t actually like music – not to mention the West Country’s rotten-vegetable sellers – lachrymose, adenoidal pop twerp James Blunt is also booked). Aged rockers are suddenly à la mode at festivals. Over at the BT-sponsored Isle of Wight Festival an up-and-coming trio called The Police (combined age 177) are the main draw. Elsewhere the dispiritingly titled O2 Wireless Festival offers Morrissey and Fatboy Slim in the sylvan enclave that is London’s Hyde Park. Mayor Boris Johnson will no doubt be there in the Bollinger tent, perhaps discussing the relative merits of `First of the Gang to Die’ with David ‘Dave’ Cameron.
But for all that, Paradise is not yet Lost. Au contraire – like the Cleaner Wrasse fish who survives by following killer sharks around the ocean depths, living off the big beasts’ parasites, over the last few years a healthy tendency towards alternative ’boutique’ festivals has burgeoned, picking off acts that are too ‘out there’ or simply unknown to warrant a place on the bloated corporate bills, while also offering more established acts a convivial, less overtly commercialised arena in which to strut their stuff. More importantly, the new crop of alternative festivals offer crowds at least a hint of old-school idealism, eccentricity and an agreeable sense of communality, even if the only real intimation of anarchy arrives when the car-park stewarding goes awry on the way out.
Heartened by reports of this refreshing news, after almost two decades of resistance I finally broke my festival duck last year by touching down at the Big Chill and Green Man shindigs (both of which I happened to be playing . . . but that’s another story). Set amid the undulating Malvern Hills (and blessed by some rare sunshine) The Big Chill was certainly a treat for the senses and the pervading atmosphere was nothing if not relaxed. The still vaguely dance-music-centred event is quite family-oriented these days (though some of the mums and dads shared the burnt-out-behind-the-shades mien of people who, despite years of ‘five-a-day’ health regimes, will never quite recover from having spent their twenties and thirties listening to a pummelling 4/4 bass drum while gobbling ecstasy). It was essentially one giant bouncy castle with the Cinematic Orchestra and Ritchie Havens making agreeably unthreatening noises in the background. There was, needless to say, plenty of the clichéd festival ‘look’: the donning of designer wellies, a straw cowboy hat and/or a pair of fairy wings being the equivalent of that other very British trend for slipping into shorts and sandals at the first hint of May sunshine – a statement that screams, incongruously, I AM NOW BEING A LAID-BACK INDIVIDUAL, just like all the other laid-back . . . well you get the picture.
My festival scepticism was certainly under threat. Later that August, I rolled into the incomparably bucolic grounds of Glanusk Park, in its glorious Brecon Beacons setting, to begin a three-day Green Man Festival sojourn. Launched in 2003 by sometime folk act It’s Jo and Danny, the Green Man – compact, affordable, folksy and eco-friendly in an non-hectoring way – has set the tone for the subsequent boom in corporate-rejecting, boutique festivals. Despite the positive auguries (the sun was shining again) it could have gone horribly wrong as the almost inevitable rain set in on Saturday, transforming the site’s verdant lawns into the glutinous, Somme-like quagmire of festival lore (wellies were soon in evidence – though this time mostly of the sturdy, agricultural variety). Temperatures plummeted as a thick shroud of mist enveloped the surrounding mountains. Despite the time of year, by early evening you were obliged to wear all your clothes at once and watch plumes of your own breath join those of thousands of others in a giant unseasonable cloud.
As the weather worsened and my jeans disappeared beneath a carapace of khaki mud, an odd thing happened. I began to thoroughly enjoy myself. Despite the inexorable moisture and my own saturnine preconceptions, something heroic emerged for me during that meteorologically blighted weekend. There were some fine musical performances — not least from Bill ‘Smog’ Callahan, Tunng, Fridge, Battles and James Yorkston. The groups seemed to have been mostly selected for their felicity to the atmosphere of the event, not just for their `pulling power’ (fifty-nine-year-old Robert Plant excepted — though even he acknowledged his incongruous presence by making self-effacing jibes about his imminent bus pass. Encountering the charmingly humble folk imperatrix Shirley Collins in the literature tent was a more cherishable encounter with the musical old guard). More than that, the uplifting sense of shared experience was something I hadn’t expected. Looking out over the vast rows of lamp-lit tents at night was like surveying an encamped army on the eve of some great battle – happily, the closest any of us will come to that kind of collective anticipation and mutual purpose in taxing conditions. It wasn’t quite a Damascene moment but it was oddly life-affirming for all that.
Chances are I will never make it to Glastonbury, but I will definitely be revisiting Glanusk Park this coming August, and perhaps look in on some of the funkier festivals that have blossomed in its wake. I was also heartened to note that the Green Man boasts an art-house cinema tent. A weekend of Werner Herzog movies, with added mud, camping and – oh, go on then – music, could be just the thing.