I like Big Nights Out (you know I do), but festivals – the national Big Weekends Out – are a disaster for me. I've never had a good experience, be it during the one day I spent at V Festival 2000 (highlight: Foo Fighters), a weekend at Reading 2006 (highlight: Larrikin Love) or something called Electric Gardens (highlight: fuck knows). I hate camping, Carling, straw hats and about 90 percent of the music on offer.
Which is why I've never really seen the appeal of Glastonbury. After all, it's the definitive festival, and I definitively have never enjoyed a festival. The thing is, though, everyone else loves Glastonbury. Even the people who haven't ever been love it, and those who actually have talk about it as though it's basically Valhalla but with Phill Jupitus and some steampunks on unicycles waving Cornish flags. So, when the opportunity to do a Big Weekend Out there came up, I put my prejudices aside and threw myself into the "Glasto" experience.
The first cliche you encounter at Glastonbury is the mud; it's literally the glue that holds the festival together, providing the swampy foundations for the slum of cheap tents that are hastily stuck into the earth each year. It felt like we were being led into some kind of sprawling refugee camp from a near-future tragedy – possibly one in which all of Britain's students had been chased from their halls of residence and property guardian schemes in some anti-intelligentsia purge. Sort of like Pol Pot's Cambodia, if they'd identified educated people not by their glasses, but by the number of Domino's boxes left stacked in recycling piles outside homes on the London banter map.
On Thursday afternoon, as the rain beat down on the site, my shit tent and clean clothes already seemed like they'd have no chance of keeping me alive. I would have to do some shopping. Fortunately, the amount of stuff on sale was genuinely impressive – I mean, who buys a yin-yang print at a music festival?
The site had been swarmed by entrepreneurs who'd arrived purely with the intention of ripping off myself and other city dwellers whose only regular experience of the great outdoors comes from being too hungover to turn Countryfile off.
Sure, there were useful things like raincoats and wellies, but then there was also an avalanche of shit that suggested all of Camden's worst traders had decided to take a weekend off flogging Bob Marley lighters and Nightmare Before Christmas handbags to culturally confused Italian tourists.
Stalls were selling everything you needed to become that person BBC3 films earnestly miming the lyrics to "Chasing Cars" while staring into their partner's eyes. More than any other item, however, festival culture has become defined by the straw hat. An item of clothing that began its re-birth in the hands of Pete Doherty, only to be stolen by Luke Kooks, whose swift descent into obscurity freed it up for the heads of a thousand trainee police officers and the PR girlfriends they parade around on their shoulders.
These hats make everyone look like Mumford & Sons fans. And, considering they were headlining Glastonbury, that's presumably what these people are – so I guess that's fine.
It's my first time, so I have no right to complain. But I bet I could find an old hippie who used to come here when it was part-CND demo and part-psychedelic cow pat expo who'd be very confused by these guys. They represent everything that festivals have become in recent years: a massive piss-up for guys who look like Welsh cage fighters, proudly sporting Armani pants and tribal tattoos. I suppose the good thing about Glastonbury is that it's big enough to soak up all these guys, whereas at V, for instance, these guys are all there is.
On the flipside of this, however, are the traditionalists – the people who seem to live for Glastonbury, lying dormant in some village within a hundred-mile radius of the site for the other 360 days of the year. These are Glastonbury's equivalent of the people who wave those plastic Union Jacks at Last Night of the Proms; the omnipresent, professionally "out there" men and women who came to see God rather than HAIM.
A lot of people seemed to have worked at the festival for their ticket, and there was something quite romantic about that. It made a refreshing change from my previous experiences of festival security, who all seem to come from the same family of Glaswegian misanthropes in the same way that all touts look like they live together on the same estate in Bermondsey. Compared to those guys, the girl in the picture above and her Bedouin pirate mate seemed like guardian angels – welcome friendly faces in the chaos.
Then you had your classic suburban eccentrics, who probably weren't there to take drugs (except maybe snuff or laudanum), but to indulge themselves in the costumed pageantry of the event. Look at these guys, peacocking about in top hats and fishnet stockings as if the whole thing was some kind of al-fresco steampunk swingers party that everyone else had just gate-crashed. I bet they despise people in Wellington boots.
But as is so often the case these days, the most ridiculous outfits seemed to be reserved for the most boring people. I don't really get the idea of wearing a stupid costume to a festival. It seems like the sort of thing that people do purely so they can add little embellishments to their stories afterwards, as if any anecdote could be improved by the fact that you were dressed as Zippy from Rainbow or wearing a horse mask at the time.
However, the most disturbing aspect of the experience belonged to the sewage trucks that crept around the site, beeping and chugging away as if they were ready to burst their riveted seams and spew their toxic cargo all over the unsuspecting Benga fans at the Silver Hayes stage. They carried a threat that silenced crowds and made children cry as they rolled past like returning tanks from an unpopular war.
Eventually I had to put aside my selfish desire to spend all weekend in the mime arena and check out some bands. And where better to start than the Pyramid Stage? Glastonbury's main event, its Big Dipper, its Rameses Revenge, its heart and soul. And yes, it is just like watching it on television, if you're watching your television from the back of your garden. Of the little sound there is, most of it gets blown around the field, making every act sound like the Cocteau Twins. Which could be great, but if you want a whole festival comprised of nothing much other than vaguely recognisable, distant echoes, you really should have spent your money keeping the ATP weekenders in business.
I don't think I'm being a hater by saying that, either. It just seemed like most of the people at the main stage were there because they thought they should be, politely whooping and half-heartedly moving their bodies in a manner that was somehow suitable for both Professor Green and Rufus Wainwright. Bar the headline acts, who seemed to cause a bit of a stir with their own loyalists, the rest of them just looked like they were waiting for a very big and very late bus.
The other stages have a bit more to offer in terms of quality and intimacy, but – as ever – it really does depend on the artist. I suppose there's something quite heartening about people who just love live music so much that they'll politely clap through an Everything Everything set at 2PM on the John Peel stage. But then there's also something quite depressing about it, too. I guess one man's negligible moment – I don't know; The Lumineers performing a dehydrated Rihanna cover, or something – is another's special "Glasto moment".
"Glasto moments". If that phrase doesn't sum up what's wrong with letting the BBC touch youth culture, I don't know what does.
Then, of course, there are the other stages – the ones that seem to cater for just about every subculture there is, from the tamest vinyl dads bopping along to Trojan Classics with their tubby messiah Jupitus (see above), right through to Cyberdog employees stumbling out of two-day psytrance raves looking like they've just found out their dads were Nazi collaborators. It's odd, walking through a field and seeing Billy Bragg eulogising tube drivers 50 yards from where the Ratpack are throwing their 25th anniversary party in some tent near a burger van.
It's been said before, but Glastonbury is just too big. In London, I'd pay good money to see Kerri Chandler. At Glastonbury, I just sort of forgot. In the end, I ended up seeing a weird iPod shuffle festival of my own creation, which ranged from Chic to Chase and Status, to Solange and the Bootleg Beatles. Not because I wanted it to play out like that, but because that was the way my weird, meandering trajectory took me.
That said, the sheer size and impenetrable density of the crowd meant that it was probably the best place to take drugs, as these young molly poppers demonstrated. God knows why you'd want to take pills to anything that was on at the Pyramid stage; this isn't 1995, The Orb aren't about to drop "Little Fluffy Clouds". Unless you're just desperate to silence Ben Howard's earnest blah with the sound of your own teeth grinding, the main stage is bad vibes city for anyone on drugs.
It's disorientating being somewhere with just that much variety and size on offer. Here, for instance, you had a fully functioning drag bar, the size of which would be more than adequate for any European city. In Glastonbury, it's just sort of tucked away in some back corner of the Shangri-La field.
I have a vague recollection of finding myself in "The Latin Field" at some point. Now, at Notting Hill Carnival – the only other event you can really compare Glastonbury to in terms of size and population – the Latin part is one truck with a soundsystem on it. At Glastonbury, it's the size of my school's playground. Maybe bigger.
As the bands began to finish and the families slowly retreated back to their designated zones, the weirdness fell over Glastonbury. The drugs began to kick in for just about everybody who was still out in the fields, and a cross-tribal gathering that looked like an am-dram version of The Warriors in a paintball park began.
The crusties with their onion bhaji hair, the shirtless juiceheads doing keys of speedy coke, the costumed Cirque du Soleil types, the transported Dalstonites. They were all out in full force, on as many chemicals as they had been all year, creating this incredible, unholy union under the clear West Country skies. The endless kickdrums and fireworks reverberated across the fields until dawn. It was the Fall Of Saigon for the Rudimental generation.
Like any battle, it had its casualties, and the hard mud carpet beneath the crowd was soon littered with bodies who just couldn't seem to take the heat. People stood around them firing off their iPhone flashes, gleefully capturing them in these harrowing moments as though they were all the amateur Nick Uts of hedonism.
If you did this in Tottenham Court Road, you'd be arrested. At Glastonbury, however, really fucked people seem to just stay where they are like public performance art installations – the stewards and security just smiling at them like bus drivers looking on at a Marina Abramovic work in Trafalgar Square. I guess there's just something soothing about seeing people drunkenly cradling one another amid all the chaos.
As the sun began to cast a grey dawn across the killing fields, most people headed for the hills, as is tradition at the festival. It was as if the most hardcore of these wreck-head refugees had decided that the festival wasn't catering for their needs, and instead formed a splinter group in the sticks where things would get even weirder. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, they had retreated to the wilderness to wear strange clothes, sit on rocks and talk philosophy.
It's as if, in these sections of the festival, everyone becomes a hippie. I'm sure if the guys with the Armani pants and tribal tats had made it up to the Stone Circle instead of passing out by midnight, they too would have been taken in by the misty madness. Everywhere I looked, people in civilian gear were going native, hugging trees and chanting. Compiling items into strange forts around them while they sucked on balloons and tried to buy 2CB from Scouse chancers in tracksuits.
It seemed that there was a kind of contained madness at play here – a semi-legal opportunity for people to lose their minds in a place where everybody else was doing the same.
(Photo by William Coutts)
It was up in these heights, looking over the entire festival with my dilated pupils (having just seen Skrillex doing pretty much the same thing), that I had my Glastonbury epiphany, my moment of understanding. You realise that, despite all the furore about Mumford & Sons headlining, or whether Tyler, the Creator will offend its sensibilities or not, none of that really matters. The music is really just a sideshow to this mass transcendental experience. Plus, it's so big that not wanting to go because Marcus Mumford will be playing on the Sunday is a bit like not wanting to go to London because he's playing the Hammersmith Apollo that night.
I'm still not entirely convinced that festivals are for me, but I'm not entirely convinced that Glastonbury is just a festival. What it is, is a microcosm of society where everyone is fucked all the time. It has more in common with Magaluf than it does Reading, because people actually seem to live their lives within this temporary megalopolis rather than just see some bands and take some drugs like at every other festival.
Glastonbury is an incredible experience, a vast pocket of madness that has inexplicably survived the 21st century with at least some of its radical ideals intact. That said, try and camp in hospitality if you can.
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