Blessings to anyone with friends in the British music industry, because for the next five days you won't be able to get more out of them than "u goin glasto m8? absolute carnage on the way again lol" WhatsApps. It's that time again, when the UK's biggest music festival looms. Though the almost week-long event – spanning secret sets, living art installations and an actual bar dug into the dirt each year – has changed a ridiculous amount in its 47 years, it has still held on, white-knuckled, to some of its original anarchic spirit.
Just ask photographer 69-year-old Barry Lewis, who's been documenting the festival's late-night party areas and stages (nicknamed "the Naughty Corner") for years. It's the part of Glasto that women who go to prosecco brunches and men who do Crossfit reckon is just "a bit much", where you're as likely to find someone dressed head-to-toe as Uncle Blobby trying to shovel MDMA into their costume mask as you are to witness a DJ very professionally play to a crowd of hundreds.
What was known as the Lost Vagueness area beckoned Barry in with open arms in 2004 and he's been documenting the ravers ever since, in both a white studio he set up for a few years and out in the thick of it. "I had this idea of having a studio – a pure white box – in the middle of a field," he tells me. "And then thought, 'let's go for it.' That was the nice thing about the festival then: you could just go for what you liked." And so he set things up, in an area that would at various points accommodate stages and areas from Trash City, Unfairground and Shangri-La to Block9. I figured Barry would have some good stories to share from the last 13 years, so we had a nice old chat.
Noisey: Hi Barry, what do you mean about how you could "just go for what you wanted" then? Has Glasto changed that much?
Barry Lewis: Haha, there's kind of two answers to that. One is the demise of party area Lost Vagueness – the father of it all – which ended quite abruptly in 2008. Around that time artist Joe Rush had just started his own area called Trash City, and a plane had disappeared. I won't go into the details, but I'd literally arrived that year and Lost Vagueness co-founder Roy Gurvitz – he's quite short tempered, I'm sure he'd agree – was right in Michael Eavis' face and screaming "I WANT MY PLANE BACK, THEY FUCKING STOLE MY PLANE." Eavis is always very stoic, and never reacts. And I knew it was the beginning of the end that year. My tent was under about a foot of water that year, and we finally gave up on the Saturday night, I think. And that was the end of Lost Vagueness. As usual, when there's a new order there's a sort of divide: the old people think the new lot are awful, and so on.
As for the second answer, one of the things that really changed was health and safety. I think up to about 2006, 2007, you used to have to fill in a health and safety form which was basically nonsense. But I think health and safety regulations finally … it didn't kill it, but it really changed things. Now if you have an instantaneous parade you have to have a marshall in hi-vis before and behind the procession and all that.
For outsiders who've only just started going to Glasto, it probably still feels wild and unusual though.
The music finishes at 12AM, and the Naughty Corner carries on. So now, one of the issues is that the corner becomes a place to tick off on their "to do list" of people who don't get what that area is all about: they've done the bands, they've taken the selfie to show they were there, then at 12AM everyone still standing at Glastonbury heads over and turns it into rush hour at London Bridge station. It all changes from being a spontaneous, chance encounter to this controlled crowd experiment. And that's difficult, especially for Shangri-La. I think 60 percent of people are off their faces, so that's a kind of strange crowd to control. It's both easy in some ways and difficult in others: I feel for the organisers.
Especially during years when the mud's turned the path into a quagmire.
It's hard to explain that to people, haha! The actual reality is that if it's nice weather, you can sit and talk to anybody. But if you've got nowhere to sit, you can't do that. I remember being on the top of the Park area one evening in 2011, meeting a few people with balloons, taking a few pics. We just started chatting and you just go with it. All of a sudden, Radiohead were playing below at one of those secret gigs, and I just thought, 'this is one of those wonderful moments'. As opposed to last year, when I woke up at 6AM to hear the Brexit result.
Oof. How many people do you reckon you've met over the years?
In the Lost Vagueness times, at least 2,000 portraits came into the tents. They always used to take any clobber off and start performing. Usually as they left, all their drug stashes would drop to the floor and they'd wander off into the sunset again. Literally at the end of the day, I'd sweep up and put it all in a little basket labelled "help yourself". The whole lot: pipes, coke, grass. I became an unknowing distribution centre.
How do people tend to react to you photographing them on the sesh?
Well, I'm a persona too. I'm 69 for goodness sake, but when I'm there, I'm a party animal and tend to wear very bright clothes. There's a momentum to it. It really helped having my tent and having people come to me. The most exciting thing is not going to watch bands, it's just meeting people; going through the crowd, losing yourself a bit. I think it helps, me being a bit older. People don't see you so much: you're just this old fart, wearing a funny hat. And, to be honest, for that week I do go close to the edge. That's part of the experience of working for 40 years: just letting go and having that photographer's eye. I remember this one older couple, where the woman pushed her face into her partner's chest as I approached. Then I saw this white powder on his beard. They'd obviously just been snorting, and she was probably some politician and just didn't want to be recognised.
Ha! How much do you miss the pre-2008 Naughty Corner?
It's definitely different. There was more nudity. A lot more nudity. That's gone. This thing of spontaneous events, and there was a lot more performance going around. What you want is that blurring of what's real and what isn't. 2010 had a Blade Runner-type shanty town, and you'd go into a shop, open a cupboard and down this passageway, ending up in a club. And it's really blurring that line between reality and dream world, especially when you've been on one for hours.
Which photos that you take do you choose not to share later?
I should probably be putting the ones not in the book on Instagram or something, but I'm old … my son's mentioned it, but he's never got round to it. I put some on Facebook, and there are some I'd taken out because it's just too unkind to put in. There was this woman who was so off her face, lying in the mud, her face was red and blotchy, she was just so drunk with a bottle of red wine in one hand – but I thought someone like "Bin Hugga" (below) could relay that message. You can't see his face, so he could go back again.
And you'll be back this year?
Last year I thought: never again. The mud was just awful, waiting 15 hours to get into the festival in the first place. We left before the Sunday night because we knew it would take ages to get out. But this year, I might take some pictures for Shangri-La, speak in a Q&A. You're allowed to become this … other person. I think it's in Germany, on Carnivale, where there's a rule when you can't divorce someone on that day (on Fat Tuesday). You can just go with the flow. And I think what goes on in Glastonbury stays in Glastonbury – unless there's some pesky photographer recording it all.