Parklife, the festival whose very name sounds a little like a sleight on Manchester’s music legacy, has clocked up a sizable amount of bad publicity over the years. Stabbings and attacks in 2014 and 2015 earned the annual event the kind of dodgy reputation Manchester had during the 'Gunchester' years, and the new location and state of the site – plus the way it plays out each year – has caused it to acquire what could be best described as a “shitty reputation” among locals.
Still, with a line-up that features everyone from Joy Orbison and Fat White Family to Kano, Skepta and Major Lazer – one beefy enough to tussle with some of the UK’s biggest weekenders – and a series of afterparties that trounce most electronic festivals, is it really all bad for Parklife? On the surface, it feels like an event most cities would kill to host, so what stops so many Mancunians from connecting with the biggest and most melodic piss up in the North West? I decided to try to find out where the hate comes from, and determine if it’s completely justified.
“I just don't think there's enough of my vibe to make it worth dealing with the crap weather and pissed up kids,” says Craig Campbell, of local house outfit Doodle. Josimar, DJ at Manchester club night Love Dose concurs, telling me that “the lineup this year seemed pretty good but I would say it caters for the young raver. The atmosphere isn't quite my vibe – guys with tops off and girls with flowers in their hair are not for me.”
For many I spoke to, the apparent commercialisation of Parklife was why fewer independent promoters are willing to be involved with the official afterparties. In fact, some even cancel their own events during the weekend. Rory Holland, promoter for local club night Oh Bachannal, says that he “had my night on the Saturday and there were about fifteen people there.” Joni McArdle, who used to put on a night in Northern Quarter’s Kraak concurred, telling me that “it’s not a risk I’d take, it would be absolutely dead.” It seems when Parklife is on, anyone who isn’t into it essentially hides.
Manchester-based hairdresser Hannah, 31, tells me she’s “been to Parklife every year from the start apart from the second one at Heaton Park because the first one there was so awful. No one seemed to know where anything was and the tents weren't clearly marked which made finding anything a nightmare. I thought I’d give it a second chance last year and had a great time (mainly because I went on the Sunday, the weather was good and I had some really good MDMA) but I’m not sure I’d go again. Maybe I'm just too old for it now, or maybe young people just don't party in the same way.”
Richard, another local attendee who doesn’t bother with the festival anymore, gets a bit more abstract: “I grew up in North Wales during the 90s raves, when car batteries marked the entrance to an isolated picnic area filled with gazebos, a transit van, a two stroke generator and dangerous rope swings. Musically it was like being trapped in a wet pair of dungarees, with a can of Kestrel Super and what felt like an actual kestrel. I loved that feeling… Parklife makes me feel like that kestrel is now stuffed, being held aloft by a confused bar manager from Leeds, who makes getting a six pack of Kopparberg harder than requesting a visiting order for Ian Brady.”
The more people I talked to the more it became apparent the festival really has changed since its relocation, with the younger crowd, weirder vibe, increased scale and heavy advertising putting off a lot of Manchester clubbing regulars. A Parklife artist liaison who worked for the festival for six years told me that he gave up the position as “seeing young people being carried off by paramedics by twelve in the afternoon isn't a nice thing to witness. It's like a supersize version of the Warehouse Project now and doesn't feel like a festival anymore.”
"Parklife is actually good in terms of the lineup and the scale of artists," says Taneesha, a local council worker, "but the people that go have no real sense of why they’re actually there. They just want the festival feel without the doing of it. I guess it’s the non-hipster version of Field Day – you take everyone who goes to Creamfields and plonk them in the middle of North Manchester."
But not everyone is so anti. Rob Evans, a session drummer for Manc acts Bipolar Sunshine and Jazz Purple says: "Hating Parklife is like hating life itself. Yes there's the potential monsoon and possibility of rolling around in piss and cheap hummus, but isn't learning to dance in the aforementioned liquids what makes life more beautiful?" While DJ Paulette, first female resident of the Haçienda concurred things weren’t so bad, saying that: “At least at Parklife you don't get yummy mummies flouncing around in fairy wings and getting on whatever they can lay their hands on.”
Deciding I’d got my fill of the love/hate dichotomy – and with some Dutch courage on board sponsored by my local Spar’s ‘Hand Selected’ white wine section – I hopped on a Metrolink to see what everyone was getting so wound up about.
Things didn’t get off to a good start. Drunk lads singing “God Save the Queen” turned out to be the never-ending soundtrack to the sweaty tram journey, while the torrential downpour made getting in feel like I was doing Tough Mudder without the satisfaction of being sponsored by a charity. Then, out of nowhere I was offered a poncho. “Don't you need it?” I asked the guy. “You look like you could do with it,” he said and walked off before I could even say “ta.”
Energised by the random act of kindness, I pushed on. Looking around, I saw swathes of girls in short shorts, tits out and glitter galore, pimped up by the addition of Kardashian-style braids, while for the rowdy lads it was waterproof catalogue outwear, nicknames like “Banger” and “Monza”, and bags of low quality muscle powder. They’re young and yes, and they are certainly getting fucked, but hasn’t raving always been like this? Festivals have always attracted dramas – that’s what makes them so exciting in the first place. Some of them looked like they took outfit cues from Scotty T, but I couldn’t really fault anyone for not being sound and just a bit overexcited.
So, with the rain beating down hard, I made my way towards the stages. From Preditah to Section Boyz, the performers were great, but the atmosphere was lacklustre at best and indifferent at worst. While Lady Leshurr garnered a smidgen of interaction with her energetic set, any semblance of enthusiasm was long gone by the time Kano came to play the 1Xtra stage, which was a shame because he delivered one of the best UK rap and grime sets I’ve seen all year. Things seemed to get a little bit more optimistic when Ice Cube began to deliver the hits but still the majority of my neighbours looked less enthused than my dad when Stormzy appeared on Jools Holland.
Unfortunately, the rest of the weekend told a similar story. I hoped there would be more to the general vibe of Parklife than just the weather, chaotic organisation and the type of punter who attends, but I quickly found myself watching Skepta perform a rather subdued set, with even the new tracks from Konnichiwa failing to rouse much energy. Unlike what I'd heard earlier, Parklife didn't really have a bad atmosphere, it just didn't have any atmosphere.
I guess because of its similarity to every other inner-city festival, it doesn’t quite feel like it will ever be on an artist’s bucket list in the same way as Glastonbury, Download, Bestival et al – which carry the weight of being “institutions” in their respective ways. And this can translate to crowds failing to be inspired by many of the performances. With growing notoriety of homegrown artists – as we have seen the North this past year with the growing popularity of collectives like GREY and LEVELZ – an event line Parklife could really benefit from pushing local artists higher up the lineups. Maybe that's the key to making it more of a proud date in the Manchester calendar again, by re-positioning it as both an event for international talent but also as the tip of the local scene’s pyramid, rather than just another weekender, anywhere in the country. I can't help but think how much more wild the crowd at The Temple stage would have been if they were watching Bugzy Malone headline rather than Busta Rhymes.
I finish off the weekend with Jamie xx at the Sounds of the Near Future stage, who played out his impeccable set with Manchester's own hymn, "Love Will Tear Us Apart". Unlike what I'd seen the rest of the weekend, the audience were going wild as the last track soared, until it was suddenly silenced when a young lad scaled a pylon. After a few moments of confusion, he made his way down and the volume was turned back up. The crowd noise nearly blew the tent away. It acted as a timely reminder of the precious nature of music and how easily it can disappear if we don't nourish the channels which deliver it to us.
Weirdly, the most conclusive overview of Parklife’s love/hate dilemma I would hear all day would come from a lighting engineer at the festival later that night, who described it to me as “a party disliked by many in the Manchester area from residents to club owners because it monopolises all the best talent”, but something he sees the validity in because it gives “young working class kids who work for evil businesses in crap jobs all week something to look forward to.” Mancunians may have a sadomasochistic relationship with this festival, but the fact remains that it is our only festival of such scale, and how it chooses to change and mutate in the future could influence more than its reputation lets on.
Follow Kamila on Twitter.