Download Festival

Searching for the Last Sincere Festival Experience at Download 2017

I embark on a pilgrimage in search of a people who are doing something not for a laugh, but because they enjoy it.

by Oobah Butler; photos by Chris Bethell
14 June 2017, 10:23am

Guys: I'm done with irony in music. I can't cope with it anymore. We're past the point of no return. Earlier on, I scrolled through my colleague Lauren's article arguing Darius' "…Baby One More Time" Popstars audition as a cultural a priori for Ed Sheeran's cover of the same Britney hit, and I didn't even bat an eyelid. Worse than that, during the Manchester tribute concert the other night, my mom texted me saying how she couldn't stand Chris Martin and, without thinking, I texted back arguing his artistic integrity and pushing of the boundaries. I've become a slave.

But it isn't just me: it's all of you. I have absolutely no idea whether any of you mean anything you say. Yes, we've flown too close to the sun of nihilism, and now we're all drowning in a sea of our own jizz. Even the ritualistic, animalistic festivals where we spent our teens learning to lower our boundaries and celebrate music aren't safe anymore. On Saturday daytime at Glastonbury last year, I thought I'd skulk over to Will Young, a million miles away from everything else on a tiny stage: there were queues. Queues. I just want to feel things; I just want an honest, wholesome musical experience; something that stands for something. I want… I want Download.

If anything can provide me with the sincere, surely it is the UK's premier heavy rock and metal festival? Aerosmith, Slayer, System of a Down, in the East Midlands. So – for the first time – I embark on a pilgrimage in search of a people who are doing something not for a laugh, but because they enjoy it. Those with their ears to the ground; those partaking in the last earnest music festival experience.

And, strolling through the entrances, it is stunning. Parents are led by children in Slipknot masks, trying out their throaty singing voices, sounding like Gizmo. Triplets of actual people in actual Biffy Clyro shirts pass eating cones of curly fries; the paths, clear, the hordes instead glued to stages. Dear God: utopia.

I take a whiff of the Donington air.

I can smell what the Dutch call "gezellig," said to be untranslatable in the English language. So I'll try it with senses: nutmeg bringing Christmas home early; the distant sound of A Day To Remember; the carefree feeling of mud splashing on a pair of £5 jorts.

After popping up my tent and rounding the site out for half an hour, I find backstage. Backstage at other festivals is home to free coffee; an empty fridge; people crowded asking for the wi-fi password, furiously trying to update their Instagram with photos of 90s soap opera stars with in-jokes as hashtags. Here, it is 30-year-old men dressed like Paddington Bear in eyeliner. By the door stands a to-scale statue of Slash so that people can compare their proportionate size next to him. Sort of like they're the human in those dinosaur books we had when we were younger.

But this isn't about chugging Jägermeister with the gods; this is about the people.

I mean, they look real. Like you would look if you'd been drinking Hobgoblin and sleeping in tents for two nights. Coachella's endless parade of husks with perfectly coiffed fades and highlighter this is absolutely not, which gets me thinking: are there any drugs at Download? Are drugs wholesome? Did they have E in the Garden of Eden?

"This little fella," says a man at security, with a voice as gravely as Lou Ferrigno, "Is an AEDD."

"Sorry, so what's that?" I ask.

"It's an Arms and Explosive Detection Dog." The AEDD wags its tail at the word 'dog.' "Yeah, which, due to the climate, is the only type of dog we have on site. We have 18 of these guys," the security guy says.

"Wait, so you don't have any drug dogs on site?"

"Not one." I'm gobsmacked, and he can tell. Laughing, he continues, "Listen, it's just not really a drug festival. You may get a little bit of weed here and there, but nobody is bringing anything heavy in here."

"Of course," I say, nodding. "Apart from the metal." I stare at the ground. I think we're done here.

Walking around, I see an endangered species.

T-shirts, with words. Those most beautiful things, baring a simple message that the wearer truly believes in. A creed that has been brought to near extinction through appropriation from the world of irony, thriving in their natural habitat. Like Attenborough with the mountain gorillas, I go to meet them.

"Hey dude!" He turns around to me. "What are your thoughts on the festival so far?" I ask. He looks down at the ground and says:

"Spot on, pal. Really enjoyed myself and can't wait for Biffy later."

Neither hatred nor laughter? This shirt is a lie! Or maybe… Maybe this is an ironic shirt? Has he made an ironic bear trap to split my ankle into two? Surely not. No, I must be misunderstanding it.

I have to go deeper; I have to become more Download. So I head to the festival's thriving markets. The kind of place I haven't visited since I was a teen. People from Birmingham have something similar in the Oasis Market; those from Cardiff will remember Blue Banana.

A walking noir tat market. A home away from home.

The first thing I see is something that could really help me drink from the fountain of Download.

"Excuse me," I call the lady. "Can I drink out of these?"

"Of course!" She excitedly runs over. "It's all safe. Properly made from cows, there's a bit of leather here so that you can attach them to yourself." My heart sinks.

"Oh… I don't wear leather; I'm a vegetarian." She recoils, and smiles.

"If you're ethically opposed to leather, I can't see you thriving in this community!"

How dare she? I huff, and sprint to the first faux leather item I can find. £6? Sold.

I pick up my boot, and scream to the skies, partaking in a Download ritual as standing by the toilets and crying for Cthulhu.

But something just isn't quite right. I'm just not getting it.

Defeated, I queue up for a beer, feeling sorry for myself. What use is it? Then, all of a sudden, a miasma arises around me: a thick, sour aroma. A craft ale smell. Yes! Of course. A world away from cocaine shits; we're in the land of pickle parps. It's Wychwood Brewery beer - loads of it - a hint of pork bap, drenched in sharp, tart apple sauce. Quite simply, it's the most wholesome fart I've ever smelled. I turn, excited, to see the host behind this fleshy deposit.

"Hey brother," he says. I can't speak. The living embodiment of everything Download, right in front of me. Right up my nostrils. He's not concerned about anything going on around him; he's living in the moment, being who he wants to be. Letting us all know exactly who he is on the inside. He's woken up, thought: 'You know who is fucking cool? The wrestler Goldust. And I'm going to get my face painted like him, because that's who I admire.' It's a pure, beautiful thing. Think about being a child: we didn't need a bag of ket or a trip to Budapest to escape – we put on a cape. And that's what this place is all about.

And you know who I want to be today?

Make me… Perfect.

I feel his raw power coursing through my veins. Finally, I understand what it is.

Everything has clicked. I'm not sure why, but I feel comfortable now; I no longer look like a person who has spent ten minutes Googling "Berlin fashion" on a bus. The makeup has disarmed me; taken me off heat. From within this disguise, I can really appreciate what makes Download great.

Police officers can actually get their faces painted, without worrying about people fucking with them here.

Girlfriends attend on favour, humouring their 34-year-old boyfriend's worrying new wrestling interest warmly and whole-heartedly.

People headbang at the wheel of bumper cars to Bohemian Rhapsody; one of the festival's curated Fairground playlist.

It's Download.

Time passes. The dads have long gone to bed; their children probably lay in their sleeping bags on an iPad. That leaves me, 26-year-old man, running amok with 19-year-olds from Leeds and alpha-male Scots.

A guy runs up to me and shouts, 'Goldust!' tackling me to the floor.

And with that thud; I'm winded. It doesn't feel wholesome. It hurts. All of a sudden, something doesn't feel right. It's no wonder that the dad's have disappeared, as night time has brought about a strange creed. It's essentially culminated with an earthquake gathering at the last late stage. The epicentre being lots of men stood still, intensely watching scantily clad women dancing to System of a Down like it's a game of tennis.

For fucking hours.

The night spirals on. Out of control.

As much as I love the same ten Linkin Park, Slipknot and Papa Roach songs being replayed, I decide to head to bed.

I awake, mouth dry; head spinning. I clamber across the campsite; Chris Jericho's band blares from across the valley on the main stage. I head to the toilet, and turn into the mirror: I see my reflection. I catch the remains of a wrestler's tattered makeup on my face.

I chuckle. The coffee cup drops.

Dear God: this was all a gag, wasn't it? Download wasn't the problem – it was me. I had brought nothing but irony with me. And – like the moment Eve and Adam betrayed God by bringing sin into the Garden of Eden – for that reason, I must be banished.

There is an earnest paradise out there; one in which people say the things they mean, and actually enjoy things. But if you even remotely find this next picture funny. Even a smile; you can't be part of it.

Hello, cruel world.

#EndIronyNow
#CansForSincerity
#WeAreTheEnemy

Follow Oobah on Twitter.

Photography by Chris Bethell.