Sunday, July 12, 2009

glastonbury 2009

Sorry it's a bit late. It's turned into that summer hecticness of trying to have a normal amount of life crammed into the time between going to festivals and gatherings, and keeping up with the allotment.

But yes, Glastonbury. It kicked major ass. As always. If you don't have a good time at Glastonbury then it's your own fault and I've no sympathy with you.

The thing people ask when you get back, and indeed the stuff you usually offer in your account to others, is about what bands you saw. At Glastonbury, the bands are great and all but they're not the point.


One of the highlights was getting caught in the rain and ducking into a clothes stall. Looking out, one of the stalls opposite had Sweet Child of Mine come on to its impressively loud system. Three blokes in straw hats and ponchos stopped and rocked - air guitar, devil horns, the works - as raindrops the size of tennis balls pounded them.

Behind them, the stall holders were also belting it out and grooving. This is the sort of weather that people complain about and rush in from, but not here. People didn't give a fuck and revelled in their unfuckgivenness.

Then it struck me that the guys didn't know they had this line of stallholder backing singer/dancers, and indeed the backers couldn't see the other stalls and had no idea that they were part of a chorus line. Basically, this was a random, spontaneous, joyous, hilarious show that my crew were loving but the performers didn't even realise they were putting on.

Then it struck me further that there was no way I could describe this to people unfamiliar with festival magic without it sounding fucking awful.

'You watched muddy munters air guitar to dinosaur metal? Yeah, wish I'd spent 175 quid on that'.


Then one night in the small hours we ended up in one of the tents in the Green Fields and some band were on that I can barely remember. About five of them, a bit folky, female singer. I think. Certainly, it was sit down music.

But then this guy gets up on the dance floor and starts galloping round it, flailing and running and twirling and stooping, like the way a five year old responds to music at a wedding. I literally laughed until my ribs hurt. It concluded with a pile-on of him and his mates.

He goes to sit down but a chorus of us onlookers cheered him until, bemused but unbowed, he got back up and carried on.

White jumper guy was one of the most brilliant performers I saw and, again, it was spontaneous, silly, but with this underlying bursting joy of life element that made it really captivating.


The cops were running their usual protection racket. 'Nice festival you've got here. Seems peaceful now but, well, it'd be a shame if someone told the licensing authorities it wasn't. Of course, for a consideration, we could make sure that doesn't happen'.

Then, having secured their money, they have to show they're spending it. Cops on horses cost a lot more than those on foot, even though they're completely unwieldy where I saw them in the crowded central area between the Pyramid and Acoustic stages.

Then you can do some random searches for drugs. Last year two people were busted selling magic mushrooms in the stone circle field. As with the M5 arrestees, they got what seem to me to be unusually heavy sentences. Mushroom stash holder (twelve wraps on him) got nine months, and his mushroom tout partner got six months, even after explaining that by the time it came to sentencing she was pregnant and would have to give birth in a young offenders institution.

This year they excelled themselves by arresting someone in the stone circle field for public nudity. As the Glastonbury daily paper said, it's rather like arresting someone for urinating in a public toilet.

Aren't you glad you live in a country so free of domestic violence, tax evasion and racially motivated attacks that the police have nothing to do so they squander their resources on beating up peaceful protesters and busting people having a good time who do no harm to anyone?

I'm reminded of that thing the Levellers said in the 90s, that Glastonbury is more of a benefit for Avon and Somerset Constabulary than it is for Greenpeace.


The news of Michael Jackson's death filtered through. At first we thought it was a rumour. At the Earth First! Summer Gathering - especially in the years before people all had mobiles - there'd be an annual rumour of a celebrity death. Several times it was the Queen Mother, and there was to a be a national day of mourning on Monday so we can all stay a day longer.

When my brother texted me unbidden about Jackson I confirmed it to my compadres, but they didn't believe me. I should've taken bets. My tent was next to a path and all night there were people walking past discussing it. There was a levity to their conversations that really dislocated me.

The next day more than one friend made reference to child abuse, and one of them insisted that Jackson had been convicted. As opposed to having a prosecution say he'd touched up Macaulay Culkin without asking Culkin. Who then turned up for the defence and said nothing like that had ever happened, but as two people who'd had their development arrested at an early age by massive stardom, there was a bond they shared that was difficult for outsiders to understand.

It was quite some time before I spoke to anyone who felt as I did. I'm not grieving in any way, but where was everyone else's respect for the talent and work of the man? Everybody loves - like really loves - some Jackson songs.

I've always adored the Jackson 5 stuff - DJing I Want You Back guarantees a cheer from the floor at the first slammed note - and the disco stuff was just magnificent, but it took me a long time to get my head round Thriller. I was basically wanting it to have the sort of deep groove of Don't Stop Till You Get Enough or Can You Feel It.

The breakthrough was realising that Jackson was becoming more and more alienated and on Thriller the music, the lyrics, the whole vibe has this uneasy, awkward darkness set amidst a contrasting polished soul sheen. Look at it with the eyes that see the great alienation in Bowie's early work and it makes sense.

Anyway, where were we?


Many years ago they opened the Pyramid Stage on Friday morning with Bjorn Again, and it was great that they repeated the masterstroke this year. Genius scheduling.

Normally the Pyramid starts with someone not many people are really into. Anyone really popular would have better billing. But open with Bjorn Again and you get everyone rocketed up, massive crowd, hands in the air belting out every song, defiant in the rain, determined to have a big daft time.

Although I do have to say that they're starting to look a bit haggard as they're older than Abba ever were. In fact, they've been going for longer than Abba too. Time for a Bjorn Again tribute band. Rebjorn Again?


One weirder than Bjorn Again (up to 11?). Spinal Tap have been going longer since the movie than they supposedly had been in the movie. And the new album has songs on it they've just finished that appeared in the movie as snippets. So we were treated to the full Gimme Some Money and (not on the album but available as a free download) Saucy Jack, as peculiar and wrong and hilarious as the idea suggests, with some killer unexpected comedy rhymes that would shame Danny Chivers.

Sadly there was no Listen To The Flower People but we did get Stonehenge, complete with dwarves dancing around a small triathlon, this time an inflatable (a nod to Jagger's infamous inflatable phallus?). They finished with a mighty Big Bottom, with Jarvis Cocker on second bass getting the theatrical spanking from Derek Smalls.

And - perhaps weirdest thing of all - in some strange smothered but discernible way, at times they did genuinely rock.


I saw the Specials twice on the recent reunion tour. Blisteringly energetic, focussed, with a body of songs that still prickle and bite and are more relevant now than any time since they were written, they were not only on fire but really necessary. Stupendous.


I knew this would be my one chance to ever see this angry guitar buzzard, so I had to take it. Right down the front from before the Specials, up close enough to see everything properly. The first hour was varied, swinging wildly from his abrasive grungescapes to the elegant organic acoustic pastoralism.

But the second hour sagged a bit. I realise this is probably more me than him. Festival memories have a much greater subjectivity level than normal life. I remember seeing Spiritualized at Glastonbury in 93 and thinking it was like one long gorgeous unfolding drone chord that enveloped us for an hour. I heard a recording of that gig and the dynamics are phenomenally varied, nothing like what we experienced out in the spliffing fields.

Having been stood up for over four hours, an hour of that involving a lot of volcanic skanking to the Specials, I was aching and had a bladder like the Millennium Dome. I was seriously thinking of getting bunked over the front barrier, but with a performer as bloody-minded and unpredictable as Neil Young, I had tremendous FOMS so I stayed. Good call. The last fifteen minutes are as good as anything I've ever seen.

He closed the set with an utterly scorching Rockin In the Free World, a song I've not heard for years and every bit as barbed and driven as I remember but with that extra grind of his current sound, and a squillion false endings that made it push harder each time.

Then the encore. The simple chords and rhythm so out of context that you don't quite believe you're hearing it. A Day In The Life, coming from a deep black cloud of guitars.

And it's a song from 1967, when Neil Young was first making records. It captures all that idealism of the hippie generation he was spearheading, with the mean souring of heavy rock that followed and somehow has all the rock n roll since affirmed in it, a sort of sacramental distillation of the last 40 years of guitar rock, in a song that wasn't even originally rock n roll.

It dissolved into a glorious cacophony with Young wrenching the strings from his guitar, leaving minds blown.

Incidentally, the next day in London Young had McCartney come out and do the song with him. While that makes for a really special occasion - and McCartney's 2004 Glastonbury set is one of the best gigs I've ever seen - it dimmed something that Young's Glastonbury performance shone with. McCartney's cheery mugging for the audience and stage-mateyness with Young detracts from that snarly electric fire that is the core of Neil Young's energy, that serrated grit that makes his work cut straight through from his heart to yours.


This is probably my biggest subjectivity spinout. I'm pretty sure it was one of the great Glastonbury gigs, and if I'd had the energy and been really there it would surely have blown my head off. As it was, I was really tired and watching it sat on bins halfway up the hill.

Even from there, the energy was contagious and absorbing. He is, as the bard Danny Chivers said, one of those artists you feel you totally see through their work.

The honesty, the integrity, the faith, the optimism and the melancholy, they all combine in a coating of muscular rock. Beyond his relentlessness there was something captivating, that sense that he is unable to waste a second on stage, that total world classness that, when you see it live, makes you realise why people like him, Bowie and Prince are given that level of acclaim.


The JazzWorld stage is on a massive field. I have never seen that field full before this year. I could barely get on it and, not long after I tried, they stopped people coming in because it was so full. For Rolf Harris. Teedle-eedle-eedle-um.


Sunday afternoon, everyone's a bit musiced out, it's always a good time for something warm and bright. Van Morrison's pulled that off more than once.

Wherever you go, whoever you meet, everyone loves Bob Marley. Not just likes, tolerates, but really loves his stuff. It's the most universal music yet conceived. In Britain, Madness have something of a similar position.

They come from 2 Tone ska, the first multicultural music invented on these shores, but they have that music hall element that makes people loved here too. Even something like Sergeant Peppers, bold and experimental as it was, is chock full of music hall sensibility. The Kinks. Lily Allen. Blur. We love it.

They delivered as dependably as ever, but picking a set with a lot of those second division songs - The Sun and The Rain, Shut Up, Wings of A Dove - that, when you do dig them out, add depth and texture to them and musically stand alongside the belters.

Normally with an old band there's no way the new stuff can match up, you haven't carried it in your heart most of your life, and often it's a bit lacklustre and half-arsed. But the new ones they played really bounced, clever, lyrically strong and fresh. I've never got on with Madness albums after the first one, the singles stood out and the rest felt a bit fillery, but the new one will definitely be getting eartime from me soonly.


Oh man he rocked. I was expecting his presence, but somehow thought it'd be more stately. Instead it was hard, distorted, potent snarly fucking rock. Staggeringly good, all the more so viewed through the zing of MDMA and port. Beyond anything even still-relevant old guys like Young do, Nick Cave keeps pushing forward, never reaching the bottom of the well.

In the week when I saw Cave, and footage of The Church doing new songs on their current American tour 30 years on (oh my fuck please let them come to Europe next), it shows that some artists really can just keep evolving without compromising their vision, their integrity or their high standard of work. Suck on that, Spandau fucking Ballet.


The Nick Clegg. Leader of the Liberal Democrats, speaking in the Green Fields. It was a fair bet that he'd be telling everyone how lovely and green his party is and other complete fucking lies.

I knew that there wouldn't be time in his Q&A to list the vast catalogue of anti-environmental, pro-war, pro-freemarket capitalism things the LibDems have done. However, if I made it rhyme and did it in the poetry slot just before he came on, well....

I thought I'd reflect my level of ambiguity and allusion in the title of the piece. So it's called Fuck You Liberal Democrats and I got to do it with Clegg stood behind me. Got cheered and booed in equal measure, which seems fair enough. I'll type it up and post it here soon.


The successor to Lost Vagueness is far greater. The weirdness, the baffling twisted eye and brain candy is inspired, warped, brilliant.

My favourite part was the alleyway of shops, a covered Blade Runneresque market, corners all over so you're utterly disorientated and feel that it goes on forever, grimy, bare piping all around, then inexplicable stalls. A room of blue lights and mirrors with a mermaid - a live one - grooving in the corner.

A shop with babies in jars behind the counter that straps you into a dentists chair, puts an outsize helmet on your head full of speakers that block your vision while playing distressing sounds - animals, alarms, children screaming - as people flick, tweak, nudge, dry hump and prod you. And rifle your pockets for your phone and ring your mates in an east European accent to tell them they're operating on you.

Like Guns n Roses Guys, it's another one I knew describing it would divide people into those that get festivals and those who don't.

And the weather? Didn't matter.


Rachel said...

Thanks for this brilliant account. I feel a tiny, happy bit as if I'd been able to get down there.

Can't wait to see the poetry, either!

John B said...

Minor thing: the This Is Somerset report on the drug busts is appallingly badly written, but it sounds more like the Welsh girl was helping out with selling the 'shrooms rather than buying them (they both 'approached' festival goers, and she 'actively secured' one of the deals, whatever that means).

I find it kind of hard to blame the rozzers for drug enforcement at Glasto. Yes, everyone sane knows that selling pills and 'shrooms is a completely harmless activity, that taking innocent kids and sticking them in jail for doing so is not just counterproductive but actively evil.

But they are legally classed as the most dangerous sort of drug, with a maximum life sentence for dealing them and a maximum 14-year sentence for possession. It's not the coppers' place to overlook something that's classed as one of the most serious crimes that there is (imagine a neanderthal copper: 'I don't think date rape's a real crime, she was asking for it, so I won't arrest anyone for it')

- it's the fault of the evil craven bastards in Westminster who think that it's justifiable to class them as such, and of all of us for getting excised by trivialities like moats and duckponds rather than the ongoing disgrace that is the War On Drugs...

merrick said...

John, you're absolutely right, it's my misreading of the report and (confusingly for anyone just tuning in and reading the post then these comments) I've amended the post accordingly. The inference is that she was the tout and he held the major stash.

I'm still surprised at the size of the sentences, both with them and especially the M5 case.

People commonly get non-custodial sentences for possession of small amounts of class A drugs. That those folks who had the personal stash for them and their mates - no suggestion of dealing - should get 12 months each seems way over the top.

And that's without any mention of the expense to society, or the fact that criminalisation doesn't affect rates of drug use.

John B said...

Just read the M5 one. Fuckin' ell. Although I'm surprised some guys over 18 and in possession of a decent-sized stash didn't know that you *always* tell the cops "these were all for us, and we weren't going to share them with anyone else". Poor daft buggers.