Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Glastonbury 2014

Just back from Glastonbury. Well, been back two days now but it does take a while to get over. Other festivals have ‘goers’ or ‘punters’. Glastonbury has survivors. There’s something about the way it’s bigger - geographically, with more variety, 24/7, and of course longer - that wrings out all the fun you can have.

This write-up comes with the disclaimer that, like the telly coverage, it focuses on the big stages and things that are that’s easy to name and describe rather than the million little moments you find everywhere, the levity, camaraderie and absurdity. Like a toddler who plays with a box as much as the present it contained, over and over again you see people delight in the spontaneous and daft things as much as the resource-intensive prepared spectacle. The people carrying a table round site and getting people to do table wrestling always had a big enthusiastic supply of competitors and a bigger crowd of encouragers. Entertained by a table! 

There was definitely a lot more going on during Wednesday and Thursday this year. The Green Fields stages, particularly, were busy.

There is also a noticeable growth of the twisted dystopian aesthetic. Since Lost Vagueness was swapped for Shangri-La, and then the Unfair Ground and Block 9 were added, it’s taken root. But the huge spectacle of Arcadia – whose 20 foot mechanical spider that shoots fire draws people in from afar – has moved to the opposite side of the site, and with Mutoid Waste being separated too it feel like this uneasy oddness is spreading out into the whole festival. Like the Green Fields stuff, Glastonbury devotes more space to this weirdness than most festivals have for their whole event. 

But having Wednesday’s tequila-tipped overload negate much of Thursday, it was on to the main event. Blondie opened the big stages on Friday, a wonderful piece of billing. A few years back they stuck Bjorn Again on first at the Pyramid which, when you’ve had cider for breakfast, seemed equally inspired; open with a packed field singing along to songs every single person adores.

Saw Blondie on the Pyramid Stage in 1999 expecting that singalong thing and got so much more, the arcing cry in her voice was so familiar but up that loud and after all these years was unexpectedly moving.

Coming on stage last Friday in all black with some sort of full torso white strapped bondage harness with a pentagram in the middle certainly gives us all a model of post-menopausal life to aspire to. Sadly, her voice really can’t fly like it used to. But failing ability is no excuse for failing attitude, and rocking covers of Fight For Your Right To Party and the Misfits’ Hollywood Babylon gave it enough oomph to carry the day effortlessly, which was clearly a real treat for people like this teenager who got to see someone so legendary. Bringing the sunshine out helped too. And being able to belt out an hour of stormers and have us leaving the field listing ones they never played - Dreaming, Sunday Girl, Tide Is High, Union City Blue - is the mark of a rare repertoire indeed.


Had to miss De La Soul to do a political performance poetry tag team at Toad Hall with the great Danny Chivers who I’ve done that with a bunch of times and Monica Hunken who Danny vouched for but I only met that day. She’s from NYC and works with Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping. As might be expected then, she combines political nouse with sparky creativity and a seam of effortless theatrical skill, mixing songs and transfixing storytelling that made me feel like such a tailcoat-rider.

Brief pause before Danny did his new one person show Arrest That Poet!, documenting his political awakening, motivation and the weird places it’s put him. He was one of the Ratcliffe 6 whose trial collapsed due to Mark Kennedy’s involvement; he was one of the 146 people nicked in Fortnum & Mason on an protest against the tax dodgers and was one of the tiny number convicted, in his case for a poem he performed in the posh shop; he was up the chimney at West Burton power station for a week; and he was also on Richard and Judy just before a segment about dancing dogs.

As he started thunder rolled in, giving uncannily timed dramatic sound effects top enhance the performance. Then the rain came, like a spray of thousands of high velocity cricket balls on the taut canvas of the marquee, drowning out in terms of noise as well as fluid. Then the overhead lightning that meant every stage on site had to shut down. He redefined ‘trouper’ by gathering the audience around him campfire style and carrying on.

To add a final challenge, the awesome New York Brass Band kicked in with Jungle Boogie and Seven Nation Army in the tent next door yet still he held them rapt to the end. Yep, I’m deffo the coat-tail rider of the trio.

Weirdly ended up seeing only a handful of bands, mostly on the massive stages and in fact the whole five days kind of zipped by. Was with a crew of mates who dragged me to Elbow. The only other time I’ve seen them I was dragged along too, the legendary Duchess of York in Leeds about 1999. I’ve never seen an unknown band who were so obviously going to make it big. Not especially the sort of thing that I want to listen to all day at home, but they had real undeniable class to them.

And so now, on the Pyramid Stage, the sweeping anthemic element suited the golden sunshine and festival vibe – most obviously in One Day Like This - and the band's almost comical unrockstarness provided an opportunity for a distinctive connection with the audience.


Saturday brought a talk in the Speakers Forum with me and Green Party bod Jenny Jones about Britain’s secret police, well attended and with thoughtful, intelligent questions. It was especially good to make it clear that, despite the shorthand often used, this isn’t about environmentalists but a swathe of political groups, essentially anyone who’s active in politics outside the sliver of the spectrum represented in the House of Commons. This was underlined by the attendance of the tireless Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group who are demanding justice for the thousands of construction workers who - with the routine help of Special Branch - were illegally denied a living for their political or safety concerns.

Robert Plant was something truly special. He’s steadfastly refused the megabucks for a Led Zeppelin reunion yet his set had a ton of Zeppelin songs in it. It might seem like a contradiction, but in doing it this way he isn’t playing to overvast audiences who just want to hear the hits but to people who’ll take what he wants to do. Crucially - and this is where he leaves modern blues bores like The Black Keys standing in their tepid puddle of tedium - he gets to do much more interesting arrangements. He’s shed the cock rock but still hits you with his powerful British blues yawp and folky roots, mixed with a swirl of textural subtlety and shimmering dynamics. He is visibly awed by his band members. And with the weaving of this spell he’s forgiven for picking the more ornate, dappled Zeppelin songs like Going To California.

But, at the end of the day, who has ever held a Les Paul and not wanted to whack out Whole Lotta Love at a thousand squigawatts? Who knows the track and wouldn’t want to be on the business end of that same multisquigawatt onslaught? Yeeeeah. That was a proper Moment. Didn't stop him getting the audience to clap Bo Diddley rhythm whilst he sang a verse of the genius pure evil lyrics of Diddley's Who Do You Love, then put Whole Lotta Love's words over the same beat, then took it back into the ultimate riff itself.

Legged it round for the Manics who came on with Motorcycle Emptiness, making the crowd hit the sky and stay there for a hits-heavy set. If You Tolerate This was hugely emotional, with Nicky Wire saying aftewards

We've got no fireworks. We've got no glitter. We've got no floor tom at the front of the stage for me to fucking bang. But we've just sung a song together about fighting fascists in Spain. A number one record with deep-rooted politics - it can be done! And now for some dumb punk fun

And off they ripped into You Love Us. The soaring, melancholic grandeur of their sound propelled the sunset upwards, a fine prelude to Pixies who just hammered us with classic after classic, their sound undimmed by time, like being sprayed with serrated knives.

The borg of friends herded me to the second half of Metallica whose sheer heaviness might’ve rocked, but in an empathogenically enhanced state it turned my chest cavity into a sagging bag of saturated cotton wool and I sharply sloped off to regather my brain.

The South East corner – full of that the dystopian stuff – gets rammed after the main stages finish so it was a great opportunity to have a gawping bimble whilst everyone else waited for Enter Sandman.


Sunday morning wake up text from my friend Tom recommending a further Pyramid Stage act for breakfast, Toumani and Sidiki Diabate. Tom’s in the unfathomably brilliant Vessels, so his taste should be trusted without question, and indeed he wasn’t wrong. The Diabates are a father and son Malian cora duet, 71st and 72nd generation of their family to play the gorgeous West African harp. Here they are playing in the BBC treehouse up in The Park.

But everyone I’d spoken to all weekend, friend and randomer alike, had said they were going to Dolly Parton. And sure enough, on Sunday afternoon she drew a bigger crowd than any headliner. All the way to the back of the field. Not only that but the clapalong and armwaving normally dissipates as it gets further from the stage whereas this was total participation right the way back. 

She knows you love it for the music and for the kitsch at the same time. Her cultivated folksy persona belies a huge talent for sweeping an audience up. An absolute giant of country music, she was witty, energetic and yet still managed to stay true to the core of country, that cleverly articulated, unflinching unhurried examination of heartache depicted in ordinary settings that everyone can identify with.

But, as she was savvy enough to realise, ‘I can't do a bunch of sad, slow songs, because everyone's drunk and high’. Levity is one thing, but nothing prepared us for her doing the Benny Hill theme on a rhinestone encrusted sax, followed by a specially written song about being in the mud. Fuck the tube train smashed into a five storey block of flats in Block 9 or any of that stuff, THIS was the great unlikely thing to see at Glastonbury. It made Ritchie Sambora’s guest appearance a few minutes later seem workaday. The sense of uplift across the field was amazing, with people bobbing out like they had clouds on their boots.

It was disappointing to see the usually excellent Graham Linehan attack her for ‘mutilation’ of herself and deride feminists who like her. Firstly, a man criticising an individual woman because of her appearance is rarely the basis for a solid feminist position. Especially when it detracts from the fact that she is a woman whose talent and intelligence have been proven and respected over decades, irrespective of her appearance. It can’t help but have some little whiff of being threatened by powerful women – I don’t remember him criticising men who work out in order to fit in with male standards of muscularity.

Yes, Parton actively complies with norms about standards of female beauty. Attacking those norms is one thing but, as someone who’ll never face society’s sanctions for women who don’t comply, he should hold off with the personal criticism. 

Additionally, she has carved out her own space in culture so well that she has something of a unique position. There’s a character she’s created and she’s living it, self-defined and clever and in control. As she said, ‘it takes a lot of money to look this cheap’.

Up to The Park for an even older legend who nobody could accuse of conforming to anything, Yoko Ono. Backed by Yo La Tengo she hammered out a run of the proper noisy tracks with her distinctive challenging wauling. To me it’s like Pixies but from 20 years earlier. Utterly uncompromising, unashamedly poetic and discordant at the same time, no quarter to pop sensibilities yet with a rock basis somehow, a truly original artist. Frankly the shortish set was a blessing though, two hours of it would be like trying to down a bottle of whisky in one chug.

After days of mudwalking the prospect of legging it across to Brian Jonestown Massacre was a bit much, time for cider and a restorative stodge before the impeccably scheduled Massive Attack closed the festival, enveloping, smart and serious. 


On the way home I read carping on social media from people who didn’t go about how it was no good, and from older folks about how it was different back in the day. Well yes, it was coming from a different society. Certainly, it used to have more of a radical political focus and it did something else politically valuable too – it got activists in a space where they networked without the distraction of it being a proper political gathering or conference. That ended at the turn of the century. That was, in part, because the uberfence went up and stopped people bunking in, which most of the activisty folks had done. 

But it also coincided with the decline in the dole culture of the 80s and 90s that the protest movements had sprung from. The online age allows for a harassment of the unemployed that was impossible in earlier times. So three or four million people can be humiliated playing an unending game of musical chairs for half a million jobs now, whereas a generation ago people were left alone for a fortnight between signing-on days that left them free to find themselves and useful activities. 

Nonetheless, Glastonbury still devotes a huge amount of space to political campaigns amidst and even bigger square footage for other uncommercial elements that, taken together, is bigger than many entire festivals. And even though it's on a dairy farm, that includes animal liberation and vegan stuff. Additionally, there’s nowhere else I know where randomers can turn up and, say, challenge the director of Greenpeace in a Q&A, let alone do it in the buff and get taken seriously. Which may actually not be a positive endorsement, so I’ll move on.

Huffington Post did a piece on the rubbish left behind, which looks like a lot, because it is. However, I’ve also been to other major festivals and seen what they’re like at the end and believe me, Glastonbury is comparatively tidy.

Loads of people leave their tents and stuff, but this isn’t about a culture change at Glastonbury. Like the doley activists, it’s a reflection of wider change. We’ve been Argosified, conditioned into unthinking disposability on a stunning scale. When you can get a two person tent, two sleeping bags and two roll mats for 30 quid – manufactured so shitly that they’re not really fit to reuse many times – of course people treat them as use-once items. Some festivals have done deals to buy that crap online and collect at the festival.

I took this photo on the Tuesday after Leeds Festival last year, 24 hours after salvage teams moved in to take away good quality stuff. This is the leftover junk in an empty field.

I estimate about a third of tents had been left up, of which about half were blatantly brand new. Every one of them I checked had usable stuff in; clothes, bedding, beer, food, camping gear. But the need to clear the site means after two days the bulldozers move in and it gets taken to landfill.  Glastonbury, for all its apocalyptic look, is comparatively responsible and tidy.

Another way to look at it would be to go to a city of comparable size like Newcastle or Portsmouth and put all its thrown away material for five days into a field to see what it looks like. The streets of our permanent cities are clean in the same way that a spotless house is clean – because all the mess has been moved elsewhere. At the end of a festival they’re laying bare some of what we do all the time everywhere we go.


The other thing is how uncommercial Glastonbury is compared to other major festivals. They tweak it with noticeable improvements every year. Not only do they give loads of money away to the major beneficiaries Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid, but they were the first festival to insist that food stalls only use compostable cutlery. This year they did away with portaloos and put up more compost ones.

Of course, there is much more that could be done, as demonstrated by the zero-advertising Beautiful Days, or Shambala’s ban on bottled water and principled avoidance of sponsorship (the psychic peace of a weekend with thousands of people yet no corporate logos is a true balm for the soul).

But still, as I walked around Glastonbury I couldn’t help but think that at T In The Park or V or Reading those flags and hanging baskets would be beer placards, those open spaces to chill would be food stalls, and those food stalls would be generic burger flippers rather than anything interesting. In so many senses, there is simply nowhere else like Glastonbury. It's not about the bands - hence tickets selling out long before the line up is announced. It's Britain's cultural barometer.

Glastonbury as an institution – as a giddy, fuck-witted, nonsensical temporary city of 200,000 people – is not built on competitive cultural indulgence, it is genuinely built on hanging out. No more, no less. The fact that it’s there at all is a monument to human excessiveness, but also to our fundamental social nature, to the ties that bind. That doesn’t make it a utopia, because it’s still a rabid, filthy, depraved hypercapitalist clusterfuck. But it does make it an absolutely staggering achievement, and some of the best fun it’s possible to have anywhere in the world.

Stone Circle field, Monday 9am