Aside from the crowds and dodgy weather, Glastonbury is still the king of Europe’s summer music festivals, observes Tim Johnston
THERE comes a point beyond which it is impossible to become wetter or muddier. The rain has found its way through my jacket and is running down the back of my neck. The mud has reached above my knees and I have reached the stage where I cease to care. And that’s when enjoyment starts.
The music festivals that stud the calendar of the European summer aren’t for everyone. But for a hard core of fans willing to put up with uncertain weather, medieval sanitation and abominable food, they are the milestones of a new kind of social season.
The mother of them all is the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, which is the reason I am in a field 180km west of London wondering how much wetter I can get. It seems there is something about standing in a steady downpour as some of the world’s top bands give their all that keeps tens of thousands of people coming back to this annual event, which those in the know refer to as simply Glasto.
The festival, held on a farm in a damp corner of southwest England, has become one of the world’s largest live music events. Legendary rockers, including the Who, come back, possibly from beyond the grave, to headline. For three days, 12 hours a day, bands known and unknown play on 12 main stages and a dozen secondary venues, entertaining a crowd that reaches 137,000.
On top of that, there are another 40,000 artists, burger flippers, security guards and sundry workers who keep Glasto going, rain or — sometimes — shine.
If your son or daughter is heading off to the northern hemisphere with a backpack in an Australian winter, it is likely that Glastonbury will appear somewhere on their event horizon. But not everyone’s lucky. Getting hold of a ticket is a challenge: all 137,000 sold out on the internet in less than an hour when they went on sale earlier this year and security is such that it is all but impossible to either buy one off a scalper — all tickets have a picture of the holder on them — or climb the fence.
For the unlucky, and for those whose enjoyment requires rather more predictable weather, a whole slew of festivals has sprung up in Britain and across Europe.
The website www.efestivals.co.uk listed 465 festivals in 2007, and that’s just in Britain. They cater for all musical tastes. For example, had you been in Scotland in May you could have attended the Knockengorroch World Ceilidh in Kirkcudbrightshire, where the folk act Shooglenifty was headlining. If the beer didn’t get you, the vowels would. European festivals are growing in size and popularity. The Roskilde Festival, just north of Copenhagen, has developed a Danish let-itall-hang-out atmosphere, literally: it’s home to perhaps the world’s largest annual naked run, held on the Saturday night, with a first prize of a pair of tickets to the following year’s festival.
This year, like Glastonbury, Roskilde had a certain resemblance to a World War I trench. And proving that the young do not have a monopoly on repeating foolish mistakes, the Who headlined there, too.
For those who like their music without sloppy mud, southern Europe is becoming increasingly popular.
The Benicassim festival, held near Barcelona in Spain, is billed as a British music festival with sun’’ or Glasto del Sol. But almost guaranteed sunshine can bring its own problems. Waking up with a hangover in a tent in 40C heat is enough to make you yearn for the gentle soaking of an English summer.
Benicassim has a distinctly continental atmosphere. Nothing happens until 5pm, allowing a generous amount of time to recover from the night before on the beach or in one of the resort town’s cafes. And for those who still haven’t had enough after the week-long festival, it ends with a legendary beach party.
The EXIT festival, held in the grounds of a castle in the Serbian town of Novi Sad in July, is well on its way to establishing itself as another must-see event. This year’s line-up included a range of talent, from Robert Plant to Snoop Dogg and Basement Jaxx. Accom- modation is in the university halls of residence and revellers have a lake in which to frolic.
Fashions change, and what’s hot one year is irretrievably passe the next. Glastonbury seems to have survived with its street cred intact but some others haven’t. James, a young English brickie who was in Novi Sad in July, had considered going to the Secret Garden Party, 110km north of London but, he says, it has been taken over by the south London elite (think Sydney’s eastern suburbs in designer jeans and black polo shirts).
For the really hardcore partygoers, a new scene is emerging: the hit-and-run festival. Huge pantechnicons, called technovaurs, fitted with sound rigs big enough to make your ears bleed, criss-cross Europe, setting up for a single night before moving on, keeping one step ahead of the police. Like the raves of the 1980s, the gatherings are illegal and directions are sent out to the cognoscenti by text message, giving even greater cachet to events that aficionados say feature some of the best new dance music.
But if these festivals provide more street cred, better weather or greater exclusivity, they all, in their own ways, hark back to the genre’s lodestone, Glastonbury. And like Glastonbury, they aspire to be about more than just the music.
For thousands it is a rite of passage, a kind of schoolies in the mud; for others its a reaffirmation that the salad days of youth haven’t entirely wilted. It’s 37 years since cattle farmer Michael Eavis decided to charge £1 for revellers to see bands such as T-Rex on his 320ha farm, but Glasto seems comfortable with the onset of middle age.
That is not to say that the music isn’t spectacular. Alongside the Who are some of the world’s hottest contemporary acts: the Killers, Kaiser Chiefs and the Chemical Brothers. And it is also where young bands get discovered: Coldplay got their big break at Glastonbury a few years ago and this June’s high-voltage performances from unknowns Mumm-Ra and the Gossips promise much.
Some festival-goers, such as James, complain it has become too middle class, and they have a point. It’s a festival that started this year in weak sunshine, with everyone wearing the classless uniform of shorts and T-shirts. When the heavens opened, much of the crowd pulled $500 super-lightweight rain slickers from their packs. It seems the commitment to egalitarianism doesn’t extend to getting equally wet and uncomfortable.
But in many ways the core values have remained the same, with large donations each year to Greenpeace and Water Aid. The commitment to tolerance seems to work. The large quantities of alcohol and narcotics, combined with loud music and a lack of sleep, could produce a nightmare of hormonal aggression, but problems are rare.
It would be unfair to discuss the merits of going to European festivals without a warning about the toilets.
I don’t think I will ever forget them,’’ says Katie Lee as she heads home to London after her first Glastonbury this year. The memory evokes a small spasm of horror. By the end of day three, strong men quail at the awful prospect of having to visit the pit latrines, and it is unwise to contemplate a visit to one of the construction site-style chemical lavatories without a full body-condom.
And never, ever, pitch your tent downhill from a toilet site. They overflow and you are likely to wake up with a small river of sewage running into places you really don’t want small rivers of sewage running into.
But you can avoid this. In a move that has disgusted purists, Glastonbury is offering a much more civilised option. You can rent a teepee for the princely sum of £1650 ($3900). These sleep eight and a ticket is included in the price. But, as those who shelled out their money this year discovered, teepees have a large hole in the roof, and large holes tend to let in large quantities of rain.
For the really well-heeled, a local farmer has set up Camp Kerala. For a mere £6000 (plus tax), each pair of guests gets a tent bought from an Indian maharaja, a king-size bed with handmade Indian quilts, sheepskin rugs from Greece, silk-trimmed towelling dressing gowns, proper showers and hot and cold running water, as well as room service. There’s even a masseur. Plus, of course, free wellies.
The 2008 Glastonbury Festival will be held on June 27-29. www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk www.efestivals.co.uk
Muddy but not bowed: Clockwise from main picture, a reveller surrenders to the elements at Glastonbury; Arctic Monkeys lead singer Alex Turner; an aerial view of the festival