No more pagans or goat-slaughtering, the rock festival has become oh so sedate
Glastonbury now carries about as much menace as the Henley Regatta
Festival-goers in 2011. The suburban cosiness is so exhaustingly bland one longs for outbreaks of pestilence and mayhem. Photograph: Getty Images
Unless I’ve got this wrong, the Glastonbury Festival is currently taking place in a part of England famous for comical accents and cider with lumps in it. Various other musical jamborees will be kicking off in this country. But, to keep things patriotic, let’s take our cheap shots at the British event.
There was a time when, if attending a gathering at that location at this point in the year, you could reasonably expect to see pagans - dressed in nothing but woad - slaughtering goats between ancient standing stones. Forty years ago, you would, at least, stand a chance of catching The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and dysentery).
The entire festival experience has, however, now been restructured for the sort of people who think it’s adorable to wear pink wellington boots decorated with anthropomorphic bumblebees. The lavatory facilities are satisfactory. Chichi food stands offer tolerable snacks with toxicity levels well below those of the average septic tank. Within stripey tents, celebrity economists present conversations about the decline of this and the rise of that. The modern festival has, in other words, become a middle-class dinner party on a colossal scale. Why, somebody has even decided to play that horrid Mumford & Sons record at a volume that won’t disturb the continuing conversation. Oh, hang on! That actually is Mumford & Sons. Pass the ethically sourced gub-gub fruit. I feel an anecdote about Koh Samui coming on. (I’m very proud to say I actually had to check how to spell that Thai location).
The time when Glastonbury sat within the counter-culture seems like millennia ago. That event now carries about as much danger as does the Henley Regatta, Cowes Week or the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. As if to prove the point, this year’s bash will close with a performance by Lord Jagger and Her Majesty’s Loyal Stones. You may as well wheel out the Band of the Royal Marines. That group is, at least, composed largely of youths.
At this point, the article would ideally turn to a consideration of the glory days of the rock festival. New nations were formed in primordial mud as the Grateful Dead carved obelisks of sound from the matted chemical air. Each of Duane Allman’s spiralling arpeggios announced fresh possibilities for a generation shaking itself free from the hypocrisy of post-war conformity. You know the sort of rubbish.
The truth is that rock festivals have always been utterly ghastly. They’re just ghastly in different ways now. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you had to endure first-generation hippies spouting freshly minted mystical claptrap while new versions of finger-in-the-ear folk rock clogged up the hemp-scented atmosphere. In 2013, generic neo-hippies sell expensively priced mystical claptrap while creaky finger-in-the-ear folk-rock retreads warble unthreateningly in the lemongrass-flavoured food court. Forty years ago, you risked trench-foot, malaria and murder by hells angels. In the present, the suburban cosiness is so exhaustingly bland one practically longs for such outbreaks of pestilence and mayhem. It’s hard to know what’s worse: the authentic squalor or the inauthentic conformity.
As the dimpled image at the top of the column will have made clear, this correspondent is far too young to remember the first outbreak of rock festivals. Happily, a famous documentary, first released in 1970, does a good job of detailing the gruesomeness of the experience. There are people – millions of them, apparently – who still argue that Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock works as a celebration of that mystifyingly eulogised event. These are, perhaps, the same people who argue that Apocalypse Now works as an advertisement for the Vietnam War.
Edited by, among others, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Woodstock offers terrifying vistas of mud, public nudity, rain, boredom and bad hair. All this might make sense if the music were any good. Honourable exceptions The Who, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix aside, the line up comprised a selection of acts that, in their tie-dyed tediousness, help one greater appreciate the hillbillies who murder Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. Crosby Stills & Nash (without Neil Young); Country Joe McDonald; John Sebastian; Jefferson Airplane: no wonder the audience felt the need to take such industrial quantities of drugs. Mind you, no recreational pharmacist has yet devised a chemical that can make Ten Years After seem interesting.
Popular music belongs in grimy cellars situated conveniently close to bus stops, public houses and off-licences. The countryside, if it’s good for anything, is good for sheep, trees, rivers and other stuff that people who appreciate nature insist on appreciating. The cellar allows easy access and an easy getaway. The corralled field makes willing refugees of anyone who attends. Don’t bother contacting the Red Cross. You’re here for the duration. Enjoy Mumford & Sons.