In defence of Glastonbury
With Glastonbury just around the corner, the excellent BBC TV documentary Festival Britannia and Julien Temple’s Glastonbury film were both repeated on telly this weekend ”â and are both still available on BBC iPlayer ”â and the mainstream media is starting to toss out wide-of-the-mark generalisations about festivals like Glasto.
It’s true that Glastonbury has become more ”Ësafe’ over the last few years, but to say it has become more corporate is barking up the wrong tree. Glastonbury still doesn’t have huge lager or multi-national company sponsorship draped over its iconic Pyramid Stage ”â the only big logos you’ll find are for Oxfam, Greenpeace and Water Aid ”â and it is still possibly the best place for a music-fuelled party weekend on earth.
Glastonbury has been massively influential in shaping a whole generation of music fans into the people they are today. For me, first going to Glastonbury in 1986 was my initial introduction to the counter-culture proper. Hitching there as a teenager, I arranged to meet my friend Chris by the second stage mixing desk at midday on Saturday. So comparatively small was it then that we met up no problem, and to witness a crazed gang of Mutoid Waste travellers chase police vehicles off the site with a twisted metallic shark-mobile was a sight to behold.
As an antidote to the Thatcherite 80s, I had some brilliant times at Glasto those following years. Seeing The Cure in a lightning storm was electrifying, and my first experience of raving was at Glastonbury when al fresco dancing to (ahem) Guru Josh’s sound system in the night air. Of course there were drugs involved, but the freedom of expression for all and sundry at festivals like Glasto is a sight to behold.
Glastonbury grew out of the free festival movement, gatherings that the Tories tried to kill with their attacks on the peace convoy on its way to Stonehenge in 1985 (the Battle Of The Beanfield) and their reaction to the Castlemorton free festival in 1992, the Criminal Justice act. Glastonbury became more political in the 80s with its hook-ups with CND and other campaigns (indeed, organizer Michael Eavis jokes in the docu that his daughter Emily thought “Thatcher out”Â was a byword for the festival), and by the turn of the 90s it had been infiltrated by rave culture and sound systems would ring out long into the night.
Glastonbury for many was always about what was going on in the freakier fields. Which major acts were on the Pyramid Stage was often irrelevant to a portion of the festival-goers ”â with its burger vans and bars the area was refered to as ”ËBabylon’ ”â although the weekly music press and TV coverage always focused predominantly on the bands on the main stages. It did get quite wild in the late 90s, when 100,000 people used to come in illegally over the fences, so the massive wall erected in 2002 was probably a necessity. In the later noughties though it still retained its counter-culture edge ”â the traveller-led Lost Vagueness/Shangri La and Arcadia areas, the green fields, crazy street theatre in the circus & cabaret fields and so on ”â while still being a fantastic place to hear a wealth of new music.
Sadly I’m not going this year, but will be going to some smaller festivals. If you only want to see bands on the biggest couple of stages, then you get a good view via the extensive BBC TV coverage these days. But if you’re wanting to seek out acts on the smaller stages, Glastonbury ”â or indeed any smaller festival ”â is unerringly brilliant. As Billy Bragg says on the Festival Britannia: “You can experience the download, but you can’t download the experience.”Â