Remember when post-punks hated Glastonbury?

 

Because it’s the biggest and most high profile festival in the world Glastonbury is both much loved and also sniped at. For some people it’s the most diverse and uplifting communal music experience in the UK but for others like music writer Neil Davenport it remains the enemy!

With no Glastonbury festival this year, the week has been given over to Glastalgia – Top 50 most memorable moments of Glastonbury in the Guardian, BBC iPlayer cherry picking key performances and so on. In The Times this weekend, Caitlin Moran interviews Emily Eavis about the devastating impact of Covid 19 on the festival. (Solidarity to all those who’ve lost income during the closure). Apparently, festival regulars are planning Glastonbury mocks up in their back garden to compensate.

For this reason and many more, Moran argues that Glastonbury is so culturally significant, it has become an event to compare with Christmas. It has become a traffic-stopping festival that people diarise and plan around. Glastonbury, then, is on a par with Jesus. Anyone who disagrees is, obviously, a heretic or possibly Jacob Rees Mogg.

Glastonbury’s shift from minority interest to cultural pre-eminence began around 1990. The emergence of warehouse raves a few years before and the two ‘Madchester’ summers made Glastonbury fit with the zeitgeist for the first time in years. A new generation familiar with standing in fields connected with Pilton in a way slightly older indie kids had not. By 1994, it led the BBC to provide rolling coverage of the festival in a manner akin to Wimbledon or the World Cup. Keen to shed its ‘Smashie & Nicey’ image, it was a masterstroke in re-branding the BBC with alt.cult edge. Out went presenters whose knowledge of popular music extended only to The Eagle’s Greatest Hits, in came ex-NME music journalists and night time radio DJs. All of a sudden, ‘our’ side was centre stage but without scaring off a mass audience. In fact, it all helped push Glastonbury to the all-conquering behemoth it is today.

But there’s another side of Glastonbury history that has disappeared from the usual profiles: how much Glastonbury was hated. That’s right, how the very idea of Glastonbury’s peace and love vibes would bring out mods and post-punks in a rash. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the tensions between Modernists and Hippies that was once a feature of the festival. In a recent retrospective on Glastonbury, Paul Weller admitted that the idea of the Style Council playing Glastonbury back in 1985 was considered ‘incongruous’ to put it mildly. In a bid to probably wind up crusty anarchists, Weller decided to wear a bright white suit for the occasion – not a wise choice given that year’s mud bath (and how a lot of it ended up on stage). Still, it was a choice that signified defiance against the crusty norms – a standpoint that probably wouldn’t be dared today.

Another associate of Weller & the Style Council, Tracey Thorn, has also expressed a modernist scorn to what Glastonbury represents. In her brilliant memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, she writes that Glastonbury represented ‘everything I hated and was bent on destroying.’ A lot of the music press in the Eighties felt the same. Shockingly for younger audiences today, music journalists then did not hold Glastonbury with any great reverence. It was generally seen for what it had become by the Eighties: a refuge for Sixties ‘heads’ who seemed unwilling and unable to get proper jobs. The line-up often attracted worthy types who’d crossed over into the terminally unhip (Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Robert Wyatt) or old prog types (King Crimson, Hawkwind) who’d slept through punk.

Forget about any attachment to rustic idealism from the Eighties set, either. As Thorn says in Bedsit Disco Queen: “I’ve always thought gigs should be things that happen at night, after dark, in cities, preferably in front of crowds of no more than a few hundred.” The modernist spirit that big cities were preferable to yokel places like Pilton came to the fore when the Manic Street Preachers played Glastonbury in 1994. Infamously, bassist Nicky Wire barked that Glastonbury was a ‘shit hole’ and that a bypass should be built over Worthy Farm. On the 20th Anniversary of the Manics playing Glastonbury in 2014, Wire sounded a note of contrition and said ‘how could I be that angry over nothing?’

But does Wire really need to ask? His gut instincts were correct the first time 26 years ago. For post punk modernists, Glastonbury’s hippie set and their awful politics were the enemy. Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch hadn’t forgotten that, either. In 1997 McCulloch felt that the Bunnymen were short changed by being booked to go on first. He ended up bad mouthing Glastonbury on stage and questioned the charitable motives behind the festival. Michael Eavis apparently threatened to sue. “The hassle that the agents went through to get us on there and the record company going “oh it’s fantastic you’re on Glastonbury”,” said Mac in a recent interview. “But it’s not that fantastic. We headlined in ’85. It was just one of them things, because I’ve never really understood festivals or festival crowds. They’ve always got purple hair and tattoos and shitty undies. Which is alright I suppose, but I don’t like that. I was always a soap and water dude.”

Nevertheless, Glastonbury these days is not above giving stern advice on appropriate behaviour. For years it has gone big on killjoy ‘health and safety’ culture related to safe sex, safe drug taking and endless lectures about how healthy eating will ‘save the planet’. In some circles, the Greenpeace vibes and Extinction Rebellion flyers still give Glastonbury a radical, anti-Establishment edge. But if it was that edgy and threatening, it’s unlikely that the festival would have an army of BBC cameras there or Observer journalists breathlessly telling us that the £250.00 ticket is a ‘mirror of society’.

What Glastonbury does reflect these days is how the festival’s counter-culture roots are the dominant values in British society as a whole. Covering Glastonbury was designed to give the BBC a hippie makeover, but it was also designed to reshape the values and beliefs of British society at large. In the context of old traditional conservativism, British nationalism and raging intolerance, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? The hippies have won the fabled Culture War – it is Last Night of the Proms that’s now confined to the margins.

But for many of us older modernists and post-punk types, the hippies of Glastonbury never spoke for ‘us’ either. Sure, they challenged traditional conservative values and attacked The Man. The festival’s original premise for experimenting with culture and lifestyles was a welcome space for greater individual freedom, too. But the problem with the counter culture hippies is that whilst they attacked conservatives, they also attacked the considerable gains of modernity, too. For a left who wanted those gains to be made more widely available for all of humanity, their ideas represented a barrier to progress.

The Glastonbury set may not be ‘Tories’, but for many of us they were still reactionaries. Glastonbury as popular as Jesus? Here’s to the heretics.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Nice piece Neil. I share your distain of Glastonbury, I covered it for LTW in 2015, one of 26 festivals I attended during that year. It was 2nd bottom of my list in terms of enjoyment. Of course I saw some amazing bands and I enjoyed the vibe around the field of Avalon and Left Field. On the whole though I didn’t like the vibe across the festival, especially around the pyramid stage. People tended to stay in their own bubbles, I didn’t feel that I was amongst my own tribe. The worst side of Glastonbury is that there are too many people going too many places. Getting around is a nightmare. I certainly won’t miss Glastonbury this, or any other, year.

  2. The article is spot on to the point that festivals were almost irrelevant to the early 80’s post punk kids. Unless you count the excellent Futurama that used to happen annually in a Leeds bus depot.
    Apart from the field given over to Underworld in 92 it took until 95 for the house and trance scene to be given its rightful place in the Glastonbury line up. I recall scurrying round the fields of Pilton in 93 and 94 searching for a repetitive beat only to find security curtailing any chance to dance past the midnight hr. The only place to shuffle and gurn into the early hrs was the infamous Jo Blankets.
    Alas I cant complain the vibe was always agreeable and even though I’ve not been since 95 I still wish I was there every year.

  3. Glastonbury to me was a false flakey fairyland populated by hippies, pixies & ‘those’ types ya know? The great unwashed kids of the filthy rich playing at being righteous ‘right on’ types! Where as l & my Punk pals believed in Revolution & Riots the Glastonbury set were always, Love, peace & peaceful protest. Saying that l went twice, 1989 & 1990. I never paid to get in. I went for the drugs!
    As l watch it on TV l see a sea of smug middle aged middle class robots wearing Hunters wellies & straw fucking hats playing the ‘Look at me, l’m so bohemian” game
    Glastonbury festival? It’s another Wimbledon or Cheltenham.
    Pretentious pile of privileged preening peacocks. Bah!

    • Loathsome, myopic comment on a pitiful article. Revolution and riots are the means to peace and love, surely? Unless you’re a sociopath who wants the fighting to never stop. A lot of punks went to Glastonbury, a lot still do. You’re in danger of becoming your parents with all that ignorant stereotyping.

  4. Glastonbury is the establishment, along with labour and BBC. Crippling original thought and hysterically reactionary

  5. Champagne socialist event. Oh Jeremy Corbyn! That was the end. Political event with no connection to Punk and Rock outsiders.

  6. When i tell people i have been to Glastonbury, they always say oh the festival! NO! Never been, don’t want to. Im pagan and hang out with pagans. Im not on board a hippy trail either, being pagan., im on board with spirituality and i love Glastonbury as a place. I was a punk and i still listen to punk and though im spiritual im not swanning around loving the world. Humanity makes me sick if im honest. Glastonbury music festival? Shove it!

  7. I agree with Sane Darren, especially in regard to Mad John’s crass comment ( I bet he liked Crass too – the irony). There was a changing of the guard in the late 70s within the festival scene, incl Stonehenge and other free festivals as well as Glastonbury. By the time myself and my friends left school we were steeped in post-punk, but were listening to more experimental music as well by the time we attended our first festivals. Actually the much misunderstood and maligned Convoy (new age travellers),many of whom I knew personally, were mainly post-punk generation themselves remember. Paul bloody Weller (nor Macca or Tracy Thorne) doesn’t represent our generation any more than Hawkwind do. My first Stonehenge was 1983 and my first Glastonbury 84, and both were attended by legions of post-punkers who, yes, may in many cases have been more comfortable closer to home and a hot shower, but we understood that roughing it was part of the experience.
    Glastonbury was very much a CND/protest movement festival, granted, but up until more or less the end of the 80s there was a very laissez-faire attitude and class/cultural/generational contrast only made it more of an experience. It was a gathering of disparate elements of society, and all the better for it. If you couldn’t afford to pay, you got in for free. The music was a cornucopia of different styles, from established old guard to post-punk and avant-guard experimentalism. If you walked around at night and got lost among the smaller stages/tents, you could find anything to suit your tastes musically and otherwise. Admittedly things had changed by the early/mid 90s and I agree with many of the criticisms about it these days. Nicky Wire can fuck off though, likewise The Gallaghers. They didn’t get it…and your article shows that some people didn’t get it first time around either. Yes I know, the toilets were gross, whatever. And yucky old hippies smoking bongs, how awful for you.
    I haven’t been since 1992 and that’s not an age thing – I still like a decent independent festival – it *is* a ‘smug wankers in straw hats’ thing. It *is* a “how much for a fkin’ ticket??” thing. Agreed. But your assertion that post-punkers hated *80s* Glastonbury is way off the mark. The past was a different country, we did things differently there. Maybe you yourself found it a bit too much of a challenge? I get it, it was difficult spending four days on Worthy Farm fields without All Mod Cons (pun intended), but most of our generation managed just fine.

  8. Blimey this article is kind of wrong. The biggest difference between my first visit to Glastonbury 1990 when I was 17 and my last time 2017 is first and foremost the price. When I first went it was like £30. I played in a festival band from 2010 and was a performer.
    Glastonbury was a hippy social worker festival. With small bands. No world shattering pop stars. It was not cool or hip. It was a very different world then upper class types liked Simply Red and were um ‘sophisticated’ they left the stinky Hawkind festivals well alone.
    When I first went it was all a bit Mad Max. It felt edgy and wild. There was still places for the peace convoy and yes crusty types. It has grown to be a place for upper class people to attend and is no longer a place for alternative subculture types.
    This definition in this aeticle of ‘post punk’ is somewhat ambiguous. The crusty types were very much a post punk tribe. The Cure have played the festival four times and you can’t really get more post punk than the Cure The difference between 80’s Glastonbury and 90’s Glastonbury is dance music. Glastonbury took a while to move away from the acid hippies to the e ravers. But it moved with the times.
    If you hated Glastonbury why would you agree to play there it is what it is. I was at The famous Manics 95 performance. Nothing more theatrically punk than hating the thing other people love.

  9. You have no idea. Try seeing Slaughter and the Dogs at Retford Porterhouse late 70s to know what a real gig is about.

  10. I went from 1986 and was there most years for the next 11 years. I’m with Stuart Harbut and Dee Seejay on this one. My band played on the Travellers’ Stage, early 90s. That’s where the action was, while NME were wittering on. Agreed that the Glastonbury of today is like Chelsea Flower Show, but in the mid to late eighties I recall it was exhilarating. It was dirt-cheap to get in, you could take your own vehicle on (full of food and booze and maybe mates without a ticket), there were no police allowed onsite so pot and acid were sold as casually as a cup of tea, and the bands were fantastic. Anyone who didn’t go there out of some C-86 indie snobbery, well you missed out in a colossal way.

  11. What an interesting and polarising article.i think things were always alot more fluid ,in terms of tribe identity,that is described.glastonburymid 80s to 90s was pretty punk.you cannot deny the travellers were certainly not ‘hippies’ (though I think that word has become a catch all for all the dodgy politics ,that failed in their time)have a session with an acid head brew crew traveller and tell me that ain’t punk.punk is not clothes,its not urban or rural,its attitude.listen to the hippy slags- gateway takeaway and tell me that’s notpunk.culture shock-punk as fuck -subhumans when I first saw them they literally cut my head off.with insight,witty and sophisticated lyrics and a sound like a buzz saw.i don’t know if they played Glastonbury but they were part of that crustypunk, mad max-bring on the revolution scene.what about carhenge-if that’s not punk,I give up.anway what do I know.i do know that as Glastonbury expanded it became more and more commercial,pushing out the travellers ,I was there that year.So I remember the anger and when we found our own space to party-led bedreadlocked man-almost singing,shouting “FUCK GLASTONBURY’I never tried to sneak in again.fuck Glastonbury indeed!

  12. Dee – I really enjoyed reading your spirited comments. Great stuff. My piece was written with the current hagiography towards Glastonbury in mind. It struck me how a certain antipathy towards the festival, which *was* part of the narrative 35 years or so ago, has been forgotten about. I wanted to explore that side of Glastonbury’s history. Interesting point about post-punk’s at Glastonbury, but I’d still contend that the hippie/crusty/anarcho crowd was on a different subcultural tip to post-punk types. Cheers.

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