The Other Side of the Stage by Olivia Piekarski.
Having spent the best part of three years writing the real story behind The Fall with their legendary bass player Steve Hanley, as a veteran festival-and gig-goer I thought I’d challenge the Big Man to a new experience. He may have spent twenty years touring the world and playing at numerous festivals, but Mr. Hanley has never actually spent the weekend on the other side of the stage.
‘Can’t you get us some passes for Kendal Calling?’ I suggested a couple of weeks ago, since this one appealed to me the most in terms of line-up and practicality, being only a couple of hours’ drive from Manchester. Ever gallant, and quite oblivious as to what he was about to do to himself, Steve proceeded to chat up and e-mail his numerous contacts, coming up trumps with enough VIP passes for us, my kids and a couple of friends. So it was, in convoy, that we headed off to the North side of the Lake District, having aimed to leave in the morning, realistically departing at the not-too-slack time of early afternoon.
No traffic, lovely weather, I did all the packing. I also drove, installing Steve in the passenger seat with several cold cans of larger. So far, if you swap Mark Smith and the rest of the band for a couple of over-excited teenagers in the back seat, not too different from the tour bus experience of his earlier years. Even the queuing traffic in the deer park was something he could easily deal with, despite us being deep within the grounds with no glimpse of a telling marquee-top to indicate how much longer we might have to wait. ‘It is what it is now,’ were his wise words.
Several heated hours later, during which we suffered at the hands of first-day communication cock-ups between the box office, the artists’ entrance and car park security, we were mistakenly directed to the entrance of the campervan field, assured we could stay there, then told we couldn’t. Upon being instructed to drive out, queue again, park up several miles from the nearest camping field and then lug two estate-cars full of weekend essentials across many fields, Steve’s festie spirit began to falter. We’d already been forced to walk two unnecessary miles to the car and back just to queue for our wristbands, all the while warily eyeing other pack-horse-like festival-goers. ‘Why do people do this?’ demanded Steve. ‘I can’t believe they do this!’
‘Did you never have to wait around in the tour bus, then?’
‘Pah!’ he snorted. ‘We got driven to within ten metres of the main stage, got out, did the gig, schmoozed, got back on the bus and moaned if we had to wait ten minutes to get out of the place.’
Oh well, welcome to my world. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured him. ‘We’re not schlepping anything, I promise.’
I can be very determined, having got myself past a quarter of a million people to the front barrier of Roger Waters’ historic Berlin Wall gig at the age of seventeen. After ten minutes of waving my VIP band at the campervan security man and convincing him there was no-one in our party capable of carrying much, I did finally manage to obtain special permission to drive into the field, unload all our belongings, even Steve’s brand new wellies purchased specially for the occasion, and then park the car round the corner. Result.
‘Never again,’ proclaimed Steve once he saw how far away we were from the nearest loo. ‘Do you hear me? I’m never doing this again.’ I remind myself that I’m dealing with a man who never saw daylight for the best part of twenty years. Nor had he ever really been outdoors until he met me.
Some indiscernible time later, having missed Public Enemy despite our early start, we were standing on a grassy verge amidst trees with a background of rolling hills and a beautiful sun-setting sky shimmying away to Basement Jaxx. We’d have gone nearer the front but it was packed and the kids wouldn’t have been able to see. But it was loud and proud and the Basement Jaxx singers made sure everyone felt included. Crazy dancers and a bass sound that even from where we were standing, the body conducted. ‘Where’s your head at? Where’s your head at?’ I screeched at Steve, flipping firmly into festie zone. Well, these lot are one of my favourite live acts ever. He gave me a bemused smile.
Steve soon got chatting to a guy standing next to him and wasted no time in reporting back to me: ‘See that guy in the hat? He’s travelled 330 miles to get here, paid for his ticket, paid an extra tenner to park his car in a field, queued for two hours to get his wristband, schlepped his stuff across thirty fields, then got his booze confiscated and he’s still having a good time!’ Steve was incredulous.
‘I told you we got off lightly,’ I pointed out again. ‘It’s often a stress arriving. But where else do you get this?’ I sweep an arm across the vista before us. Everyone’s made an effort to get to this city of music in the middle of nowhere, which has been a year in the building. Basement Jaxx start up with Red Alert and despite our personal catastrophe, the music kept on playing on and on and before long all of us were dancing away on that hillside. You’d have to be made of concrete not to.
Following a decent night’s kip even though it was in a field and not a hotel room, the discovery of the VIP bar set by an exclusive lake the following day had some positive effect on Grumpy Festival Man. Added to this, Saturday was Dressing Up Day. The theme: film characters. For many, a long-awaited excuse to cross-dress en masse. Somehow it became perfectly normal for us to be having an ice-cold beer in a wooden ship with twenty Star Wars stormtroopers and a bearded Princess Leia who could have done with a chest wax. The ship was called SS Steve, the figurehead was a guitar. How thoughtful of the organisers to lay this on just for Mr. Hanley! This was when he really began to enjoy himself.
But the best was yet to come. Inspired by the festival’s world record attempt at having the most people dressed as Superman in one place at a time, the fields were covered in superheroes. And if there’s one thing a Hanley loves, it’s a superhero. I caught a glimpse of a whole troupe of them heading past SS Steve: Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Superman, Supergirl. They were all there. ‘Do you want a photo with them?’ I asked with a winning smile. Usually it’s people wanting photos with Steve, but how the tables were turning. Judging by the look on his face, I had no option. I ran out of the ship to chase all the superheroes up the field, Mr. Hanley hot on my heels. ‘STOP!!!’ I yelled after them. ‘I need a hero!!!’
It took a moment before they collectively realised I meant them, and once they did, boy did they get into character:
And thus Grumpy Festival Man was finally defeated and we proceeded to laugh our way from stage to bar to stage to bar to stage. After all, without the confines of a forth-coming performance there’s no need for any discipline.
Each night we were being treated to a big name headliner. While the Charlatans rocked the main stage, I discovered it was Tim Burgess himself who invited us along. ‘He was always a big Fall fan,’ said Steve wistfully. ‘Him and his mates used to travel in from Northwich to see us and New Order at the Hacienda before they started their band.’ Yet another serving of music history for me to digest.
With regret we had to tear ourselves away from the latter part of the set because there was no way Steve was going to miss the treat of British Sea Power and their other-worldly guitar symphonies in a small marquee up the hill.
Sunday brought Steve’s surprise festival discovery, a five-piece ska –reggae band called By The Rivers. A well-rehearsed band of boys from Leicester, they brought to the Chai wallah tent a small piece of what sounded like well-produced Jamaica back in the day. For me it was like being at the coolest ever zumba class, after which a bar break was required before we caught the second half of Johnny Marr’s set. To our surprise it was almost like being at a Smith’s gig. On day three of a festival head there’s not much difference between Johnny’s voice and Morrissey’s, praise the Lord. How Soon is Now? There is a light that never goes out. Spinning around in the sunshine metres away from the stage.
Upon absconding yet again to the backstage area for a break, festival politics could no longer be avoided. The same young lad who had been checking our passes on the way in and out of this area since Friday was still standing there, in his corridor of walls. ‘I’ve not even had chance to have a look round!’ he told me when pressed. It was the pained look in his eyes that alerted me to his inner trauma. I then discovered he’d been standing here, in that same spot, 8am till 8pm since Friday, with only a five minute break, after which he had to go to the dance tent and patrol that for another four hours. And for what? Seven pounds an hour before deductions.
It is hard to carry on enjoying yourself at such unnecessary psychological expense. Why have such long shifts? Why not have a rota of different areas? And why use a security firm who pens its staff up like this? Surely there must be other options for festival organisers.
But aside from this dent in the festivities, Steve’s experience on the other side of the stage seemed to have been fairly positive.
‘So,’ I asked him as Primal Scream began to take the stage. ‘Would you do it again?’
He took a moment before answering, ‘Only in a Winebago.’
However, during a two-day recovery and absorption period, a poster in a Chorlton bar caught his eye. ‘Have you seen this?’ he said. ‘The line up for Green Man looks good. I think I know someone who could get us on the Guest List.’