There’s a phrase created by Masahiro Mori in 1970 called ‘The Uncanny Valley’ to describe the revulsion or unease one feels when confronted by an almost human robot, or something that looks incredibly real but isn’t but the act of ourselves looking at it causes us severe revulsion and horror at one end of the scale or just being uncomfortable at the other. This year I’m experiencing Glastonbury Festival from the comfort of my couch for the first time ever having taken a year off (I’ll explain why in a second) for the first time since 1992. In doing so I now understand perfectly what The Uncanny Valley is and right now I’m both uncomfortable and horrified but let me go back to the beginning before explaining how this relates to Glastonbury.
I’ve been looking to take a year off for a while but the last few festivals have been so bloody amazing, great and enjoyable I binned that idea until only a few weeks after last year’s festival when (cutting a very long story short) it came out that I’d have to possibly move back to Glasgow from Bristol for a bit of a family emergency but up until September I was ready to carry on as normal and juggle things around as much as I could from Bristol. Then two things happened in September. One, the situation got worse and the second was the Scottish Independence referendum. September basically made it clear of a number of things and that for me to continue I’d have to go back to Glasgow, even though I’d miss things like a summer or the smell of someone who’ve been sick outside my flat after drinking too much cider. So I decided I needed to put off a decision about going to Glastonbury til the spring, but something then came up that confirmed that I couldn’t make it this year, so I accepted I’d experience everything of this this year’s festival through the media and of course, the BBC.
Of course this is all very strange looking at the festival as its happening through the filter of someone else, and that someone else is a BBC producer or if you look at the online coverage on the BBC site, whatever you want on the main music stages live. It’s extraordinary how much the BBC is offering for the viewer to watch yet at the same time the first thing that gets me is how incredibly narrow the BBC’s coverage is. There’s minimal about the rest of the festival including the 30 or so other stages (At least) that fall outside the basics of a few people on stage playing music. Still, it’s quite cool that you can see acts playing more or less live online from the comfort of your home while people experience it all first hand.
I decide to start on the Friday afternoon and dive in to have a shufty at Mary J Blige. Not an act I especially care any way for but hey, it’s Glastonbury and one of the things about Glastonbury is diving into watching acts you don’t especially care any way for. After ten minutes I find out I don’t especially care about Blige’s stuff to carry on watching but seeing as I can’t stroll off to a beertent, have a pint of cold, but overpriced Carlsberg, or a pint of cider at the Cider Bus and engaging someone in a chat as I’m in my flat I decide to look at what’s on the Other Stage which this year looks fucking huge. In fact it looks like the same rig at the Reading Festival stage.Anyhow the Other Stage sounds shite so it’s off to West Holts to see a picture of a lot of very, very wet people standing in the pissing rain waiting for something to happen.
This for me is part of the Glastonbury experience they need to give more prominence. After all I’ve lost hours over the decades standing around at Glastonbury in the rain waiting for something to start, so I fully expect this to have it’s own highlights programme.I spend ten minutes watching the skies darken and the crowd look more and more fed up before deciding to go for a wander again. This time to the Park stage.
The Park is at the same time a brilliant stage as it features some astonishing acts. It’s also at the same time overpopulated by the sort of braying arsehole that’ll be talking LOUDLY about how daddy has a job for them once they’ve come back from their gap year while at the same time filming whatever’s on stage so they can tell their equally vacuous friends what they did during Glastonbury.It’s essentially the London Hipster Student Trustifarian Stage, but it does have some great acts on and as I’m watching a band called Wolf Alice are doing some pretty decent Indie guitar music that’s a bit paint-by-numbers but they’re worth wasting a bit of time over if you can deal with the flag wankers.
Of course it’s late Friday afternoon and it’s all about Motorhead who are finally playing now that Emily Eavis has finally convinced her dad Michael that heavy rock and heavy metal has a place at Worthy Farm. Motorhead are also the reason I’m slightly deaf in my left ear after standing too near a speaker when I saw them in Leicester in the early 90’s.As I see out Wolf Alice’s set I notice the rain is getting worse while I look out the window of my flat here in Bristol to see the skies breaking and a vague bit of sunshine poking through. Rather than watch people get totally soaked I decide to make myself a burger, charge myself a tenner for it and ensure they’re not properly cooked so I can shite myself at some point to get that full Pyramid Stage experience in the run-up to Motorhead.
After this I settle down for some metal but the weather still looks shite.
This is the point at a festival where you either crawl back into your tent and hide, or you go ‘fuck it’, put some proper wet weather gear on and have some bloody alcohol/drug induced fun!! Standing around in the pissing rain isn’t fun though and as the sunshine filters into my flat I realise that in an hour or so that sun and clear skies should hit Pilton. I decide while I’m waiting to fill my toilet up with paper and let it overspill just to get the full experience as I wait for bloody Motorhead to get their arses on stage.
Then I see on my TV a trailer for BBC One’s magazine shitefest, The One Show and I wish only for an asteroid to kill Chris Evans. I go back to looking at people standing around in the rain as that’s more fun than Chris Evan’s hopeless face.. I go back to my burger hoping to contract something nasty as I notice someone finally cleans off the camera lens on the BBC feed, and the weather doesn’t look that bad. At this point I realise I’ve spent more time on the footage between bands than actually watching bands themselves. Again, this isn’t entirely something I’m not used to having been to probably around 100 festivals in my my life as the hanging around talking bollocks with mates bit is often more fun than the act itself.
It’s at this point I get pissed off, moody and a bit teary as thing is I could have done Glastonbury as it turns out and I’m actually missing it more than I think I would. I even miss the sore ankles, the burgers, the lack of sleep but I don’t miss the flag wankers. Nobody misses the flag wankers. Or the umbrella wankers. What sort of fucking inhuman arsehole uses a fucking umbrella in a field?? Honestly, they’re worse than Tories but this is all distraction from the fact that if I’d got my shite sorted out in April I’d be there and not writing this.
Motorhead are still setting up but the BBC gives us a warning.
I bloody hope it contains strong language but as Lemmy and company come on I notice the crowd is a bit thin but fuck people if they want to go an miss one of the best live bands you’ll ever see and tonight they’re on form but either the audience are dead or the BBC have cut the audience noise right out the mix. Then I realise that most of the audience are about 10 and are probably there only for Ace of Spades. I then spot that Lemmy has a little bottle of Glenfiddich attached to his mic stand.
Motorhead smash it. Eventually the audience gets it as do Motorhead who end up getting mighty pissed and turning out a show as the sun comes out but as they finish I realise BBC 2 has started their coverage which will be shite. See, one thing many people do when coming back from Glastonbury is to catch up with BBC2’s coverage to relive the best bits, as long of course the best bits are some DJ with ridiculous hair and some trust fund bunch of kids from London who are this year’s Indie Band of the Moment, oh and Jo Wiley.
Wiley’s a divisive figure. Some people think she’s just a vacuous airhead that promotes some of the blandest, most dull guitar music known to humanity, and some think she’s just an airhead.Either way her breathless excitement over Coldplay while looking down her nose at anything that isn’t on the main stages has become tiresome, but as tiresome as she is she;s not as bad as Nick Grimshaw, the actual physical embodiment of people that call Glastonbury ‘Glasto’ in that annoying Home Counties accent that makes them sound like they’re trying too hard to turn everything into a question?
But the story of Friday evening is who is coming on before Florence and the Machine and filling her slot? Is it Bastille? The Stone Roses? Dusty’s Rusty Nuts? Ed Milliband replacing Kurt Cobain in Nirvana? I don’t know but I think I spot Tony Bennett, the head of Knockabout Comics in the audience but it’s sadly not which means paying attention to BBC2 seeing as there’s nothing interesting happening anywhere else at the minute. I decide to look at the crowds in front of the Pyramid instead as that’s more interesting that Jo Wiley’s cold dead eyes, especially after a piece entitled ‘Daughters of Kate’ featuring four girls expressing their individuality by dressing as much like Kate Moss as they can.
So who played the second place spot? It was The Libertines, a band that at their peak were astonishing live. I saw them play an astonishing mid-afternoon slot at a Reading Festival in the early 2000’s, but when they reformed for the money a few years back, the spark had gone, shot up a load of smack, stolen their mate’s stuff, sold it for more smack and they were going through the motions. Not so much tonight as they seem to actually give a fuck probably because they’ll not be getting that much cash from the gig, and because it’s their first time at Glastonbury. Sure they’re a bit pudgier and greyer, not to mention the tattoos and swagger doesn’t convince at all anymore, but they do a good show, If I was there I’d probably watch it assuming I’d not ended up in the Avalon Field, one of the fields that never seems to get any coverage off the BBC.
Still, I flick around and look at a couple of songs from Caribou. They’re shite and appear to have neither enough spine or testicles to play anything exciting, so I decide to go back to the Libertines just to pass the time. They’re still shite. I decide to look to see who’s playing the Avalon Stage on Friday night, but I see that The Proclaimers, Wilko Johnson and Christy Moore are on at the Acoustic Tent, and that Lulu played the Avalon Stage, Fucking Lulu. Alabama 3 are on at the Glade. Mungos HiFi is on in the dance village. In short there’s plenty else to do, but the BBC are only showing the main stages and I feel sad so I go and turn my boiler from winter to summer mode because I’ve been meaning to do it for weeks. I’m still feeling sad and wondering why I didn’t just flog a box of comics, raise a grand or so and go fuck it as seeing the Proclaimers at Glastonbury after the last year would be immense, not to mention extraordinarily cathartic. Nope, I was sorting out my boiler while eating a plum.
Back to Glastonbury and deciding to venture out a bit I check out Modestep playing the John Peel Stage, and fuck me, are they not fantastic or what? Yes they’re derivative as hell of about half a dozen bands from the off and I hope they’ve stuck the cheque in the post to The Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and many more but they’ve got bollocks, energy and they’re LOUD.
I finish my plums, grab a glass of milk (living the mad high life me!!) to settle down for the home straight and the headliners. I decide to give Florence and the Machine a go, not because I’m a fan. I don’t especially like or dislike her stuff but it’s always worth seeing if an act manages to step up to the headline slot. Sadly the Flag Wankers are out in force.
Florence and the Machine do their job. They pull off a decent headline slot and manage not to be as boring as Coldplay or as crap as Gorillaz. It’s bland but serviceable though I’d not run across the room to turn it up because it sounds like the same song being played continuously, but it’s the sort of thing the Guardian adores so you get the audience for this.
I spend a few hours watching the BBC2 programme after Florence and the Machines set but by this time I’m so fed up about not being there that I decide to go to bed, plus I’ve got a day out planned tomorrow to avoid spending the entire day watching and writing about something I dearly want to be at so off to bed I go.
I get up and get ready to go out for the day but I can’t help a sneaky look at Twitter to see what people are talking about in relation to Glastonbury.The Guardian predictably slags off Motorhead, much of the media are predictably gushing about Florence and the Machine but the focus moves now to Kanye West, tonight’s headliner on the Pyramid Stage. Is he going to play a blinder or is he going to drown in a sea of piss? Before I find out I venture out on the piss myself because the Saturday of Glastonbury is all about getting nicely pissed and even though I’m not there, I fully intend living up to this tradition.
A few hours later I’m drunk. Not falling over drunk but still enough to realise Pharrell Williams is an arsehole but I manage to catch Mavis Staples on the Park Stage showing him a bit of soul but she’s over before I settle in too much so it’s back to Pharrell. Williams manages to effect the sort of honest-dishonesty that good salespeople do but I get tired of listening to someone that’s provided the soundtrack of All Bar One’s all across the UK. Fortunately La Roux is on at the John Peel stage and I drunkenly settle in for the next hour.
Sadly the sound mix is fucking dreadful so it sounds as if they’re performing in a bathtub under the sea.They’re a bit flat too as if they’re a bit pissed off about playing the John Peel Stage when they really should be on a larger stage, but at least it’s not Pharrell Williams pumping out the insincerity in big sticky globs but fuck me it’s dull and that’s a pity as La Roux are criminally underrated. That can never be said about George Clinton, Parliament, Funkadelic and the Family Stone who rip the spine out of the West Holts Stage and make a nice spangly flagpole out of it so they can teach you how to funk yourself to death.
I’m still very drunk and I can’t face Kanye so I carry on funking but during a lull I decide to check in on Kanye West and the levels of shite are as expected. It’s a multi-millionaire performing unmemorable songs to a backing track under a massive lighting rig. This is music for people that think that going for a Nando’s is exotic.
After deciding that looking at a man that can’t even stick together a backing band is shite, I decide to mosey back to the West Holts Stage for George Clinton. He doesn’t disappoint.
He turns out a fantastic gig, but don’t expect to see much of Clinton as for some reason the BBC director is taken by his backing singers. Can’t understand why?
After this finishes I manage a cup of tea, some Irn Bru, a bit of Suede and then bed because the bevvy has caught up now and I’m too old for people on TV and online trying to convince me that Kanye was anything but a bag of shite, plus tomorrow is potentially a big day.
Much of the press is trying to give Kanye a good report, but even the most gushing seems to accept it was a load of shite. Judging by the reactions of mates actually in the Pyramid field last night the crowd were very firmly split with half utterly loving the vacuous nonsense on display and the other treating it as an episode of Jeremy Kyle so giving it the contempt it deserved.
But it’s Sunday, the last day and there’s an interesting line-up to say the least. Patti Smith, The Who, Belle and Sebastian, The Chemical Brothers, The Fall, Steel Pulse, errr Lionel Ritchie, but the little gem is Franz Ferdinand and Sparks playing as FFS. There’s also the Dali Lama who did a talk at the Stone Circle in the rain, and Stephen Hawking who at this rate will probably be twerking during the Chemical Brothers. In short if I were there I’d want to see all of that but in reality only maybe see three, maybe four acts at a push because there’s other things to do apart from see bands. One of which I would have seen is Patti Smith.
There’s a fair crowd for her which is good to see as is the lack of rain and I end up people watching before remembering the crowd I normally go with will be at the top disabled platform so there’s no point looking for them but I do spot someone that looks like former ‘Scottish’ Labour leader Jim Murphy and feel pity for the poor sod. Smith though looks older than I expected, though she’s still got a great voice though it’s become a bit shaky at times, but unlike Kanye last night she doesn’t hide it with autotune.
She gives the Pyramid a different sort of Sunday afternoon experience but its one that seems to go down well and it acts as a palate cleanser after last night. Especially as she gets the audience to sing Happy Birthday to the Dali Lama and present him with a cake because this is Somerset after all.
It’s a more touching moment that it should be but I can’t help thinking the Dali Lama’s message of peace, hope and social justice is lost on people that just over a month ago voted for the Tories, UKIP or are ‘pragmatic’ Labour supporters. Still, the Dali Lama gives the afternoon a nice mellow vibe as does Smith who is much more chilled in her old age than the last time I saw her in the 80’s or 90’s when she was very, very angry as opposed to being just angry, but she is 68. However she closes with a storming version of The Who’s My Generation that overjoys fans and confuses the hordes of Flag Wankers turning up to ironically laugh at/enjoy Lionel Ritchie.
Here’s the thing about Sunday afternoons at festivals: you’ve either totally acclimatised so that you’re used to the sun, rain. dust, mud, filth, fun, and so on, or you’re so desperate to go home to clean your balls that you trudge along on a Sunday generally forcing the last vestiges of joy out of you before you start thinking about the shite call centre job you have before you’ve even taken your tent down.So you go to the late Sunday afternoon Oldie Slot for one last bit of contrived joy before accepting your fate again.
Only Lionel Ritchie can make you feel some sort of joy…
Ritchie does what the lat Sunday afternoon slot on the Pyramid should do: stick on a big show, get people singing and it’s all done in that American way of insincere sincerity that only the Americans can pull off. It’s a lesson in how to give what the audience want while putting on a show that even a hardened auld cynic like myself has to admit is fun.
Like Dolly Parton last year the crowd is massive for what is essentially a massive bit of karaoke, but hey, fuck it there’s nothing on any of the other stages the BBC are live streaming so I dig in for the duration and manage to enjoy it as uncynically as possible but if I’d been there I’d probably be off on a wander by now but I’d have missed the dancing security and the unrelenting cheese! Sadly Alt-J and on next and they’re the sort of unrelentlessly middle class indie band that has helped neuter music so I flick feeds to see Steel Pulse.
Steel Pulse are a reminder of the days when the West Holts Stage was the Jazz Stage, then the JazzWorld Stage before a couple of years ago it settled into the third main stage so it no longer had a focus on the unusual and had more mainstream performers but there’s still a bit of the old spirit there and it still does stand as something different from the mainly white indie guitar/pop bands on the Other Stage or the erratic Pyramid Stage. Steel Pulse play a set fit for a lazy late Sunday afternoon when one is nicely toasted.
At this point though on a Sunday of a festival you realise that time is running out. If you’ve been at Glastonbury since the car parks opened on Tuesday evening you’re either dying to go home, or (as I have the last four or five years) wanted to stay there for as long as bloody possible. See for all it’s faults. For all it’s flaws. For the fact the Pyramid Stage is often the domain of people that think Jeremy Kyle is the pinnacle of modern culture, or that the Other Stage is endlessly bland, or that there are too many tourists, celebrities (one mate has posted a selfie of her and Rio Ferdinand), TV presenters or journalists trying to grind out 1,000 words to fill a space and pay for the weekend, it’s by far the best festival in the UK. Cut away from Babylon, cross the railway track and it’s a different festival to that on TV. There’s circus fields, comedy, Green Fields, politics, more music, theatre and just people you meet doing things that are glorious which is why around 4pm to around 6pm I have one last walk round the site every year just to take it all in before settling down for whatever I want to see/do in the final hours. Normally that’s an evening in the comedy tent or checking out the last major band on one of the larger stages.
Seeing though as I’m not at Glastonbury I end up just cooking something to eat and mope a wee bit before catching some glorious tweeness from Belle and Sebastian though I can’t take my eyes off the large spot or mark on Stuart Murdoch’s nose.
For me the Sunday highlight is The Fall. Now last time I saw this band at a festival it was at a Reading around 15 years ago when Mark E. Smith and the drummer got in a fight and he played with a busted nose and lip. Now he looks like the old boy that drinks down the pub living out past glories in his head as he pisses himself every Friday night.
Put simply, The Fall are not a festival band. The crowd at The Park Stage try to get into it but most stand there looking puzzled, confused and in some cases, quite scared.I decide that perhaps I’m not in the mood so catch a bit of Paul Weller on the Pyramid Stage.
He is amazingly dull. I decide to take some fresh air and nip to the shop for Irn Bru. I come back and Paul Weller is still amazingly dull. I remember that every time I’ve seen him he’s been dull, and I’ve strolled off to leave him being dull so I go off and do something else more productive like drink Irn Bru for an hour or so or until the headliners come out to play.
A bit later I decide to watch The Who but they’re not letting the BBC do a live feed, only highlights on their programme later, which is bollocks & good as last time I saw them at Glastonbury they were dreadful. This does mean I can watch Franz Ferdinand & Sparks close the John Peel Stage to an audience of barely nobody.
Then I realise that there’s half an hour before they come on so I nip over to The Other Stage feed for a bit of Chemical Brothers, a pretty safe bet for any festival for a good gig.The first thing that stands out is a girl with a lit flare in each hand that looks totally awesome but must be burning her arms to fuckity.
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks are on though and they’re exactly as expected: demented and glorious.
Somehow both bands manage to blend together perfectly and produce a sound faithful to both bands while not detracting from the other. It’s pretty smart stuff. After FFS finish I catch up with The Who on the BBC2 programme. Its pretty turgid stuff.
There’s a point when songs of youthful rebellion and anger don’t cut it when sung by millionaires in their 60’s. Yeah, it’s OK, but at the dog-end of the festival it doesn’t look real. In effect it’s an Uncanny Valley writ large in music. In fact the entire weekend experiencing the festival hasn’t quite felt real as the laptop or TV screen provides an experience only programmed by BBC directors so it’s shaped only in the way they want you to experience Glastonbury and it’s false. It’s fake.Sure the six different live feeds online are great but you’re still detached. You don’t experience the smells, the sounds, the feel of the ground under your feet, or feeling the mist descend into the Valley of Avalon, or looking up and seeing stars you never will anymore in cities.
Sure some of the images on your TV screen or monitor are spectacular but it’s a snapshot of a butterfly taken from the Moon. You can only get a glimpse at best, but the problem is creating that false image that it’s a bunch of fields with bands playing in them and it’s not, even though that’s a part of the festival it’s only the commercial part to be sold to the tourists that are happy to accept the festival in part rather than a whole. There is another way to live life and without sounding like a sad old bastard, Glastonbury provides a template for it. With what’s going on in the world at the minute there needs to be something positive, something achievable and here it is. OK, there’s still crime, there’s still arseholes and I’ve written often about the changes in the festival over the last two and a bit decades I’ve been going.
But it’s easy to be cynical. It takes no effort, however it allows you to do nothing while letting the status quo persist, so as I’ve sat here all weekend watching Glastonbury on TV, and on the media the cynicism against the festival has been at times overwhelming. As said, this is only a glimpse you see on TV. It’s easy to dismiss it on TV, and sometimes it’s fun as in the case of Kanye West, but when all that’s presented of the festival is a replica, an almost real version of the real thing it’s no wonder some of us do feel revulsion because we know we’re watching a fake. Being on your couch is no replacement for the real thing.
I look at the image on the BBC’s Glastonbury webcam late on Sunday night as the main stages have closed, but it’s clear there’s still so much that’s barely been represented at all in the media this weekend. In fact around 30 stages haven’t been mentioned so it’s no wonder people come to the festival expecting it to be a big gig in a field when it really isn’t, but you want to limit your experience of Glastonbury to just that, fine, knock yourself out but you’re missing not just the festival’s potential but your own and that dear readers is the end of this.
In the next six months I need to sort a lot of things out, If things work out then I’m coming to Glastonbury next year from Glasgow, but it’ll be worth it because if you use Glastonbury right, it allows you to inspire yourself and that’s not something that’s just a gig in a field can do. I never again want to miss that experience and I never again want to experience the Uncanny Valley of living Glastonbury through the BBC ever again.