The first cut won’t hurt at all….The Rise and Fall of Festival Culture in the UK-part two

Last time I outlined a brief history of the rise of festival in the UK in the 90’s which drew a very wide bow but with good reason as all my experiences in the 90’s needed to be put into context as I discuss the fun and games at the other festivals I went to outside of Glastonbury (which I’m still outlining in a series of separate blogs) and Reading (which will be done in separate blogs) so let’s get stuck in.

I’ve outlined how I used to attend free festivals & raves in the late 80’s and early 90’s but memories of them are vague, plus I’m keeping some of those reminiscences back as I really want to focus on the corporatisation of  festivals in the UK. One of the first to highlight this was T in the Park held in Scotland since 1994. Sponsored and run by Tennants brewery it’s original idea was to give Scotland it’s own festival on the size and scale of Glastonbury or Reading. This was (and is) a bloody good idea as Scotland has always supported live music in all shapes and forms, plus getting to the likes of Glastonbury was expensive and impractical for most people at the time.

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So in 1994 and buoyed by the relative success of the first Phoenix Festival in 1993 which showed a larger market for festival than most people thought, T in the Park was born on a July weekend at Strathclyde Park in Hamilton, a smallish town just outside Glasgow. The fact it was held here meant easy commuting from Glasgow, which meant no camping so crashing at Gary Erskine’s flat was the option rather than camping at the festival campsite which was the other side of the M8 from the site. Not a good idea.

That first year was fun and the idea of a festival in the West of Scotland where summer weather was at best erratic was a risky business, but it was hardly beating away people at the door as one of my big memories of the festival is lots and lots of wide open spaces, oh, and lots and lots of branding for Tennants everywhere. Being used to the free festival/rave culture, not to mention having now a couple of Glastonbury’s and a few Reading’s  under my belt meant that it didn’t really feel like a festival to me as opposed to a big series of gigs in a field. Which is fine, but pitching this as a ‘Scottish Glastonbury’ as some have over the years misses the fact it owes more to Reading than the Glastonbury type of festival.  It didn’t even feel like the Heineken Free Festivals which I’d attended in Nottingham in London in previous years (it was at one of these in Nottingham that I saw two girls hold a third girl as she squatted into a men’s urinal to have a piss which is a sight  I’ll carry with me til my death) as they were glorious messy affairs where you could bring your own beer in rather than have to endure drinking the swill that is Tennants.

That first year was deemed a success even though it seemed numbers were thin on the ground. The next year I’d managed to convince around half a dozen friends from Leicester to go, and so it was that during the long, hot summer of 1995 two cars set out from Leicester to Glasgow and with Gary kindly offering to turn his flat into a home for us all (poor sod) we drove the amazingly long drive to Glasgow.

I’d like to say it was fun and much of it was. I remember pulling the Pulp Fiction ”royale with cheese’ line to some wee girl at a Burger King in the Lake District as we stopped off for a break. I remember  being amazed at how truly lovely this country is when you get out of the cities & how dry everything was due to the weeks of dry warm weather that’d started before that year’s Glastonbury a few weeks earlier. Most of the time though it was dull, and trying to keep two cars in a convoy for 300 odd miles in the days before mobiles was easier said than done but somehow we got up to Glasgow, and to Gary’s flat which we then invaded for the next four days. I should also point out that several of Gary, and his then partner, Magz’s friends were also staying so how we all crammed in I’ll never know.

That first night was getting my mates from Leicester to acclimatise to the Glaswegian accent, and to the general carnage that awaited us all. One of our number even got a wee bit friendly with one of Magz’s ex’s but hey, we were at a festival and the line up looked good.

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That year’s festival was fun, but like Glastonbury a few week’s earlier it was boiling hot all the time and there was even less escape from the heat here. Also the crowds were phenomenal so by the time we rolled onsite the festival was crammed full. You also couldn’t move without seeing a Tennants logo in front of you trying to convince you  that their urine coloured swill was worth drinking but it it was hot and it was one of the few choices to drink at the bars.

As the festival ended we all looked back on a fun time but the festival was outgrowing it’s location and that was very clear in 1996 when the site was just too full. It was also a pretty bad festival even though I’d again brought up a little group from Leicester in an attempt to capture the previous year’s glory. The less said of 1996 the better.

Which amazingly brings us to 1997 and the festival moved to it’s current location on a disused airfield in Balado in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly it was a dryish weekend and the new site was larger, better and if it rained it still had former landing strips so you had somewhere firm to stand/sit for a bit rather than drudge through mud. This year the group boiled down to just a few of us as I’d made the trip myself from Leicester as nobody could be bothered after the rubbishness of 1996, plus Glastonbury had taken it out of people with it being a muddy year. So it was myself, Gary, his cousin and a couple of others from Glasgow who went. Here’s some of us in all our glory….

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We’re all so young thin and dynamic aren’t we?

Which was more than could be said of the line up.

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Dodgy! Ocean Colour Scene! Gun! Bush! Reef! ‘Take yoir ‘aaaaaaaannnnnndddssss’

There was Daft Punk though, and did I say we were dynamic?

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Anyhow, it was fun & enough worth seeing but I couldn’t shake off the increasing feeling this wasn’t going to be the festival for me as the larger site meant even more Tennants branding everywhere.

The following year was to be my last. I went up with my then girlfriend Tash, and went down again with Gary, Magz and a few of their crowd from Glasgow. It was all fun, with the first day being amazingly hot and bright (If I can find them I have pictures of the main stage taken at after 10pm which was still bathed in sunlight) but the Sunday was wet and shitty. I remember just sitting on the bus back to Leicester being depressed and fed up as I don’t want to go to festivals to be sold crap as that’s why I go to festivals to avoid that. Also the type of person going to festivals had changed from a load of dropouts, students and wasters to the sort of person who thinks going into town for a kebab and a fight is a quiet night out.

This was clear during my first and last appearance at V Festival in 1996. Pulp were playing and it was the festival’s first year, plus it had a pretty good line up. OK, it was all about Virgin selling you their services but the real horror of that didn’t dawn on us til we got onsite. Imagine being in a house on the hottest day in the year, and the coldest drink you’ll ever drink is at the end of a very long corridor but you have to fight through people lined up on each side trying to sell you insurance in the smarmiest way possible to get to that drink.That’s how it felt. Plus there was the amazingly odd sight of plastic laid down on the grass in front of the main stage so that as the day progressed it became slippy and and bit risky as you spilled your overpriced slop of a drink.

Pulp were great and everything but it was a dreadful experience, plus being in Chelmsford meant you had people there who frankly were looking for a scrap. Again, I go to festivals to avoid these people who litter our city centre’s, not to stand next to them as they should ‘show us your tits’ to any passing person who may have even the possibility of having a vagina.

Which isn’t to say Glastonbury and Reading were immune to this as the BBC coverage of Glastonbury made it look like a big gig in a field and skimmed over the other aspects of the festival as it’s never been a music festival, but a performing arts festival while Reading changed post-Britpop from somewhere which was a bit tasty but still fun, to somewhere where people setting fire to toilets and generally being pricks was seen as ‘fun’ rather than the kickable offence it actually is. The problem was that festival culture had been packaged up and sold to the masses in an easily digestible, and overall safe, package that screened out some of the flaws of free festivals but also screened out the creativity and general ambiance of these festivals where everyone really was of a same mind and culture even if they weren’t, for just a few days.

It also helped to depoliticise festivals so they were no longer something which may attack or challenge the mainstream as it’s hard to challenge the mainstream when you’re trying to flog beer or insurance to pissed festival goers.

This isn’t to say either that the type of festival I’m talking about is totally dead, but it still lives, albeit most of the time it’s wrapped in a cosy Guardian-esque middle class comfort blanket. The festival culture in the UK has endured a death of 1,000 cuts, but it lives on in parts of Glastonbury, & the few smaller festivals which try to marry past and present. The likes of V or T in the Park and even now, Reading aren’t for the likes of me anymore as I’m not that type of consumer as that’s what they are-excuses to sell shit to wankers rather than creating a life affirming event free of the pain of everyday life.

When you’ve got people like Emili Sande or The Script as your top bill then you’re going to attract a certain type of person and the organisers know this, hence the blandness.

Like I said-selling shit to wankers.

So when you’re sitting down to watch highlights of these festival think of what once was, and how these festivals only took the shell of what a festival is, but they didn’t think of adding a soul. It’s only the people going and the ethics of the festival itself that can do that.

 

 

 

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Find me on a pale horizon-The Rise and Fall of Festival Culture in the UK-part one

As those who do follow this blog might know I’ve been doing a series of blogs about my experiences at the Glastonbury Festival from 1992 onwards, but there’s a bit of a larger story to tell in regards festival culture in the UK.

There’s been festivals of some shape or form in the UK since the 1950’s. You can study the history of the growth of festival culture by looking at the excellent site, The Archive, which details festivals from 1960-1990, or searching out the splendid Festivals Britannia documentary that BBC Four broadcast a few years ago. It’s really the story of my perception of what happened to festival culture from the late 80’s onwards that I’m on about.

As I’ve outlined in the past, I grew up in a very working class part of Glasgow which didn’t mean I was ignorant of festivals as I knew they existed thanks to reading the NME from an early age, but that was mainly things like Reading Festival when it was going through it’s Jurassic phase. I only really learned about the wider world of festivals after reading an article about Glastonbury in an edition of the NME from 1985.

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I was intrigued by the sounds of Glastonbury and the idea of a load of people sitting in a field somewhere listening to music and generally getting together. Not that was an alien concept to me back in Glasgow in the mid-80’s as sitting around Kelvingrove Park was a pastime, plus the odd open air gig used to happen in Glasgow so I’d had a tease but nothing anywhere near the full experience.

It wasn’t until I moved to Leicester in 1988 and drifted gently into various scenes in both Leicester and London that I started to dive into the whole festival culture. Leicester was, oddly enough, where I experienced my first full one day festival with the Abbey Park Festival which was a one day event normally held in August in Leicester featuring frankly a selection of some pretty naff bands, but I enjoyed the whole ambiance of the day and it was fun most of all.

Most of 1988 and 1989 was spent splitting my time between London and Leicester which was easily done thanks to my job, and being a young man with more money than sense I took great advantage of the delights and pleasures of London at a time when rave music was not only at it’s peak but it was colliding with other cultures such as the traveller and punk culture which is where it caught me. I used to finish work on a Friday and rather head back to Leicester, head into London to see gigs, or hang around various pubs in Camden or Kentish Town. I’d stay overnight wherever I could, so a floor, a bed or when there was a comic mart the next day, I’d find a cheapish hotel round Holburn and spend the previous night in Soho after being at the Astoria til the wee hours.

Then in 1990 I decided to take the plunge and go to that year’s Reading Festival, which had seen itself make the dinosaurs which used to play there extinct and started showcasing bright new talent from both sides of the Atlantic. I didn’t end up going, but I did start going to various free festivals on my increasing trips to the South West of England, and I’d stumble across groups of ravers in London pubs who’d drag me to a field somewhere in Hertfordshire.

When I left my job and became rooted in Leicester I fell out of that lifestyle, but festival culture was still attractive to me because it was very much still an underground and alternative thing to do, plus the free festivals were fun, but had a huge element of danger to them thanks to the somewhat dubious people often involved with them, not to mention the gangsters who’d follow them around selling drugs. Most of the time though the free festivals of the early 90’s were fun affairs which sometimes seemed never to have an end as they’d go on and on and on….

There was also a beginning and end to the summer with Glastonbury kicking it off with this huge life affirming party to welcome the summer months and Reading ending it with this dirty, filthy party in a field next to a railway line.

By 1992 or so the amounts of festivals had started to grow partly due to the response to the Castlemorton festival which saw the government start to crack down on free festivals, which meant all these people who were going to festivals wanted to go somewhere and there were decreasing amounts of places willing to host them. By the time the Criminal Justice Bill became law the amount of free festivals were dropping to single figures, and the days of the illegal rave were numbered. This meant big business saw a market and a chance to repackage what was an alternative and underground culture for a mainstream, so by 1993 you had the Phoenix Festival rear it’s head in what was the first attempt to introduce a new major festival to the calender to challenge (the 1996 lineup is to this day the best of any festival of any kind I’ve ever been to) Glastonbury and Reading.

The first year was frankly a disaster with security extinguishing campfires and getting people to turn off soundsystems which for those of us used to free festivals was a bit of a shock, also there was not enough water standpipes and toilets. It never really recovered from that first year as it gained a reputation after this, but it was where the campsite cry of ‘BOLLOCKS’ originated which hung around festivals up til the early 21st century. It did peak with the 1996 festival though more of how that failed in many ways in the next part of this series of blogs.

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Phoenix never really brought in the mainstream punter, but rather the Glastonbury/Reading veteran & the person who couldn’t get their free festival hit any more.  Attracting the mainstream would mean a change in the mainstream itself, which is exactly what happened when Britpop broke which meant the mainstream wanted to see bands like Blur or Oasis or Pulp and they played lots of festivals, so the mainstream slowly started feeding into festival culture. It wasn’t until 94 or 95 that people started seeing festivals as something to do rather than a Spanish holiday or a trip anywhere else. The fact you now had festivals organised by beer companies (Reading was only sponsored by Carlsberg Tetley) like T in the Park and also by large mega-companies like Virgin with the execrable V Festival.

And that sets up quite nicely my experiences at all the festivals I went to that wasn’t Reading or Glastonbury in the 90’s. This gives you a little bit of background as to what was happening and in the next part I’ll outline the exploitation of festival culture by the corporations and how it all went horribly wrong.