Somewhere around four in the morning, the sound of a cheap two-person tent being opened, followed by a torch flashed in our faces and a mumbled Mancunian apology.
Straight back to addled sleep, feet facing downwards on a sloping field that had been made soft by a downpour the night before the festival got started.
Woken with the morning sun. Hot in here. What’s that very precise cut in the top of the tent, two torn sides of a triangle?
Soon enough we realised our accidental night-time visitor was not at all accidental. A bag and money gone. A pair of jeans too. The ones with the car keys in the pocket.
Glastonbury 1990. The Happy Mondays were headlining, the Mancs had jumped the fence, raves had broken out all over the site, and we wuz robbed.
That wasn’t my first festival.
My life in a field began in my early teens at the first Monsters of Rock festival in 1980, remembered now mostly for the flying bottles of piss that rained down on the crowd throughout the day.
The Jam, the Specials and the Police were taking over the charts, but heavy rock was having a moment – in the north-east of England at least. And I’d persuaded my parents to drive my older sister and I to Castle Donington in the Midlands for the day, where the Deep Purple offshoot Rainbow were headlining, and, as it turned out, having a personality crisis on stage, with a singer who defied rock conventions in a smart white tailored jacket, red trousers and short hair.
It also turned out Graham Bonnet could really wail, and the stand-out memory was of a lung-busting cover of the Shirelles’ 1960 hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow? Even muddy and stained teenage rock fans herded on to a featureless slope in the middle of a motor racing track could recognise it was a moment. But it was also his last show with the band. The denim and leather brigade rejected him at a cellular level. Apparently there were 60,000 people in front of one stage – and probably not more than a couple of burger vans to keep them fed.
It was definitely scuzzy, but was it a festival?
What actually makes a festival?
– Do you have to sleep in a tent?
– Can it be in a city?
– Does it have to have mud?
– And terrible loos?
– How many great bands should you manage to miss?
– Should you be able to remember any of it?
The short answers are:
– Yes, and you should put it up yourself.
– Yes, but it might not count if you live there.
– No, you can also substitute dust clouds.
– Once this was true, but it is definitely no longer required.
– At least one per day, more if you put your mind to it.
– And, yes – try to recall one foodstuff, stimulant, companion, song and unscripted moment.
Festivals are usually about music. Sometimes they are about clever people saying clever things in big tents. They can be about food and friends and dancing and dressing up. But really, they are about letting go. And mostly they are about communion.
I’ve come to think of my own festival adventures as a parallel life I managed to sneak in. There’s the life you always live, where you package up a version of yourself for work and polite society. Then there are those days where you just slip through the gaps into something else, where you walk at a different pace, discover stuff, listen, share, and live in a heightened way for a while.
If you’re lucky, or you work at it, you can bring bits of one back to the other. Not in that I’m never taking this wristband off kind of way; more of an attitude: festivals can help you to slow down, look around, explore, be generous, be playful, and try to remember to enjoy it all.
The 80s were not like Club Tropicana…
If 80s music makes you think of glossy Wham! videos and bands with unlimited access to the dressing-up box, think again. In the festival world it was still more of a medieval plague vibe. Tents were rubbish and not waterproof. Camping was not mainstream and no one knew how to make a cup of tea in the morning. I only went to Glastonbury twice – both in the era before it was televised on the BBC and packaged up by Lauren Laverne.
In 1989, the toilets really were straight out of the 13th Century. A pit dug below a wooden bench with a hole cut in it, the horrifying contents below cresting above the level of the makeshift seat.
No wonder I wasn’t concentrating enough to stick with the Cure for their full set on the Pyramid stage. No wonder I appear to have missed Pixies altogether. It was the one and only time I saw Sinéad O’Connor (solo with just a boombox to accompany her) and De La Soul and Van Morrison (grumpy at best).
But the deeply embedded musical memory? Someone blasting the emotionally intense house tune ‘French Kiss’ by Lil Louis on repeat for a whole night. Second Summer of Love, indeed. That record inspired a lot of moaning, just not in the way it intended.
For me it was a decade that started with Rainbow at Donington, progressed through the indiefication of Reading Festival with the Pogues and Billy Bragg and ended with Chicago house music rattling my brain all night at Worthy Farm.
The 90s were mostly spent indoors…
Music mostly went indoors for me in the 90s. Into warehouses that are now fashion colleges, railway arches that are now “how much!?” interiors stores and canalside industrial buildings that are now fancy apartments. Britpop happened somewhere else while we were on the dancefloor with the repetitive beats.
There was that one Glastonbury ’90 episode, though, with the tent.
The World Cup was going on in Italy, and England had a crucial final group match against Egypt the night before the festival started. The era of big screens was still decades away and football was only just about to break away from its pariah status and become socially acceptable. (That historic cultural moment happened, in fact, exactly 13 days later, when Paul Gascoigne cried during a match in Turin and everyone fell in love with the sport that had been demonised by Margaret Thatcher.)
So we found the only television on the entire Glastonbury site, a black and white portable with a five-inch screen on the back shelf of a veggie burger van, where we ate several burgers, and stood in a downpour to watch Mark Wright score a header from a free-kick.
The miraculous properties of festival mud revealed themselves over the coming hours, going through the stages from normal load-bearing ground to evil, sucking swamp before taking on a rubberised consistency like a sprung dancefloor, under the pressure of 100,000 wellies.
Back then, Glastonbury was a place where drug dealer advertised on handwritten cardboard signs alongside helpless uniformed police officers. Honestly, it was all a bit overwhelming for everybody.
Waking up to realise we’d been robbed and the jeans with the car keys in the pocket had gone was a sober-up-quick moment. I popped up out of the tent and found a sorry group of campers similarly stumbling around trying to pick up the pieces from the night’s crime spree. There were clothes and bags discarded everywhere. I’m not blaming Bez and Shaun Ryder directly, but in a very real sense the Happy Mondays’ followers had been ’avin it. Somehow, I found our discarded car key, about 30 metres down the hill. It was a miraculous find, but no doubt the Glasto magic had worn off. We packed up our shredded tent and got home in time to see Argentina v Brazil on the telly and commentator Barry Davies yelling: “Caniggiaaaaaaa … scores!”
And I’ve never been back to Glasto.
In the 00s, the chill-out room went outdoors…
Festivals got really good when clubbers started running them. The Big Chill started in a back room of the Union Chapel in north London and found its place in the country at Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, an old pleasure garden full of architectural follies, specimen trees and peacocks mingling with the small crowds. Low tempo bands like Zero 7, Lamb, Goldfrapp and the Cinematic Orchestra played, but DJs were just as important as the bands. Mr Scruff, who always played a loose jazz-dub-latin-soul set, would build a mood for hour after hour. He’s still doing it now and he still sounds great.
For me, though, lying on the grass, looking at the stars and listening to Alucidnation turning I’m Not in Love by 10cc into an ambient dreamscape is the horizontal soundtrack to that early 21st-century moment.
Big Chill moved to Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire and over several years gradually grew and took it up a notch. We ended up seeing David Byrne and Eno one year, and Leonard Cohen on his last, fabulous, tour. But for all the great sets like Bonobo at sundown, or Martha Wainwright in righteous form, it was a festival where DJs made the great moments – Tom Middleton blasting Beyoncé, Norman Jay playing ‘Ali Baba’, Mylo’s desiccated reworking of ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and ‘Know How’ by Young MC are the tunes that come flooding back with memories of burning hot summer days.
If festivals are about letting go, it doesn’t mean they aren’t about being organised and learning a few moves. One year at Eastnor we went into a field where someone had hung a sign on a five-bar gate which read: “Reserved For Trapeze Artists Only.” We camped in there anyway but the sign proved to be a powerful deterrent and the field stayed appreciably empty all weekend long.
The next year, when we arrived late for a different festival, a friend of ours secured a perfect pitch for us by staking a little handwritten sign to the ground reading: “Reserved For Trapeze Artists Only.” It worked, of course. Everyone respects the authority of an acrobat.
We felt like a community that was climbing from the swamp and evolving. The game-changer for me was walking to work past a hardware store on Farringdon Road in London and spotting one of those heavy-duty hand trucks that people with real jobs use to move unwieldy sacks. I bought it months in advance. Tearful long walks from car to site were replaced by admiring glances at our trolley with pneumatic tyres, which was called FAITHFULL with two Ls.
After years of not being able to stand up in a tent, somewhere around 2009 we joined the cult of bell tents. My wife claimed she could put it up in 13 minutes. Suddenly we were showing up with cool boxes and a gazebo, stoves and a table.
Instead of spending the morning desperately trailing the site for coffee, catering got serious. As our group of friends became a group of friends and their kids, communal cooking became a joy. Breakfast for 20 and an army of helpers chopping, making pancakes, trying to keep the grass out of the scrambled eggs.
The Big Chill grew, over-reached, got sold and fell apart. Fortunately we’d found End of the Road in 2009, only 5,000 people back at Larmer Tree Gardens. We ended the decade with Fleet Foxes, the Hold Steady and some peacocks.
The 10s were for transatlantic tent-hopping…
Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in the States is famously the place where Dylan went electric – and Pixies went acoustic. It has been going for more than 60 years and after a fallow decade or so was reanimated in 2009 by the force of a new executive director, Jay Sweet. He understood that folk music had many different branches, from soul to blues, country and experimental electronica. Storytelling and musicianship are prized above everything. So by the time we moved to the US in 2012, looking for a substitute for End of the Road, Newport’s line-up seemed like a great match.
Which is not to say it was not idiosyncratic. Every festival develops its subculture: Newport’s involves boats, a fort, peculiar low-slung deckchairs, no camping, strict drinking rules and a curfew at 7.30pm. It takes place in Fort Adams State Park, a Civil War-era fort surrounded by water on three sides, with thick stone walls protecting an inner garrison. The main stage is visible from the water – and while on dry land in the grounds of the state park drinkers are supposed to be corralled in fenced-off bars, boats full of day drinkers get out of control on the water.
Quite the oddest thing is the morning stampede of the deckchair dudes. Low-seat deckchairs – no more than 30 inches high – are the festival-approved seat of choice designed to let people secure a spot and not block the view. And when the gates open, Newport stalwarts obey the walk don’t run policy and stage an Olympic speed-walking style charge to stake out a space in front of the main stage, which they then seem to leave uninhabited throughout the day. Their deckchairs have an amazing view.
Over the course of several summers we perfected our own Newport routine, switching from boat taxis and B&Bs to the Melville Ponds Campground, where we pitched our tent, and over the best breakfasts at Cindy’s Country Kitchen we invented a music game called BAT – it stands for barely audible tunes, and the first person to name the low-volume song playing in a public place gets a point. My wife usually wins with her stunning ability to discern a bassline beneath the chatter.
Artists go to Newport to innovate, collaborate and protest. St Vincent turned the brash electronica of Masseduction into piano torch songs. Jack White created a set including deep blues covers of Son House. In 2018, the festival felt like an anti-Trump rally as Jason Isbell was joined by David Crosby to cover the furious Nixon-era protest song Ohio. That year, as the US was convulsed by the divisions of the Trump era, Mavis Staples led a civil rights festival-closing set called Change Gonna Come, with Jon Batiste (who this year won a Grammy for best album), Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, Valerie June, the Dap-Kings and Brittany Howard.
Our massive, 14-kilo bell tent was doing service on both sides of the Atlantic as we flew home to End of the Road for reunions with friends in the years when Sufjan Stevens, the War on Drugs, Joanna Newsom, Tame Impala and Laura Marling headlined and the festival was widely garlanded. The crossover from EOTR to NFF has been a delight – Brits like This Is the Kit and Marling in Rhode Island; Americans like Sufjan and Father John Misty popping up in Dorset.
So, is it a festival if you don’t camp and it’s in the city where you live? New York City suggested no, but also, yes. I’ve never been to Coachella, but when its west coast organisers brought Panorama to Randall’s Island in New York, they landed a brilliant, heavyweight line-up (the National, Anderson .Paak and Sufjan Stevens all warming up for Kendrick Lamar at the peak of his powers with To Pimp a Butterfly). But it was also a deeply corporate, brand-saturated environment with sponsored tents, viewing platforms and drinks pavilions. By contrast, seeing Solange headline AfroPunk in Brooklyn with an audience that seemed to be made up mostly of absolutely transfixed young African-American women felt like the real essence of the communal energy of a festival in a pretty ordinary local park.
The 20s blew us off course…
And then, the tickets for gigs both indoors and out just started to pile up – on mantelpieces and in inboxes. The Great Cancellation was upon us and, like everything else, the music stopped.
So we all went to the park, didn’t we? All ages and social groups in all weathers – just to connect. It was a morbid festival of sorts – lived in the gaps between lockdowns.
We’re planning for Green Man this summer (on tickets rolled over from 2020) and End of the Road, with headliners postponed from 2020. Pixies – maybe I’ll finally see them outdoors 30-odd years later.
Glasto is back for the first time in three years, with 142,000 tickets sold and 203,000 people on site, and the wider festival market, which became absolutely saturated in the past decade, is returning. We’ll head to Kite, the new festival Tortoise is supporting with a slate of big ideas and conversations alongside some great music – This Is the Kit and Mavis Staples are on the bill.
Will it feel the same? It might feel better. The return after lockdown of the dutiful bits of life has felt like reason enough to celebrate, but the restoration of the parallel life in a field, that garden of earthly delights and Portaloos, feels transcendent to me.
The unscripted moments are what make festivals so special: one year we’d just got into our sleeping bags at about 2am when we heard the sound of one of our favourite bands of the moment kicking off a secret set. So up we got, pulled on our boots and saw the Acorn covering Michael Jackson in a tipi tent.
But reaching for memories of surprising connections, I keep coming back to, well, an odd encounter in an unlit Portakabin pissoir.
We’d just watched the War on Drugs play a headline set and leave the stage to a blast over the PA of Africa by Toto.
After the euphoria of the show, here we were, crashing back to reality, about 30 men – queuing and peeing silently and awkwardly in the dark in a crowded cabin …
… as the cheesy old 80s rock anthem built towards its chorus …
In my best falsetto as I queued, I sang/shouted: “Gonna take a lot to drag me awaaaay from yooou …”
And in the dark, in the low-ceilinged communal loo, all these blokes joined in: “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever doooo …”
Back outside, I heard a guy say to his girlfriend: “You’ll never guess what just happened in there.”
It was a festival moment.
This piece appeared in the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.