“It makes you wonder why other festivals even bother” –Dave, aged 25, Saturday 23 June 2007
Zero hypothermia, acute trench foot, backache and constipation: is it all worth it to see The Killers play a pyramid in Somerset? Probably, thinks Kae Karadelis. So long as you didn’t expect to hear them.
Arriving at Bournemouth travel interchange at 6pm on Monday, June 25, I am smeared with layers of stale mud from woolly hat to welly. I have been exposed to the elements; freezing, brutal, persistent rain for four days. The paper money in my sodden rucksack has been washed to meaningless mush. At 3.30am the “environmentally friendly” coach I was obliged to book in order to get my Glastonbury tickets this year did not come to take me home as agreed. As a result, my companion and I stood in knee-deep floodwater for seven hours, waiting for its replacement. Until she lost consciousness, that is.
After a long stint in the hospital tent and a diagnosis of zero hypothermia, we were told to make our own way home. By the time we’d got a bus to the nearest train station, my friend was being carted across the platform by the Red Cross in a wheelchair. This is the little reported reality of Glastonbury – which, by the way, is still one of the most awe-inspiring festivals on Earth.
Wednesday 20 June
The decision to tie 25,000 festival tickets with coach travel this year is a noble one, but will only work if planned well and it starts looking shaky from the inward journey. We’re lucky that there’s a Somerset native on the eye-blearingly early coach in, because the driver has no idea where he’s going and even does a couple of U-turns along the way. By 9.30am we’re working up a sweat lugging our camping gear uphill. Long, green grass is pleasuring my ankles.
Considering the gates have only just opened, it’s surprising that the campsites are already taking shape. The area between the Pyramid Stage and its control tower is cordoned off and massive cables are being set underground between them. A new society of creative, open-minded, fun-loving people is growing and multiplying where silent fields were before it. By the evening, the festival is heaving. Extra tickets have been added this year making the capacity over 170,000 and although the site has expanded too, it seems somehow busier than ever before. There’s a stall selling Glastonbury farm cheddar in one of the shopping areas near the Pyramid. It’s hard to believe that there are still 36 hours before the festival proper begins. A feeling of euphoria and nervous anticipation kicks in. The weather forecast for tomorrow isn’t great.
Thursday 21 June
Thursday is traditionally for sampling everything the festival has to offer by getting lost, but this year a brilliant line-up in the Leftfield distracts a lot of festival-goers in the afternoon. Hot ciders in one hand, thigh-slapping with the other, the tent erupts in demented Morris dancing when 3 Daft Monkeys take the stage. Their inhibition-free hillbilly folk is exactly what’s needed to take minds away from the drizzle that has started outside. Former hobo Seasick Steve then plays his bluesy tales of woe in between travelling anecdotes that mostly involve dogs and guitars, which have the zealous crowd in stitches.
Back out a-wandering through the Green fields we catch a string band playing the Pink Panther theme in an organic café. One of them is wearing a zebra print suit which matches a similarly-painted piano in the corner. They’re taking bids for the piano and it currently stands at £20. More wandering and we pass an impressive ship made entirely out of old junk. Next to it, a young family is making a sand sculpture in what is the deepest sandpit I’ve ever seen. A parade of multi-coloured umbrellas, ribbons dangling down from them like maypoles, passes in front of us. Without warning, a brolly is handed to me, and before I know it I’m skipping behind 40 others in a frenzy of wigs and fairy wings.
We settle in a tipi for delicious sweet chai and cake, but I am made to feel a bit out of place with my anorak, wellies and marketing day-job as the other punters are mostly wearing blankets and dreadlocks. It hurts because if we’re all at the same festival there should be a shared unity, but instead I sense that any minute now they think I’m going to get bladdered on warm Carling, hurl abuse at some hippies and set a portaloo alight. I’m not. We stop off at a shop on the way back and decorate ourselves with accessories from an inflated paddling pool full of brightly coloured apparel.
By night, all manner of pre-festival parties are forming in niches across the site. A huge crowd accumulates at the Circus and Cabaret field to watch a theatrical spectacle on a raised platform. Enormous Bunsen burners erupt in flames while daredevils dressed as kinky lobsters in red PVC dance through water fountains and pelt each other with fire balls from hoses that look like giant welding torches. The crowd is roused and energised, by the show as well as the colossal heat given off by said inferno. To chill out afterwards, I catch pop-folk duo Nizlopi and the warm vibrations of the double bass continue resonating in my head until it hits my pillow. I can hear rain pattering on the tent roof above me. I know it’s going to be wetter tomorrow.
Friday 22 June
We wake up to sticky, pummelled mud all over the campsite, but it’s only heel-deep: we’re lucky. Time to walk over to the Other Stage to catch Mr Hudson and the Library open up to an early crowd with jazz piano, steel-drums and mockney vocal harmonies. There’s a happy reception for Too Late Too Late, but as Hudson asks “Why must I always play the clown?” it becomes one of those ironic moments where art imitates life – because the band is competing for attention with a mean-looking, dirty, gangster of a cloud which is stomping its angry way towards the site.
Back to the tent to grab a poncho and some of that Glastonbury cheddar for breakfast and the heavens open. I can hear The View moaning about wearing the same jeans on the Pyramid in the distance. I have no sympathy for them. The short, sharp bout of rainfall has left the downhill slope from our base very difficult to navigate. I want to check out newcomer Newton Faulkner in the Acoustic Tent, but the mud is so deep and thick with a slithery overcoat that for every two steps I take towards him, I slide another one away. After a real effort to reach the tent it’s packed to the rafters, so I listen from outside inevitably getting caught up in another downpour. But Faulkner’s plum vocals and enthusiasm are very cheering and I love his heartfelt cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. A surprisingly rowdy audience orders him to play the Spongebob Squarepants theme tune and goes completely berserk singing along to it.
Time for Amy Winehouse on the Pyramid Stage who despite being a little worse for wear in the afternoon – alongside at least half of the tens of thousands who turned up to watch her – finally brings the sun out. Her all-dancing backing singers really impress, leaping around not unlike the Temptations in their early days to an unforgettable cover of Toots and the Maytals’ Monkey Man.
The route to the Other Stage is by now calve-deep and liquid, but we get there in time to hear Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys sing through a Power Rangers helmet. Their fans are full-on crazy about them and a mix of tunes from their back catalogue as well as new stuff does not disappoint, but having raised their own bar so high, this performance is not exceptionally memorable.
However, Bloc Party rocking the Pyramid with their poignant electric indie themes is Friday’s highlight. For an early evening slot, the number of people packed into the stage arena is phenomenal. Kele Okereke looks genuinely moved by the amount of support for what is still a relatively new band. The lead singer gives his absolute all, jumping off stage with his guitar to play amongst the bouncers by the barriers. Both band and crowd feed off each other’s energy and it becomes one of those magic festival moments when thousands of people, hands raised, move together in mutual harmony.
That sort of rock show is difficult to top, so over to the Jazz World stage for happy African grooves with Toumani Diabaté & Symmetric Orchestra. However, the mud by the Jazz World stage is so hard to move in that we only catch the last minutes of the set from afar on the gravely walkway.
As night falls casting an eerie blue-green glow over the campsites, the Arcade Fire take to the Other Stage for a mesmerising, almost spiritual performance. They play like church musicians to a fervent congregation while thousands of worshippers sing back the flute and strings in echo. It’s a shame that this religious experience is ruined for a number of people by a fat, inebriated mud troll who insists on rolling in the mire and launching herself at members of the crowd. This is physically painful, distracting and though it would’ve been funny at any other time, is right now practically blasphemous. We are all very glad when a tall Arcade Fire fan fearlessly swoops her up over his shoulder and disposes of the troll further away.
And then it’s time for Bjork. I am only vaguely familiar with her unique breed of psychedelic rave, but from the moment she arrives – dressed in what resembles multi-coloured batwings – I find myself completely captivated. She has brought with her a stage brimming with musicians, and a presence that fills not only the podium, the arena and the campsite, but the whole of Pilton. Delirious, we dance in the muddy water watching a panorama of green lasers rip up the sky; the set is an audio-visual spectacle that leaves everyone longing for more.
So we head to the nearest available after-party venue which happens to be the Queen’s Head and Guilty Pleasures are spinning records last heard at a school disco near you in 1995. By 3am, doing the ‘Glasto Groove’ (which involves moving your body above the knee only because your feet are firmly implanted in the ground) to Take That’s Never Forget has lost its appeal. On the way home, my welly gets stuck in a boggy bit somewhere near the John Peel Tent. I can’t move and I have to ask a valiant passer-by for help.
Saturday 23 June
We’re woken up by Liz Green who has deservedly won the Glastonbury Unsigned competition. Her smoky voice sounds like it was recorded on vinyl in the 1930s and teamed with her bluesy acoustic guitar, it makes for a very sweet alarm call. After an alfresco breakfast of chilli noodles and pitta, it’s almost time for the Guillemots. With Fyfe Dangerfield in a bright red suit surrounded by scantily clad stilts-walking babes, this theatrical avant-garde art pop troupe are exactly what festivals should be all about. Their catchy rhythms ensure nobody in the crowd is offended and leave anyone feeling (understandably) weathered by now with a big smile on their face.
This sets the tone perfectly for CSS on the Other Stage. Multi-coloured balloons and huge lightening bolts are the backdrop for singer Lovefoxx who bounces around like wee ball in a gold cat suit and 80s Jane Fonda-esque boot trainers. Infectious disco-pop usually gets the party going, but distributing bottles of bubbles takes it one step further. And when a young Brazilian girl in skin tight Lycra jumps head first into the crowd, well that takes it to another level. As she clambers back on stage, she rips off cat suit one to reveal a glittery number beneath. In-between songs she takes drags of helium from the balloons. “Don’t forget to blow your bubbles!” she squeals with a cute Latin twang. Thirty-five minutes of unadulterated fun.
It’s a shame that Lovefoxx’s boyfriend’s band Klaxons can’t quite live up to the same energy. Although their songs have been hyped up in the press as the soundtrack to a new musical movement, the guys are either nervous, overwhelmed or shattered. The burden of expectation is perhaps weighing too heavy on their shoulders. They still give a well received performance, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t quite capture the imagination of the massive audience gathered to see them, at least from where I’m standing. They are not helped by the grim persistent drizzle.
A strong wind picks up just before Maximo Park which sweeps all arty farty over an imperious Paul Smith, making him look like he owns the world. An incredible mover he does the splits in mid-air without missing an intelligent Geordie lyric. The atmosphere is as electric as their songs. It seems even Mother Nature approves of this band and bathes them in glorious evening sunshine. Towards the end, a Hawaiian red sunset paints the sky as the temperature drops. Surprisingly, quite a few people from the Maximo Park crowd scarper before the Editors. I’m not sure if it’s The Kooks on the Pyramid or Mika in the Dance Arena that has called them away, but when the band appears through blinding lights and swathes of smoke at dusk, what’s left of the crowd seems utterly convinced that they have made the right choice to stay. The stage set up and timetabling perfectly reflects the mood of their melancholic post-punk pieces: dark and affecting.
The headline act threatens to cause a rift in my group so we agree to watch a bit of Iggy and the Stooges before moving on to Rodrigo y Gabriela at Jazz World. Iggy Pop has not really aged in 40 years and his sexually explicit gesturing has me in fits of laughter while I lap up the insanity of the crowd during I Wanna Be Your Dog. My friend begs to differ and is less impressed by the dirty, druggy OAP naked from the waist up, regardless of whether he helped invent modern rock and roll or not. I’m feeling so energised at this point that I agree to move on. Massively disappointing then, that a problem in the Jazz World set up delays Rodrigo y Gabriela for over an hour. We wait for what seems like an eternity to get only a short snippet of the instrumental guitar duo. In the mean time, reports are flying around that there has been a stage invasion at Iggy. I curse bad decision making. Still, at least we didn’t go to see The Killers. Word on the street has it that the sound levels at the Pyramid were so low you could barely hear them.
We need some buoying up so a cool £3 ninety-nine and a trip to Lost Vagueness seems the ticket. The ground at this part of the festival is nothing short of treacherous. Each step plunges my whole leg into slimy darkness which holds on to it possessively. It is very difficult to balance. I realise that I’ve barely left the Other Stage today and in retrospect this sadly proves to have been a wise idea. When we get to Lost Vagueness we dive into a tiny theatre, for salvation from the swamp if anything. Inside, a black-and white silent film backdrop is being accompanied by mute actors with ghostly white faces and a live piano soundtrack. A creepy-looking girl makes a cane spin in thin air. Back outside, people all around are dressed in outfits that range from burlesque to bear cub to black tie and feather boa.
We go back to the Circus and Cabaret field, past some sort of New York Drag Queens’ Disco. It looks fun but it’s too full to go in and the anorak/ marketing day-job effect kicks in. In the end, we find ourselves in one of the smaller circus tents watching a man balance stuff on his head and juggle fire whilst riding a unicycle. “It makes you wonder why other festivals even bother,” my friend Dave, who is duped into taking part in the act, later exclaims.
Sunday 24 June
Three days of perpetual standing and heavy encrusted mud on my boots have taken their toll on my back. I imagine everyone is feeling it now, but nobody gives it away during The Holloways set. Cheery lead guitarist Alfie Jackson keeps everyone smiling. From nowhere appear some large weather symbols on sticks. It’s not clear whether an audience member threw them on stage or if they are part of the band’s kooky apparatus which includes some sort of two-seater push-bike with a canopy. Jackson is later seen skipping across the stage with a cardboard cloud before and after The Enemy come on. The latter’s odes to mundane life are good fodder for a grey lunchtime, cruising through their crowd-pleasing hits.
As it is Sunday, an all-day breakfast baguette is the only acceptable form of nutrition and is absolutely satisfying. Cold War Kids are next and the Californians put a lot of passion into the set, howling vocals backed by a wall of guitar and drums. In dazzling white polo shirts, they seem to be untainted by any sign of the sludge engorging everybody else.
Having failed to venture to the dance area yet, we incline that way to realise there really is no fun in dance music if you are actually way beyond being capable of dancing. A rumour is overheard that is probably true: somebody took his entire tent and its contents into Dance East and trampled it into oblivion in less than 10 seconds, much to the delight of trance heads around him. Something a bit gentler is needed at this stage of the festival and Shirley Bassey should be ideal. With diamanté wellies and a pink cocktail dress she pops an irritating cork in the direction of thousands of amused revellers, saying she arrived just minutes ago in a private helicopter and would soon be back off to have a glass of champagne. She obviously needed that Moet fast, the set being rather short and with an inadequately brief medley of bond themes.
By the afternoon, I am really starting to lag: time to visit the Craft Field for a cuppa. We watch someone peddle a bike operating a mechanical lathe, while another person carves a wooden mushroom on it. Further away, in the Sacred Space, the Banksy Portaloo Stone Henge is still funny, even after three days of suppressing the need to go. Back towards the Other Stage, little do I know that the festival best is yet to come.
To say The Go! Team give their all would be a huge understatement. Rapper Ninja literally bends over backwards to please the crowd doing cartwheels, high-kicks, and break dancing moves as she raps, sings and cajoles a beaming audience into boogying along with the rough-edged indie disco that the six-strong crew emits. There’s even a short display of dance moves from around the world.
The rain holds back until they’ve finished but starts again just as we reach the mud next to the Acoustic Tent that had given me so much grief on Friday morning. From outside, it is difficult to see or hear KT Tunstall and I wonder what possessed the planners to put such a popular mainstream act on a relatively small indoor stage. With the rain getting harder, I am almost wishing the next few hours away. Grabbing a few minutes of the ever-professional The Who at the Pyramid (they’ve had enough practice), I take a deep breath and make my way to the John Peel Tent which I know lies beyond the squelchy abyss where I nearly got stuck two days ago.
The risk is worth it for The Gossip: Beth Ditto is surely one of the most fearless women in rock. In a tight glam blue frock, she propels herself into the crowd, dancing like her life depends on it. Scratchy soul vocals and ripping punk guitar, this is a fiery end to a festival set ablaze by brilliant female-fronted performances.
Walking back to tear down my tent in what can only be described as a monsoon in order to catch the 3.30am to Bournemouth is – literally – a dampener. I am in mourning for the imminent closure of another mind-blowing gathering of some of the world’s most creative people. Of course, I am soon to find out that the real adventure has just begun.
A week later and nightmares of knee-deep floodwater not quite yet forgotten, my erstwhile oh-so-enthused friend Dave texts to say he has been diagnosed with acute trench foot. “Never mind Dave,” I reply. “I know I’ll still see you there next year.”