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Rock festivals - then and now

Mark Ellen yearns for the days of mud, sweat and beers, while Sylvia Patterson loves the all-mod cons and yurts galore of today's festivals.

The Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival
Were festivals like Glastonbury better when they were shambling, raw and chaotic ? © Emily Taner /

Where's the counter-culture vibe? says Mark Ellen

Those Range Rovers are the final straw. Lines of air-conditioned cars driven by hip mums in dark glasses dropping teenagers at festival gates like an extension of the school run. Well-scrubbed children in brand-new gumboots leap out and start wheeling parentally funded tents and provisions across the fields on trolleys. If they run out of tinned beans, no matter – they can stroll to an artisan bakery or a stall selling Lebanese street food. And if it starts to rain, mum can come and collect them. 

But festivals shouldn’t involve any parents! The rot started when they stopped being mass counter-cultural happenings and turned into twin-generational bonding sprees with some nice paella on the side. Today’s rock events are designed to eliminate all the suffering - but the suffering was half the fun! 

The greatcoat generation

Back in the early Seventies, 50,000 hippies in greatcoats would converge on some puddle-filled patch of land thinking we’d entered an alternative universe. We were there to change the world! Governments would be overthrown, boring ‘straight’ people would be laughed at, amusing flags would be waved and we’d all get a bit giddy and fall in a hedge. Who cared if there was only fish and chips or salmonella burgers? We’d just come for the music.

Festival crowds these days are over-served – pampered, cosseted, spoilt for choice. Who needs clubs, restaurants, cinemas, shops and art galleries too? You can spend all day dipping in and out of folk tents, poetry salons and banjo workshops without any of it leaving any real impression. I preferred being under-served: it forced you to squeeze the maximum entertainment from anything on offer. In the old days there was only one stage so you had to watch whatever was on it. If this meant a 20-minute drum solo from Van der Graaf Generator you sat there in rapt and grateful concentration. In between bands you built pyramids out of empty beer cans and threw shoes at them. You couldn’t have been more content.

We were under-served on every front. If you didn’t have a tent you just huddled beneath a plastic sheet with some other damp types in loon pants and became inseparable pals for the rest of the weekend. If you didn’t have any equipment at all, you could always buy a ‘sleeping bag’ for ten pence from an opportunistic farmer – though, to be honest, paper fertiliser sacks weren’t wildly waterproof and when your fragrant feet met the pellets of chemically-charged fishmeal left in the bottom it produced a noxious gas capable of tearing the bark off trees. But I thought it was hilarious. I didn’t want warm and comfortable – you could get all that at home. I wanted a real experience. The more we suffered, the more united we felt against the crushing heel of our capitalist oppressors!

Lawless excitement

These days police are on hand to subdue any rowdy element, along with crack medical squads to whisk your child to a hospital tent in the event of a bramble scratch or bee sting. But I rather miss the lawless excitement of the past. I remember the thrill at Weeley, near Clacton-on-Sea, when news spread that the Hells Angels were now in charge. Terrifying gap-toothed orcs in clanking biker boots began patrolling the site to dissuade any troublemakers, but they were infinitely preferable to the cops who didn’t approve of festivals in the first place and seemed determined to arrest anyone having too much fun. Who wanted the rozzers around? It was as bad as being there with your parents.

The standing joke about the early festivals, of course, was the toilets which, 40 years ago, weren’t too sophisticated, in fact – look away now, any sensitive souls – they rarely amounted to much more than two wobbly metal poles above a malodorous trench, one to sit on, the other to cling to for dear life. Some poor fellow who’d been on the scrumpy tripped up and tumbled in and I can’t imagine he ever made a full recovery. But have they improved that much in the 21st century? If you want to skip those reeking sanitation tanks and opt for a comforting water-closet, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

Festivals were far better when they were shambling, raw and chaotic. These days you can buy a Remote-Controlled Tent Light Locator Unit™ that makes your guy-ropes flash when you text it. I was happier when I didn’t even have a tent to find.

Mark Ellen’s memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life!  (Coronet, £8.99)


Give me carpeted yurts, says Sylvia Patterson

As far back as 2004, then-Oasis madman Liam Gallagher described Glastonbury, once edgy emblem of the counter-culture, as ‘Bond Street with mud’ besieged by ‘celebrities and their famous wellingtons’. Of course festivals ain't what they used to be (because nothing else is either). And if they were? Really? You just wouldn't go, would you?!

In 2015, they have carpets in the luxury tents. Pre-erected, white, pristine tents like giant meringues drops, with equally delicious interiors featuring double beds, marshmallow mattresses, power sockets and en-suite bathrooms with actual piping-hot showers. At the Isle of Wight Festival there are luxury VIP Boho Areas brimful of Yummy Yurts (Egyptian cotton sheets, all-important ‘level surface’) and Terrific Trailers (‘The Dorchester of The Road’) while the everglades of Latitude twinkle with primary-hued, lockable, plywood Podpad Cabins, solar-powered and perched in rows like comedy seaside bathing huts.

Pop-up hotels

Out in the suburbs of the Glastonbury Festival you'll find a Pop-Up Hotel for the filthy rich (concierge, porter, room service) while the shiny-faced 20-somethings flock to the Pamper Parlour, Oxfam-sponsored styling services and free chlamydia test kits on the NHS, their Glasto Vibes in 2015 more like five days clubbing in Top Shop Without A Roof (which is exactly the way they like it).

As much as the young me is appalled by today’s namby-pamby festival privileges, a world where the greatest peril for our cosseted youth is an iPhone dropped in a puddle causing 48 hours without Instagram, the old me knows the comedy-calamitous, reality-dodging festival is now as sepia-toned and unthinkable as a world without antibiotics. Would you willingly, now, lie for several nights, on a slope, on the ground, in the rain, pals long lost, no mobile phone, in a nylon bag collapsed like clingfilm onto your third- degree sunburnt forehead? And that was before your tent was robbed and you smoked that stuff from that Scouser in the balaclava and thought you’d be dead by dawn.

Festival dues

If, like me, you’ve Paid Your Festival Dues, after decades free-falling into Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell in the name of fun-filled abandon, you are ready, like a homecoming conscript, for contemporary festival comforts. Today, our multi-generational, ‘family friendly’ events are less psychedelic naked wig-outs in the name of Ver Revolution, more invigorating puff in an Oxygen Bar and beeline straight for a stripy deckchair for Sadler’s Wells’ Ballet Revolución. Where falafels like coughed-up fur-balls once ruled, there’s now a planet-wide foodie bonanza, all organic juice bars, Mexican street food and lentil’n’spinach puff palavers with gooiest plum-date dip.

With the generation gap long eroded (technology saw to that), delights abound for both 16- and 60-year-olds at exactly the same time, whether Sam Smith, Patti Smith or Delia Smith (if, sadly, no Citizen Smith), while Glastonbury’s utopian Green Fields, sometime home of the goblin-hippies on LSD, lure both 9-year-old kids (spoon-carving with Wayne’s Woods) and 89- year-old grandads (the Biggles Wartime Band on Croissant Neuf’s solar-powered bandstand). For the modern festival there’s no going back, their purpose today less portal to altered perception and the communal power of music, more the Treetops Benevolent Society for the Happily Cocooned, the Slept Well and the Thoroughly Nutritionally Satisfied, and increasingly targeted at the over-50s and their dominant disposable income.

Rock's Rotary Club

This year, alongside the now-traditional ‘boutique’ experience – tots in fairy wings colliding with poetry/comedy/theatre and Beer Barrel Whittling with Jock the Cooper Fae Fife – we’ve the inaugural Hay Chamber Music Festival, for all your Quintet in C minor ‘needs’. Also in Hay, we’ve the world's largest philosophy and music festival, HowTheLightGetsIn, featuring infinite musings on this year’s theme, Fantasy and Reality. ‘In our topsy-turvy, postmodern, and often virtual world,’ ponders its website, ‘has the real become a mirage created from our fantasies? And which current fantasies will become tomorrow’s reality?’ Which is exactly the sort of thing we used to ponder, face-down in a swamp, in the killing fields of Glastonbury 40 years ago, after all. Except now, we’re doing so with a glass of Malbec, fed and cosy in our bone-dry yurt, complete with wooden-framed double bed, Indian kilim rug and plugged-in retro-glam lava lamp.

The other year, Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, now 79, looked around at the infinite bonhomie of the world’s biggest and best-loved festival. ‘There’s a good feeling here,’ he smiled. ‘One you won’t get anywhere else other than a church. Or maybe a Rotary Club.’

He certainly wouldn't have said that back in stinky old 1973.



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