Simon Armitage, poet and singer-songwriter, on his memories of the festival
The first festival I went to was Futurama in Leeds in 1980, in the dark, cavernous hangar of the Queen’s Hall. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time but, looking back, the lineup was unmissable: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, Young Marble Giants, the Durutti Column, Soft Cell, the Psychedelic Furs, Altered Images . . . One spotty lad sold fanzines in the foyer and his spotty girlfriend sold button-badges outside the toilets, but apart from that there was nothing to do apart from watch the bands and drink the watered-down beer, or nip out into the side-streets for a gulp of fresh air and a glimpse of daylight. In fact, it was more of an extended concert, with none of the sideshows and fringery we’ve come to expect of a festival. You could bribe the bouncers to let you sleep overnight, but I took one look at the sticky tangle of half-naked glue-sniffers bedded down under a row of seats and decided to go home. I even have a memory of Mick Hucknall being pretty good with his punk band the Frantic Elevators, but that might have been the fumes.
I went again in 1983 – another good lineup, with the exception of the Bay City Rollers. Yorkshire wasn’t in the mood for irony in 1983 and they were duly bottled. The whole scene seemed very polarised back then: you either got it or you didn’t; you either read Socialist Worker or you were a Nazi; you either listened to our kind of music – alternative, underground, oppositional – or you listened to the rubbish stuff because you were square and stiff and mainstream (and therefore a Nazi). There was no room for manoeuvre, and no middle ground.
Trawling through the huge array of festival websites 30 years later, it’s tempting to think that there is only the middle ground and nothing else: the middle-aged, the middle-class, the middlebrow and the middle of the road. And that’s just the bands. As if to emphasise the point, this year Glastonbury plays host to Midlake. True, a band shouldn’t be judged by its name, but they sound like Fleetwood Mac (or, by their own admission, Jethro Tull); whereas with the Nipple Erectors, Slaughter & the Dogs or the Snivelling Shits, you tended to know what to expect. Festival demographics, catering facilities, merchandising, ticket prices and transport arrangements also give an indication of how festivals have evolved, with accommodation options being particularly illustrative: a carpeted yurt in a secluded field near the Glastonbury site this year starts at five grand for four nights, but with stage-side tickets and a servant thrown in, you’ll get little change out of seven. There are even more expensive packages on offer, and some of them are already fully booked. On the face of it, it’s a far cry from the days of free love and free admittance. How can the festival stick two fingers up at the system when the system is in the audience in its boutique wellies, sipping its designer lager?
But I don’t think it’s entirely a matter for despair. Despite offering itself up for easy ridicule and cynical sniping, I think the latter-day festival has much to recommend it. Yes of course there’s been an ugly burgeoning of consumerism and materialism over the past few decades. And many who shouted the odds about a nonconformist, anti-establishment lifestyle are now rats in the ratrace: even as a poet I seem to spend most of my time filling in forms, teaching, going to meetings, commuting – hardly the bohemian fantasy. But unlike our parents, who got married, put the kettle on and called it a draw, today’s grownups have refused to, well, grow up. I don’t mean that we’ve become groovy parents, high-fiving above the heads of our humiliated kids, listening to gangsta rap and calling everything cool. At least I hope not. I simply mean that we’re unashamed about our passion for music and its importance in our lives. We still feel part of it and it still feels part of us. We might wear the yoke of work and shoulder the burdens of citizenship and parenthood during the week, but come Friday night, or high summer, or festival season, there’s some aspect of our otherness that we still want to celebrate and keep alive.
And it’s not just the music: the monochrome of the post-punk era now appears to have fragmented into a kind of kaleidoscope of possibilities, to which the multiple personalities within us have responded. Festivals such as Latitude, with its literature, spoken word, theatre, dance, comedy and kids’ stuff, were conceived in a spirit of variety and inclusiveness, and festivals such as Glastonbury have been enriched by the same ideals. A good festival allows us to indulge and immerse some alternative aspect of our character, and still clock on for work on Monday morning.
The first time I went to Glastonbury was the year the wall came down. I don’t mean the year communism collapsed and democracy-loving Berliners tore through bricks and mortar with their bare hands. I mean the year the fence was breached in several places and thousands of scumbags, scallies and thieves poured through, all intent on ferreting through tents for valuables, all spoiling for a scrap. If that was the real, authentic Glastonbury, you can keep it. Or you can go to Leeds and Reading, which is, by comparison, Sodom and Gomorrah. (I went last year to see Arctic Monkeys and White Lies, and the man in the drinks van nearly ended himself in laughter-induced convulsions when my wife and I asked for two cups of tea.) And by the way, the benignly named Midlake’s second album was the bizarrely entitled The Trials of Van Occupanther, and it’s wonderful.
To be at the front. To ride that sweetspot
where the crowd lifts like the swell of the sea
under the harbour wall. Just for an hour
to be one ten-thousandth of the whole piece,
lost in the incense and piss, loving the mosh
and the flags and the fists, re-enacting the war.
But the headline band takes to the main stage
and a fever swims in your eight-year-old blood,
so we’re acres away, pinned in a tent,
the tent itself all membrane and fine net
taking the drum’s pulse, trawling the air
for the twang of the bass and the singer’s voice,
and you sleep now in the curtained light,
your face like the face in the back of a spoon,
my lips to yours but for the merest breadth,
mouthing the words, living your every breath.