F is for Festival

(This is one in a series of essays I’m writing about my life. A specific kind of autobiography, I guess. The rest of these essays are here.)

I have fond memories of music festivals from my youth: attended with friends when we were young and resilient enough to spend the weekend living out of plastic bags, sleeping in fields, “showering” under a standpipe and doing our best to avoid going to a communal toilet for the whole weekend. (Usually achieved by surviving on a liquid diet for a few days.) Amongst them, Reading Festival (1992-1995), Glastonbury Festival (1993 and 1994) and the Phoenix Festival (1994) stand out for a number of reasons. (The Funk am See in Lucerne in 2008, too, but I’ll get to that.)

Reading was my first festival in 1992, which I proceeded to make memorable for myself by passing out when crushed against the safety barrier at the front of the Wonder Stuff crowd and being hoisted out by security guards. I subsequently missed the first quarter of the set, as the security insisted on sending me back around the outside of the perimeter to re-join the crowd.

It was also the year in which we cleverly chose to leave before the end of the main headliner act on the Sunday night, in order to avoid the inevitably massive queues to get out of the site. The headliner was Nirvana and it was to be their last U.K. gig before the death of lead singer Kurt Cobain. Melody Maker journalist (and friend of the band) Everett True claims that it was one of the best shows they ever put on. Not that it still rankles with me…

The Phoenix Festival in 1994 (from which I still have a programme and t-shirt) was touted as the “farewell” gig performed by The Wonder Stuff, so we drove up to Warwickshire to bid them farewell. A good gig, if sad, and probably one of the last festivals I went to at the time. (It later turned out that the band would re-form and put on a series of shows in 2000, before changing line-up a few times and continuing to this day.)

Festivals are rubbish if you have to drive home at the end of the day, and it was for this reason that I stopped going: weekend tickets rapidly became exorbitantly expensive and the day ticket proved to be a sad substitute. That’s the main reason why I haven’t been to any Swiss “open air festivals” as a consumer.

The great experience of the festival is achieved through total immersion: arriving on the day before the event and staying within the festival until all of the bands have gone home and the big cranes start arriving to dismantle the huge stages. It’s like living in another world, where takeaway food is the norm, beer tastes great out of plastic beakers (albeit after the first couple) and you find yourself listening to your favourite bands playing loud to a crowd: at the back of which there are little campfires and space enough to chill out and enjoy yourself without “moshing” or going deaf. Being woken at five in the morning by stoned people singing as they weave through the campsite is a small price to pay.

Glastonbury is the pinnacle of festivals, there’s no doubt about that, and I do envy those attending this year’s event. Since I last went, the internet has arrived in everyone’s phones and so there’s no lack of information and pictures coming online. I still have the video cassettes of the BBC coverage from 1994, which I watched avidly after arriving home from the long weekend, and this essay reminds me that I really must get around to digitizing them. The “newer” digital and “connected” aspect of the festival would be one of the main draws were I to be living in the UK, and photography of the event would probably give even me a reason to go.

These days, it’s design and photography which fill my spare time instead of music and such events with friends, and as a keen documentary (or “street”) photographer, I can only imagine how many great images the festival would afford. Who knows: perhaps someone reading this will go and look at my portfolio and engage me as a freelance photographer for another year…! A dream ticket, and one which would be all but impossible to come by. It was a dream come true on a smaller scale to be able to photograph backstage when friends played at Funk am See in 2008 and it would be great to get the chance again.

Until then, I will continue to look forward to the last weekend in June, when I can fill the fridge at home with beer, and enjoy the many hours of BBC coverage in the comfort of home. Where there is a private shower and comfortable bed available, and where the neighbours are unlikely to be playing bongos in the nude at 4 a.m.

Read more articles from this alphabetic series here.

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