As the time of year for Poland’s finest music festivals is upon us, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on what a miserable experience an outdoor festival can be. Knee deep in a violent blend of mud, beer, piss, and tears; rubbing shoulders – and occasionally other less fragrant body parts – with boss-eyed, semi-sentient zombies like you’re in a post-apocalyptic nightclub where the gimmick of the week is a regular supply of urine-filled bottles sailing swiftly and purposefully overhead. As hunger sets in, you feel a burger might be in order and you trek the 7 and a half miles to the lone snack-bar to find that a wafer thin slice of minced cow’s arse sandwiched between two dry, dusty crusts of bread will cost you the lion’s share of post-Brexit-Britain’s GDP. And let’s not even discuss the toilets.
Finally, it’s time to see your favourite bands. The artists you’ve looked forward to all afternoon. The reason you traveled 5 hours from your warm, comfortable home and camped in a tent alongside people with whom you would move to the other side of your local pub to avoid. Your heroes take the stage. You stand in awe as their personalities shine out over the massed sea of the undead and as the first guitar is attacked, as the first drum is pounded… Nothing. The wind catches the sound a mere 100 feet from your ears and it is forcibly abducted never to be heard from again. Of course you scream and shout anyway, your heroes are up there.
We Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way
And the reason we’re wrong? The reason the human race is in trouble? The reason zombies win? We wouldn’t have it any other way! Music festivals are here to stay!
Yes, despite how miserable this experience might seem, we music fans flock to it like moths to a flame. It is hard to pinpoint what is uniquely enjoyable in this very specific shared experience. And yet. In my early festival going days – the early days of Scotland’s T in the Park festival – I wasn’t a drinker and I hadn’t yet begun my occasional flirtations with illicit substances. I wandered around the fields of Balado in Fife in a sober haze. I was in the minority, of course, as almost every other festival-goer in the vicinity was somewhere in that delicate spectrum of intoxication. And when the sun shines, as it rarely does in Scotland but did – oh how it did – in 1999, the experience is glorious.
T in the Park was my first real festival memory and some of the music found there in the late 90s, in the Britpop hey-day, was magnificent. Bands enjoyed at the Scottish festival included Mogwai, Muse, the Flaming lips, the Cardigans, Iggy Pop, Biffy Clyro, Idlewild, James, Bernard Butler, Garbage, The Beastie Boys and R.E.M. among many, many others. That said, I was forced to stand through almost all of Blur’s mid-Britpop headline set – a musical atrocity of such credibility-destroying magnitude that I’ve still not fully forgiven the ex-girlfriend that visited it upon me. That I was wearing my Mogwai “Blur: Are Shite” t-shirt allowed me a little solace.
Some music festivals from my younger days have almost entirely dropped out of my mind. I have a ticket stub for Glasgow’s “Gig on the Green” with Travis headlining the event in Glasgow’s main city centre park but I have almost no memory of it at all. Thankfully, I do remember the intriguing one day festival that welcomed the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Garbage as headliners and Idlewild and the Delgados as support. All very Scottish indeed.
All Tomorrow’s Parties
As I got older and less tolerant for Scotland’s penchant for rain during any outdoor gathering of a number of people in excess of 26, I started to look elsewhere for my festival experience and the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival held in Camber Sands holiday park near Kent in England was as antithetical to the out-in-the-field adventure as it was possible to be. For a kick-off, you found your bed in chalets and the main stage was in the holiday camp’s main hall. This was a boutique festival and it was undeniably cool. That 2005’s ATP was curated by the seminal post-rock band, Slint; that they had reformed to play at the festival and that the audience was far from the wasted, anonymous collection at T in the Park was an indication of what an experience this was.
Sadly this was my only experience of an All Tomorrow’s Parties event but it wasn’t long before I discovered something even more revolutionary. Even more exciting and enjoyable. Iceland Airwaves. Airwaves had been going for some time before I finally made the decision to travel to Reykjavík in October 2008 and see what all the fuss was about. For one week, Iceland’s capital itself, the beautiful city of Reykjavík, becomes the festival. The music venues bustle with activity and the city streets teem with festival-goers morning, noon and night.
Without any shadow of a doubt, for me at least, Airwaves is the greatest festival in the world. I’ve never felt quite a shared experience like I have there. The evenings are for running across town catching band after band and the daytime? Well most bars and record stores host “off-venue” shows so there’s never a dull moment and if you’re lucky enough, you can end the festival at the closing pool party in the tourist trap, the Blue Lagoon.
Partying in a Park
In 2013, on a trip home to Glasgow, I made a brief return to the outdoor experience when I travelled to Glasgow Green to see the reformed Stone Roses play. With the band’s guitarist, John Squire, being something of a guitar hero to me, I was excited to see him play with the Roses, something, given the acrimony within the band, even a couple of years ago seemed unthinkable. Nostalgia was high and for a band well known for being part of the late 80s drug scene, so were most of the audience.
Post-Covid lockdowns and horror, the festivals are returning and despite the bleak dystopia imagined, music fans a lot longer than me will flock to them. And all power to them. I hope they have blast.