‘You don’t look like Radiohead fans, lads,’ said the old fashioned Northern lady as she served Boy and me our post gig donuts and plastic cups of proper Tetley tea. I suspect that like us, but unlike most of Glastonbury, she had this time last year voted Brexit.
‘What do Radiohead fans look like?’ I asked.
She nodded towards a thirty-something walking past in chinos and one of those trendy woollen tops with the zip on the top.
Ah. She meant ‘wankers’.
And I did see her point. I felt it particularly strongly during that moment in one of the gaps in Radiohead’s Pyramid Stage set when their audience broke into a spontaneous chant of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’. And also when the initially friendly students who’d let me puff on some of their very strong hash stopped being quite so nice when I told them that socialism sucked, that Boy and I were both conservatives and that I wrote for the Spectator. Back in the day, these wouldn’t have been divisive issues. But people are becoming much more sectarian, unfortunately.
Anyway, I totally get people’s problem with Radiohead, as perfectly captured in an amusing spoof BBC story about how fans at Glastonbury mistook three minutes of guitar tuning for their latest avant-garde track.
But if you’re a sad aficionado like me you quite appreciate the odd longueur and relative obscurity you don’t recognise and the fact that the band have such an appalling rapport with their audience. The stage was lit in such a way that you couldn’t see them play – not even on the giant screens, which jumbled up blurry images of their faces, like in an old pop video. And the banter of Thom Yorke sounded like the backwoods axe murderer he increasingly resembles chuntering to himself in funny voices about ley lines and Theresa May.
If they’d done it any other way, though, it wouldn’t have been Radiohead. Yes, they played lots of OK Computer for its 20th anniversary – but not all of it, or in order, as more generous, less tricksy bands might have done. Yes, they played ‘Creep’ – but only as an expression of masochistic self-loathing (they’d got sick of it by about the first time I saw them play Glastonbury in 1994) and sheer perversity (you could have got very good odds beforehand on their not playing it). It was a greatest hits set played by a band that hates doing greatest hits.
What non-fans don’t get about Radiohead, though, is that they take you to places other bands never have, can or, probably, will. In the space of a few songs you travel from angular math-rock to blistering techno to a bassline redolent of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ to introverted, does-your-head-in percussion to epic prog rock, the difficult bits making the easy bits that much more satisfying. Well, perhaps other bands could do that if they were cussed enough; but only Radiohead have Thom’s still-honeyed vocals and Jonny Greenwood’s brutally lovely guitar breaks and those melodious passages of such unsurpassable gorgeousness that it really is a more transcendently heavenly experience than eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Not, obviously, that many Radiohead fans would know what foie gras tastes like. (Apart from the one band member’s Dad – I shan’t say which – who is an avid Spectator reader.)
Unfortunately Boy and I had to leave Glastonbury early this year because he had a thing called Leavers’ Sunday at his school where all the boys gather for their last chapel and to say farewell to their housemaster and Dame. Before we struck camp, we heard from a reliable source that the ‘TBC’ band playing the John Peel stage at 7pm on the Sunday was actually bigger than any of the headliners. Knowing we wouldn’t get back in time, Boy and I speculated self-pityingly as to which of our favourite bands we might be going to miss. The worst case scenario, we agreed, would be a reformed The Smiths.
Second worst would be the band Boy most wants to see in the world: The Killers.
So it was that at 7pm on Sunday, as we caught up with the Glasto highlights at home on TV, Boy suddenly started swearing violently. He’d just checked his Facebook feed. The Killers were playing the John Peel.
This was sad. But Glastonbury’s a bit like that. I’ve been going since 1990 – you may remember, I wrote last year that I am personally responsible for the festival’s survival: well, Michael Eavis thinks so anyway – and if I had to put together a super festival of all the secret appearances and special moments that I missed it would be a gazillion times better than any festival I did experience.
Sometimes you get lucky – as on the occasion when Boy and I won the Golden Ticket and got invited to watch The Who from the Eavis box in the wings – and sometimes you don’t, like in that awful year where the scallies came down en masse from Liverpool and robbed everyone’s tents. But I’ve no truck with all the people who say that Glastonbury isn’t a patch on what it used to be. You’ve got to know where to look.
There are two main reasons why no other festival comes even close to matching Glastonbury. One is its scale – to get around, you cover about 20 miles a day: that was the distance travelled recorded on my iPhone – which means there’s never a shortage of different stuff to do and the various sound stages don’t clash as they do at smaller festivals. The other is that, however commercial the commercial areas get, its true beating heart remains the hippy zone, aka the Green Fields. These ensure that the kind of grizzled, yurt-dwelling types who’d never be able to afford the £238 ticket price can run chai stalls, yoga classes, drumming workshops and such like, and keep everything real.
If I had to locate the spiritual epicentre of the festival – pity it’s fallow next year so you won’t be able to check this out till at least 2019 – it is the Grounded Ecotherapy stall in the permaculture field run by my friend Paul, a reformed drug addict who looks like a cross between Gandalf and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, who now runs a rehab centre at London’s South Bank to help junkies garden their way back to cleanness.
There you can sit down on rugs with ethnic cushions and blankets and either whittle wooden spatulas, make mobiles out of found objects (shells, etc) or just drink chai and skin up round the fire. Well that’s the idea. But as Paul – who doesn’t do drugs any more but has no problem with people who do – explained to me, ‘the kids just don’t know how to behave these days. I’ve made the perfect place for them to come and smoke joints but none of them do. They’re all too uptight and looking for other stuff.’ Anyway, next time the festival’s on, go and chill at Paul’s stall. You’ll thank me for it. And it’s as close as you’ll get to how I remember my first Glastonbury being ‘before it went commercial…’
Personally I don’t see anything wrong with it’s having gone commercial. I think it’s wonderful that they can pull pop artistes in the league of Katy Perry (who was brilliant, by the way, especially the bit where she pissed off all the Scotch by referring innocently to the saltire as ‘the flag with an X on it’) as well as the more obscure stuff, like the delightful pair of likeable young rappers from Bristol called Stay Hungry. And everything is so much more efficient than it used to be: the mud better managed; the Walking–Dead trudge across bridge bottlenecks less hazardous and terrifying; the toilets less horrific.
Nor do I think we should worry ourselves overmuch about the dodgy left-wing politics. Sure, it was a bit irksome that a thirty minute slot should have been allocated to Jeremy Corbyn not just on the Pyramid Stage but also, via screens, on the Other Stage too. But I can assure you that I wasn’t the only one in the audience booing and making ‘you wanker’ gestures at him. Even the kids weren’t unanimous in their adoration: a couple of blokes, late teens I’m guessing, came and patted me on the back when they saw me visibly losing it as Corbyn spouted his ‘Save the Planet, Welcome More Refugees, Spread The Wealth’ Communist drivel. ‘With you, mate,’ they said.
But it’s part of the brand. I personally haven’t got an awful lot of time for Greenpeace but the thing about the hardcore of techno-crusties who do is that they’re really good at constructing giant polar bears, rainforests, gigantic arachnids out of recycled material and making the festival look properly weird. Same with Billy Bragg. He’s there for the decoration, to make the kids feel like they’re getting the authenticity and value-added they just wouldn’t get at V Festival. Nor would they.
I’d really, really love to do a Michael Eavis and set up my own Glastonbury, only a classical liberal/libertarian/anarcho-capitalist one this time. But I’m just not sure the politics would allow it to work: most of the current greats, except maybe Morrissey and Metallica, would boycott it and you’d have to spend a fortune on artisanal craft decorations because the hippies would charge a market rate rather than doing it gratis for the Cause. Then again, I could definitely see Jacob Rees-Mogg making a much more inspiring and witty speech on the main stage than Corbyn did. And maybe if the price of admission included a couple of Red Pills made of Merck-quality MDMA…