Memory of a free festival

The counter culture is extinct. Festivals are no longer unruly affairs featuring the Edgar Broughton Band on the back of a truck performing Out Demons Out. They are organised by the local council to encourage recycling or they’re sponsored by the National Licensed Victuallers Association to support lager consumption.

Drugs went mainstream in the 1980s when bankers started taking cocaine. This had dreadful consequences for the world economy and for Keith Richards’ public image. There are no greasers because modern bikers are bald old men on huge and expensive machines, with no hair to grease back, even after they have taken their helmets off. The record store over a shoe shop in Oxford Street, where I bought Astral Weeks and other hippy classics, didn’t appear to be the heart of darkness, but it spawned the global Virgin business empire. Some festivals, such as Hay-on-Wye, have no music, but are essentially extended book plugs for opinionated celebrity intellectuals.

Back in the good old days, my parents wouldn’t let me hitch to the Bath Festival to see Led Zeppelin with my mates. Or rather, they said don’t go and I didn’t. I could have coped with the consequences of defiance, but I was troubled by the prospect of discomfort when I got there. In 1972 I watched the Beach Boys at Crystal Palace Bowl in the pouring rain. Having got very cold, we left before Joe Cocker came on. The experience adversely affected my performance at O level a week or two later. In 1974 I stuck out the Who at Charlton, despite sunburn and inadequate lavatory facilities, but the experience adversely affected my performance at A level a week or two later. I more or less gave up attendance at festivals shortly after this. I carried on with weak excuses.

Despite my rejection of muddy audience pleasures, I have appeared at many festivals as a performer. Very small festivals on the whole, where requests for contract riders about bacon sandwiches or ice-cold vodka go unheeded. The most successful was at Bury Knowle Park in Oxford in 1988. This event is a much-repeated story, because it was the high peak of a musical career with the geography of Lincolnshire. The salient points are that I was the lead guitarist with the Wang Dang Doodle Band, an entertaining semi-competent collective of thirteen people and a very deaf dog. We had a substantial following and could guarantee to fill the Jericho Tavern. The festival was well attended, sponsored by Oxford City Council. I seem to recall that it had something to do with Oxford being a nuclear-free city, which was true with regard to deployment of nuclear weapons within the ring road, but was a bit pointless when you thought about the proximity of the laboratory at Harwell down the road.

It was a sunny Saturday, and we were sandwiched between a Zimbabwean band and Attila the Stockbroker. My eldest son had recently learnt to walk independently. He positioned himself right in front of the stage, laughing and dancing as toddlers do. I felt rather good about this until another dancer, who was clutching a can of Special Brew and an unusually large cigarette, knocked him flying. A short time later we noticed John Peel in the audience. For some reason, this made us play faster. On his next broadcast John Peel mentioned the Zimbabweans, and said that he was sorry that he had missed Attila the Stockbroker after his son William had vomited. William’s indisposition was not attributed to us, but then we weren’t mentioned at all.

You do funny things as you approach sixty and realise that opportunities to do things for the first time will soon be gone. Last weekend, I finally attended a festival as a punter and camped in a tent. I went to the Latitude festival.

Latitude is not Windsor Great Park Free Festival 1974.  It is like recent attendance at Manchester City compared with Charlton Athletic circa 1968. Less uncomfortable, but not remotely as cool. At Latitude, no one got beaten up by the police. The wildest story in circulation was that there were sniffer dogs deployed at Darsham station. Latitude is sort of civilised. It isn’t as big as Glastonbury nor as young as Leeds. For me, the festival and my attendance at it were best captured by my puzzlement over the identity of the bloke who wandered on to sing an encore with Portishead. I eventually learned from the Guardian review that he was called Thom Yorke.

Now that I have attended a modern festival, I would like to share eleven learning points with other armchair dudes who may wish to follow (it was ten until I thought of another one):

  1. Latitude makes much of its family friendliness. There were loads of children. Children whinge in hot sunlight. I’m not making a big thing of it, but it’s something that needs to be borne in mind.
  2. Organisational skills are needed. The programme was crammed with interesting stuff, and I missed loads of people I really wanted to see, including Geraint Watkins, Horace Andy, Mark Steele, John Cooper Clarke and Don Letts. I did see the latter walking around, but that doesn’t really count.
  3. I have always liked reggae, especially dub, with the bass felt viscerally rather than actually heard. However, mixing everything to have that thuddy atonal bass sound is a mistake. I don’t think that high frequency hearing loss accounts for my intolerance of the EQ. Sometimes bass lines from adjacent stages invaded the music I was listening to. I think this is known as a remix, but it just irritated me.
  4. Modern bands are strong on riffs but weak on tunes.
  5. Young drummers are really good but lead guitar appears to be a forgotten art.
  6. Musicians mature well. This observation might be regarded as self-serving, but in evidence I offer great sets from Seasick Steve, Thurston Moore and, err, Noel Gallagher (I know, but he was really good).
  7. Comedians peak in their middle years: Marcus Brigstock and Romesh Ranganathan.
  8. After two days of scorching sunshine, adults also start to whinge.
  9. A costly festival with a poetry tent attracts people who are polite to each other and cheer when people say leftish things. This is truly the residue of the counter-culture. Alternative lifestyles as a boutique commodity.
  10. Some old people, by which I mean people who are lot older than me, dance to noisy music and smoke skunk. This looks as undignified as it sounds.
  11. Self-inflating mattresses are a miracle of modern technology.

I didn’t like Hawkwind much when we (the band and me) were young. It was compulsory for their fans to wear Afghan coats. These were made of goatskin and when they got wet, they smelt of wet goat. About three years ago, I impulsively purchased the CD reissue of ‘In Search Of Space’. I have played this continuously ever since. It’s great, with long looping grooves and impressionistic dream-like soundscapes. Early Hawkwind anticipated many aspects of modern music. Lots of the younger bands I saw last weekend sounded like Hawkwind, but not as good. Hawkwind didn’t do merchandise.

A few weeks ago, I met a journalist called Kathy Oxtoby, who had written a great article about the old free festivals for Shindig magazine. Personally I feel no nostalgia for free festivals, because I never went to a proper one. In fact, I somewhat disapprove of the counter culture in general. But now everything is a commodity and everyone is cynical and ironic. I regret the passing of the era when people did free festivals and pursued hopeless utopian dreams on my behalf.

Truthfully, I enjoyed Latitude. It was a likeable and entirely comfortable event. It was just that my internal MC5 fan kept nagging away at me. He kept saying that a world where the counter culture has been assimilated into the mainstream as a commercial opportunity (no matter how disarmingly) is a dull place.