Monday 6 December 2010

Glastonbury Day 4: "Play Something We Know!"

Day 4 dawned hot and sunny, again. We had our morning routine worked out by now: arise, open tent / crawl out of tent, get up and shower whilst there was no queue (if feeling organised), kip no. 2, awake, eat breakfast together, gather in the shady spot. T, C and L had done sterling work and found the only really cool spot in the entire WBC campsite. It was in the shade of the toilet block, but we didn’t particularly care, since there was no smell, a nice breeze, and it was a big enough patch of shadow to hold all of us. We settled in for a natter before we all decamped to watch Rolf Harris officially open Glastonbury 2010 on the Pyramid Stage.

The heat, the heat… it felt like walking through an oven. And in answer to the obvious, yes, I preferred it to staggering around in mud and having to pull on a full set of wellies and waterproofs in the morning before I could go for a pee, but a dusty field with little shade and no nearby water to jump into to cool off in isn’t that much fun, either.

On the other hand, I was easily distracted by C’s incessant complaining about Rolf Harris. For almost the entire 20 minute walk, he kept up a running monologue of “I’m not going to see Rolf Harris. Rolf Harris is crap. Why do you want to see him? Why are we doing this? This is stupid.” All the while being pulled along by L, who was refusing to give him any choice whatsoever in the matter. The “almost” is because at one point we encountered a woman who may have been a survivor of the original Glastonbury festival in 1973 (I’m not trying to be uncharitable here, but it kinda looked like that) and who was wandering about topless, and this stunned us all into silence.

I brought up the rear, hoping vaguely to find a stall selling sachets of suncream. Not giving yourself backache at Glastonbury involves a fine judgement of carrying precisely what you need for the whole day (to prevent unnecessary-foot-aching journeys back to the tent), but only what you need (to prevent throwing your back out). I wanted some suncream I could stick in the top pocket of my shirt, but alas none was forthcoming, so I decided to go for Option B, and just nick suncream from other people as and when I needed it.

We arrived at the Pyramid Stage to find a massive field full of people wearing straw hats and shorts, excitedly awaiting the arrival of an octogenerian Antipodean. I was actually caught in the Great Rolf Harris Crush of 2009, when the organisers foolishly put him on the Jazz World (now the West Holts) Stage, and huge queues of people clogged the pathways surrounding the field. We turned around and went back, because it was obvious we would get nowhere near the stage, and I reflected on the fact that only at Glastonbury would you see people forming a massive queue to see Rolf Harris play the digeridoo.

Sensibly, this year the organisers had put him on the Pyramid Stage and made him the festival opener. As we arrived and fought our way into the crowd, Rolf opened up with a blast on the digeridoo, and a cheerful insult for a member of the stage crew who failed to throw him a bottle of water: “You could play cricket for England, mate!”. Rolf went through all the classics: “Jimmy My Boy”, “The Ladies at the Court of King Caractacus”, “Tie Me Kangeroo Down”, “Waltzing Matilda” and, of course, “Two Little Boys”. I recently learned that “Two Little Boys” was inspired by the death on the battlefield of Rolf Harris’s brother during WWII. Apparently his father was in a different regiment, and believed for the rest of his life that, had he only been in the same regiment, he could have pulled his brother to safety, just as in the song. When Rolf Harris played “Two Little Boys” to his grandmother, she listened all the way through, then said at the end “Please, never play that to me again”.

I didn’t know this at the time, so I simply joined in the communal singalong. So did C. I have a hilarious video of the five of us boogieing along to Rolf singing “Waltzing Matilda”. And yes, we did get him to admit afterwards that he’d enjoyed it. We had different shifts and different things we wanted to see, so the five of us went our separate ways and planned to meet later for a drink.

As the day wore on, the heat became increasingly oppressive. I took shelter from it in the Circus Tent. Always a favourite of mine at Glastonbury – there’s so much more to the festival than the music stages. This turned out not to be so much a tent as a communal sauna. Fortunately, I’d been at Glastonbury for over three days now, and was sufficiently in the festival mindset that lying about in a tent clad only in sweat, my bra and some shorts, in the presence of lots of strangers seemed like an entirely rational response to the situation. (I did keep my bra on though – I wasn’t feeling that relaxed).

At 2pm, mine and N’s six-hour shift started. An experience I can best compare to serving beer in a canvas sauna. At least we had access to drinks and ice, and as the afternoon worn on, the heat slowly bled from the day, reaching the ideal point around 6pm. From there it began to drop cooler and cooler. After a certain amount of experimentation, I’d found the ideal combination of stuff to take with me to the tent. As the shift ended, on went the leggings under shorts, long-sleeved t-shirt, jacket, and socks under sandals. (Yes, I know. Fashion faux pas. We’re in a field, who gives a fuck?)

Also as the shift ended, off went N and I in search of some decent food. We found it at a nearby Thai Curry stall which had apparently won lots of festival food awards. We wandered off in search of seats, and found some in front of the bar we’d been working in. Which was, conveniently, in front of the Cider Bus.

It was also, less conveniently, next to a passed-out drunk slumped on a bench, whom N preferred not to sit near. I wondered what it said about me that my eye had scanned Passed-Out Guy and decided he posed no threat. And yes, that’s heartless, but what could I have done for him? Put him in the recovery position? Woken him up? Either would probably have resulted in cursing and vomit, and I wasn’t wearing wellies. Instead, I thoughtfully ate my curry, and listened to Dizzee Rascal on the Pyramid Stage. N not being a fan of Mr Mills, we went off in search of more tuneful music on the nearby bandstage, then headed back to the Pyramid Stage to see Gorillaz headline.

Ah, Gorillaz’s headline set… Mmm. It’s a tricky one. If you’ve ever read any of the reviews for it, you’ll know that it was not widely regarded as a success.

Which in some ways is a shame. There was a lot of anticipation before the Pyramid stage that evening, and when screens came on to show Snoop Dogg rapping “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, cheers came from across the field. I remember the first twenty minutes of the set as being pretty damn good, maybe not in the very highest bracket for a Glastonbury set, but definitely up around the four-star mark, as the band went through the first half of “Plastic Beach”. Damon Albarn swapping between piano and lead vocals to sing “Rhinestone Eyes” was a particular highlight, seeing Bobby Womack join in on “Stylo” was amazing, and when they played “Melancholy Hill”, it was one of those moments where you hear a song for the first time and instantly fall in love with it. When it happens in the middle of a field in the evening, surrounded by thousands of other people, it is the sort of transcendent experience that causes newspaper music reviewers to reach for the phrase “Glastonbury Moment”.

And then things started to unravel. Now, I actually admire Damon Albarn’s determination not to give the public what they want, which takes some balls if you’re the opening day headliner at just about the biggest music festival in the UK calendar. However, I question the wisdom of doing this by employing the Syrian National Flute and Drum Orchestra (I think) to play a musical interlude for what felt like about 15 minutes, which is far too long when you’re in front of a crowd wanting hit songs to sing along to. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what the Pyramid Stage is about, and I couldn’t help wondering if Gorillaz might actually have worked better on the Other Stage, where the crowd is a wee bit more alternative and open-minded. The Pyramid Stage crowd wanted songs they knew, or at the very least, songs they could jump around to. As the Guardian’s music critic put it: “There is a time and place for spotlighting virtuosos in unfamiliar disciplines but this emphatically is not it”.

As the show continued, it became painfully obvious that Gorillaz didn’t, quite, have the big repertoire of songs to draw on to fill the entire slot. I think people would probably have still been happy, though, if they’d stuck to a set of continual pop songs with an ever-changing line-up of People Who Are Famous Enough That You Know Them, like Lou Reed – watching him onstage alongside Damon Albarn, Mick Jones and Paul Simon was one for the rock geeks. “Dare” was a highlight, too, but unfortunately its very popularity only pointed up the fact that people were jumping around because they knew it, and once it was finished, they went back to going “Huh?” at the stage. Particularly at what I remember as being one of the most painful moments to watch, “Plastic Jet”.

“Plastic Jet” is a song about… well, it’s not 100% clear from the lyrics, but in the context of the whole album, it’s about alienation from the natural world and wasting our resources (or something along those lines). I seem to remember watching the band sing it against a backdrop of some of the goriest footage of whales being slaughtered that I ever hope not to have to see again. Damon Albarn then tried to get the crowd to learn the chorus and sing along.

Since the chorus is: “It’s all good news now / Because we left the taps running / For a hundred years / So drink from the cup / The plastic cup, drink / Drink to the purple, the people / The plastic-eating people”, this was not destined to go well. Some of us did give it our best shot, but it was actually quite painful to watch Damon Albarn wheedling “Oh come on, please?” to a crowd who were clearly not up for it – especially if you, like me, had been there when he broke down in tears at the overwhelming warmth and support from the crowd when Blur headlined on Sunday night last year.

The next high point came when Albarn and the Japanese artist Little Dragon sang an exceptionally lovely ballad together, which would later cause me to scratch my head in bewilderment at why on earth Albarn cursed one of the most romantic songs he’s ever written with the godawful title, “To Binge”. For me, the high point after that was the tribute to the recently-deceased Dennis Hopper, “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”.

Now, my tastes in music are weird, and I usually like the tracks on albums which nobody else likes. “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” is a spoken-word parable of environmental catastrophe on Gorillaz’s second album, “Demon Days”, with Dennis Hopper providing the narration. Spooky and compelling, it was a real treat for me – but not, alas, for the two men standing next to me, who yelled “Play a song!” “Play something we know!” at the stage, and voiced the desires of many.
Albarn apparently heard their call and answered it, as Gorillaz ended their set with their biggest two songs, “Feel Good Inc” and “Client Eastwood”, with Snoop Dogg joining in on the rap sections in “Client Eastwood”. Mollified, the crowd got on down and boogied, ending on a happy note, although later on the way back to the village campsite, C and I would compare notes and agree that it was a shame he didn’t use the original rap from the song. I guess when you’re a Big Star you want to put your own stamp on things, but the rap in “Client Eastwood” is what people were wanting to hear, and it was a bit of a shame not to get the original lyrics. Still, it was a good first day to the festival. And the pints of beer and cider in the Village bar that ended it were very welcome. Onward to Day Five…

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