Music To My Ears: Glastonbury

Glastonbury Festival - one of the most popular on the planet. What makes it so unique? Ben Lerwill explains his take on the iconic summer festival.

“The real beauty of the festival, perhaps, is its sense of worlds within worlds.”

My first day at Glastonbury remains one of the headiest of my life. I was 18, down from Hull on a student bus and giddy with excitement. It was 1995, and the whole site was swimming in hot amber sunshine. I remember guitars glinting in the sun, crowds that roared and flung their arms around and kicked up dust, speakers that pounded so loudly they sent vibrations through your chest. When Supergrass appeared metres in front of us in the woozy heat of the afternoon and started crashing through Sitting Up Straight, my two squashed friends and I flailed and leapt and beamed ourselves dizzy.

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In the singalong throng of the stages we went to, we were surrounded by people like us. But even then, I was aware that our thousands-strong young tribe (too much NME, too much hair, too little tent space) was one of several dozen distinct groups mingling around the site. Where did all these Ozric Tentacles fans come from? Why were there so many people queuing to make stuff with willow? And what the heck was going on over by the dance tents?

Glastonbury is an extraordinary event, a fact as true today as ever. Famously, for the week that it bursts out of the Somerset hills, all flags and smoke and blinding lights, it becomes one of the largest “cities” in the south. There are now said to be some 200,000 people on site during each festival, including, these days, a hefty but unspecified number drawn from overseas by its ever-ballooning reputation as a cultural mega-happening. Glastonbury has travelled.

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Within the city walls – controversial when they arrived impregnable in 2002, two years after a reported 100,000 people hopped unticketed into the site – are more than 100 stages. And everywhere are people. Stumbled-upon brass bands send clouds of music into the sky. Activists press home political speeches. A five-minute walk can be soundtracked by hip-hop artists, cabaret pirates, folk groups and a cappella rock choirs. Sculptors work in fields of teepees, open-mouthed kids wander rainbow-faced under robots, shape-throwers circle after-hours bonfires. When you climb to the highest points of the site and look back out, it all seems so colossal, so strange and extravagant and patchworked, as to be faintly unreal.

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People of a certain vintage say that these days, Glastonbury isn’t what it was. People were saying exactly the same in 1995, and doubtless in 1985 too. The main complaints today are that the festival has become too gentrified and expensive. These are fair assertions, in truth. If you’d turned up in 1970 (ticket price: £1, with free milk) and made enquiries about glamping and tapas brunches you would have met with some strange looks.

But change, even when it’s enforced, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Worthy Farm cows have witnessed the rise and rise of what is now unquestionably one of the biggest, most diverse and most influential arts festivals on the planet. It remains an utterly thrilling escape from the world at large, a chance to dream differently, think big and, just maybe, have a profound experience or two for the better.

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There’s good reason why so many people are drawn here. It may not feel like a utopia when it’s pelting down with rain and you’re queuing in calf-high mud for a Goan fish curry, but where else would accommodate Stephen Hawking, Motörhead, John Cooper Clarke and Kanye West onto the same bill? And even for all the media impact of the headline acts, the big names essentially remain a sideshow to the life frothing away elsewhere on site.

The real beauty of the festival, perhaps, is its sense of worlds within worlds. For a massive knees-up on a farm, it’s a fantastically prismatic thing. Ask 20 different festival-goers about their weekends on the Monday after the close, and those awake enough to respond will give you wildly differing accounts of how their previous 86 hours were spent. Techno glades? Poetry workshops? Mosh-pits? Environmental debates? Hillside sunrises?

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Unlike numerous other festivals, I’m not sure you can ever be too old for Glastonbury. At any age, you could move wide-eyed around the site for the entire duration of the event and still not come near to absorbing half of all it has to offer. On several occasions in the last 20 years, in fact, I’ve read newspaper reviews of the festival and felt bafflingly disconnected – why weren’t these people writing about the four days I’d just had?

But that’s just it. It will be my ninth time at Glastonbury this June, and I’ll have my 6-year-old and 3-year-old in tow. The one thing I know for certain is that the stage times for Alex from CBeebies will clash with the bands I most want to see. Other than that, we’ll be busy soaking up a weekend that, come Monday, will have been our own.

I can’t claim to have enjoyed every hour I’ve ever spent on site. At times the weather and the sheer numbers make it exhausting: a shivering, puddle-plodding ordeal. But the rewards are phenomenal. These days, once you sort the wheat from the event-by-numbers chaff, there are other festivals just as eccentric, just as hedonistic, just as well-intentioned and just as inspiring. But there’s still nowhere that compares with Glastonbury.

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