Mud, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll: Live from the 2014 Glastonbury Festival

Published in The Music, June 2014

The fucking rain. The beautiful fucking rain. The rain is pattering down on our tent in the far reaches of the fancy pants ‘Worthy View’ campsite on the first official day of music at the 44th Glastonbury Festival. We are inclined to remain snug in our sleeping bag, in bed with the silt and muck acquired from the previous day of unofficial Glastonbury festivities, which has already started to blur about the edges. Let’s just lie here for a second and think about it.

Glastonbury opened its gates to the first of 140,000 devoted punters on Wednesday, who trudged like pack horses in wellington boots the long miles to their chosen campsite, five days worth of camping gear strapped to their backs. We arrived on Thursday morning, and it started to rain, which means nothing at Glastonbury. There was no official programming that day but the Glasto empire, the collection of boroughs that make up this most epic scene, was already churning, wet but fearless. Glastonbury goes, no matter what. And it was already going off.

In the Green Fields, the last refuge of Glasto’s crusty past, the Speaker’s Corner hosted a line-up of impassioned polemicists while folk and acapella artists played little sets to big crowds at the Small World Stage. Somewhere under a rainforest canopy, four dolled-up wartime betties spun swing classics from the forties while a jammed audience of mac-wearing punters stomped and wailed along, joining their voices in a rousing chorus of Singin’ In The Rain, as it rained cats and piss all around them. In the backstage VIP hospitality area, a truck full of bleating puppet farm animals cruised past – one of Banksy’s pieces from his recent outdoor NYC exhibition, relocated to the a field in Somerset. Outside, people slipped and fell about, in mud and macs and joyful anticipation.

On the Williams Green, the afternoon kicked off with a raging episode of musical bingo, led by a DJ, an MC in a top hat and three girls in angel wings, and followed by a heaving tent of sweaty, muddy, kids in dancing chorus. Later that night, Metronomy and The 1975 play the first of Glasto’s ‘secret’ sets, but the secret was out and the crowd around the Williams Green tent was thousands deep. The 1975 stopped their set when someone lobbed a can on stage – can’t have that, not at peace-loving Glasto.

Up in The Park, where the multicoloured ribbon-bedecked viewing tower looms over the site, nothing specific was happening but the atmosphere was lit, people teeming around multiple bars, queuing for the silent disco, having rousing, drunken singalongs in the Big Easy Jam tent, all wired and awash. Bass pumped from late night venues across the fields of Worthy Farm and people were dancing, everywhere. Everything about Glastonbury said go, keep going, all night. But there were three massive days ahead, so home to bed. We passed through the mystical Stone Circle on the way back to camp, where the pop hiss of nitrous bulbs rippled into the night from tiny fires dotted across the hillside. Then we slept. Then the music proper started.

In the world of music festivals, Glastonbury is the mothership. There are fourteen main stages and dozens more cafes, rotundas, and rabbit holes where artists play music around the clock. There is a massive theatre and cabaret field; a comedy stage; green fields for healing, environmental consciousness and chai tea; cinemas; kids fields; multiple market lanes; and three major late night dance zones, including the South East Corner (incorporating Shangri-La, Block 9, Strummerville, The Common, Glasto Latino and the Unfair Ground, all of which contain multiple bars and venues). Glastonbury uses as much power as the city of Bath. Imagine every music and arts festival you have loved, stitched together into one mega spectacle, a magical city of mud-caked delights. There are a thousand paths through this weekend, all of them carved through rain and mud, decided by prosaic shit like how long it will take to get from here to there, whether it’s worth the effort to catch ten minutes of a set, etc. You get distracted, you get lost, you kill time waiting out a shower in a place you didn’t mean to be. It doesn’t matter. It’s all amazing.

So, Friday. In the misted morning drizzle, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood pulls a glorious bait and switch, appearing on the West Holts stage for 15 minutes of epic, swirling guitar instrumental before ceding the stage to the London Sinfionetta, who for the next forty minutes play a tremulous classical piece by composer Steve Reich. It is magnificent, a shivering, cyclical spring sound, played through a curtain of rain. At midday, The War On Drugs do their best to flood the vast, sparsely populated field in front of the Pyramid Stage with their meaty rock drone, while across the way at the rival Other Stage, Blondie walk their way through a warmly received but lacklustre classic hits set.

We sink into the honey trap that is the interstage bar area – a place infested by flowery west coast LA chic where Alexa Chung and Kate Moss are flocked by paparazzi and everyone looks like they are in a band, because most of them are in a band. We meet a lovely venture capitalist called Josh, who is already ruined from an epic Thursday night in the Southeast Corner and up for a chat. We learn some things about Josh’s friends, Billy Piper and Sienna Miller. Terrible, interesting, things.

Mid-afternoon, De La Soul hit the Pyramid Stage with a blasting break from their three-piece horn section and proceed to bounce the crowd through a joyful nostalgic ride through 3 Feet High & Rising, with plenty of theatrical breaks to build audience interaction and one beautiful moment when they coerce a security guard in the pit to put his hands up, with the encouragement of ten of thousands of hollering punters. Meanwhile, Courtney Barnett is wowing new fans up on the hill at The Park Stage, the first of half a dozen Australian acts in high profile spots.

Early evening, Wild Beasts appear in the hip haven that is the John Peel Stage while Parquet Courts shake up The Park, but a massive chunk of punters has flooded the Pyramid Stage to see the UK princess of pop, Lily Allen. She’s returned to Glasto after a five-year break to face an adulating audience and a ferocious pit of photographers, bouncing and grinning her way through a sunny set of musical nonsense. Lily goes through several costume changes and the crowd goes wild. Keith Allen is side stage, proud as punch, set to celebrate his daughter’s triumph into the wee hours of the morning.

Interpol play into the setting sun on the Other Stage and their sound is typically sloppy, Paul Banks voice thinner live than on their records, but he is so beautiful staring into the sun, such a rock idol archetype, that it is hard to look away. Chvrches play John Peel while the Tune-Yards rock the beat-friendly West Holts, and everywhere people are making tough decisions re the Friday night headliners – Arcade Fire, Skrillex or M.I.A.? We opt to avoid the maddening crush around the major stages (which takes 45 minutes to escape and is the mother of all head fucks) and watch Four Tet play in the Park as the sun goes down, a blissed out explosion of head and heart-wrecking beats. He has these beautiful, shaggy arms and we have an overwhelming compulsion to lick them. He is followed by Metronomy, whose disco pop blasts out in the darkness to a happy, hollering crowd.

The night is wicked and full of trudging missions, lost friends. Piles of coke, MDMA, weed, booze, an endless holes to climb down and into and out and down again. Hidden backstage bars where tens of thousands of production crew drink and dance to their own personal DJs, fields lit by fire, fireworks, lightening. We dance at the gay-tastic NYC Downlow venue in Block 9, next to naked male strippers, the world’s most spectacular drag queens and Bradley Cooper, who fucks up his attempt to remain incognito by wearing a shining white baseball cap in a very dark club.

We wander through the inferno that is Shangri-La, past the Heaven bar and the Hell stage. It is a blur of lights, pounding beats, heavy metal set-dressing and other indescribable sights. We miss the Jamie XX DJ set in the Silver Hayes dance field, impossibly far away. We miss Jarvis Cocker, djing in The Park. Sometime near dawn, we climb the mountain back towards the ‘Worthy View’ camp and stop for a second to drink in the glaring festival universe at our feet, stretching across the horizon; a whole insane world of adventure.

‘Worthy View’ is too damn far away, so Saturday’s first mission is to recruit a saint called Stu – lighting tech for Jake Bugg– and load him up like a pack mule to facilitate our move down to the Hospitality camp, where VIPs hide from the common people (where drug fiend/financier Josh has a spare tent for us). Glastonbury is enormous; the mission takes two hours. We celebrate its success at the Stonehenge Bar in The Park, where Four Tet DJs for two hours to a motley crew of early morning dancers. His arms are still freakishly appealing.

Kelis hits the Pyramid stage mid-afternoon, winding the crowd up with a super-jiggy rendition of Milkshake, then Lana Del Rey appears (still with us, god bless) and does her best to sell sex in the glaring afternoon sunlight. Doesn’t work. Courtney Barnett is playing again, this time at John Peel, but we get stuck at Imagine Dragons, whose songs we’re sure we’ve never heard and yet somehow we know all the words.

More time is lost. We miss ESG at The Park.

Jack White opens the evening schedule on the Pyramid Stage, with a set of largely solo material. His violinist is so beautiful and talented she makes us want to vomit. His patter is that hokey, Sun Studios rock’n’roll guff that is clearly put on, but also adorable. He sweats and poses, the crowd cheers grandly.

Acts we miss on Saturday night: Robert Plant, Goldfrapp, Chromeo, Manic Street Preachers, Jake Bugg, Metallica. We see The Pixies on the Other Stage and die with glee as tens of thousands sing along to Here Comes Your Man, Debaser and Bone Machine. Jon Hopkins plays a live set on the tiny Glade stage and the crowd fights to get in, pressing itself into his monstrously epic beats. We finish up at Mogwai in The Park and feel the universe turning around the sound. The Park stage is the best stage, picturesque and beautifully programmed.

Saturday night, we watch the giant industrial spider in Arcadia spit flames and lazers from the safety of the Arcadia staff bar. Outside, Arcadia is a field of raging mud and rammed bodies. The night is a hellish swill of ecstasy. All over Glastonbury, the toilets are smeared with human faeces and smell like death. Dance music booms and terrorises from every quarter.

More time is lost. Eyesight goes a bit squiffy. We walk for hours, dance til dawn. Sleep until the sun starts to cook us in our tent.

By Sunday, all bets are off, all brains are scrambled. Financier/camp saviour Josh eases us into the morning with naughty tales of TV stars gone bad in the super-extra VIP Winnebago camp. The interstage bar is lousy with musicians; Ellie Goulding, Paulo Nutini, that tattooed-chest fancy from The 1975. We stage an awkward conversation with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the subtext of which is ‘You are God, let me bear your children’. He is very nice.

The Kooks play a ‘secret’ afternoon set at the John Peel tent, capping of a year of spectacularly shithouse ‘secret’ sets. The afternoon brings performances by The Horrors, Sam Smith and the brilliant Connan Mockasin, but two thirds of the festival crowd turn out for Dolly Parton. The Pyramid Stage is mashed, people frozen together like volcanic rock. She is an absolute doll. The crowd sings the words to 9 To 5 like a jolly, golden hymn.

We head up to The Park for the last of the Glasto music, for a double header of St Vincent (magnificent) and James Blake (play this as I am dying). They make the world expand. James Blake splits the sky apart. His set is the most beautiful thing we have ever heard.

And then, so fucking fast, the music is over. And then the night begins. And we are lost again. And there are many more adventures, but they are all a secret.