I first started going to music festivals when they were just beginning to flower into the muddy corporate rose gardens we are overwhelmed with today. For some reason it had taken decades for big business – who had lapped up individual acts like The Rolling Stones as early as the late seventies – to realise the commercial potential in these collective events. Hippies, who would have bounced Coca-Cola out of Woodstock and down into the nearest polluted ravine, were now long gone, and festivals were beginning to be populated by students and bandy-legged Carling-swilling Madchester wannabes. Liam Gallagher whined ‘fuck the man!’ through his nasal cavity whilst clad in designer gear. Before long Half Man/Half Biscuit would be relegated to some leaky comedy stage, hotdogs would be five pound a pop, and ‘jumping the fence’ would require military precision as well as equipment rather than just ‘a mate of mine on security’. This was the progress of the nineties, through the nineties, when Tony Blair, of course, invited rock bands to Downing Street and all of a sudden rock n roll was not only dead, but it was forgotten.
Moving on slightly, the corporate elements of festivals began to dominate. Glastonbury, for instance, will now almost always have a pop act to headline the Saturday night ‘main gig’. That is because whereas the festival-goers can put their fingers in their ears until they get to the Other Stage to see Battles, or Eels, or someone genuinely interesting, the corporations can perform their striptease to the myriad cameras paid for by our license fees. On top of this obvious point, major music festivals happen almost every weekend of the summer across the UK, all of them bloated, most of them terribly drab, clotted with half-recognised names, sell-outs, and sneaked-in local acts, pin-headed by a well-known band who are either past their best, past your best, or, simply, shit.
This was part of the reason why I gave them up. (Also I had an under-discussed falling out with the British weather some time ago). But this year there was a shining light that seemed to pierce my cocoon, and that light was Kent’s Hop Farm Festival. The organisers of Hop Farm pride themselves on the distinct lack of corporate involvement and the absence of any VIP area. The actuality of this was curiously indistinct from all the festivals that seem to have those things as it turned out. There may have been no VIP area, but there was a long tall wall that segregated the proles from the ‘Press’, who, it seemed, had turned up with swollen entourages and over-excited children. So the VIP claim didn’t seem particularly genuine. And one may have imagined a festival with no corporate involvement to have had some selection of beverages reasonably priced. Well, that was not the case, either. But this is a different world to the world of my teens in the mid-nineties, and to be frank, I could be way off with the terms by which those two claims would manifest themselves to a regular punter.
But it began to occur to me that the ways in which Hop Farm Festival had managed to keep a little of its soul was by holding on dearly to the traditions of the money-making model from the early days of my festival-going. So rather than modelling the festival on Woodstock where Country Joe and the Fish had to gaffer tape microphones together to be heard at the back, or the Glastonbury of the seventies and eighties where Billy Bragg might have sat on a cardboard throne and Bjork played the spoons, the model was that of the cusp of that Blairite raping of rock. And looking at the line-up I was convinced.
When I attended Glastonbury in 1998, fighting jet lag, trench foot, (and, one afternoon, a midget, I seem to remember), I saw two of the bands who graced Hop Farm in 2012.
Gomez had just released their first album, and so played the Pyramid Stage on the Friday lunchtime. Fifteen years later and they had exactly the same slot, even if they have since replaced energy with professionalism in that time. I feel strangely a part of their life having watched them after such an interval in such similar circumstances. Neither of us, it seems, have moved forward very much in that time. I’d imagine this to be an equally disappointing revelation to them as it was to me.
The other act I saw at Glastonbury in ’98, roaring through a set on the Pyramid Stage on the Sunday afternoon, was Bob Dylan. Now, back then, I was a Dylan fanatic. It was unhealthy, in fact. But that afternoon (one of maybe four or five times I saw him that year) he was everything you’d want Dylan to be: gravelly, unpredictable, irreverent, historic, bluesy, hilarious, profound. Plus he was on between Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Sonic Youth, so his place in musical history was subtly defined by the contextualisation of those who organised the bill that day. In 2012 he was headlining the entire Hop Farm festival, just a few weeks after his 70th birthday. And it was largely painful to watch. His band is a very competent pub rock outfit, but they lack any romance, any finesse, any dynamism. And Dylan is shot to bits. His voice, always a topic of debate, is now nothing more than a wet growl, a geyser fart of indigestible syllables and phlegmy gips. He was lively, but it was more on the verge of comical histrionics than the passion-throes of the most important songwriter since Puccini. I won’t make excuses for him based on my reverence for the man or for his age. Patti Smith (aged 65) was sensational earlier that evening. And Ray Davies (aged 68) was dreadful. So age is not a factor. Smith was majestic, realising the power of her work, and realising the place she holds in rock history, and came out on stage beaming with love for what she does, and for the people for whom she does it. Davies realised all of things too, but just wanted us, as an audience of thousands, to tickle his scrotum in thanks for his genius. Forget for a moment that Davies has not written a good song since 1969 and you may still be asking why Davies does not pay the respect to his great songs that he seems to want us to pay him.
But this was all a little after the Lord Mayor’s show (with a doff of the cap to the brilliant acts from that Saturday: Patti Smith, Primal Scream and White Denim), for the Friday line-up on the main stage was heavy with the great and the good, as well as a few acts that were as oddly placed as Dylan was.
Gomez, as mentioned, were stoically professional in the face of a crowd who were clearly pacing themselves. But it is quite interesting how well their Mercury-winning debut album has aged.
Jose Gonzalez is still cashing in on his TV advert-driven success, and still sounds no different. There was a time when singer-songwriters did interesting things – even if they were heinous, such as John Martyn’s buggering by Phil Collins in the eighties – but now not even repulsive failures are allowed. Gonzalez, for all of his qualities, is as invigorating and energising as a Notting Hill dinner party. I’m sure he’s a good guy, but it just made me want to make balloon animals with my own capillaries such was the headswell of indifference I felt to his achingly beige performance. This was nothing, of course, in comparison to Damien Rice who filled the air with his X-factor warm-up songs on the main stage before Dylan on the Saturday night. I had no experience of Rice up until this point, apart from his song ‘Cannonball’, which I always thought was at the lower end of the register when it came to unpleasant mawkish ballads for the media-set. But it wasn’t long before I realised this song is a highlight of his oeuvre, to say the least. In fact he was so bland, so mawkish, he could have been grown in Richard Curtis’ garden. Soon after that I realised that it is Rice’s fault that James Blunt exists. And soon after that I began to warm to Blunt, because when you are drowning in wet, feeble, saw-her-on-the-tube deodorant commercial soundtrack awfulness you realise that at least James Blunt used to drive a fucking tank. And so now I respect him for that at least. I imagine Damien Rice used to work on an organic rooftop farm project in Camden before ‘Cannonball’ allowed him into my life. As a writer it is difficult to admit when words fail you. But Damien Rice… I swear to God…
But I was supposed to be singing the praises of Friday’s line-up.
Billy Ocean was a highlight not just for the festival but for the year. He was there to have fun, and his band was tight, technically superb, and with him all the way on the vibe. His list of hits was long, and it was surprising to hear how great his eighties output sounded.
Dr John, who, every time I’ve seen him has been as animated as a sunbathing starfish, made up for it this time with a fantastic band, especially his female trombonist who made several moves to steal the show. ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’, as always, was a particular bright spot.
George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic were the epitome of chaotic genius, their hilarious funk jams, band members coming in and out of the pantomime, a backing singer in a PVC nurse outfit on roller skates. The sort of thing that festivals were made for.
Also well-judged was the positioning of Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra at the top of the bill on the Friday night. Gabriel, as the sun set and the heavy reds of the stage lighting blazed out across the field, was an imposing druidic figure, as he and the fifty-odd piece orchestra made their way through some of his most beautiful musical pieces. ‘Red Rain’, ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘San Jacinto’ were particularly powerful, but a rare thing happened during his set: standing in a field with my fist in the air alongside several thousand other fists, as the anthemic outro to ‘Biko’ thumped into the English countryside, I actually felt quite privileged to be there, quite honoured to have had the tiniest part in the story of that song. Much has been made of the messianic attitudes of white pop stars going to Africa in the eighties and ‘delivering’ African beats to the ‘ignorant’ west at the time, but nobody can argue with the effect that Gabriel’s tribute to Steve Biko had on the anti-Apartheid movement in 1978 and after, giving it an anthem that was also a chart-hit. A brief moment when music really did play a part in the changing of things.
So, the festival had the rather enjoyable atmosphere of being a bit of a throwback, and its organisers certainly seem to know who the audience is. Beyonce, I’d suggest, will never headline here, not while it’s run by the current promoters. It is a festival for people who sit, musically, in a mid-nineties frame of mind. The festival closed on the Sunday with Suede – a band I first had the opportunity to despise at the Phoenix Festival in 1995 and now I find quite inoffensive and technically proficient (god, what Brett Anderson wouldn’t do to be hated instead) – and Richard Ashcroft who, as he called David Cameron a cunt from the main stage, simply sounded like a has-been (regardless of his sound opinions) for the way he thought rock’n’roll still had a say in such things. Well, nowadays Johnny Rotten is more likely to be dribbling on Question Time than spitting at a rock festival. But at least rock festivals, such as Hop Farm, are doing what they can to survive without him.