Arts: Mud, mud inglorious mud

Tony Bennett, drug-free pop stars and an on-site bank... Whatever happened to the real festival spirit?
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The Independent Culture
For most of the weekend, Embrace's song "Come Back to What You Know" played on a continuous loop in the hearts of those festival-goers brave enough to return to Glastonbury. You had only just finished picking crusts of last year's turf out of your belly-button when you arrived to find the site transformed into a scene from Dulce et Decorum Est. There was rain. There was sludge. There were cagoules, wind-cheaters and rain- capes in every conceivable colour. There were plagues of locusts (all right, there weren't, but I did get a gnat bite). It was all so '97. Any discussion of the festival inevitably risks descending into weather report terminology - after all, how many people who attended have added the word "inclement" to their vocabulary since waking up on Saturday morning to find their tent, their camping stove and their loved ones drifting off downstream towards the Healing Field?

Amidst the trying weather conditions, there was always the music. The Prince of Darkness was on typically passionate form - no, not Tony Bennett, who had been at first bemused and then sweetly overjoyed at the ecstatic response he received, but Nick Cave, who just keeps going where Elvis left off. Glastonbury is especially significant for Robbie Williams, for it was here in 1995 that he contravened guidelines for boy-band members by taking drugs and monkeying around on stage with Oasis. Now he monkeys around by himself, though drugs are a no-no: "A year ago today, I got out of rehab," he chirps. His show was tremendous fun, though you can't help worrying about what he's going to draw on once he has sucked all the scandal out of the last three years of his life.

Glastonbury has sentimental meaning for Pulp too; 1995 was also the year when they stepped in for the Stone Roses, broadening the horizons of lost sheep who thought that baggy flares were as good as it got. The band performed a similar act of preconception surgery when they closed the festival on Sunday with an inspirational set that could only be likened to seeing Marc Bolan, Charles Hawtrey and Brecht & Weill form a supergroup together. I had found Pulp's latest album, This Is Hardcore, uncomfortably close to introspective self-parody, but on stage their playing was incendiary. Even their darkest songs, such as "The Fear" and "Live Bed Show", are entrancingly expansive; this is due to grand arrangements - and a grand frontman. Jarvis Cocker had been slouching around backstage in one of those tacky perspex sun visors, looking like a supply teacher holidaying at Butlin's, but the spotlight energised him. "Don't be frightened - it's only me," he purred, knowing full well that twitching, vogueing, kung- fu fighting disco superstars like him don't come along every day.

But if Les Dennis of Family Fortunes asked the Brannigans from Tyne & Wear for things associated with Glastonbury, they would be less likely to suggest "music" than "mud", "hippy" or "anonymous sex with a muddy hippy". This year, however, the festival has come over all high-tech, with such advances as on-site cash-points threatening to render those time-honoured evocations obsolete. Despite a significant domestication of the festival's spirit, there are some things that can still be relied upon - like the team of hedonists peeling off and splashing around in the mud, either to communicate with their inner savage, or because it's a sure-fire way of getting their picture in next week's NME.

But exactly how relevant are the old images of Glastonbury? Judging by this year's festival, they haven't gone away, though they don't tell the whole story. You couldn't miss the mud, especially once it had taken on the consistency of chewing-gum, and you found that you had accumulated entire clumps of marsh-land on a single wellington boot; the one advantage of hauling this around all weekend was that it gave you calf muscles the size of marrows. And if the speed with which the free condom supply was depleted is anything to go by, nobody was swapping sex for making hanging baskets in the Craft Field, either.

It may be that the hippy is the one part of the Glastonbury equation that is realistically threatened with extinction. The sight of saucer- eyed loafers dancing to astral vibes used to be a common one at the festival. What's more, it served its own invaluable social function, providing those who had only temporarily exchanged their semi in Surbiton for a tent on a hillside with a sense of vicarious social rebellion. There didn't seem to be much of that about this year, vicarious or otherwise. In fact, the only counter-culture in evidence was at the specially erected NatWest branch. (My favourite festival moment: "What's your mother's maiden name?" asked a cashier attempting to verify a customer's identity. "I dunno," the lad shrugged. "Can't you ask me something easier?")

The presence of football, in the shape of World Cup matches relayed on huge screens, undoubtedly went some way towards diminishing the essence of Glastonbury - it's hard to sustain the illusion that you are stranded happily on some ageless commune floating in outer space when "Three Lions" is the anthem of choice. Still, by the time the game between Paraguay and King's Lynn, or whoever it was that played on Saturday afternoon, was screened, the supporters had dwindled to a few stragglers gazing up at the screen like members of a religious cult who have pledged their souls to Des Lynam. But I could be misrepresenting this vast, diverse, 105,000-strong crowd. I'm sure that more people would have been up for a spot of rebellion if only the footie hadn't been on, and their cellphones hadn't kept going off. There's nothing like a call from your stockbroker to remind you that you're not a Druid in real life.

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