Field of dreams

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Rock festivals can be a mixed bag of memories, as recalled by Andy Gill and some top performers to be seen this summer at an outdoor venue near you
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The Independent Culture

Reading. Leeds. Donington. Chelmsford. Glastonbury. Like the debutantes' balls of yesteryear, the rock festival has become not just an event in the social calendar but an entire season. Fans can now plot their summer almost weekend by weekend, from this weekend's Download and Isle of Wight Festivals, through Glasto and T in the Park, all the way to August's twin festival events, V and Reading/Leeds. At most of them, they'll be watching the same few acts, a ring-a-rosy of New Order, Basement Jaxx, Athlete, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, Razorlight, The Bravery and others, shuttling round what has now become a well-trodden circuit. You'll really have to go some to avoid seeing Keane this summer, it seems.

Reading. Leeds. Donington. Chelmsford. Glastonbury. Like the debutantes' balls of yesteryear, the rock festival has become not just an event in the social calendar but an entire season. Fans can now plot their summer almost weekend by weekend, from this weekend's Download and Isle of Wight Festivals, through Glasto and T in the Park, all the way to August's twin festival events, V and Reading/Leeds. At most of them, they'll be watching the same few acts, a ring-a-rosy of New Order, Basement Jaxx, Athlete, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, Razorlight, The Bravery and others, shuttling round what has now become a well-trodden circuit. You'll really have to go some to avoid seeing Keane this summer, it seems.

Older readers may recall the frisson of excitement they experienced upon first seeing the adverts for the original Woodstock Festival. What madness was this, one thought, gazing longingly at the line-up. How, exactly, might one get to attend?

It was too far away, and too expensive, and I'd have to get a plane ticket, and, come to that, a passport. And, well, my mum wouldn't let me. Like a generation of Brit kids looking on enviously from an ocean away, I had to wait until the Woodstock film played at the Beeston Essoldo to get some flavour of this era-defining cultural landmark. Still, a modicum of solace was taken in noting that we could be party to a privilege denied American rock fans, in being able to see Bob Dylan's comeback show a couple of weeks later at the Isle of Wight Festival. This was an event whose intrinsic appeal was rendered even more exciting by the journey there, a voyage of what seemed like mythical dimensions, involving buses, trains, and that most exotic of conveyances, a ferry, as if you were engaged on some legendary quest. Which, in a way, you were.

That was the thing about rock festivals in their infancy: they seemed such a daring enterprise, for both promoters and punters. They came garlanded with high ideals: the Woodstock Festival claimed to offer "Peace, Love & Music", in that order, and although it turned out to be a logistical disaster, it set the tone for future such "gatherings of the tribes". Brits finally got their own taste of the big festival experience the next year, back at the Isle of Wight, when half a million people were forced to shit in a communal ditch and scrounge for scraps of food, and a bunch of anarchists tore down the walls.

It was a sobering experience, quite unlike the methodically organised events of today. By mid-afternoon each day, the running order was already hopelessly adrift, and headline acts would eventually appear halfway through the night. It became an endurance test just to stay awake, as it was to do anything - eat, drink, find your mates. I fell asleep at one point, waking up to find I had missed all of The Doors and most of Sly & The Family Stone, two of the bands I had most wanted to see. Not that you could really hear the music.

I bought a melon for a pound, just to slake my thirst. I spent a fool's fortune on Oxo. By Saturday night, the site was dotted with bonfires of the mountains of garbage whose disposal nobody appeared to have considered. I took one look at the communal ditch and elected to hold my own until the journey home, three days later. It was, judged by any reasonable criteria, a vile, squalid, unhealthy, exhausting event, a hellish experience that would beggar even the imagination of Hieronymous Bosch.

And yet?

It became a milestone in the lives of hundreds of thousands. For years thereafter, Isle of Wight veterans would smile knowingly when they met, comparing memories with pride, like duelling scars. It was our Blitz, and in surmounting its admittedly minor tribulations, we found a sense of fellowship otherwise denied our non-combatant generation.

These days, of course, health and safety would frown upon such poor organisation - and, looking back, it's astonishing that there weren't frequent outbreaks of disease at those early festivals. But although the facilities have improved a hundredfold, and the crowds shrunk considerably, the principle remains identical. The rock festival is still the greatest communal rite of passage undertaken by the young, an eagerly awaited opportunity to get hip, get stoned and get laid. The quest remains the same - even if they face no task more fraught with jeopardy than trying to avoid Keane.

Johnny Marr of The Healers (and formerly The Smiths)

Best moment: Coachella in Palm Springs, with The Healers, in 2003. I'm used to festivals being the usual chaotic mudbath, but in California it's different: organised, safe, and sunny, if a bit manicured.

Worst moment: The Smiths at Glastonbury in 1985. This was in the days before it was the groovy rite of passage it is now. Back then it was mostly populated by real hippies who had lost track of what year it was, fake hippies, and Melody Maker journalists there to cadge free beer and watch Elvis Costello. We had a major stage invasion that resulted in the stage crew slashing the tyres of our totally inappropriate Mercedes getaway limo. Laugh? We did, actually.

Drew McConnell of Babyshambles

Best: Sonic Youth at Reading 1995. I'd been listening to Dirty and Goo constantly, so seeing them live felt like the highlight of my entire life.

Worst: My first Glastonbury. The weather was miserable and I'd abandoned watching Ben Harper to seek refuge in my tent. It wasn't there. I eventually found it in the gutter-like ditch that borders each field, full of raw sewage. Nice. I did what any self-respecting teenager would do and got twatted. My friends found me the next night in the circus tent, bound in a bin bag, shivering and chattering incoherently.

Missy Elliott, vocalist

Best: One festival that sticks out in my mind, which I loved and which I did very early on in my career was Lilith Fair in Columbia in 1998. I had my dancers dressed in skeleton outfits and we rocked the show. I was on the bill with talented artists like Natalie Merchant and Erykah Badu.

Worst: I don't really have a worst festival. When I'm travelling with my dancers, we always make sure we have a good time.

Peter Hook of New Order

Best: Glastonbury 1981 was amazing. We'd just discovered speed and all the lasers looked fantastic. I think it was the first year that Glasto made any money. The charity was CND then, and Michael Eavis was wandering around backstage with carrier bags full of cash to give them.

Worst: Glastonbury 2004. I'd gone as a guest and wandered around on my own for hours. I'd never seen outside of the backstage area before and my car got confiscated. My driver and my PR abandoned me, and I was lost at 7am, wandering around trying to find my car.

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party

Worst: 1998 was the year that I finished my GCSEs and, to celebrate, I went to Glastonbury with a group of about 20 friends. It was one of the muddiest Glastonburys ever. I'd seen the TV coverage the previous year but nothing prepared us for it. Being completely unable to escape the mud, it got into your hair, your pants, your socks, your sleeping bag. I seriously thought I was going to get trench foot. We had to resort to wearing bin bags as cagoules and putting carrier bags on our feet for the whole time.

Best: The best experience was the first time I saw Spiritualized at the same festival. They were the first band that I saw that made me realise how powerful live music could be. They made such an amazing sound with brass, gospel singers, and synthesisers. It made us all com- pletely forget about the weather.


Best: It was 2000's Glastonbury, as near to perfect as a festival could be. The weather was beautiful, the sun was setting, and as far you could see there were people dancing.

Worst moment: Glastonbury in 1998. It was raining torrentially, there was a foot of mud everywhere, and there was a lake in front of the stage. And, at that point in my career, the audience in the dance tent had less than no interest in what I was doing. Mind you, trekking around in July with muddy bin-liners tied around my feet was a new and memorable experience.

KT Tunstall, singer-songwriter

Best: Finding a gap in the crowd at T in the Park in the early 1990s, and dancing like a demon to Beck and his band, who were performing Odelay.

Worst: Listening to a crowd of people outside my tent at 6am trying to get a policeman to go down a hill in a baby's pram. It was amusing for the first three hours.

E of Eels

Best: Because of the rocking tour we had done the year before, we were invited to play a big festival in Austria. We showed up with acoustic guitars and saxophones, and were put on between a hard-core German rap act and Nine Inch Nails.

Worst: The next year we were invited to play at a poetry and music festival in Amsterdam. This was based on the previous acoustic guitar and saxophone tour. We showed up with big beards, very loud guitars and an attitude. We were sandwiched between an author reading from his book and David Byrne's spoken-word slide show.

Tim Wheeler of Ash

Best: I have fond memories of Fuji Rock in Japan in 1999: smoking Lee Scratch Perry's sensi, hanging with Joe Strummer, and finishing the night by stealing ZZ Top's tour bus with a couple of crazy models from Germany.

Jo Whiley, DJ

Worst: Standing too near the poo-lorry backstage at Glastonbury when it decided to blow instead of suck.

Best: Seeing the Flaming Lips at Glastonbury just as the sun was setting. Seeing Coldplay headline Glastonbury was great as well. I'd seen them play tiny, sweaty, venues back in the early days.

Andy Bell of Erasure

Best: It was either my first or second Gay Pride, when they held it on the South Bank in London. This was when it was free and anybody could go; you didn't pay £25 to be herded into an enclosure like proud sheep. It was more like a picnic before the bands played. Vince and I were sitting on the lawn and this bold woman came along to ask if we could look after her little boy for an hour while she looked around the stalls. It was Sinead O'Connor, and she was to do a fantastic set later on, songs from The Lion and the Cobra. One of the funniest and filthiest moments was when a portable toilet came off its stilts. It was like being inside a wave machine and the drag queens and muscle-marys were slipping and sliding in a tide of effluent.

Worst: The more Gay Prides we played, the less comfortable it became. It was taken over by the pop corporations and we were shunted down the bill between Geri Halliwell and Steps.

Nick Hodgson of Kaiser Chiefs

Best: It was very nearly the worst. About 1am at Leeds festival a few years ago, a friend of a friend threw a bottle over a fence, and it hit a family of burger-sellers. They told me that if I didn't tell them who had thrown the bottle they would hurt me a lot. Then a cloaked stranger approached, whispered something to the burger sellers, and told us we could go. We didn't see his face or hear what he said, but the fast-food retailers retreated and, gratefully, we proceeded to the guest area.

Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub

Best: My favourite festival in the world is Benicassim, partly because they've got a swimming pool in the backstage area. If it rains there, it stops in 20 minutes, and people are smiling as their clothes are drying.

Worst: The Torhout/Werchter goth festival in Belgium. Our drummer starting hurling abuse back at the crowd and we got showered with bottles and cans.

Martha Wainwright, singer-songwriter

Best: I was at Glastonbury three years ago and had a great time staying with the acrobats and travellers in the upper fields. I wouldn't recommend it to the faint of heart. I was also happy to find out that I could play on ecstasy, although I'll never do it again. Festivals are a great place to hook up; I've known many relationships that were born from "festival relations". The greatest thing for any city person like myself is the opportunity to get outside for an extended period of time.

Slash of Velvet Revolver (and formerly Guns N' Roses)

Best: The first time Guns N' Roses played Rock In Rio was awesome. The crowd were so insanely passionate about our music that they were just short of suicidal.

Worst: My worst festival experience was with Guns N' Roses in St. Louis in 1991, when there was a major riot. Blood everywhere. They tore the stage down, and we were rushed out in little vans. Did the show go on? Duh! No. Try to grasp the concept "riot".

Roni Size, musician

Best: It was Glastonbury in 1997. I was on the Jazz Stage. You don't realise until you're up there how good it's going to be. You're standing backstage, and suddenly the cheers turn into one massive roar. I was coming on after The Roots - that was the ultimate. It was raining, but people were still 40,000 deep. It's something that I'll take to my grave. You look backstage and to the side and you see all your friends, your family, and you just know that in the crowd are all your schoolmates who you've not seen for 20 years.

Worst: Doctor Music, in Spain, around 1995. It was a rock festival, and I was one of only two people of colour. I saw these rockers walking about with T-shirts on with some raw racial slogans on them. It was pretty terrifying.

Alison Goldfrapp of Goldfrapp

Worst: It was Glastonbury in the late 1980s when I hitch-hiked all the way down on my own, couldn't get a ticket and had to dig a dog-sized hole under the fence to crawl in. I thought I'd meet loads of nice people but just ended up with a bunch of hippies who had to burn bin-bags all night long to stay warm. I hated it and went straight home the next day.

Best: Glastonbury when we played there last year. The sun was setting and "Black Beauty" was playing on the PA just before we came on. Franz Ferdinand all bowed to us.

Ross Millard of The Futureheads

Best: Seeing Shellac at All Tomorrow's Parties a few years back. I have never experienced a crowd so in awe of a band.

Worst: Leeds in 1999, when my bandmates Jaff and Barry came armed with a loaf of bread and a tin of peaches between them. Their tent collapsed early on. I had just quit drinking and all their whinging and moaning was a little too much for a sober man to take.

Noble of British Sea Power

Best: Fuji Rock in Japan. It's set in a ski resort in the mountains, and as well as the usual rock zoology, you can see monkeys and bears. We watched the Pixies play from the side of the stage, played football with the great Icelanders, Mum, then came face to face with an Asiatic black bear. You don't get that at Reading.

Worst: The first time we played at Carling Leeds festival. I was so worse for wear that I gaffer-taped foliage and branches to my arms and bare torso, then climbed to the top of the lighting rig during the Polyphonic Spree's set. Some bouncers nabbed me. I only escaped being thrown out by pathetically mewing, "But ahmm inna baaand."

Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds

Worst: It was the Mathew Street Festival. This was about my third live gig, at a place called the Liverpool School of Music, Dream, Art and Pun, which was actually just a warehouse. At the culmination of our set, someone was going to dive off the roof of the building opposite into a skip full of custard and that was going to be that. It looked really dodgy. The weather turned nasty as soon as we came on stage, and the roadies hadn't tied down any of the kit. Every time the other guitarist in the band, Bill Drummond, of KLF fame, jumped up and down, the wooden floorboards catapulted me into the air. The only thing that went right with the whole gig was that the guy who dived into the custard got his measurements OK.

Best: Glastonbury in 1995. I always enjoy Glastonbury, it's a special festival. I know it's kind of been overrun by the BBC now, but, nevertheless, it's still got something.

Mani of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream

Best: Hanging out with my childhood hero David Bowie at a festival in Ostend, North Belgium a couple of years ago. As David was about to go on stage I sang to him in a Bowie voice, "Hey David, are you going to play 'The Laughing Gnome'?" He just turned round to me onstage and sang back to me in the same voice "No Mani... I'm not!" I've never forgotten that moment!

Worst: Reading Festival 1995. Ian Brown had been up all night with Shaun Ryder and the two of them were not on the best form. It was poignant as I was about to announce my departure from the group to join Primal Scream. I played the best bass guitar of my life. People in the audience were crying as they knew it was the end of something beautiful.

Bez of The Happy Mondays

Best: When I was still a teenager in 1982 and I turned up to my first Glastonbury with some mates to find we were two weeks early! It was the year that the travellers were trying to reclaim Stonehenge. I ended up spending two weeks travelling with the hippies and going to lots of smaller free festivals such as The Elephant Fair.

Worst: The year I was wrongly arrested at Glastonbury. I made a scene because I knew I'd done nothing wrong. I was taken away by 15 police officers who held me down and then trussed me up like a turkey in a cell. I had to go to court but was then able to give my side of the story and was let off.

Aaron Fletcher of The Bees

Best: It was at the Oya Festival in Norway this year. I booted a ball into the crowd and lost my shoe with it. So I kicked my other shoe out to make a pair. I got both of them back at the end of the show. How kind.

Worst: This would have to be wearing slippers to Glastonbury in 2004.

Francis Rossi of Status Quo

Worst: At a Finnish festival, a guy came up saying: "I haff killed my friend!" And we said: "Sorry mate, we've got to go onstage." He was covered in blood. It turned out he had knifed his friend to death in the gig just before we went on. You get all sorts of things in Scandinavia. There's one festival, called Skanderborg, where you get people shagging. You have to stop the set and say: "Cor blimey, look at them two at it."

Best: Other than Live Aid, the most euphoric moment ever was at a Swiss festival called Out On The Green, when Chuck Berry and Slash's band Snakepit were on as well as us. There were 80,000 people and when the Swiss ask for an encore they put their hands in the air and make a kind of yodelling noise.

Tom Meighan of Kasabian

Best: Glastonbury 2004 was our greatest moment. It was that amazing summer when we were riding high. We'd only released a couple of singles but people were starting to hear about us. We would have been happy playing to 20 people, but 20,000 turned up. It was just amazing. I looked over at my mates in the band. I knew and they knew that things had changed forever in our lives.

Worst: I reckon a lot of people's worst festival moments happen in the Portaloos. Mine did. It was the smell of the portable toilets at Glastonbury last year. I went out to the Portaloos at the back of the stage, and the smell! It was just at the moment when I was about to flush, and the stink was so horrendous that I puked. And that was in the band-only portaloos. God knows what the ones out the front smelt like.

Emily Eavis, daughter of Glastonbury founder Michael

Best: It was Glastonbury in 1995, the year I finished my GCSEs, and the first year my parents allowed me to camp out on my own. The Chemical Brothers in 2000 was great, too. The valley was packed with 200,000 people dancing, and there should have been 135,000 at the most.

Worst: Glastonbury when I was about 11, in 1990. Some travellers rioted and we were right in the thick of it. Dad was really angry and upset. We couldn't understand how such a happy event could trigger so much violence and negativity.