I lost my pop virginity - albeit vicariously - to the Isle of Wight festivals. As a Southampton schoolboy, I stood in awe of my elder brother, who decamped to the island every summer from 1968 to 1970, returning in gold crushed velvet flares, with tales of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The whole idea seemed impossibly glamorous to me.
Festival-going has a honourable history - from pagan rites to 19th-century spiritualist festivals in America attended by 15,000, complete with displays of animals, "alive and stuffed", and tents for "mesmeric entertainments". In my own punk youth in the late 1970s, festivals retained a sense of political, if not utopian gesture. In 1978 I marched with the Anti-Nazi League to Hackney's Victoria Park for the Rock Against Racism festival. The music that day - from The Clash and X-Ray Spex - was just another part of the protest. I've since watched New Order in a Belgian field, wishing I were within crawling distance of a functioning, sanitary lavatory; and I've danced at Glastonbury, where the Pet Shop Boys transported the crowd into an ecstasy no chemical could reproduce.
But latterly it seems the festival has been branded - sponsored by Carling, Pepsi or Virgin, and far from the spirit of the 1968 Isle of Wight event when, as one veteran recalls, "there was a hot dog van, an ice cream van, and a pit to crap in". My brother Stephen remembers hard-core hippies at the 1970 event "breaking down the fences - doing a poll tax 'can't pay won't pay'. Someone - I think it was Joni Mitchell - declared halfway through that it was a free festival". According to Brian Hinton, the festival historian, who still lives on the island, such anarchy prompted a new parliamentary act in 1971, forbidding overnight gatherings of more than 5,000 people in the open air - "the spiritual heir to the recent Criminal Justice Act", he says.
Hansard even records Tom Driberg, the maverick Labour MP, defending the festival-goers - "These young people were behaving like the earliest Christians in the Acts of the Apostles, who had all things in common" - to which the Tory Patrick Cormack replied, "What nauseating claptrap."
Yet at its best, the festival is an escape, a window into another life. So what does this new summer of love have to offer? Queues. I'd forgotten about them. We queue for the boat over; we queue for the bus on the other side. The group ahead appears to have raided the family home; one lad's bulging knapsack even has a cheese-grater strapped to it. I offer my services as a temporary Sherpa. Then one of their carrier-bags bursts, sending sausages and beer cans sprawling. "Hey mate," shouts a passing Islander at the invading grockle, "your beer's in the road." I manage to get on the third double-decker. As it struggles up the hill, someone shouts, "Everyone lean forward." It's all a bit Cliff Richard.
The girl in front of me - blond hair, a tattoo above her thong - says in a cut-glass accent, "We need one of my horses!" Outside Newport, a temporary town swings into view: a vast field of tents, many with St George's flags fluttering in the breeze. There's another long queue to get in; then half a mile's walk to the arena itself. I sneak through the guest entrance. But once inside, I'm on my own - with 10,000 people. And it's a bit scary. The atmosphere is part fairground, part nightclub. The stage is smaller than Glastonbury's, but with better views. Video screens flash running orders - and ads for Nokia phones. There are the usual stalls selling bongs and vegan food, but there's also one called Dirty Knickers selling underwear.
There are lots of T-shirt slogans - from the blatant, "I'm a Minger", to the witty, "Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls". It's all very British. One entirely straight-looking chap is wearing a pink bandanna, an above-the-knee floral print dress and pink slips-ons. Tattoos stain most exposed flesh - from cute little bumble bees to "England" in gothic script over beer-belly buttons.
"Oi, nobheads, by the fooking bin!" shouts one group of Scallies to the other as they rendezvous by mobile phone. A man in front of me has, unaccountably, a plastic kestrel strapped to his wrist. Older festival-goers look like leftovers from the Sixties events, with lots of tie-dye and Robert Plant hairdos. Yet for their heirs, this is a politics-free zone - apart from the Welsh, Irish or English flags draped over sunburnt shoulders. Strange how a devolved patriotism has settled over a generation, as if it were seeking to claim nationhood in lieu of radical politics. No anarchy for the UK here.
As the sun's rays start to slant, a kind of cohesion kicks in. The crowd gathers together; the cloud of spliff starts to thicken, and whatever the man in front of me has taken, it's certainly working: he's dancing madly with himself, as if possessed. People (including myself) are beginning to get a bit wobbly. "I'm an alcoholic," someone tells me, a drink in each hand, adding, "I am!" as if I doubted the fact.
Those that can focus on the stage, where the lead singer of Super Furry Animals, a dead ringer for Jim Morrison, is wearing a fluorescent crash helmet and is singing out of the visor. The party carries on at the campsite into the early hours - complete with fireworks. "No one got to sleep till 5am," says Tom Chatfield-Moore, 21, and his mate, Sam Swadler, 21, as they face Saturday morning, somewhat blearily. Tom's brother, James - more world weary at 26 - says the festival is surprisingly family-orientated. "It's more like a village fête," he says. And tonight, a little the worse for two nights in the open, they will all greet the Thin Wight Duke (as Bowie has been restyled for the occasion). Then they will queue dutifully for the bus home - until the next festival comes along.
From the great unwashed to solar-powered showers
The Who at the Isle of Wight, Paul McCartney at Glastonbury and Bob Dylan at the Fleadh - the 2004 rock festival season, which kicked off this weekend, may well be the most popular since the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Rock festivals, it seems, have risen above the stereotypes of squalor and drugs which dogged their image for two decades and emerged with renewed cool. This festival season is expected to attract more people than ever before.
A wider age range of festival-goers, a revival of interest in rock music, more luxurious facilities and big-name performers have all contributed to make festivals "must do" events once again. These days you are as likely to find a professional couple in their 40s with their three children pitching up a tent as an 18-year-old Slipknot fan.
New events have joined the circuit and this year many of the old school have increased capacity to cope with demand. Yet festivals are selling out earlier than ever. Isle of Wight, with a daily capacity of 35,000, is twice as big as last year and still a sell-out - something it failed to achieve last year. Britain's best-known festival, Glastonbury, attracts 130,000 people but its allocation of tickets - at £117 each, the most expensive in the UK - disappeared in a record 22 hours.
The festival has finally ditched its image as the playground of the dope-addled, great unwashed. It is estimated 700,000 people will go to one festival or another this summer - a rise of at least ten-fold since the late 1980s.
"There is no longer any social stigma attached to going to a festival. In fact you're often more of a social leper if you don't go," says Melvin Benn, managing director of Mean Fiddler which organises several of Britain's biggest festivals. The firm, which had a turnover of £44m last year, took over the running of the ailing Reading Festival in 1988. Since then it has added many more events to its portfolio including the Fleadh and a share in Glastonbury. It also expanded Reading - now known as the Carling Weekend - to include another event near Leeds, held simultaneously and featuring the same bands.
"Between the early 1970s and late 1980s there were only two major festivals operating in the UK - Glastonbury and Reading," says Mr Benn. He estimates that as recently as 1988, Britain's festivals attracted only around 30,000 people. "I'm no Thatcherite free marketeer but the competition between all the festivals that are around now has allowed them to grow and develop, and this means artists of greater stature will come and perform at them. An artist that could sell 30,000 tickets might play to 60,000 fans at a festival, which means they have reached an extra 30,000 people."
The potential audience, too, is growing all the time. "We're finding that people of any age will come along," says Tony Scott, organiser of one of the UK's smallest festivals, Guildford's Guilfest. "Now you really might find a 16-year-old goth coming along and bumping into his granny."
"Festivals have grown up and a lot of people have grown up with them," says Mr Benn. "People's lifestyle now means they see no problem in just carrying on going. Where festivals used to be aimed at 16- to 21-year-olds, the market is now aged 16 to 50 or more. I've got people that have been going to Reading for 15 years. They always camp in the same spot near the same people."
The days of navigating stinking cesspits, coming home covered in accumulated dirt and pinning messages to boards to meet friends are long gone. Glastonbury now has solar-powered showers; most festivals have portable loos with toilet paper and barely anyone will be without their mobile phone. (Battery-charging facilities are usually provided.)
"It seems to me that people these days are far happier to spend their money on concerts and live events than records," says Marc "Lard" Riley, the ex-Radio 1 DJ who now hosts a show for the digital station BBC6 Music and a regular festival-goer. "A 40-year-old insurance salesman or travel agent can go and let their hair down for a few days and do whatever they want. It's a great way to let off steam."
Facilities for artists have also come a long way from the mixing desk and speakers propped on milk crates of the early days, opening the billing to big names once concerned about sacrificing their sound. Sir Paul McCartney is a headliner at Glastonbury, where he made his first ever festival appearance; Bob Dylan is the big attraction at London's one-day Fleadh, and David Bowie is the closing act at the Isle of Wight tonight.
ALL SUMMER LONG: WHERE TO FIND THE FESTIVALS
Isle of Wight
Seaclose Park, Newport 11, 12, 13, June
Headliners: The Who, Stereophonics, David Bowie
Capacity: 35,000 each day
Expect: Wrinkles, on both the bands and gig-goers.
Finsbury Park, London 20 June
Headliners: Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, The Charlatans
Expect: Serious drinking, but little Irish music at this once Irish-themed festival.
Worthy Farm, Pilton, Somerset 25, 26, 27 June
Headliners: Sir Paul McCartney, Oasis and Morrissey
Expect: Music and naked show-offs in a green field.
Old Trafford cricket ground, Manchester 8, 9, 10, 11 July
Headliners: Morrissey, Madness, Stereophonics
Capacity: 20,000 a day
Expect: Lots of corporate logos.
T In The Park
Balado, Kinross 10, 11 July
Headliners: David Bowie, Pixies, The Strokes, The Darkness
Capacity: 60,000 each day
Expect: More serious drinking. Hits of yesteryear.
Stoke Park, Guildford 16, 17, 18 July
Headliners: Simple Minds, Blondie, UB40
Capacity: 15,000 each day
Expect: 58-year-olds in mini-skirts - and that's just Debbie Harry.
Hylands Park, Chelmsford; Weston Park, Staffordshire 21, 22 August
Headliners: The Strokes, Pixies, Muse, Dido
Capacity: 60,000-plus each day at each venue Expect: Dido causing rock fans consternation.
The Carling Weekend
Richfield Avenue, Reading; Bramham Park, Wetherby 27, 28, 29 August
Headliners: White Stripes Darkness, Morrissey
Capacity: 50,000-plus each day, each venue
Expect: Lots of guitars.Reuse content