For the Love of Festivals

Festivals unlock the most extreme, feral imaginations in people – they changed my life

With festivals set to return this summer, DJ and music journalist Oliver Keens kicks off a new series of first-hand accounts from life in tents

Monday 10 May 2021 06:33
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Festivals are about doing whatever goofy, reckless and gross s*** you’re into: Oliver Keens at the decks
Festivals are about doing whatever goofy, reckless and gross s*** you’re into: Oliver Keens at the decks

I have missed some of the greatest festival performances of this millennium. I missed Bjork in her prime because I was having my balls cupped and rated by the groom of a pretend stag party. I passed on PJ Harvey because I was watching a game of lettuce conkers (two icebergs on ropes, simple but truly enthralling). I sacked off The National at a chic Parisian festival after finding 50 Brits doing a conga to “All I Want For Xmas Is You”. This was in June. When Dolly Parton played her triumphant Glastonbury set, I was in a teepee pitching TV ideas to a man we thought was Ed Balls. It wasn’t, and thus “Amaze Balls” – a talent show judged by Ed Balls – sadly never happened.

Festivals changed my life. I’ve met the greatest people alive, got my break as a DJ and this year, I even have a book about festivals coming out. Of course I saw some great music along the way, but I think the point of festivals is to look beyond the headliners, to make incredible and indelible memories, doing whatever goofy, reckless and gross s*** you’re into. Emphasis on the gross.

I got lucky in 2008 when I had a Dirty Dancing-esque entrée into the world of festival work. Whereas Baby carried a watermelon, I merely transported giant foam Scrabble tiles on the Isle of Wight ferry. Bestival would annually hand out hundreds of letters on poles to a sloppy Sunday crowd. Words would slowly form: a few “F*** ME”s, a handful of “KETAMINE”s. The word “PINT” came together, then its holders walked to the bar in unison, while some enterprising folks created the memorable phrase “CLITWANK THE QUEEN”. By the end, the “E”s were always stolen.

The performers doing the giant Scrabble, called Lost & Found, had a tiny tent which – thanks to the grotesque mud outside – became a banging three-day rave. They badly needed DJs, so I offered to play with the four indiscriminate CD-Rs I’d driven with. By some miracle, I kept the vibe pumping for two hours until I was down to the only song still unplayed – “Girl From Mars” by Ash. It was a horrifically jarring curveball for the heaving, pilled-up sea of third-degree gurns in front of me. It bombed hard. I was rightly asked to stop.

Still, it was a start to getting more festival gigs. Big-name DJs are sniffy about festivals, but having previously played at a hospice and a taxi drivers’ Christmas party (held under an elevated dual carriageway), getting my first actual festival booking the next summer was heavenly. Yet my contact never met me at the gate, nor did they pick up my 23 desperate calls, leaving me to go stage-to-stage and ask if I was meant to be there, like some kind of lost, Paddington Bear-type figure carrying disco records. The next few weren’t much better: I got bumped because Hawkwind – bloody Hawkwind – went long. I destroyed a pair of headphones whilst clambering on top of the DJ riser, leaving me to curate the next three hours of music without so much as a conch shell. Oh and I played a warm-up set for Rolf Harris at a kids’ festival, which frankly, we mustn’t speak of again.

Over time though, the gigs got better, the crowds got cooler and the riders got bubblier. I still stuck with my impossibly small pop-up tent, because of its special microclimate that somehow makes you sweat out all known toxins, leaving you ready for the next day’s onslaught. It does get hot, though. So hot, you end up naked with the door flapping open come daylight, which is why a woman in Thanet still has a picture of my balls.

Oliver Keens (right) with The Independent’s head of culture, Patrick Smith

What people do in their tents at a festival is their business. Except when you’re sharing. You go back mid-afternoon and unzip… to find your roomie’s bare ass about seven centimetres from your face, frozen in mid-air, mid-hump. Still, it’s not as bad as hanging out with David Cameron at Wilderness.

Not that being judgemental has any place at a fezzy. Festivals unlock the most extreme, feral imaginations in people. A shy and reserved person I know came out of her shell by wearing a homemade cardboard sign that said: “You can do a line off my boob for £29.99.” Some friends lived for the bit in a Missy Elliott set when they got to hoist a sign saying “Get Your Free Corn” and distribute handfuls of kernels to bemused punters. It’s possible that I’ve been to so many festivals that I can’t take anything seriously now. I once stumbled into an early morning yoga class, and thanks to a deep giggly hangover, assumed it was a brilliantly arch parody of quasi-spiritual yoga bollocks. After half an hour of solid cackling, it slowly dawned that I was both wrong and a big idiot. I’d just been putting a lot of nice people off a nice yoga class.

Only festivals can throw your social orientation off so dramatically. It all becomes clear once you’ve left and begun reengaging with the real world, often at a series of motorway services – glitter-strewn, head feeling like a rotten pomegranate, feebly trying to navigate around a Wild Bean Cafe. You may have missed Bjork, or PJ Harvey, or The National, or even the Tupac hologram. But your memories of the odd bits, the weird bits and the gross bits, will last a lifetime.

FESTIVALS: A Music Lover’s Guide to the Festivals You Need to Know by Oliver Keens, published by Frances Lincoln, rrp £18.99

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