This is the weekend of the Glastonbury Festival, an event which, despite its counter-cultural origins, has now become just as much part of UK mainstream culture as Wimbledon or the Proms or the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Although the history of the festival is documented on its website, wider media coverage tends to be selective. Its hippy origins are always acknowledged, but usually overlooked is its 1980s period of overt support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the exact time, by coincidence, when it grew musically and commercially.
In 1992, according to the festival’s website, “Michael Eavis (the Festival founder) felt that with the ending of the Cold War people’s concerns had shifted from the possibility of nuclear war to the concerns about the environment”, and so the highly worthwhile but less controversial Water Aid, Greenpeace and Oxfam became the charities which benefitted from its donations and badged its main stages. That earlier period when it was known as the Glastonbury CND Festival has been somewhat air-brushed from the narrative of its expansion into a global media brand. Particularly sad, since you could argue that it was its political leanings which drove its pioneering of multiple performance stages and line-ups of varied musical genres.
We can perhaps date the era of conspicuous commercialisation from the mid 1990s when the BBC took over the televising of the event from Channel 4. The widely reported attendance by several (perhaps it was several dozen!) members of the New Labour government in 1997 or 1998 would have been seen as a significant blessing by the new establishment. On one of those years, when the site was heavily waterlogged, I remember Billy Bragg on stage making a wry comment that at least mobile phones weren’t able to work : an era when they were seen as the devilish possessions of media- and image-conscious adults rather than of school pupils! The arrival of online ticket purchasing, by which all the tickets could be sold within a few hours or days before anyone knew who was actually performing, showed it had moved from being an established pop/rock music festival to being “an event”.
Whereas the catholic mix of musical styles was at one time imaginative, it has latterly become rather predictable and even contrived. The Sunday especially has been headlined by artists who are not particularly associated with muddy fields or political protest. Thus Rod Stewart, the Who, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce Knowles – although comparable crowd-pleasers like Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Paul McCartney led on other days. Late Sunday afternoon or early evening was dubbed the “legends” slot by someone – certainly Tony Bennett played at that time and the equally unlikely Kenny Rogers looks due to do so then this year. Publicity is always given to the most “unexpected” Glastonbury guests : in the past, Tom Jones or Rolf Harris or the English National Opera, this year Bruce Forsyth.
It was certainly an imaginative move, announced in January, for this year’s festival to have an act from Mali to open the Pyramid Stage programme each day in an act of solidarity with the strife-torn country. However, in general, world music has become less prominent over the years, with the stage where it was usually showcased renamed rather anonymously as the West Holts stage, and often featuring mainstream names. Although it is fair to say that the high water mark of world music’s popularity has passed, you might think that a festival as vast (and as boastfully so) as Glastonbury might make more of an effort.
Many of the acts on the main stages are also performing at other big festivals like Reading/Leeds and T in the Park, so the BBC’s multi-channel coverage is likely to offer a rather familiar musical menu of rock, pop, R&B and keyboard-led dance. Although the wacky richness of the smaller performance areas is always acknowledged by the media, it is rarely shown in any detail.
“Glastonbury differs from other major rock festivals in that it has an underlying ethos : to make the world a better place,” insists a website piece on the Leftfield stage, but I suspect that, during the weekend, despite the perfect opportunity, little attention will be given to the work and the ideas of the charities whose names emblazon the main stages.