Well, I thought it was better this year than last, didn’t you? To be fair, my thinking on this has been largely influenced by the fact that one of my all-time favourite bands got to headline the Other Stage on Saturday night. Yes, I am talking about the Pet Shop Boys. Yes, I know you all think I’m obsessed. I’m seriously going to have to start blogging about my other musical interests or you really won’t believe me when I keep telling you that my tastes don’t entirely revolve around 50-something electro-poppers (and 20-something electro-poppers with a penchant for getting naked…). Time to resurrect that idea for blogging about what my choices on Desert Island Discs would be, perhaps. Or the annotated track-listing of my top 20 songs of the decade 2000-09 – that one’s even half written.
Anyway, this post was supposed to be about Glastonbury, wasn’t it?
Ok to start with the place I always was going to start – the Pet Shop Boys. Virtually their entire set – the BBC clipped the very beginning, I’m not sure why; maybe Neil Tenant came over all gangster and walked on stage saying “Yo, Glastonbury, we’re the motherfucking Pet Shop Boys”? – was shown live on BBC3, and is available until next Saturday on the iPlayer. It was, I thought, a really good performance, and certainly better than their first Glastonbury 10 years ago. They’ve spent a lot of time touring big venues (and other festivals) in the intervening years, and the confidence that’s given them is reflected in the fact that Neil Tenant is prepared to sing live without having his voice swamped in effects, which in turn makes it feel like much more of a ‘proper’ gig. I liked the fact, as well, that they didn’t try to become a typical festival act for the occasion, but kept the costume changes and choreographed dance routines that have always been a central part of their live style.
In terms of the visual presentation I thought they managed to do a lot with not very much – the two members of the band and four dancers/ backing singers, and an indeterminate number of lab-coat-wearing stage hands to move the cardboard boxes around (you really need to watch it to understand about that…), and very imaginative use of pre-recorded video. Lots of bands use pre-recorded backdrops these days, of course. The thing the Pet Shop Boys manage to do that lots of other bands don’t is in having the images on the screens tie up with the visual aspects of what’s happening on stage (someone must spend ages timing things to the second with a stopwatch). They briefly repeated the visual joke from their Brits performance of having a pre-recorded video of Neil Tenant lip-synching to a live vocal from the man himself, which pleased me.
Musically, it was a well structured set, too, I thought. Edith Bowman on the BBC coverage described it as a greatest hits, and I can see why, but in many ways the interesting thing about it is that it wasn’t. There’s always a temptation for any band to do that in a festival performance, because paydirt for these kinds of gigs comes in the form of those sweeping shots of an ecstatic audience stretching back as far as the eye can see and singing along to every word. The PSB got plenty of that, but they also had the confidence to do other things too, such as including relatively obscure album tracks like ‘Two divided by zero’ and ‘Why don’t we live together?’, and making a major feature of a really quite obscure single B-side from 1987, ‘Do I have to?’. They made room for those performances by dropping some of their best-known songs – ‘Opportunities (let’s make lots of money)’, ‘Rent’, ‘So Hard’ – and reducing others – ‘Domino Dancing’, ‘In the night’, ‘Discotecca’ – to fleeting appearances in mash-ups with other songs, which is not what you’d expect in a straightforward ‘greatest hits’ performance.
The whole thing was good, and the angry song that ‘It’s a Sin’ has become since Neil Tenant came out (before then they played it for melancholy) was awesome as always. If I had to nominate a single song for stand-out performance of the set, though, I think it would be ‘Jealousy’, if only for the fact that they managed to get one of the biggest cheers of the night for what was basically an interpretive dance performance set to a pretty downbeat and down-tempo song. There aren’t many Glastonbury performers who would be able to do that, I think, but what’s perhaps more to the point is that there are very few who would dare to risk it in a festival environment where there’s always a danger of your audience getting bored and wandering off to another stage. In a similar vein, it can’t have often happened that the headliners from one of the main Glastonbury stages went for a celebratory interview afterwards and, in between the routine questions about “how was it for you?” and their world tour, casually dropped into the conversation that they’ve just finished writing the score for their new ballet. The Pet Shop Boys are one of the biggest bands on the planet, and they can turn in a storming festival performance when they want to, but they still persist in doing things a little differently. I like that.
Given my barely-contained fanboy obsession, nothing would make me happier than to declare the Pet Shop Boys the stand-out best performance of the festival, but I don’t think I can. Even speaking personally, there were other performances I enjoyed as much, such as Toots & The Maytals on the West Holts stage on early Sunday evening (although that’s based on having only seen very brief highlights – a couple of songs). I’d also be forced to concede that the Pet Shop Boys didn’t entirely succeed in blowing Muse (who were on the Pyramid Stage at the same time as PSB were playing elsewhere) off the stage, since they also turned in a very powerful performance (… if you like that sort of thing…).
Sorry for the snark. I have really tried to like Muse over the years, but I’m afraid they just don’t do it for me. They always seem to me to be one of those bands that rely very heavily on just being !LOUD! in order to capture the audience’s attention, rather than anything more subtle or engaging. And it doesn’t help me to appreciate them when they write songs with titles like ‘Super Massive Black Hole’ and ‘Knights of Cydonia’, and apparently take them in absolute deadly earnest. I mean, there’s always a faint air of the ridiculous about a great rock band, but Muse do seem really quite remarkably un-self-aware. (And I can never quite manage to get distant memories of ‘The Leg of Time’ out of my mind.) I also have a slight problem with the fact that they seem to very badly want to be a hard rock band but then don’t actually rock hard enough to carry it off. Still, there is no doubting that they have stage presence and energy to burn, and also the coolest-looking microphone stands I’ve ever seen.
I wasn’t all that convinced by the Pyramid headliners on the other nights. Gorrilaz are a band I find irritating at the best of times – just having to type their name and override the spellcheck’s objection has put me in a bad mood – but even with the best will in the world they just don’t have enough well-known songs to carry off a headline set on the main stage. I perhaps shouldn’t criticise too heavily, though, as they were originally intended to have been second on the Friday night bill behind U2, until Bono’s injury. Something does actually occur to me about that.
One of the things I fussed about last year was a certain similarity in the headliners, and particularly the fact that top billing on Friday and Saturday night went to two artists – Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young – who weren’t all that different to each other. It strikes me that, although they’re more different than Young and Springsteen, there would have been certain parallels between U2 and Muse if they’d both played. They’re both quintessential ‘stadium’ acts, with everything that implies in terms of a tendency towards grandiose but rather sterile songwriting (or, at least, that’s how it seems to me).
Another thing that exercised me last year in terms of headliners was the lack of ethnic diversity among the high-profile performers. On this one I have to say that the organisers did a great deal better this year, particularly in the lower reaches of the bill on the Pyramid, and capped that with having Stevie Wonder close the festival. Although I thought it was great that he was on the bill, and although it’s clear that I’m very much in the minority, speaking personally I didn’t especially enjoy his set.
Stevie Wonder has always seemed to me to sit uncomfortably between genres – too funky for jazz, too jazzy for pop, too poppy for soul – and to have suffered from some really bad arrangements, particularly that god-awful late-70s electric piano which is pretty much his ‘sound’. I also felt the performance was acoustically very flat, especially given how many musicians he was onstage with – I’d have expected a band of that size to be able to generate something rather more exciting-sounding. Also, the extended banter between him and his backing singers was just excruciating (and a really bad idea in front of a crowd the size of Glastonbury – there’s no way the people even a third of the way back will have been able to make out a word). Still, he did bring Michael Eavis on stage, which was nice to see, and he’s one of the very few artists currently performing who could bring a sincere anti-war, anti-racism vibe to the festival, which was very appropriate for the 40th anniversary year. It was also obvious that he’s a thoroughly nice guy with none of the galloping ego that affects so many big-name performers.
Another contrast with last year is that, if I’d been there, I would have found a lot more things I wanted to see. I was going to list them all here, but then I realised that would be catastrophically dull to read. So instead I’ll just say that there would have been a total of 35 performers across the four days of the festival that I have been genuinely interested in seeing, which is a noteworthy contrast with the 10 I found last year. As then, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to get to see everyone I wanted to because of clashes, and they always say that the best things about festival-going are the things you come across by surprise rather than the things you plan to see, but had I gone this year I’d have found it better value for money, I think.
I also quite enjoyed the experience of watching on TV, which I didn’t particularly last year. I even got to hear (and hear of) a new band (well, new to me) that I think I will like, which is always a bonus: The Temper Trap; they put me in mind of a more laid-back six.by seven. The last time that happened was back in 2005 with Thirteen Senses.* I also quite enjoyed watching Zane Lowe and Mark Radcliffe unwittingly demonstrate their radiant heterosexuality by criticising the Scissor Sisters for having some rather cheesy dance moves, thus managing somehow to miss the fact that this was deliberate, and part and parcel of the camp sensibility which is pretty much the entire modus operandi of the band. Strangely enough, this didn’t prevent them from claiming, apparently sincerely, to be fans – I do wonder what it must be like to live in a world where the Scissor Sisters are appreciated for reasons that have nothing to do with camp. Possibly it involves staring intently at Ana Matronic’s breasts, and trying desperately to ignore the almost naked homosexual cavorting nearby…
The Scissor Sisters had, of course, one of the most widely-anticipated collaborations when they brought Kylie Minogue onstage for one song. As pretty much everyone and their dog has said, it was nice to finally see her on the Pyramid Stage after having had to cancel back in 2005. In the same light, it was also nice to see The Edge go onstage with Muse. I also appreciated seeing how much love there was for Dusty Springfield when she appeared, via the magic of video, to sing a duet with Neil Tenant during the Pet Shop Boys’ set. But there’s simply no question who had the coolest collaborator – Orbital, who were joined onstage for their cover of the Dr Who theme by Matt Smith in character. I mean, The Edge is a big deal, Kylie’s a very high-profile artist to collaborate with, and it’s pretty good going to sing with a dead woman, especially one so fabulous as Dusty, but being joined onstage by Doctor Who? It doesn’t get better than that.
One final thought before I go away and leave you in peace. I think probably because it was the 40th anniversary year, the TV presenters were trying to make even more than they usually do of how the original countercultural ethos of the festival is still alive and well, especially in some of the farther-flung corners of the site. I’m sure there’s something in that. Certainly it’s noteworthy that even after all these years none of the stages have commercial sponsorship, with charity banners appearing where other festivals have corporate logos. But there’s also no getting away from the fact that this year a ticket to the festival cost getting on for £200, and the kind of idealists and pursuers of alternative lifestyles who made up the original audience for Glastonbury are simply priced out – that’s obvious just from looking at the kinds of people you see in the audiences these days. (For purposes of comparison, admission back in 1970 was £1 – which would be £12 today.)
I don’t want to be too critical of the festival organisers here. I know that to a large extent they’ve been forced into charging more – the costs of the security that the licensing authorities insist on is itself huge – and given the range and sheer number of artists appearing you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s not value for money. Also, if they were primarily interested in ‘monetising’ (hateful word) the Glastonbury Festival brand, the Eavis family could, I’m sure, make millions more out of it than they do. It’s to their undying credit that they keep the festival as focussed as it is on what it should be. But it still seems a little sad to me to hear people trying desperately to convince themselves that the festival is something it’s not.
What it’s become – for better or worse – is a place where relatively well-to-do middle-class people go to try and get a flavour of an alternative ethos they have no firsthand contact with. It’s worth watching Pulp’s performance of ‘Common People’ from 1995 in this context. I mean, come on, a field full of over-privileged rich kids trying to pretend they’re something they’re not singing along to a song about an over-privileged rich kid trying to pretend she’s something she’s not? The thing is not one in a thousand of them will have got the irony. But you can bet Jarvis Cocker did.
* – If you were wondering: yes, yes I have just gratuitously name-checked several possibly unfamiliar bands in an attempt to try and make myself look like I belong with the cool kids. Did it work? Somehow I thought it might not, especially given that they all have a fairly mainstream sound. I’m not just doing it to be wannabe cool though – I do actually like all those songs I linked to.