Glastonbury: Monsters of Corporate Rock

So.  Another year, another Glastonbury festival.  It appears to have become traditional that I do a post about the festival (or, rather, the festival as experienced through the prism of the BBC’s coverage), so here, days late, is this year’s effort.  To be honest, it may be quite dull, partly because there wasn’t all that much to talk about this year, and partly because I wasn’t in absolutely the right headspace for it this time round.

The place to start, as ever, is with the headliners.

It’s not in any way original for me to point out that the Pyramid Stage headliners this year must be the most corporate line-up, if not ever, then certainly in years.  Predictably, everyone on the TV was saying that Glastonbury hasn’t lost its ethos – and, as intothesystem pointed out to me last year, that may be true across the festival as a whole – but claims like don’t seem sustainable when the three biggest acts booked for the festival are U2 (the world’s first and only purveyors of PowerPoint rock), Coldplay (who evidently write songs by listening to U2 records, and calculating to the millisecond the optimal length between a quiet, earnest bit and a loud, euphoric bit), and Beyonce (processed and manufactured to within an inch of her life).

Of the three artists, I thought Beyonce was, by quite some distance, the most impressive, and I surprised myself by not actually hating her set.  She was slick, professional, and well-rehearsed, which I had expected, but she also had a real ability to work the crowd, and to reach out across the footlights and connect with people, which I hadn’t expected.  I certainly hadn’t expected that she would do better in that regard than Bono and Chris Martin, both of whom have way more experience than she does when it comes to playing large crowds.

I think another reason I liked Beyonce’s set best was that she wasn’t trying to pretend that she was something she wasn’t.  She’s a manufactured pop act (albeit self-manufactured, these days at least) and that’s what she presented herself as.  I find that infinitely preferable to Coldplay and U2 who are, to all intents and purposes, manufactured pop acts too, but try to maintain a preposterous façade of indie authenticity.  That ridiculous posing came to a head with U2, when they were performing a song called, I think, ‘Out of Control’.  Towards the end of that song, Bono decided to do a little talky bit in which he put on his best ‘sincere’ voice (you know, the one that reeks of fake) to tell the audience how grateful the band were, and how much they appreciate their fans ‘but really, you know, we’re Out of Control’.

As if ever there were ever a band less out of control than U2!  Out of control rock stars do not generally have private audiences with successive popes.  I mean, there’s not necessarily anything wrong in having an audience with the pope – there are millions of people for whom I’m sure it would be the highlight of their life.  But there is something wrong with being the kind of person who wants an audience with the pope and then pretending, for the purposes of selling records, that you’re a hard-rocking, anti-establishment rebel.  It’s preposterous and annoying, and, which you’d think might count for something with a good Catholic boy, it’s a lie.

I’m not a fan of their music, so I didn’t expect to enjoy U2’s performance (the few songs of it that I saw), but what did surprise me was how unimpressive it was from a technical point of view.  I mean, they were competent, absolutely the kind of competence you’d expect if you were watching a pub band with 30 years experience, but there was no point at which I had the feeling I was watching and listening to some of the most successful musicians on the planet.  Clearly the band are heavily dependent on stage pyrotechnics for much of the effect generated in their own gigs – and, to be fair, it’s therefore to their credit that they were prepared to attempt such a stripped-back performance, even if the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful.  While I am (for reasons that escape me) trying to be fair to tax-dodging multimillionaires, I should probably also mention that there seemed to be a lot of eye contact between the various band members and the backline techs (ooh, get me, and my (not at all) impressive insider knowledge) which suggests that they may have been facing technical problems.  Or, alternatively, that they were trying to get people like me to wonder if the backline techs had done a crummy job when it was the band’s own fault that their performance failed to soar.

Coldplay I find ineffably annoying, but I don’t regard them as (musical, political) enemies in the way I do U2, so it’s perhaps not a surprise I hated their set less.  It’s true that Chris Martin is a peculiar hybrid of many of the most irritating characteristics that rock stars can develop (the smugness of Sting, the arrogance of Liam Gallagher), but standing next to Bono he looks like a sweet, unaffected kid.  Even if his picture wouldn’t look out of place in the dictionary as the definition of the word ‘bourgeois’.  And even if Coldplay share with U2 the indignity of having one of their songs performed better by the Pet Shop Boys than they manage themselves:

Neil Tennant – now there’s a man who can rock  a cloak-and-crown look.  Or is it more of a coronet?

My problem with Coldplay isn’t that they are in any way musically offensive, but that their music is so carefully inoffensive that it approaches offensiveness from a different direction.  They go to such lengths to make sure there’s nothing in their music that anyone can object to that there ends up being nothing to it – it apes the form of euphoric indie rock, but without including the content.  (Famously, Chris Martin was inspired to write their early, breakout hit, ‘Yellow’, when he was flicking through a copy of the Yellow Pages – that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the band, I think.)  Coldplay create what seems to me to be alternative music for people who like the idea of alternative but not the reality – which makes them, I guess, pretty much the platonic ideal of a 21st century Pyramid act.

During the (long, long) wait for Coldplay to take to the stage, Lauren Laverne said at one point (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that Coldplay make the kind of music that you have to make to play in spaces as big as the Pyramid at Glastonbury – that the space requires ‘big’ music, even if that’s not what you usually enjoy on your favourite album.  On one level I quite I appreciated that – it was a reasonably subtle way of telling the audience “Yeah, I don’t like Coldplay either” – but on another level it made me quite sad, because it seems that this kind of thinking has taken hold of Michael Eavis, or whoever books the Pyramid acts.  Certainly, when bands are playing to a large crowd, their music has to be big, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dumb.  When I look back on the kind of acts that headlined in the 90s – The Cure, Pulp, Primal Scream, Radiohead, Blur, REM, even (at a stretch) Manic Street Preachers – they make big songs, but they’re not stupid or, at least, not always stupid.  That seems like a huge contrast with the current generation of headliners – Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Muse, U2 – who wouldn’t recognise a genuinely clever idea if you wrapped it round a dead fish and slapped them with it.

I guess this may just be old-man grumping – the 90s was my ‘natural’ era, so perhaps I’m more forgiving of bands who were big then – but I don’t think so; I really do think there’s a big difference between, not only what Pulp and Muse sound like, but even the kind of bands they’re trying to be.  It’s perhaps unfair to blame Glastonbury too much, though.  Back in the 90s festivals were few and far between, whereas these days the festival circuit is a big part of how some bands make their money.  Given that, it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s been more attention paid to developing a corporate version of the festival-friendly sound.  Perhaps, in a parallel of the development where we now have to look outside the charts for the most interesting music, we should look outside the Pyramid stage for the most interesting performances.

The slight problem with this approach is that the lower reaches of the bill at Glastonbury seemed less than thrilling to me, too.  In fact there really weren’t all that many bands I would have wanted to see at all.  Across the weekend as a whole the band I would have most wanted to catch was Eels (3rd on the bill, Other Stage, Sunday).  I am, so far as I can establish, virtually the only person in the world who actually likes Glasvegas (Saturday headliners, John Peel tent), so I’d have wanted to catch them, and I’d have felt the same way about The Coral (3rd on the bill, John Peel, Friday).  I might have gone to see The Streets (Sunday headliners, John Peel) for old time’s sake (additional incentive: Mike Skinner topless), and a similar motive (not the toplessness one, the old time’s sake one) might have seen me attending Billy Bragg’s traditional Friday night gig on the Leftfield stage, even though it is now 16 years since he released his last decent album.

For reasons I can’t entirely articulate (and even though I only know one of his solo songs), I feel oddly warm and fuzzy about Gruff Rhys (Sunday headliner, The Park), so he might have been a possibility, and a similarly hard-to-explain warmth might have sent me to the Pyramid stage (3rd on the bill, Friday) for Biffy Clyro.  Being a longstanding fan of Chumbawamba (this October it’ll be 18 years since I first saw them live), I’d have wanted to catch their set (Avalon stage, day and slot unclear).  (Apparently Chumba were distributing ‘Bono: Pay Your Tax’ shirts during their performance.  I wonder if it was because they were on stage, or because they were a long way from any TV cameras, that they weren’t molested by the long arm of Glastonbury’s security forces?)

Elsewhere, I’d have been interested to see Asian Dub Foundation (G Stage, Friday, headline) because I’ve always quite liked their stuff and it’s frankly absurd that I’ve got to my age without having seen them.  And I might have put my nose in the door flap of the Cubana Salsa Tent, not because there were any acts there that I particularly wanted to see, but because the last entry on the bill for that performance space was ‘Freshly-prepared Latin Street Food’, and I’d be interested to know if they meant that food was available, or if there actually is a band/ artist called Freshly-prepared Latin Street Food.  You might think I’m joking, but the G Stage featured a performance by someone calling himself Chris Tofu, and if people are prepared to name themselves after soy curd then anything’s possible.

Anyway, yes, not a classic line-up this year, I thought.  It’s maybe not a bad thing that next year is a ‘fallow year’ (as, being farmers, the organisers call their years-without-festival).  Hopefully, this might give them time to regroup and have a bit of a think about the direction they want to take the festival in.  I’m not opposed to them putting pop acts on the bill – how could I be, given my high-profile love of the Pet Shop Boys? – but a little more thought as to the kind of pop acts they go for might not be amiss.  As it is, the Sunday night Pyramid headline slot seems to be headed in a direction that will culminate in Village People closing the festival, and I don’t think anyone – even those of us who like disco – want that.

To end on a slightly random note, let me leave you with this video.  It’s the only song that has the name Beyonce attached to it that I’ve ever wanted to listen to more than once.  Although, fair warning: your appreciation of gay trash aesthetic has to be quite pronounced to dig this.

I’m fairly sure Monsters of Corporate Rock is somebody else’s joke.  Obviously, it’s a reference to the Monsters of Rock festivals, but I’m fairly sure somebody else has done the joke about corporate rock, too.  Googling doesn’t reveal anything, but my own best guess is that it may have been from an old episode of Futurama – I have a half memory of an episode that involved superannuated bands on tour as heads-in-jars, anyway, and that might fit the bill (although I have another quarter memory that the name of that tour might have been some kind of pun on Lollapalooza – but that might have been The Simpsons; Homer was certainly involved in some kind of music festival once; or was that the Spring Break episode?).  And, actually, that would be oddly American for what was mostly a British/ European festival – might it have been a joke on some kind of Never Mind the Buzzcocks type show?  Anyway, apologies to whomever I have ripped off; if anyone can identify the reference let me know in the comments, and I’ll do a proper attribution.

(This is what it’s like inside my mind, if you were wondering.  I have a decent memory, but much of it takes the form of half- (and quarter-) remembered ideas like this, and the process of working them up into full memories isn’t always pretty, especially when my memory is experiencing degraded performance, as it tends to when I am/ have been/ soon will be away with the fairies.  I tell you, it’s a miracle I ever manage to cobble together anything worth reading out of my brain-soup: possibly it requires less coriander…)

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5 Responses to Glastonbury: Monsters of Corporate Rock

  1. J. Wibble says:

    I have no interest in Glastonbury whatsoever, but I can give Simpsons/Futurama citations. The pun on Lollapalooza in the Simpsons was Hullabalooza, from S07 E24: Homerpalooza, where Homer tours with the Smashing Pumpkins and other bands (Cypress Hill believe they may have accidentally hired the London Symphony Orchestra) and gets shot in the stomach with a cannon. In Futurama there is a Beastie Boys (heads) concert in S01 E09: Hell Is Other Robots, and there is the Live Aid spoof <Bend-Aid from S03 E13: Bendin’ In The Wind which features the heads of Beck, Art Garfunkel and others.

  2. Hi J, and thanks for commenting. Sorry for the delay in your comment appearing – the spam filter got excited because of the (very useful) links. Thanks for the info regarding Futurama and The Simpsons, it’s nice to know my memories were tending in vaguely accurate directions, even if I have nothing like your impressive wealth of knowledge!

  3. Ryan says:

    You know, you’ve hit the nail indefatigably on the head here with this post. And yet, I still love the idea of Glastonbury. I was there two years ago (luckily between the two years of forty-three inch mud baths) and the headliners were Blur – phenomenal.

    Beyoncé will never be Blur, but you’re right in that over those other two worthless, condescending fools that are Bono and Chris Martin, she was not only in a different ballpark, but in a different sport.

    I’m not really fussed whether the ethos has been lost or not, it is what it is and it will be what it becomes. That said, if it’s raw, unadulterated Glastonbury that you’re after then the BBC is probably not the best viewfinder; it has always struck me as slightly off-key that it’s not Channel 4 et al. that are providing the coverage.

  4. Zarathustra says:

    I barely watched a single act on the Pyramid Stage this year. I’m so hardcore. :)

    However, I did watch Chemical Bros and Queens of the Stone Age on the Other Stage, various obscure indie bands (Warpaint, Anna Calvi etc) on the Park and John Peel Stages, Pulp’s secret gig at the Park Stage, some comedy stuff in the Cabaret Tent, plus lots of mooching around in the Green Fields.

    I think the Glastonbury ethos is still there. It’s just that it’s not at the Pyramid Stage. It’s at the smaller stages and in the Green Fields.

  5. Thanks for the extra comments.

    Ryan – Well, you’re a good step above me if you’ve actually been to the festival! I’m just a serial BBC coverage watcher. I take your point about the BBC maybe not being the ideal home for the festival (although they can carry coverage across 3 TV channels and two radio networks, which is probably more than a single commercial broadcaster could do – but TV and radio rights could, of course, be split).

    My own preference would be for access to live streams from the various stages on a website. Glastonbury Festivals Ltd could arrange the coverage, and sell ‘virtual tickets’ to access the live streams, and then the BBC (or channel 4, or whoever) could just buy in selected highlights of the footage that they could anchor from a studio, saving the cost of the outside broadcast.

    Zarathustra – Firstly: yay, you’re still in the land of the (virtual) living! Having seen MN and then your new lodgings at Madosphere go dark I was beginning to wonder. Secondly: sorry the spam filter tried to eat your comment. I have no idea why.

    I see your point about the ethos of the festival surviving in the other parts of the site. That’s the kind of thing it’s hard to judge from the TV, of course, although just the lists of artists/ bands appearing make it obvious the lineups elsewhere are more interesting. Pleased you enjoyed your trip, anyway. :o)

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