Glastonbury: lost in (too much) music

So, another Glastonbury weekend has passed. People have insisted that the unchanging “spirit of Glastonbury” has survived intact for another year, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Grumpy old people hilariously lacking in self-awareness have filled the internet with moans about how it’s just not the same now everyone has all these smart phones, and, anyway, what kids are calling music these days is just rubbish. Michael Eavis has announced that it was the greatest Glastonbury Festival of all time, as he does every year. (Seriously, I’d love to know why his comments are considered newsworthy. I mean, he’s hardly likely to say “Well, actually, it was a bit disappointing this year, and I’d be livid if I’d paid for a ticket,” is he?) Everything has gone off precisely as it always does – up to and including the traditional dull post from me, which follows on belatedly from the festival, like the lingering smell of the toilets.

Actually, one thing that was different this year was the amount of coverage that was available for stay-at-home festival-not-goers like me, with the BBC live-streaming bands from six stages (apart from when the bands threw a diva fit and refused to let them, like Crystal Castles apparently did: some people badly need to get over themselves). The actual live streaming seemed a bit useless to me – buffering more often than it was streaming, and crashing repeatedly. (This might have been my fault, of course, although I should note that my net connection is usually more than adequate to stream video, and well-executed streams rarely crash on me. My money’s on a buggy flash implementation on the BBC’s part, especially given the way my processor was being thrashed into the ground – that’s usually a tell-tale sign that something’s up.) Luckily, alongside the live steams the BBC have also put up recorded complete sets, or extended highlights, for most of the acts on the stages they were covering.

This means I had the opportunity to see way more of the festival than I normally would. That’s basically a good thing – certainly a pleasant change from the bad old days of having no option but to watch the TV presenters introduce the Friday night headliners playing their biggest hit for the seventeenth time in two days, when you know that they have footage of entire performances that they haven’t broadcast. But it also leads to a kind of satiation, which perhaps doesn’t benefit the artists who come later on the bill; it’s hard to get excited about the third basically-indie-but-with-a-low-fi-dance-beat live set that you’ve seen that day, especially when you don’t have the excitement of actually being there to bolster your energy levels. Then again, that kind of burnout is supposedly one of the authentic festival experiences. I certainly stuck with the live streams long enough to experience a muted version of one of those other authentic festival experiences: the nagging fear that, while you’re busy watching, say, the John Peel tent, something amazing might be happening somewhere else.

Even if I’d stuck with the live streams for longer, I think it’s fairly unlikely I would have had to worry that something amazing was happening on the Pyramid Stage. After the trend in recent years towards filling the top slots with “heritage” acts, I was pleased to see that two of the three headliners this time round first found success within the last decade (even if the Rolling Stones were about as “heritage” as it’s possible for an act to be). Unfortunately, that was where my pleasure with the headliners stopped.

Arctic Monkeys are a band that, on paper, I ought to like. They’ve got some of the attitude that a guitar band ought to have, but not so much that they come across as arrogant pricks. They take their music seriously, but not themselves. Their lyrics sometimes contain actual, honest-to-God social commentary, which is about as close to political as a band can get these days if they want to shift units. They haven’t allowed themselves to be over-produced into utter banality, or digitally processed into airless sterility. And yet, and yet, and yet – I just find them dull. It doesn’t help that they only really have the one tune, and such a narrow emotional range. (All of their songs I’ve heard seem to fall into two categories: high-tempo with comedic observational lyrics, or slow and sullen.) And, while Alex Turner may be a charismatic enough frontman, he always seems to me like he’s doing a Jarvis Cocker impression. Maybe that’s just the Sheffield accent, but I don’t think so – his whole “I’m play-acting this but, still, take me seriously” approach to the business of being a frontman seems duplicated to me. I only saw a few highlights of their performance on Friday night, so I can’t give my definitive impressions of this particular gig. But I can say there was nothing in it that made me seek out more.

I saw even less of the Rolling Stones. That’s because they’re a band I actively dislike – in fact, they’re a band that to me pretty much typify everything that’s wrong with music. Even back in the 60s, long before my time, the music they were pushing seemed so calculatingly commercial. (The Beatles wrote music for people who sincerely believed you could get to hippy heaven through a bong; The Kinks wrote music for suburban commuters who liked sentimental songs about Friday night sunsets over railway stations; but The Stones wrote music for people who liked to preen about the place in expensive clothes.) These days they’re the example par excellence of the band who ended creatively decades ago, but still play live because they love money so much. The bits I saw of their Glastonbury performance were bad. Out of tune (Jagger’s pitch never was great: these days he calls it a win if he’s in the right key 2 notes out of 5), out of time (they seemed to have three guitarists on stage, playing to at least 6 different beats), and wholly lacking in any sense of either excitement or emotional resonance. Even the audience members in Rolling Stones T-shirts seemed to have to persuade themselves they were having a good time, rather than just having a good time. The only kind things I can sincerely say are that Jagger looks better in skinny jeans than any almost-70-year-old has a right to, and Keith Richards didn’t fluff all his riffs. (Apologies if they’re your favourite band, and do feel free to let me have it in the comments – but I really don’t like them.)

Mumford & Sons, meanwhile, surprised me. Not in a good way, exactly, but they were not as I expected them to be. Again, I only saw brief highlights, but I was expecting a shallow but high-energy performance, a kind of plastic “dosey doe your partner” shindig. Instead they were painfully quiet, almost introverted, and way more like Coldplay than I had anticipated. I could never go so far as saying I enjoyed them, but it was interesting to see a band take an oppositional approach to playing the Pyramid Stage. Most bands try and go endlessly bigger – more lights, more smoke, more lasers, more fireworks – so to see a performer consciously choose less was a novelty. Their decision to close with a Beatles song, and to invite lots of other bands on stage to join them, was sweet and humble but also seemed like a tacit acknowledgement of inadequacy: that none of their own songs was strong enough to close out the festival, and that on their own they could never have done justice to a song that was.

Looking across the festival as a whole, it strikes me that they could have pretty much deleted the entire Pyramid Stage line-up without affecting my enjoyment. Sure, I would have enjoyed Billy Bragg, but he had dozens of other gigs across the festival (as befits the man who was – aside from Elvis Costello, and his anti-Thatcher song – pretty much the sole piece of evidence for people who want to argue that the festival is still political). And when it comes to Rufus Wainwright, Primal Scream and Nick Cave, well I’m sure I would have enjoyed their sets but I’m also sure I would have found them deeply familiar. They’re all festival stalwarts (Wainwright less so), and I find there’s only so many times you can listen to a slightly shambolic version of ‘Rocks’ and persuade yourself that you’re hearing something uniquely captivating.

Really the only band I would have actively missed from the entire three days on the Pyramid Stage would have been Vampire Weekend (link goes to the BBC video of their set, as all the links on band names from here on will). I know you’re not supposed to like Vampire Weekend, on the basis that they’re a bunch of over-privileged rich kids (they met at Columbia, which is an elite private university in New York) and they sometimes play what sounds a bit like Afrobeat even though none of them are of African descent. Personally, I think that’s unfair. No-one is responsible for their own upbringing – we should instead hold people responsible for what they do as adults. And if we’re going to criticise every non-African musician who’s played African music, well, it’s going to be a long list, what with music itself being an African invention. But, if I’m honest, I tend to set that sort of thing aside when I listen to the band. They just make the kind of music that’s ideally suited to the afternoon-turns-to-evening slot at a festival: basically joyful, but with precisely the right edge of melancholy. And they also seem to me properly nerdy – not the perfectly contrived geekery that has become a cool pose, but the authentically un-cool state of being – and I always warm to nerds. They’re my kind of people, even the rich ones.

The other bands whose sets I enjoyed were, you will not be surprised to hear, on other stages. From the poppier end of things, I greatly enjoyed Bastille, even if I was disconcerted to find that a band could have had a number one album without me even hearing of them. (I was reassured part way through their set when I realised that, while I may not have heard of them, I had at least heard them without realising it – ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’ was familiar.)

I was mildly frustrated that Kodaline’s earlier set on the same stage, the John Peel tent, was unrecorded. I’ve been aware of their videos on YouTube for a while, and I can’t make up my mind if they’re actually no good, or if they have potential to become interesting when they’ve worked out what their own sound is; I was hoping a live set might help to answer the question. Speaking of unrecorded sets, I was surprised to see how far down the bill Amanda Palmer was: I’m pretty sure I remember her former band, Dresden Dolls, as a Pyramid act, and I’d have thought she was if anything more high-profile these days.

I surprised myself by enjoying Chase and Status as the Saturday night headliners on the Other Stage. I surprised myself because I had it in my head that I didn’t like them, so it was slightly odd to find that actually I did. The constant exhortations to “make some noise” and “jump” got a bit wearing – I always think an act are going wrong somewhere if they have to actually instruct their audience to display signs of enjoyment – and the practice of relying so heavily on singers and rappers who were only there on video rather than in person made for a slightly arid experience in places. But as a general rule I was pleasantly surprised. I also enjoyed watching their warm-up act, Example, although I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t admit that the thing that I enjoyed most about his set was that his entire stage seemed to be filled with improbably good looking musicians. (I keep trying to tell you what an unimaginably shallow poof I am; maybe one day you’ll believe me.) Musically, he seemed to play competent if at times slightly uninspired pop, and he also fell back on the “make some noise” mode of engaging the audience.

His warm-up act (i.e., third on the bill on the Other Stage on Saturday) were Two Door Cinema Club, who are a band I’ve heard a great deal about without actually hearing them. I’ve only seen very limited parts of their set so far (that burnout problem I was writing about earlier), but I have to say I really like what I heard: definitely a band I’m motivated to hear more of, beginning with their Glastonbury set, when I can listen with slightly less jaded ears. In a similar boat – i.e., a performer that I also saw only a bit of, and want to hear more of soon – was Cat Power. She’s been about for years, and playing precisely the kind of REM-ish music that I should adore, but somehow I’ve never got round to listening to her properly. What I heard of her headline Sunday night set on The Park stage was awesomely good (and I don’t use that word lightly). She’s top of my list to follow up on – even based on the couple of songs I heard I almost feel like I want to nominate her as one of the great performances of the festival.

What of the other performances I would nominate as stand out highlights? Well, I’m very glad you asked me that question. I’ve seen extended highlights – again, not quite the full set – of The xx, and they seemed astonishingly good. Dark, atmospheric and stylish without being painfully hip or pretentious. Actually, listening to them made me come over a bit misty eyed for not being 19 any more (always a severe risk of that when I was watching this, the first Glastonbury since I’ve turned 40, and therefore become officially middle aged). Can you imagine how good The xx would be if you were an uninitiated neophyte, just getting properly into gigging for the first time? Even with the twin disadvantages of being (a) a tragically old man and (b) seeing them on the telly I could see this was an amazing performance. And, by the way, a much better culmination to the festival – as the Sunday night headliners on the Other Stage – than Mumford & Sons.

Another of my stand out nominations would have to go to Fuck Buttons (or F*** Buttons, as the BBC decided rather coyly to call them), who headlined the Park Stage on Saturday night. To be honest, I lack the vocabulary to describe them – quite a bit of their performance, in fact, would be easier to characterise as ‘organised noise’ rather than music in the conventional sense. If I was to have to make a stab at defining their sound, I guess I’d start by saying they were electronic (so, you know, no guitars or anything like that), that they mainly construct their tracks from loops (so no real chord sequences in the traditional sense), no vocals (although there are what I guess you would have to define as digitally-processed mouth noises: screams and yelps and the like) – and understated, buried riffs that run and run and run, and get deeply into your head, and are strangely, elusively wonderful. That may not sound appealing to you, but if it does, even a little bit, I’d very, very strongly urge you to head over and listen to at least a part of their set. In my opinion, it really was one of the greatest performances in the televised part of Glastonbury.

It wasn’t, though, my favourite of those performances I saw. That performance came from a band I had never, in my middle-aged ignorance, heard of and probably wouldn’t have bothered even checking out if I hadn’t seen one of their songs on the TV coverage. They played the Park Stage at 6 o’clock on Friday evening, they were absolutely bloody brilliant, and they were called Palma Violets. They’re a much more traditional outfit – you know the score, skinny young men in flowery shirts with guitars that look far too big for them – and they play what I guess you would have to call pretty traditional rock, although with a strong indie bent. They’re loud, energetic, and play songs that are built around guitar riffs rather than melodies, although quite a few of them have shout-along choruses. The performance was fizzing with a barely-contained chaotic energy that made it seem like the whole thing was constantly on the edge of falling euphorically apart, but – Rolling Stones take note – the core of the songs, the riff, never lost focus or bite or drive.

At 40 years old, I’m far too old to like Palma Violets. In fact, I’m so old their name was enough to send me off into a nostalgic reverie about the (differently spelled) sweets of my youth. At my age, I should be interested in sipping white wine at Glyndebourne, not watching sweaty people shouting raucously into microphones in a field. But I just don’t care. The performance was just too good for me to sneer at it simply because that’s what a man my age is supposed to do. There have been loads of bands, in the last few years, that have tried to do what Palma Violets do, and have failed. It’s a thing that seems deceptively easy to do – strap on a guitar, play a few riffs, jump up and down and run around a bit – but bands that can actually do it well are rare as hen’s teeth.

Who knows, maybe I’ll decide when I’ve heard their album that, actually, I don’t rate them at all. Maybe they caught fire on Friday, but most of the time their gigs are pedestrian and ordinary. Maybe, knowing nothing at all about them, I’ll find out that they’re the house band of UKIP, or something, and I’ll feel dreadfully embarrassed for having raved about them. (I’ve already been given pause by the discovery that the NME like them: the recommendation of that paper has been given to some dodgy bands down the years, to the point where for a while I considered basing my listening choices on only those bands the NME had panned.) But for now I’m happy to call their set my stand-out highlight (of those bits I’ve seen) (of those bits that were made available on the BBC’s website) of Glastonbury 2013.

It’s obviously preposterous to argue that some unchanging “spirit of Glastonbury” descends from year to year, utterly unchanging through the decades. That’s clearly nonsense, given the high price of tickets, and the fact that these days artists like Dizee Rascal find themselves in high-profile slots. But while there’s still room somewhere on the bill for bands and artists like The xx, Fuck Buttons and Palma Violets the festival can’t have gone all to the bad. I’m glad the BBC’s new approach to making more of the hours of footage they record available to the public has given me the opportunity to see things I otherwise wouldn’t – so far as I’m aware, Fuck Buttons weren’t ever played on the TV coverage. That was a definite step up for those of us who love the idea of going to a festival, but get the screaming ab-dabs at the thought of being in the middle of all those people.

I was going to mention Nile Rodgers and Chic in this post – hence the title, which is a play on the name of one of the songs he wrote. But then I cut the paragraph about Mr Rodgers, and left the poor title all orphaned and alone, with only this brief postscript to account for its presence. And by now you’ve probably forgotten that I wrote about being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music there was to listen to, so the ‘(too much) music’ thing in the title probably doesn’t make sense either. I should have thought of a new headline, really, shouldn’t I?

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4 Responses to Glastonbury: lost in (too much) music

  1. Alex says:

    I wonder if the name ‘fuck buttons’ references a childhood memory one of the band members has of a visit to the theatre to see a pantomime and on being asked by his grandmother afterwards;

    “Did you enjoy that, weren’t the characters good fun, especially buttons ?”

    And from the mouth of a babe came the reply… the birth of a band name.

    hmm, I hope so.

  2. Alex says:

    Just watched the first FB track on the bbc link. My kinda stuff. Now I’m thinking of good music, my times at festivals and sweets consumed during childhood. We’re the same age.
    Flying saucers were a treat but space cakes are better !

  3. Kriss Fearon says:

    Love The XX :-)

  4. Zarathustra says:

    I couldn’t make it to Glasto this year, but I’ll be doing voluntary work with Oxfam at the Nozstock and Shambala festivals. As I get older I’m increasingly convinced that smaller festivals are more fun than the big events.

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