John Harris

Journalist & Author

Music festival season: there will be mud

Nothing announces the modern British summer’s arrival more than pictures of music lovers drenched and filthy at Glastonbury and the other UK festivals. Would we want it any other way?

The summer of 1997 was a big one, in lots of ways. Tony Blair became the prime minister. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris. The first Harry Potter novel was published and the UK handed control of Hong Kong to China.

And at that year’s Glastonbury, it rained and rained. Mud was everywhere. Radiohead, who were about to release the landmark album OK Computer, managed to somehow rise to the occasion and encapsulate the drama, but plenty of other acts sank without trace. Almost literally, as it turned out: the Other Stage threatened to collapse into the ground, and its running order was hacked down.

Unfortunately, the rain returned the next year, making conditions even worse. And so, unfairly, Glastonbury was fixed as a byword for grim weather and hostile conditions. This, presumably, is the explanation for an incident two weeks ago when the Queen was touring the BBC, and she ran into Danny O’Donoghue, the judge from The Voice and singer with the Script. He told her he would soon be on his way to Glastonbury. “The place you get covered in mud?” asked Her Maj.

There have been 10 Glastonbury festivals since 1999. Only three – 2005, 2007 and the last one in 2011 – have been blighted by mud and rain, but that has done nothing to dispel the idea that all British festivals are more likely than not to be unremittingly wet, and caked in brown filth. The huge growth in outdoor musical events has probably not helped: axiomatically, the more there are, the more likely it is that some of them will be hit by bad weather. But factor in the modern tendency for British summers to be damp, grey and often windy, and something does seem to be afoot.

“It can be tricky playing in heavy rain, especially if it’s that sideways rain and the stage is slippery,” says Blur’s Alex James, a survivor of 1998’s Glastonbury, where “the mud was over the tops of the wellies”. He adds: “The thing is, a rain-drenched crowd, caked in mud and singing back at you, is probably one of the most beautiful sights in the world. You just want to work as hard as you can to give them a night to remember.”

His own festival, co-organised with Jamie Oliver, hosted on his farm in the Cotswolds, and titled the Big Feastival, happens on the last weekend in August: if last year is anything to go by, the crowd may well include such unlikely festival-heads as David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson. “I predict sunshine,” says James, cheerily. “It’s my wife’s birthday that weekend and it has never rained on her birthday for as long as I’ve known her. That’s scientific enough for me.”

It may not be for other people, though. This week, the Met Office is holding a gathering of weather experts to discuss last year’s wet summer, 2013’s bracing spring and the generally rum turn in the climate. Meanwhile, the great torrent of long-range forecasting that defines the early British summer is in full swing. Early predictions that June would be uniformly wet and windy have been offset by more optimistic forecasts: the truth is that so far, no one knows quite what will happen. One thing, though, is inevitable: at more than a few of 2013’s festivals, there will be mud.

Plenty of recent events have embodied all this. At last year’s Isle of Wight festival the rain and mud meant some people had to queue for 10 hours to get in. In Scotland, the same year’s T in the Park threatened to be just as muddy, and much the same applied to the Larmer Tree on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, Download in the East Midlands, and Guildford’s annual Guilfest, which went into administration. Latitude was a mudbath in 2011, and the joint Reading and Leeds festival saw grim conditions at both sites, with mud at the northern leg a foot deep. I could go on. The Cambridge folk festivals of 2009 and 2012? Muddy. Bestival in 2008? Awash with it.

It’s also worth considering one of the events that blazed the trail for the huge expansion of British festivals: The Green Man, the initially “alt-folk”-centred event in the Brecon Beacons that began in 2003, and eventually fell into a three-year run of inclement conditions.

Along with her partner Danny Hagan, the musician and band manager Jo Bartlett founded the Green Man, and then oversaw its growth until the couple moved on in 2011. She’s now considering a return to the festival game, and knows more than most people about their nitty-gritty, and how much the weather sits in their organisers’ thoughts: in her last year as the Green Man’s co-organiser, she put up a canvas launderette in the camping fields, complete with tumble driers (as it turned out, there was no rain). “You get absolutely, totally neurotic,” she says. “Friends and family feel the need to give you an update on what the weather’s going to be, all the time. And you’re going: ‘Shut up! We don’t want to hear!’

The years “2007 and 2008 were the worst Green Man festivals for weather”, she adds. Among the more lowly acts on the bill in 2008 were a little-known quartet called Mumford and Sons, who were lucky enough to be playing in a tent. “It had been a really wet summer already. And then it was torrential over the whole weekend, too. The worst places were knee-deep. It was like soup, with woodchips floating on the top.”

One act summed up that year’s travails. “We booked a band called Howlin’ Rain. We were tempting fate a bit. They play kind of West Coast psychedelic music. We put them on the main stage, and in our minds, we were imagining a kind of sunset, San Francisco, California vibe. And of course, they were called Howlin’ Rain, and they played in the howling rain.”

Sarah Cole is the head of SC Productions Ltd, a “site management artist liaison” company that this year is working on Download, Bestival and Camp Bestival, Wakestock (”Europe’s largest Wakeboard music festival”) and British Summer Time in Hyde Park, where the Rolling Stones will headline. Bad weather, she says, can easily add 10% to an event’s costs. Headaches include sourcing woodchips from local sawmills to drop on to waterlogged ground, and the sudden huge demand for metal roadways that are used to snake around festival sites.

She says that 2012 was almost impossibly difficult – not least at Creamfields, the huge dance festival that took place at Daresbury in Cheshire. “The weather there was actually endangering lives,” she says. “The mud was travelling so fast, people were potentially at huge risk.

“The problem we’re having this summer already is that the ground is so soft because we’ve had 18 months of rain. You’re starting on the back foot, because it’s only in the last six weeks that the weather has improved. It’s only because it’s not raining every day that we’re standing a chance onsite.

“We’re all living in the wrong country to do what we want to do,” she says. “We’re a nation obsessed with doing things outdoors, in a climate that just isn’t conducive to doing that any more.”

So something has changed? “Yeah. When I first started back in the mid-1990s, we would do quite a few concerts in stately homes and stuff, and the air temperature was probably three or four degrees warmer in the summer. August has always been a wet month, but May and June and even July used to be much more consistent than they are now. And the extremes are much greater. The time of year doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the weather.”

Outside the festival season, the most successful musicians are often used to a cosseted existence, in which backstage demands are followed to the letter, and dirt never intrudes. “Mud does strange things to some performers,” says Billy Bragg, whose festival experiences date from the legendary grim Glastonbury of 1985 (or the “rivers of mud” year, as it became known). “I once saw Ian McCulloch [of Echo and the Bunnymen] being carried on piggy-back to the stage. You get people trying to avoid even a small splat. But when it gets muddy, it gets muddy.”

And what do mud and rain do to the experience of playing a gig? “I did a show last year on the weekend of the Queen’s jubilee, the same day as the river pageant. You can imagine what it was like: stair rods. The main stage was in a tent, which had everyone in it. And I watched the guy before me: I won’t say his name, but his old band had one of the great summer hits, which you could instantly play and turn the place round. And instead, he played his new solo album. I watched him from the side of the stage and thought, ‘I’m just going to do singalong songs.’ I scrapped my running order, and I played the songs the audience would know – New England, and all that – and engaged with them. You have to do a little bit of that.”

At Glastonbury, Bragg is in charge of the Leftfield stage, where the bill is split between musicians and political debate, often involving festival virgins. “I try to be helpful,” he says. “I say: ‘Look – imagine you’re going out for three days on a galleon, across the Atlantic. It may be lovely, and you’ll be sunbathing on deck – but it might be really rough. So make sure you bring appropriate clothing.’ People don’t know things, like the fact that it can be really cold at night.” His wisdom is worthy of a T-shirt: “The festival’s not in Malaga. It’s in Somerset.”

The next musical generation down from Bragg cut their teeth during the Britpop years. Among them were Dodgy, the recently reformed trio, whose biggest hit was Staying Out for the Summer, the song that commenced the TV coverage of a sun-baked Glastonbury in 1995. Two years later, says drummer Mathew Priest, conditions at the same festival were “shocking”, not least when his band played to tens of thousands at the main stage, in the company of the Kinks legend Ray Davies. “It was just ridiculous,” he says. “And at the moment that Ray Davies came on, our guitarist decided to have a mud fight with the audience. He got some mud from his wellies and wanged it at the audience. And of course, when you do that, some of them are going to throw it back. Some of it hit Ray. He’s grumpy at the best of times. It was not making him happy.”

Dodgy have played well-established outdoor bunfights, and lesser-known events. “We played at a place called Nibley last year,” he says. “It’s way up on a hill in Gloucestershire. We saw photos of it when it was sunny, and it’s gorgeous: incredible views. But when we got there, you couldn’t see 30 yards in front of the stage. It was like being in a ping-pong ball. And then it started to rain, heavily. The Christians were on before us. They went down quite well. And we were like, ‘Come on, everybody!’ There was that real stuck-in-the-trenches spirit. But there was an awning above the stage that was collecting water. We looked up: it was like a huge bollock filled with water, just about to burst. And then the bloke who was running the whole thing ran on and said: ‘You’ve got to get off the stage. Now.’”

And so to the latest generation of festival mainstays, and the Mercury-nominated quartet Django Django, whose summer will include such delights as the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire, and the Beacons festival in Skipton. Their leader, David Maclean, sounds like someone well-acquainted not just with mud, but also with his audience’s counterintuitive response to it. “People almost masochistically enjoy that kind of hardship,” he says. “There’s something about British people that means they enjoy that struggle. Especially in Scotland: when we’ve played at T in the Park and it’s rained, people have almost been in a better mood, ‘cos they’re determined to have a good time. There’s actually a better atmosphere.” Only once, he says, has the weather truly let them down: at the Fence festival on the inner-Hebridean Isle of Eigg, where a shortage of storage space spelled bad news indeed. “Synthesisers and rain don’t really mix,” he says, grimly.

On Glastonbury’s Friday night, Django Django will be the second-to-last band on the Park stage – which brings us to the biggest question of all: Weather-wise, what will happen at the UK’s biggest festival? Might the Queen be proved correct?

“I don’t tend to look at forecasts,” says Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis. “But it’s always better when there’s a negative weather story early on, because the last thing you want is people expecting a drought, and then it being wet. It’s much better for people to come prepared. Music means a lot more when people are in quite extreme conditions. It’s harder work, but the bands have to deliver more.” She then mentions the year when the great modern mud-fear first took root: “Radiohead in 1997 is a good example: there were sheets and sheets of rain, and suddenly this music meant something. People needed it. It was the same with Iggy and the Stooges in 2007. It depends on what you see: some people see mud, and some people think: ‘This is really exciting now: this is a real challenge.’”

So, how exactly is it looking down there? “The site’s looking really good at the moment,” she says. “It’s dry underfoot. And wind’s always good, because it dries things up quite quickly. She finishes with two words of exemplary optimism: “Don’t worry.”

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