Glastonbury has gone from being an idealistic hippie gathering to one of the world's biggest musical events, but it still retains its old magic.
The best of the fests?
This weekend, the eyes and ears of Britain will be focused on a sleepy corner of Somerset, in the picturesque south-west of England. Because this is the location for the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts - the full title that nobody ever uses - an event synonymous with legendary musical performers, hippie idealism, disgusting toilets and deep lakes of liquid mud. Plus, increasingly, the kind of media coverage normally reserved for a Wimbledon tournament, a World Cup final or a war.
Since its shaky beginnings in 1970, Glastonbury has grown into a powerful global brand. Michael Eavis, the 73-year-old dairy farmer who founded the festival and still runs it with his daughter Emily, was even named by Time magazine last month as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. "Anyone who's ever picked up a guitar dreams of playing Glastonbury," wrote Coldplay's Chris Martin, paying homage to Eavis in Time. "Everyone wonders why this man and this festival are different. We've headlined others, but Glastonbury is the only one that feels like - and is - a family event."
Time's belated recognition of Eavis, who has just announced his plans to retire from running Glastonbury in 2011, may reflect this small-town farmer's impressive ability to strike deals with high-level US superstars. This weekend's biggest headline act, for example, is Bruce Springsteen. Making his Glastonbury debut, The Boss tops a bill thronged with grey-haired rock veterans including Neil Young, Ray Davies, Tom Jones, Spinal Tap, Tony Christie, Status Quo and more.
Some UK critics have accused the festival organisers of playing very safe with such an old-school line-up, as if running scared from the controversial booking of the rapper Jay-Z last year. But Emily Eavis dismissed this argument when she unveiled the full musical menu to The Guardian last month. "We know there will be objections whatever we do," Eavis said. "But if last year taught us anything, it was that we have to follow our gut instinct. Risks pay off, and featuring Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen in one weekend was a choice that surprised many. But we had a chance to get both performers and we had to take it."
Whatever the commercial logic behind its decisions, the Glastonbury team have clearly learnt some lessons from last year's Jay-Z affair. In an apparent bid to give the festival a more edgy and youthful image, the hip-hop superstar signed on to headline the main stage, the first rapper ever to do so. Breaking festival tradition, news of his booking was leaked in February, a move which appeared to backfire when ticket sales proved unusually sluggish.
Noel Gallagher of Oasis then ruffled feathers further with his outspoken objections to Jay-Z. "If it ain't broke don't fix it," he told one reporter. "I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury." Gallagher's comments led many to criticise him in turn for his reactionary and, arguably, racist views. In fairness, other factors undoubtedly contributed to slow ticket sales last year, with thousands deciding to skip the festival after the horrendously muddy conditions of 2007. But mercifully, the weather remained dry last year, and Jay-Z's set was universally well received. A light helping of scandal ultimately did Glastonbury some good.
"It was a good move both to book him and to publicise it in advance, though officially the latter was a 'slip-up' by Emily," says Tony Benjamin, who has worked at Glastonbury for more than 20 years as a music programmer, stallholder and reviewer for the Bristol-based magazine Venue. "I think the festival does need to renew itself and its audience, and the regular selling out on an unannounced bill means there's an ageing core of regulars resistant to change. That's why rap music hadn't been recognised outside the dance area, I'm sure, and why Jay-Z was a shock to many. I don't think it was racism so much as musical conservatism in the Glastonbury hardcore."
But far from denting the festival's reputation, Jay-Z's performance became a triumphant vindication of its forward-thinking musical agenda. Laura Barton of The Guardian, one of Glastonbury's main media sponsors, witnessed the rapper's set close-up. "It was one of the best, most powerful live shows I've ever seen," Barton says. "I don't think this year's line-up is a reaction against that, the stars were just in alignment, all these people just happened to be touring this year. If you've got Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young potentially to play your festival, you're going to grab them with both hands. Also, their influence has been so tangible in rock and pop in the last few years. So it's a lovely thing to have Neil Young playing at the same festival where Fleet Foxes are playing - or Crosby, Stills and Nash."
"To my taste, they have gone overboard on oldies," argues Tony Benjamin. "But what matters is whether they're good. Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ray Davies and Tom Jones seem like good prospects - but Tony Christie and Status Quo? They usually have a kitsch act on Sundays but Tom Jones would have done that well enough without the others." Of course, it also makes sound commercial sense for Glastonbury to book so many veteran crowd-pleasers. Well-respected older artists make perfect headliners for the multi-generational audience that modern festivals attract, appealing not just to middle-aged dads and mums but to their open-minded offspring too. Teenagers raised on iTunes and YouTube have little interest in maintaining old generation gaps in music taste.
Whatever we feel towards these heritage-heavy headline acts, their commercial pulling power is hardly an issue here. Tickets for this weekend's festivities sold out back in April, a month before the bill was even revealed. This secrecy is one of the traditions that distinguishes Glastonbury from other festivals, ensuring that no single performer can overshadow the event itself. Glastonbury's location in the picturesque Vale of Avalon, an area steeped in new age folklore and links to the legendary King Arthur, is another of its key selling points. This area has long been a magnet for hippies and mystics. With its 900-acre site, 80 stages and 700-plus performances, Europe's biggest music festival certainly has a special atmosphere. On a good year, blessed by sunshine and moonlight, Glastonbury can feel like a genuinely magical experience.
"It has a totally different atmosphere than any other festival," says Barton."I don't know whether that's because of the broad range of ages, or the music, or just the sheer size of it - but you arrive and it feels like being part of a village. Other big festivals feel very corporate and very teenage, I much prefer the atmosphere at smaller festivals. But Glastonbury somehow gets that small festival feeling over this huge expanse, which is an amazing achievement."
Unfortunately, the site also spans a valley floor that is prone to flooding, which means just a few hours of rain can turn Glastonbury from rural idyll to miserable mudbath at short notice. Despite huge investment in new drainage systems, bad weather remains a recurring problem. Two of the last three festivals, in 2005 and 2007, were washouts. But if you talk to old Glastonbury hands of many years, their most common complaint is not the weather but their fears that the festival has lost its "soul". They claim it has become too corporate, too commercial, and too similar to other events in the British rock calendar.
Since 2002, Glastonbury has been jointly run by the Festival Republic group, corporate promoters who manage logistics and security in return for a 40 per cent stake in the management company. Although a large chunk of the profits still go to charities such as Greenpeace and Water Aid, today's Glastonbury is a huge commercial enterprise. Last year's festival reportedly cost £22 million to produce. A ticket for this year's cost £175, and they were only available via heavily controlled channels to prevent frauds and scams.
As a regular Glastonbury visitor since the late 1980s, I can confirm that the overall mood has changed, but not necessarily for the worse. Twenty years ago, the festival was more of an anarchic free-for-all, with thousands of ticketless gatecrashers breaching the flimsy fences to gain free entry. But as security has toughened up, enclosing the site in fortress-like walls, conflict has inevitably arisen. In 1990, there were violent clashes between perimeter guards and gangs of new age travellers at the close of the festival.
The arrival of television cameras in 1994 also marked a new phase, beginning Glastonbury's transformation into a much more mainstream media event. The BBC took over filming in 1997, the same year The Guardian newspaper became the festival's media partner. "Once the BBC became so heavily involved, something did change," says Benjamin. "Before that, for a mainstream band to be asked to play was something of a validation of a certain kind of quality - it was good 'hip' credential stuff. That's why it wasn't necessary to publicise the line-up: it was all good. Once the BBC coverage was so important the main stages became more like any other festival programme - full of This Year's Big Things, however good or bad they were."
According to Benjamin, the consequence of all this mainstream media attention has been to polarise the Glastonbury crowd. While the majority congregate to watch the superstar acts on the two main stages, the more adventurous scatter to more exotic corners of the festival - including the Jazz World Stage, the Green Fields and the Healing Field. It is here, on the margins, that the festival's idealistic hippie spirit survives.
"The soul of Glastonbury is alive and well," Benjamin insists, "but you won't see it on the BBC because that's not what they're interested in. It's a shame because that other side is what makes the festival uniquely great. The theatre, circus, cabaret and green stuff is a weird and surprising experience full of lovely people." If Michael Eavis is serious about stepping down in 2011, it will mark the end of an era. Eavis has announced retirement plans before - notably in the late 1990s, before the untimely death of his wife Jean in 1999. Even if he does retire, his daughter Emily will take over his role as keeper of the Glastonbury flame. All the same, the handover will undoubtedly alarm those who believe the festival has slowly abandoned its roots in recent years.
"The biggest danger facing the future of the festival is the extent that commercialisation continues to invade it," says the filmmaker Julien Temple, who directed the 2006 documentary Glastonbury - The Movie. "I think the only guarantee of the festival maintaining its soul is the presence of Michael Eavis running it. But I still feel it's an event fundamentally worth celebrating. There's still nowhere like it."