The world’s greatest music festival (The Guardian newspaper), one of the world’s most significant cultural events (the conservative Daily Mail) or simply the best party on earth (Elbow frontman shouted on the Pyramid Stage). The 41 year old Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts has unquestionably become one of the most iconic events of all time. The transformation of the quiet Somerset Worthy cow farm, run by the now legendary Michael Eavis, is quite extraordinary. It turns overnight into the third largest town in the South West of England when 177,000 people descend on the 4.5 square kilometre festival site.
With around 40,000 performers, security guards, stewards and the specialist teams working closely together to put on a spectacular show. One that sends punters into such a frenzy that at least 9 months prior to it, crowds are clambering over each other to secure their entry with a Glasto golden-ticket! For this year’s event, tickets were sold-out in under 4 hours. ‘Why such a fuss over a sing-song in a muddy field?’ some have asked me. Well my friends, this is something to be experienced and it’s not until you are actually there that you fully understand why Glastonbury pulls back the crowds year after year.
So much is happening and for every four ticket holders there is somebody working on the site: green police girls dressed up as funky cows telling people not to pee in the hedges, flamboyant clowns and risky performers in the Theatre and Circus Fields, hippy dippy massage therapists in the Healing fields, Greenpeace activists managing the sought-after solar power generated hot showers, acrobatic technicians for the maintenance of the fire spitting and artificial lightening generating Arcadia, craft activities and face painting in the Kidz Field, the creative minds behind post-apocalyptic night wonderland Shangri-la … the list of those making it happen is endless.
Thousands of people are busy just manning over 800 market stalls selling anything from wellies to fur jackets, weird carnival costumes or inflatables bananas, or simply providing the widest variety of food propositions one can imagine and beyond. Glastonbury is so much more than a mud-smudged beer-fuelled music festival featuring some A-list rock stars. Its sheer variety of artists taking part in more than 2,000 performances across 4 major stages and about 15 other large ones is impressive.
In total there are over 100 stages and performance areas. Just for the music, the variety of acts that appeal to the full cross-section of musical tastes is incredible: tribal musicians from the Solomon Islands and the Asian-infused political rap of Asian Dub Foundation, mainstream Dj Fat Boy Slim and intriguing performers on the Acoustic stage, intellectual Radiohead impromptu gig in the Park and tomorrow’s quirky bands on BBC introducing stage. It has been worked out that it would take 85 days to watch every single act at Glastonbury 2011. The BBC deployed 265 people for a coverage that lasted for twice as long as the event itself, featuring 83 radio and tv programmes, lasting a total of 144 hours. It is impossible to grasp the full scale and the tangible buzz of Glastonburyfrom the small screen. It’s perfectly possible, and this year probably necessary, to have a great time at Glasto without seeing any of the main stages or indeed any music at all.
[ in photo – Radiohead secret gig at the Park stage]
Less apparent to the TV audiences sitting comfortably at home is the great emphasis that was placed upon the promotion of environmental issues. There is a hard drive to support the work of three main charities (Water Aid, Oxfam and Greenpeace) as well as provide a platform for lively political debates and worldwide social initiatives and campaigns. The only way to experience the true vibe and general mood of the 4 day-long event is by being in the midst of it, whether baking in the morning sun or covered in mud in the pouring rain.
From the moment you walk past the ominous metal fence to be branded by with a colourful entry bracelet, you become part of an eclectic community of punters, whose mission is to have a good time. Unusual alliances are formed during the festival with Tory party officials mixing with non-profit organizations activists to City Boys sharing a wooden table and a beer with hard-core ravers.
Abuse of booze and drugs are mocked even by the local paper The Glastonbury Firelighter, after this year’s improbable attempt by the local police to analyse the bogs in search of evidence. Each festival goer has a personal line-up and a list of must-dos yet sometimes one of those famous Glastonburymoments of mass transcendence stubbornly refuses to happen. Then it is time to find refuge in the hippy Green Field playing bongos or perhaps rave the night away in the Dance village. If you don’t mind the long walk along the old railway track you are rewarded by entering the entertainment fields for a night of debauchery in the spectacularly entertaining Unfairground (the disaster zone of broken airplanes, smashed cars, mutants and freaks), the bizarre world of Shangri-la or sampling the best London sound systems in Block 9.
[in photo – Shangri-la fish and tits]
Huge art is on display featuring a real size underground wagon landing right in a building block. As the dawn comes, after this consuming party extravaganza, a multitude of people are just happy to chill by the mystical Stone Circle and watch the sunrise over the Celtic Glastonbury Tor.
Whether is family men in pink tutus pushing a buggy with infants protected by headphones or funky mums dragged to the Beyonce gig by excited pre-adolescent kids, elderly couples comfortable sitting in their chairs sipping tea while waiting for Paul Simon on stage or rebellious school leavers running to the next hip hop act, everyone – in their own way – shares a sense of joy and celebration at Glasto. Veteran revellers seem interested in meeting new people and happily approach you for a quick chat during the performances or just in the long walks to get to one. It makes one wonder why, for the remaining 361 days of the year when Glastonbury is not on, everyone can’t just keep on being friendly and upbeat like it is the Valley of Avalon. In the words of Pulp’s frontman during their not-so-secret comeback gig “Glasto isn’t about me or you, it’s about us, in keeping with the weekend’s ‘love-one-another’ vibe. “ Glastonbury surpassed the expectations of its humble beginnings.
Never could Micheal Eavis have imagined that a Festival created to sustain his dairy farm in 1971, could captivate such vast audiences for so many years. However recently founder Michael Eavis has speculated that the festival has “probably got another three or four years” before apathy and the economy bring the 41-year-old event to an end. Eavis’ hope had been for it to continue with the same passion and mission in the caring hands of his children and grandchildren.
His dream of seeing the event grow from strength to strength now rest with the festival goers. Their prompt reaction to his claim has been to save a Festival with heritage and tradition. It is sure to be a reality as thousands of people still brandish their coloured, entry bracelets long after Glasto has finished, as if to say: I was there and I’ll be back. Glastonbury is here to stay!
[in photo -chilling out at the Stone Circle]
PHOTOS by Marco Colombo COPYRIGHT