The moving return of the Glastonbury Festival
Some have flocked to airports for a delayed vacation or a much-needed getaway. Others flooded bars to reconnect with loved ones or had casual sex as if it were going out of style. For almost two and a half million of us, however, ‘normal’ did not resume until we were seated in a room at 9am, furiously refreshing the Glastonbury ticket office website with fingers burned by RSI. Two tweets already written: one a screenshot of a checkout that doesn’t end, the other a photo of us gloating in a Billie Eilish face mask.
Live music and festivals returned almost a year ago, but Glastonbury 2022 will always be the main sign that the post-pandemic party is in full swing. As an event that in any regular pre-Covid year would see a 200,000-ticket rush for one of the world’s largest and most dizzying cultural events, after a two-year absence, it will be a particularly moving return. The festival equivalent of Noel Gallagher showing up at Liam’s with a Union Jack guitar and a bowl of cornflakes sprinkled with cocaine.
For many music fans, Glastonbury represents the British summer. Without it, it feels like a musical hole has been punched through the heart of the cultural calendar. Each regular fallow year – one in five to allow Worthy Farm and its neighbors to recover – leaves this festival season feeling subdued and bereft, heightening anticipation for the next big blast at Eavis. After two tedious years with barely a sniff of a psychedelic falafel, nostalgic Glasto regulars – like me, a veteran of over 20 Glastonburys and with webbed toes to prove it – are also desperate to return to the bare mud sauna. that Nadine Dorries must defend government criminality. That’s even without Glastonbury’s belated 50th anniversary celebration addition (the first event was held in 1970). By comparison, the Jubilee will look like your cat’s lockdown snipaversary.
“It feels like its own world,” says Billie Eilish in a new BBC Two documentary to mark the event, Glastonbury: 50+. The Gen-Z pop star is a recent convert who has come to terms with why Glastonbury means so much to so many people. The world-renowned line-up practically plays second fiddle to the hippie hype and rave surrealism that engulfs it. It’s a place where you can down suspicious, hazy ciders to a Weimar cabaret band in an underground piano bar a minute then, a short on-site silence later, rave in a dystopian future society or bask in the spitting flames of a gigantic techno Spider? e. Here you can crawl through secret rabbit holes into hidden costume parties. Dance until dawn in a club designed as a ramshackle tower with a crashed train car on the second floor. Tune in directly to the ley line at the stone circle on site, or be led by a guru into the Goddess Temple. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need medication to get the most out of Glastonbury; Glastonbury is drugs.
Previous films about the festival have attempted to capture this intangible vibe on camera – a failed attempt that is more likely to give the viewer a seizure than a sense of what it’s really like to be there. The new documentary traces the history of the festival as a cultural indicator. It spans its early 70s hippie roots to its embrace of indie rock and traveler culture in the 1980s, its role in cohesive rave and Britpop, and its reflection of the tribeless inclusivity of the streaming era.
Along the way, some key Glastonbury moments are touched upon; those sets that united generations, broke down barriers and diverted music in unexpected directions. Much is made, as usual, of the fact that the 1997 festival was so miserable due to bad weather and New Labor’s impending turbo-thatcherism that Radiohead’s headline summed up. But it’s also where the 2008 hip-hop war opened up alternative culture to all its rebellious voices, as Jay-Z took to the Pyramid stage with an acoustic guitar and sang a snippet of “Wonderwall from Oasis to prove he had 99 issues, but Noel Gallagher’s outdated belief that rap had no place at Glastonbury certainly wasn’t. This is where Stormzy also planted the flag for grime at the top of British culture in 2019. “I feel my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” he told the crowd. And, it seems, the whole course of British rap music too.
I feel like my whole life has led to this moment
Storm, Glastonbury 2019
Glastonbury’s historic moments are legion. Orbital brings dance music to the main stages. Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney prompted songs to sing that rocked the Tor. Pulp presented “Sorted For E’s And Whizz” as a surprise headliner in 1995, replacing The Stone Roses. David Bowie returns 29 years after headlining the second Glastonbury at 12 Hippies and a Dog in 1971, finding that somewhat changed in his absence. It was the scene of the triumphant rise of the Arctic Monkeys, the late appearance of the Rolling Stones and Pussy Riot, in 2015, invading the Park Stage in tanks. But these are only the tip of the experiential pyramid. Although the message of the Glastonbury banner is one of community connection, it is the personal bonds that are forged at and with the festival that make it feel like a home – and sometimes a swamp – away from home.
As a utopian pop-up town where hedonism and communal goodwill are expected norms, Glastonbury is responsible for life stories that cannot happen anywhere else. We all know someone who was conceived at Shangri-La or fell in a long fall. A friend told me this week about the time they jumped the fence in 2000 only to have their gig mate slip and fall on the other side; the man who rushed to her rescue became her husband a few years later. I’ll never forget sitting in the guest bar in the early hours sometime in the 2000s, asking every passer-by if they liked Weezer and, if they did, recruiting them into my Weezer and Wine Impromptu Choir. If you’ve ever been there, you have your own personal legend to tell.
Glastonbury 2022 is therefore not just a mega-festival. It’s 200,000 people making a long-awaited pilgrimage to their place of mind-blowing bliss, and pop culture’s most permeable mirror once again rises above summer. If you remember it, you’ll probably watch it again on catch-up.