I’ve been to a hell of a lot of live gigs since my first at the age of fifteen – everything from intimate folk sets, pop bangers in glitzy nightclubs, unknown bands in back rooms to ankle-deep-in-mud festival headliners. Many will stay with me, like when I had tinnitus for a whole week after being hit by the wall-of-sound that is Mogwai live, or watching legendary folk-jazz guitarist Terry Callier at The Trinity Centre openly crying at the moment’s beauty and not caring who saw.
But festival sets are another thing. They are not just the music, they are everything else in between. Conjuring up memories of the whole weekend and where it fits into the story of your life – who you were with, the weather, the sets you missed, the people you met, the journey there and the journey home, the comedown. That’s why, when I think about my favourite festival sets, one particular weekend materialises from the depths of my memory without the need for prompting, it’s from my first Glastonbury in 1994.
It was the weekend before my eighteenth birthday and I was slap bang in the middle of my A Level exams. It seemed like everyone in Bristol was going to Glastonbury, but definitely not me. I was going to be sensible for once, my psychology exam was at 9am on Monday morning, so Friday afternoon found me sitting in my garden in the blazing sun surrounded by text books and notes feeling smug about how grown up I was being, but suffering from the worst case of FOMO you can ever imagine.
My friends had other ideas, and being seventeen I didn’t take much persuading when Clare and Lisa turned up at the back gate and demanded I get in their van right now; I was going to Glastonbury. I knew I might change my mind if I spent too long getting ready, so I emptied out my college bag and hurriedly threw in two pairs of knickers, a toothbrush and a melon, grabbed a sweatshirt, stuffed the pockets of my cut-offs with notes and loose change, and hopped in the back, full of the excitement of not just my first ever Glastonbury, but my first ever festival.
Managing to get into Glastonbury free was a rite of passage back then, so I wasn’t pissed off, more pleased at the chance of earning my stripes when they kicked me out just before the gate to find my own way in, after both of them having a last minute case of nerves that I’d be found by security in my hiding place under a pile of sleeping bags and duvets. After an aborted attempt to go under the fence through a hole dug by a shell-suited venture-capitalist, I stalked the pollen-filled country lanes surrounding the perimeter until I found a ticket tout who sold me a wristband for a tenner and strolled in jubilantly; it was as easy as that.
Walking into Glastonbury festival for the first time, seeing the crowds, the colours, the pure energy and feeling of anticipation for the weekend of adventures ahead will always stay with me. It was the days before everyone had mobile phones and I am still not sure how I found my friends, but find them I did, after a couple of hours of wandering and drinking in everything in sight. Programmes were procured and pored over, joints rolled, plastic pint glasses of local pear cider were carried back to our encampment with care, and then we dived into the throng.
I wasn’t overly impressed with the rock-heavy line-up on the main stage that Friday night. I was a raver; MCs and glowsticks on disused airfields were my only reference point for mass musical gatherings up until then. My sights were firmly fixed on Orbital and Bjork’s sets the following day, but Lisa was a massive Levellers fan, and I begrudgingly agreed to go and see them with her, inwardly cringing at the thought of the patchouli-scented crowd spinning and whirling with their eyes closed, dancing with far too much earnestness for my liking. I agreed as long as we could watch the preceding act; the one rock band that was currently sparking my interest, Rage Against The Machine.
Evening turned to night and the primeval dots of campfires started lighting up over the rolling hills as the moon rose and Zach de la Rocha, a diminutive-in-stature skater boy with bouncing dreads and the aura of a giant stalked cockily onto the stage. The grinding opening chords of Take the Power Back started, the crowd roared and that was it, I was off; losing Lisa in seconds and pushing my way through the crowd to get as close as I could, eyes fixed forward, glee and adrenaline rising in me. Now this was music, my time with a glow-stick was done.
I didn’t care that I had lost my friend, I didn’t care the crowd was shoving me around and lifting my feet off the floor, I was captivated. I felt like something important was happening right here and right now; we were going to change the world. Thousands upon thousands of us yelling “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” until we were hoarse. The government leaders, the purveyors of war, the older generations, none of them stood a fighting chance in the face of the sheer energy and number of people who were right now shouting in their faces demanding change, telling them we could see them and what they were doing. That’s how it felt right then; this moment in time was going to go down in history.
If you want me to give you a muso’s review; details of the technical aspects of the set, the track listing, what the pundits said afterwards, I can’t. But I can tell you, for a seventeen year old yearning to widen her horizons and start adult life, it was a set built on sheer heaven. And it was the start of a lifelong love affair with live music, with searching for the ear-bleeding spot in front of a stack of speakers, with trying to recapture the energy and excitement and surety that music can change the world, being present in a crowd where magic happens, where that magic isn’t just on the stage, but inside everybody there and in the very air. It was the start of a lifelong urge to be able to say “I was there”.
It was over too soon. And I spent the rest of the weekend searching for that feeling again, finding it in front of Orbital, a set which has its place firmly in Glastonbury folklore as one of the festival’s most seminal sets ever. Finding echoes of it watching bands whose names I can’t even remember now. Finding hints of it around campfires and sitting with my back against the standing stones in the Green Fields on Sunday afternoon.
Clare dropped me outside college on the Monday morning minutes before my psychology exam started, unshowered and buzzing, and I don’t regret my decision to jack in my weekend of revision for a moment, even now. I came back from my first Glastonbury changed forever. It wasn’t just the new music I experienced, the funny stories I could tell, (like coming to in front of the pyramid stage on the Sunday morning under a Postman Pat duvet cover with a Covent Garden barrow boy and his fifteen year old sister), but that Rage Against The Machine set started a love affair with festivals, live music, and a drive to keep searching for the unusual and the unforgettable. And the fucking loud.
First published for The Everyday Magazine.