One mile out of Pilton and the rain starts, large, angry drops, and there’s a man at the side of the road stood at the stern of a fairly large boat, his head thrown back in what looked like laughter. Not the best of signs, it’s true – and indeed, as my sodden ticket genuinely fell apart whilst being checked at the gate and one security guard told me that I now wouldn’t be able to get in it did all start to seem a little doomed, this Glastonbury.
And sure, for a while on Friday, with the power cut off across the site and the water sheeting down the sides of the John Peel tent it did seem like all that effort, all that spectacular effort from the thousands upon thousands of people that make this festival so much more of an event than every other festival – from the people that design Shangri-La to the guy that paints the bins – might go a little wasted. There are no bad Glastonburys, true, but no-one would argue that the years when you have to wade to get around offer anything like the optimal conditions for properly enjoying it.
We did have to wade a bit – at one point through liquid mud nearly knee-high, although as that was in the pampered, exclusive Interstage area any sympathy is likely to be justifiably limited. And we’d be lying if we said that the weather didn’t make the first few days pretty knackering, every step weighed down, every incline perilous. But overall, all things considered, it’s difficult to stay cross at any atmospheric condition that reduced our exposure to Lily Allen.
Indeed, it was difficult to be cross at anything much over the weekend. Lana Del Rey, possibly – surely the only artist ever to draw a crowd that large and yet seem so staggering indifferent, so incredibly detached. ‘We’re so happy to be here,’ she drawled at one point, her tone devoid of anything like emotion and her eyes fixed like a shark, like a kind of cultural Terminator so intent on maintaining a role – the brooding sultress in a sepia melodrama – that she daren’t risk having any fun. Elsewhere Warpaint struggled through their ‘secret’ acoustic set on the Greenpeace boat, but then they were being upstaged by a massive mechanical polar bear, and whilst they delivered a loose but engaging set over on the Other stage a few hours earlier there remains a question as to how far their songs can survive in sunlight.
But it’s Glastonbury: unless you’re the tabloid journalist that I sat near in the Press Tent, desperately striving to find negative images to fit the preferred narrative (“need less smiling”) complaints seem churlish. From those opening days with their feel of a great beast awakening, muscles flexing amid smoke rising and lights flickering to life, through to the bruised and battered Monday morning, glazed faces at the bus station like characters in a Wilfred Owen poem, this remains a festival experience unsurpassed anywhere – an ordeal of near-military planning and phenomenal physical effort rewarded by a camaraderie and goodwill that only Burning Man matches and a diversity of entertainment that nothing else comes close to.
That diversity started early, with the Japanese ‘punk orchestra’ Turtle Island on the Pyramid stage with their riot of percussion and angry chanting an inspired opening choice, whilst The War On Drugs seem made for this setting, their songs drifting hazily on the wind and even, for one brief arms-in-the-air moment, summoning the sun. Royal Blood and Drenge and Fat White Family bring some welcome volume, the latter a fearsome mash of vocal drawl and sleazed guitar with a singer that moves with the menacing poise of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man. Wild Beasts’ set is marred slightly by a crowd less interested in their bruised and fragile indie than in sharing war stories of the (admittedly extremely impressive) storm that preceded them, whilst Arcade Fire – well, they were stunning. It’s bizarre, afterwards, scrolling through the perceptions from all those who experienced this through a screen and found the band wanting, because this was a near-perfect (some of those Reflektor tracks remain difficult to love) two hours of highs primed to keep the largest audience in the world on-board. There’s fireworks and confetti, dancers and a man clad in mirrors, video and puppet heads and what seems like thousands of people playing thousands of instruments, but really, honestly, none of that matters when you’ve so many songs that bore so deep, way past hooks and dancing and chorus singalongs to some way more resonant emotive core. Neighbourhood #1, Power Out, No Cars Go etc – between the Woahs and Ahs and Heys these songs do something that doesn’t show up on TV, something hard to articulate but easy to see in the faces of everyone around, some of them tear-stained but all of them stunned.
As for Metallica – well, of course they were impressive. They were never not going to be – a band this polished, this practiced – and any notion that they were wrong for Glastonbury is demolished pretty quickly after seeing just how many people here know every word to every song. “Metallica is honoured to be here representing the heavier side of music,” says James Hetfield in an amusing third-person remove, and suddenly it does seem absurd that this genre, encompassing so, so many exciting, vital bands, doesn’t get a look in here. And yeah, we could snort and say that Metallica aren’t really metal or whatever, but with this booking the Eavis’ have opened a new front for the festival. Tool for 2015? Rammstein? That would be a show.
But as always with Worthy Farm it seems so wrong to reduce discussion to just the music – something that those countless thousands that watch from home never really get. Rambling through the hedonism of Shangri-La or the dystopia of Arcadia and Block 9, watching a tent of people ‘dance for world peace’ or just staring from one of the hills at 4am over the sheer boggling scale of it all – well, these are the moments that ruin every other festival, because none of them, not one, can match them. As Texas Jericho (not his real name), the only guy known to have jumped the superfence put it in an interview with The Telegraph, ‘If you’ve grown up with Glastonbury you go to other festivals and you think, “This ain’t a festival, it’s just a few tents and some music.”’