Whatever Happened to the Devil’s Music?

It’s Sunday night around 11pm and I’m watching this year’s Glastonbury on BBC2. I’m not particularly interested in Glastonbury but there’s nothing much else on and I don’t want to sleep just yet, so Glastonbury is perfect low-commitment viewing. I’m not sure if it’s actually ‘live’ or time-shifted from earlier in the evening, but Beyonce’s performing; Sunday night’s headline act. Gradually I become aware that something about this bothers me, something I can’t quite define is not right. Then it hits me; those kids on camera, pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage, smiling, gurning for the camera and singing along enthusiastically with Beyonce’s charmless corporate ‘soul’ music; they just look so clean. It hasn’t been the wettest Glastonbury of recent years, but there was certainly mud around earlier in the weekend, and those kids are just too clean! It’s not just the absence of mud on them: it’s a more general aura of good health that seems wrong in this context. Surely in the final minutes of the last day of a rock festival people are supposed to look sick, bedraggled and filthy, following a weekend of unfettered debauchery.

Come to think of it, why is Beyonce headlining anyway? I know that the Sunday headline slot has often been taken by acts outside the festival mainstream—Tom Jones has played, as has the English National Opera—but there’s a difference between an act that is camp or quirky in this context and can be taken with a large pinch of postmodern irony, and the humourless and decidedly un-ironic, flawlessness of Beyonce. What’s gone wrong? This isn’t how I remember rock festivals at all.

Two other news items from the festival supply a possible answer; first, the death in a Glastonbury toilet of Christopher Shale, chairman of the West Oxfordshire Conservative Association and, second, the rapidly-silenced protest against the ‘tax management’ strategies of U2.

Shale’s death is significant for the light it casts on the demographics of a significant part of the Glasto audience. Shale was 56: a late baby-boomer. Growing up through the 1960s, he can hardly have been unaffected by the thrilling new rock music all around him. Since he joined the military in 1975 it is probably fair to assume he was largely unmoved by punk’s anarchic cry and perhaps he wasn’t exactly smitten with rock’s most rebellious aspects but Shale cannot have felt too out of place in that muddy field in 2011. Very likely there were tens of thousands like him, middle-aged rock fans enjoying what has essentially become either a cosy picnic for the inhabitants of middle England with a bit of live music thrown in, or a nauseating middle-class groupfuck, depending on how charitable you want to be. No wonder those youngsters watching Beyonce looked so damn shiny. They’re probably Glasto-veterans who’ve always had Mama and Papa close at hand to make sure they eat their greens and brush their teeth before bedtime.

This impression of Glastonbury is reinforced by the handling of the U2 protest by festival security. During the band’s set on Friday, activists from the group Art Uncut arrived near the stage with an enormous inflatable bearing the words ‘U pay tax 2?’ (a reference to the rockers’ decision in 2006 to reduce their tax liability by relocating their business affairs from the Irish Republic to the Netherlands). This refreshing burst of dissent was rapidly quashed by festival security, who seized and deflated the balloon. Moreover those who, like me, only caught the festival on TV would be unaware of even that short-lived political spectacle, since the BBC, to their shame, decided to edit the brief appearance of the 20ft high dirigible from their coverage.

So what it seems we are left with is one of the world’s most iconic rock festivals; not a hotbed of rock ‘n’ roll revolution, but organised with middle-aged PR executives from the Chilterns (and, of course, their shiny, perfect children) in mind and with even the most good-humoured, valid and peaceful political comment quashed and censored:  rock festival as revolt-free zone. Where this leaves rock bands who would like us to think of them as political—such as Coldplay and Radiohead (both of whom played)—is anybody’s guess: can you be a rich rock star and protest about politics without inevitable accusations of hypocrisy? If the attitude of festival organiser, Michael Eavis, to one of the bands on the bill last weekend is anything to go by, there seems little hope. According to the Glastonbury blog, Eavis regrets the decision to book one band that could (with tongue only very slightly in cheek) be seen as one of the more political acts of the weekend, an act that pioneered an early version of green politics in the 1970s: The Wombles. Proof, perhaps, that rock and politics don’t mix.

(photos by whiper and beaconradio respectively)