Glasto ’24: Boomers to Gen Z

This started as jottings about Glastonbury 2024, as seen on TV. It has morphed into a rather long account of all sorts of Glastonbury memories, and incorporating other festival moments, but ranging over the way the entire music scene has evolved in my time.

If some of the remarks seem judgmental, you might kindly put it down to the fact that I have been immersed in writing from the 19th and earlyish 20th Century when unfettered waspishlness was last in vogue. 1

Glastonbury is a peculiarity, but it is importantly a product of the Boomer generation and the tastes they have nurtured, hybridised and passed on to the young. Ever since the advent of Tommy Steele and Buddy Holly (both born in 1936), wannabe teenage troubadours have nurtured their talents in back bedrooms. Many dream of getting a bit happier and a lot richer by deploying their disruptive egotism and elementary literary and musical skills. It’s a more attractive strategy than buckling down to years of study and decades of depersonalised professionalism, the main alternative advertised to the bright. The decades of their musical work, married in varying degrees to capitalist enterprise, have produced some song dross, of course, and not all of it because of vulgar popularisation, much of which was actually brilliant. A great swathe of  bands have affected an existential dissonance, sometimes combining it with noisy dissidence, embodying and validating the disquiets which their audience largely only indulge as a leisure activity, pillow talk, or fodder for a therapist. It was entirely natural that a mass market art form which was born in ambitious discontent should latch on to every passing fad of upset. Glastonbury, a hippy child of Tin Pan Alley found in a hedge, was born out of wedlock in 1970 to a methodism-in-a-field offer of rustic redemption waylaid by a nervy paganism. It was bound to outgrow these as it fell in love with being attractive to a wider audience and becoming a national treasure.

I know a tiny bit about Glastonbury and never warmed to it. My earliest experience of al fresco music was hearing Cliff Richard (born 1940), unplugged, serenading the Berrylands Tennis Club, Surbiton, from the steps of its clubhouse, perhaps in the late 1950s. In 1963, I didn’t see Ray Charles (born 1930) perform for the first time in London, but a fellow-worshipper and I went to my public school’s sacred and forbidden cricket pitch and genuflected in the right general direction. I had already abandoned my suburban hippy gestures when I gave up my homemade army-blanket poncho and strings of beads, aged 15 or 16, around 1962. In the ’70s I met more committed hippies, and found them to be state-dependent pseudo-survivalists, who were not sweet, but sour. If that was the best of Glasto, it is no surprise that it was prone to wrong-headedness.

It is not inconsistent with any of that to say that Michael Eavis’ invention was a work of some sort of genius, as was the Resurgence magazine of that other west country saviour, Satish Kumar (born 1936), who matched Eavis (born 1935) in canny other-worldliness. I chronicled the building of the Pyramid stage in 1981 for Vole and returned in 1998 when I got told off for photographing Bob Dylan backstage. (This was just before Dylan went with the funkiness that has converted me from scepticism to fandom, especially as I saw him live in Hyde Park in 2019, and reprised pretty well yesterday on You Tube in a live set 2016 from Yokohama.)  I was presenting an ecologically upbeat pro-capitalist poster display. It was with perhaps deliberate, certainly apt, provocation located by Michael Eavis in the Green Futures area, set aside to assuage and corral his bêtes noires, the grunge travellers whose Gormenghast castle glowered down on my larky efforts until they dismantled the show and banished me with fine massed passive aggression. One of my small team, amused at our treatment, remarked that the Reading Festival had a far better vibe.

Since then, I have dropped in on Glastonbury annually, but only in front of the TV. It may be old age, perhaps in me and perhaps in the event, but it seems that the audience has only become more peri-middle aged and peri-middle class – I mean, it is better groomed. Its politics were always credulous, peaking in stoned or pissed greenish Corbynism, and now relapsing into similarly mood-enhanced ultra-Wokery. 

The festival has always managed to be in tune with the modish end of the music business, and accordingly it has gone for whatever is currently passing for inclusiveness. Last weekend, its customers, according to the Daily Telegraph, voted with their long-suffering feet and flocked to venues other than the Pyramid. The intended main events for Glasto ’24, discounting nice Coldplay and two white “legend” pop artistes, seemed to be black men and women. I had never heard or heard of any of these latter stars before.

Two, perhaps three, bode very well for us. Mike Kiwanuka is that rare figure, a trendy black male performer whose creative roots seem solidly race-neutral (i.e., not in reggae or rap). Here was an angsty male with only periodic critical race theory riffs and with much touching lyricism in the songs.

Even less cursed by an imposed community identity, Olivia Dean sings about standing up for herself as a woman, but she is not strident or self-indulgent in indignation or victimhood as a female or a black. Hers are tuneful, witty songs joyously performed. An important question confronts her. Will she develop beyond singing mostly-as-a-woman? One can hope so, since she has already eschewed singing mostly-as-a-black.  Fingers are crossed that she will  even more express herself mostly-as-a-person, and a self-interrogating one. I only caught the end of Janelle Monáe’s set, but a brief online foray suggests she (born 1985) might be a cultural big sister to Dean (born 1999), though she made the same leotard choices as the angrier black sisterhood.

At Glastonbury 24, these mostly put their down-belows front and central in their costumes and their vocal agendas. They were often in command of great dance-along and sing-along material. Roars of approval seemed to meet their every aggro-“feminist” cry. SZA, with her demands for monthly rough sex, out-performed even Dua Lupa in militant burlesque. Here were women we can suppose to be affluent and free, yet mirroring clapped-out male rap sexism. Their shtick is perhaps merely a passing fad, important only as, surely, a betrayal of the noble struggles of their forebears? I dare not judge these women, but can more freely condemn their largely white audience, whose best defence may be that, disallowed unpleasant utterance in their own affluent homes, now relish surfing the freedom accorded protected minorities as all present blast their obscenities into the air, cow- and cannabis-scented as I imagine it to have been.

How much of the loud black women’s performances were personally expressive or merely opportunistic? Who knows? How authentic they are, only they know and perhaps not even them.

Now, on to the mostly white and male The National on The Other Stage. They are Glasto regulars, though news to me, and have put me in a dither. The music is fast-driving, tuneful, and unrelenting. The impact is sort of Prodigy  (as I saw them at the Victorious Festival in 2018), but less monotonous, sweary and angry. The National guitarists were strikingly smiley. It was a show of unexpected, almost buried, glamour. On reflection, they were up there with Hot Tuna, who blew me away at Knebworth in 1976, or The Only Ones, my bar of perfection in the 1980s, as Cream were in the 1960s.

Matt Berninger, the trim thinning songwriter-singer (born 1971), was a cross between Kafka’s Josef K and Lennie Cohen. The little black suit, black t-shirt and  shiny necklace chain were neat but not gawdy. Sort of mod bureaucrat meets artisanal undertaker. You see the look a lot in the Smoke. The label “sad dads” seems to be applied to his male fans, but there were plenty of blissed-out women and couples in the audience. Berninger, a self-declared depressive, feels or acts out art teacher or car mechanic on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His mood seemed to combine angst with attitude. There was very little resentment and no victimhood. The lyrics were like repeated snatches of 3 am half-dreamt interior monologues. Wistful, anxious nightmares of personal inadequacy jived with anger at America’s perceived public inadequacy. I was increasingly seduced, though I would probably have voted for Trump the way Starmer voted for Corbyn.

There was something faux in the songs’ intimacy and politics. Berninger says heartache songs can marry well with protest and I suppose he means, rightly, that a person may lament losses in both private and public domains and in the same tone of voice. The lyrics and their delivery blended the heartfelt overwrought personal with the dog whistle right-on political. I accuse none of it of outright falsity. But its sheer convenience as a market-worthy pitch casts a nagging doubt as to whether the songs are as plain awkward as mature personal utterance ought to be. 

Should we hear Berninger as a person or a personna? Maybe it was easier to be a tyro Jacques Brel (1929-78) or Georges Brassens (1921-81), or even Dylan (born 1941) or Cohen (1934-2016), or Joni Mitchell (born 1943) or Marianne Faithful (born 1946), or even the Stones or the Beatles (all but Bill Wyman, children of the 1940s), back in the mid-20th century when industrialised musical performance was in its infancy. We certainly can’t now complain that song-writing singers are manipulatively performative more than boldly personal. Unless they want to sing only to their bathroom mirror, or  their cat, they are bound to wonder how their product might bring tens of thousands of fans to crowd ecstasy. Songsters with teenager memories of the 1950s, however ambitious they were or became, could hang on to their simpler roots – their inner back bedroom – as a subliminal shtick. The National, formed by adults in this millennium, inherited sophistication and thus are subject to suspicion.

The National present a show which is soul-searching for crowds. Even right-on mobs yearn for nativism. They want to be a pop-up tribe. The National appeals to an audience that loves big old rock music but Berninger cannily or as matter of genius stirs in some adult Dylanesque public and private poetics too. The audience delights to find energetic but subtle expression of their romantic and creative inadequacies but also endorsement of their tertiary-educated disdain for redneck dissent. The National may be high level panderers in giving their audience all of that. The band may be deliberately or accidentally performing this service. They may be self-interested manipulators. More likely, and slightly more charitably, they may be seen as complicit in manufacturing a poetic which indulges their own not very exacting tastes which are well matched to their audience’s.

And yet, maybe my scepticism is only cynicism railroading appreciation. Berninger’s performance recalls some small seabird riding huge waves crashing on a beach, valiantly doing its thing to the manner born, catching our attention against the background of vasty forces which rise to foaming catharsis all around it. The whole scene certainly caught me, rather as did the 1979 Remember album from the late Jackie Leven’s Doll By Doll, with the pain-on-the-page ethic Jackie said he learned from Antonin Artaud and the inherited nervous breakdown of the long fin de siecle. Leven was obesssed by hardman masculinity (he was a Scot, and it’s a thing there). I certainly can’t imagine Leven doing the sort of meltdown wander in the crowd that a seemingly exhausted Matt Berninger delivered, as though seeking a recharge from his fans, as poor Wolverine might have hoped for in Logan.

And then I read that The National collaborates wholesale with Taylor Swift (born 1989), a woman who is halfway to middle age and, I read, seems to collect heartbreak-ups almost because there may be a song in them. Like a makeup company, she appeals to adults who seek to delay maturity and to children who have it thrust upon them. Swift wears her marketability on her sleeve.  The National wants, quite differently, to appear to have blown into the lives of its audience as a crumpled crisp packet might drift towards their park bench. It may well be that Swift earns bien pensants from The National who earn multi-generational mall rats from her. Or perhaps they each recognise complementary supreme talent in the other. So where do you place your bet? Are The National post-modern entrepreneurs of self-gratification masquerading as fine souls, or just straight-up working stiffs trying to express the immemorially flawed but unvanquished human spirit as it is manifested in one gifted, sometimes suffering person and his fabulous band? Should we think of them as sirens luring innocents onto rocks? Or do we accord The National the respect owing to any outfit which is aiding serious self-examination and wowing us as we partake gratefully in their work?

For my part I am unlikely ever to visit Glastonbury again, not even to experience Olivia Dean or The National live. Oddly, though, I am having a fine pleasure in summoning up the latter on YouTube. Just as Jackie Leven (1950-2011) can be heard there in stripped down, almost unplugged form in a miraculous mid-90s blossoming of post-Doll By Doll mellowness,  so The National can be seen in 2023 performing their latest album in a small venue without the full-on razzamataz of a massive festival, and the work stands up well even in its bare feet. Oh, but I loved that orgy of light and sound on my TV and stereo speakers, beamed from Glastonbury ’24, a phenomenon to which I owe a debt I have been a bit reluctant to acknowledge across five decades.

  1. I have also just read Clive James on Bernard Levin and am pondering James’s citing Schopenhauer’s calling style the physiognomy of the soul.  It’s further proof that the post modern was always old hat: our affectations really do speak for and of us. London Review of Books, 6 December, 1979 ↩︎

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Publication date

07 July 2024