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Glastonbury has sacrificed its radicalism

Big day out for the management consultants. Credit: Getty

June 23, 2023 - 5:00pm

Forty years ago, somewhere on the bill between UB40 and Alexei Sayle, the Marxist intellectual E.P. Thompson played Glastonbury Festival. Windswept, white-haired, prophetic, on the Pyramid Stage he delivered a speech ostensibly on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), but which really took the form of a populist sermon. “This has not only been a nation of moneymakers and imperialists,” he thundered, referring to the Thatcher government of the time. “It’s been a nation of inventors, of writers; a nation of theatres and musicians. An alternative nation — and it is this alternative nation which I can see in front of me now.”

It is difficult to know what Thompson would make of Glastonbury were he to turn up this weekend. When he was speaking, Glastonbury barely had fences; today the Festival is encircled by a Trumpian steel wall, even if it is draped with “No Borders” banners. Tickets have risen from £12 in 1983 to just under £350 today (going up by £100 in the last four years). And homogenisation has followed commercialisation, with the festival competing for the same international acts as every other. Instead of a muddy smudge of donkey jackets, Thompson would look out at the British branch of Coachella, a mass exercise in corporatised hippiedom. 

There’s a fairground, vast broadcasting tents to translate the festival from “happening” into mass-media, and a crowd of management consultants on their biannual four-day bender. Imperialists they may not be, but most of them are certainly moneymakers. And something more than just music has been lost in this transition, the final fading of a dissident English community which Thompson spent his life chronicling and celebrating.

In his day, the Festival was marketed as the “Glastonbury CND Festival”. He was part of a very different crowd in 1983, one which was politicised and class-bound. It might only have been in his head (he was that very rare dialectical synthesis: a Marxist-Romantic) but he could nonetheless claim to be looking at the still-glowing embers of English folk-radicalism. In his eyes, these people could claim descendancy from the fallen of Peterloo. They sang like Percy Shelley, argued like Thomas Paine and thought like William Blake. Deeper still, the blood of the original dissident-Englishmen, the revolutionary groups from the Civil War like the Levellers and the Diggers, coursed in their veins.

Glastonbury itself can claim some of this history — whispers of Tors, Ley lines, Arthur and Arimathea have surrounded the place for centuries.  And the Festival of the Eighties still proudly wore the remnants of these numinous influences, bringing together outsiders, rebels and misfits. The ascetic figure of Morrissey was a very modern incarnation of the protest-poet, shunning the trappings or rewards of the yuppie culture consuming the rest of the country. Punks and post-punks alike rejected material success as a form of “selling out”.

The death of that world has been told and retold. The nineties produced the first generation of alternative musicians who interpreted success primarily through their sales and reach. The Battle of Britpop reduced an indie “scene” into a popularity contest. When Noel Gallagher told a group of journalists after the 1996 Brit Awards that any gong voted for by the industry (“idiots, corporate pigs”) meant nothing to him, he was mouthing echoes, engaging in a kind of punk-pastiche. His subsequent lifestyle belied any real dedication to these principles, and no successful band since has truly yearned for “alternative” status. “Like it or not, we were Thatcher’s children,” designer Steve McQueen recently reflected of the Britpop scene.

In retrospect, alternative or indie music fell victim to the continuing expansion of capitalism across ever-increasing domains of cultural life. Glastonbury, by all accounts, still serves as something of an escape from the world of the city and the laptop, a hedonistic void at the heart of Somerset. And as Jeremy Corbyn, Stormzy and Greta Thunberg have all proved, it is still capable of playing host to each year’s favoured example of hyper-political symbolism. But it no longer holds any delusions of retaining the soul of an “alternative nation”. At best, it’s a weekend getaway from the Britain we all live in.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Mourning the loss of some form of English radicalism is as old as… England.
But just a few days ago, 10000 people gathered at Stonehenge to witness sunrise on the midsummer solstice. It was an eclectic crowd that spanned generations. The author should look no further to see that the spirit of “alternative” lives, indeed thrives. Perhaps no longer at Glastonbury, but just looking at that event seems to me to be rather short-sighted.
Corporatism will continue to seek to capture “alternative” culture, but as it does so, it springs up elsewhere and in some other format; some ancient like Stonehenge, others more recent or as yet untravelled, like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
Best not make mountains out of those molehills.

Mark V
Mark V
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Those druidy people are more simply an assortment of halfwitted wacky but pedestrian fruitbats than they are in any way ‘radical’.

Mark V
Mark V
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Those druidy people are more simply an assortment of halfwitted wacky but pedestrian fruitbats than they are in any way ‘radical’.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Mourning the loss of some form of English radicalism is as old as… England.
But just a few days ago, 10000 people gathered at Stonehenge to witness sunrise on the midsummer solstice. It was an eclectic crowd that spanned generations. The author should look no further to see that the spirit of “alternative” lives, indeed thrives. Perhaps no longer at Glastonbury, but just looking at that event seems to me to be rather short-sighted.
Corporatism will continue to seek to capture “alternative” culture, but as it does so, it springs up elsewhere and in some other format; some ancient like Stonehenge, others more recent or as yet untravelled, like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
Best not make mountains out of those molehills.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
1 year ago

the British branch of Coachella, a mass exercise in corporatised hippiedom. 

Maybe. I don’t think I’ve been since 1985, but looking at the pictures on the BBC and elsewhere, I don’t see much evidence of hippiedom even in terms of dress style. A big exercise in middle-class camping, with lots of self-deprecating irony.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
1 year ago

the British branch of Coachella, a mass exercise in corporatised hippiedom. 

Maybe. I don’t think I’ve been since 1985, but looking at the pictures on the BBC and elsewhere, I don’t see much evidence of hippiedom even in terms of dress style. A big exercise in middle-class camping, with lots of self-deprecating irony.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

It’s hardly surprising Glastonbury has lost its early radicalism, or fire if you prefer. It’s forty years old. It’s the creaky, wrinkly Rolling Stones doing yet another concert decades after their cultural moment ended.
Is there a modern equivalent of Glastonbury in the UK? What is it rebelling against or has it adopted the nihilistic spirit of the age? Is it tediously woke? That would be an interesting article.
Great article, btw. I enjoy this author’s writing style.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Totally agree with the writing style, even though I disagree with most of what he says. A more coherent successor to Terry Eagleton perhaps?
When I was young it was already somewhere that middle-class kids “did” as a prelude to their gap-yah. Why not embrace the fluid traditions of the festival; a CND-aligned pop concert is somewhat anachronistic nowadays anyway, even though the threat of nuclear war is looming. Oh, the irony.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Totally agree with the writing style, even though I disagree with most of what he says. A more coherent successor to Terry Eagleton perhaps?
When I was young it was already somewhere that middle-class kids “did” as a prelude to their gap-yah. Why not embrace the fluid traditions of the festival; a CND-aligned pop concert is somewhat anachronistic nowadays anyway, even though the threat of nuclear war is looming. Oh, the irony.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

It’s hardly surprising Glastonbury has lost its early radicalism, or fire if you prefer. It’s forty years old. It’s the creaky, wrinkly Rolling Stones doing yet another concert decades after their cultural moment ended.
Is there a modern equivalent of Glastonbury in the UK? What is it rebelling against or has it adopted the nihilistic spirit of the age? Is it tediously woke? That would be an interesting article.
Great article, btw. I enjoy this author’s writing style.

John Murray
John Murray
1 year ago

I’ve always thought Glastonbury Festival persists precisely because it wasn’t founded or run by hippies, but instead a local farmer who made sure it turns a sustainable profit (and he has regular off-years every few years to let his land recover). I believe he’s been known to favor a bit of fox hunting and badger culling though, which I suppose does qualify as alternative culture.

John Murray
John Murray
1 year ago

I’ve always thought Glastonbury Festival persists precisely because it wasn’t founded or run by hippies, but instead a local farmer who made sure it turns a sustainable profit (and he has regular off-years every few years to let his land recover). I believe he’s been known to favor a bit of fox hunting and badger culling though, which I suppose does qualify as alternative culture.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Oh dear, you don’t really believe that rock ‘radicalism’ has ever been anything but middle class pretentiousness? Surely.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I take it you’re generally unacquainted with the works of Throbbing Gristle and The Fall? 

N Satori
N Satori
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

You are too easily impressed.

N Satori
N Satori
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

You are too easily impressed.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I take it you’re generally unacquainted with the works of Throbbing Gristle and The Fall? 

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

Oh dear, you don’t really believe that rock ‘radicalism’ has ever been anything but middle class pretentiousness? Surely.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Drop the class warfare folks, the real issue it’s become as boring af. Music festivals are now where the squares go.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Drop the class warfare folks, the real issue it’s become as boring af. Music festivals are now where the squares go.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Apparently, Glastonbury now requires the attendance of 1000 BBC staff. More than double what they sent to the Rio Olympics.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Apparently, Glastonbury now requires the attendance of 1000 BBC staff. More than double what they sent to the Rio Olympics.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Don’t be absurd.There was no radicalism – Ever.
I am English and I know crap when I see it.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Don’t be absurd.There was no radicalism – Ever.
I am English and I know crap when I see it.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Fancy, musicians wanting to make a few quid. Oh, you could knock me down with a feather

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

Fancy, musicians wanting to make a few quid. Oh, you could knock me down with a feather

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

As I noted in a short blog on this:
“Modern pop is in probably a worse state than it was before punk in the mid-70s. It’s a respectable career option for beige bourgeois jollification for young people with pension plans.”
See: https://ayenaw.com/2022/08/27/a-jolly-day-out/
And see also:
https://ayenaw.com/2022/08/13/pop-will-eat-itself-using-the-correct-cutlery/

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

As I noted in a short blog on this:
“Modern pop is in probably a worse state than it was before punk in the mid-70s. It’s a respectable career option for beige bourgeois jollification for young people with pension plans.”
See: https://ayenaw.com/2022/08/27/a-jolly-day-out/
And see also:
https://ayenaw.com/2022/08/13/pop-will-eat-itself-using-the-correct-cutlery/

Lancastrian Oik
Lancastrian Oik
1 year ago

Being a bit late to the party as ever, I’ve just read Nick Kent’s “Apathy For The Devil”, his memoir of his 70s role as the UK’s quintessentially (and perhaps only) elegantly-wasted-junkie-journalist-as-rockstar.
In the final chapters of the book (published in 2010) as the 80s near, he bemoans the forthcoming Thatcher government- to be fair, I did too, but I was seventeen and knew nowt about politics or indeed much else beyond my A-Level subjects and a growing obsession with rhythm-and-blues kickstarted by Dr. Feelgood a couple of years earlier.
So when I read about “Trumpian” fences at “Glasto”, my instinct is to snort with derision. Kent cavorted with Bowie, the Stones and Zeppelin, and their entourages, preening solipsistic multi-millionaires all, who had made their fortunes whilst the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments presided over Britain’s “managed decline”. It wasn’t “Fatch” whose taxation policies forced Keith Richards into exile, was it?
Why does anybody body with even the smallest modicum of sense not fail to realise that showbiz, and in particular the branch that is the music industry, is quite possibly the most cynical and cut-throat example of capitalism out there? That Eavis, for all his bucolic manner and Amishy chin-beard, is busy making money first and foremost.
In his day, the Festival was marketed as the â€œGlastonbury CND Festival”. He was part of a very different crowd in 1983, one which was politicised and class-bound. It might only have been in his head (he was that very rare dialectical synthesis: a Marxist-Romantic) but he could nonetheless claim to be looking at the still-glowing embers of English folk-radicalism. In his eyes, these people could claim descendancy from the fallen of Peterloo. They sang like Percy Shelley, argued like Thomas Paine and thought like William Blake. Deeper still, the blood of the original dissident-Englishmen, the revolutionary groups from the Civil War like the Levellers and the Diggers, coursed in their veins.
Bollocks- the vast majority of my mates who went in those days were there for the usual reasons; they wanted to get drunk, stoned and hopefully find a shag whilst rocking out. The pontificating Leftism was something you had to put up with at Glastonbury, along with sets from Gong, but not at Reading or Knebworth.
I couldn’t be arsed with festivals anyway- I’d far rather have gone to Dingwall’s, The Marquee or the 100 Club or at a pinch Hammersmith.

Lancastrian Oik
Lancastrian Oik
1 year ago

Being a bit late to the party as ever, I’ve just read Nick Kent’s “Apathy For The Devil”, his memoir of his 70s role as the UK’s quintessentially (and perhaps only) elegantly-wasted-junkie-journalist-as-rockstar.
In the final chapters of the book (published in 2010) as the 80s near, he bemoans the forthcoming Thatcher government- to be fair, I did too, but I was seventeen and knew nowt about politics or indeed much else beyond my A-Level subjects and a growing obsession with rhythm-and-blues kickstarted by Dr. Feelgood a couple of years earlier.
So when I read about “Trumpian” fences at “Glasto”, my instinct is to snort with derision. Kent cavorted with Bowie, the Stones and Zeppelin, and their entourages, preening solipsistic multi-millionaires all, who had made their fortunes whilst the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments presided over Britain’s “managed decline”. It wasn’t “Fatch” whose taxation policies forced Keith Richards into exile, was it?
Why does anybody body with even the smallest modicum of sense not fail to realise that showbiz, and in particular the branch that is the music industry, is quite possibly the most cynical and cut-throat example of capitalism out there? That Eavis, for all his bucolic manner and Amishy chin-beard, is busy making money first and foremost.
In his day, the Festival was marketed as the â€œGlastonbury CND Festival”. He was part of a very different crowd in 1983, one which was politicised and class-bound. It might only have been in his head (he was that very rare dialectical synthesis: a Marxist-Romantic) but he could nonetheless claim to be looking at the still-glowing embers of English folk-radicalism. In his eyes, these people could claim descendancy from the fallen of Peterloo. They sang like Percy Shelley, argued like Thomas Paine and thought like William Blake. Deeper still, the blood of the original dissident-Englishmen, the revolutionary groups from the Civil War like the Levellers and the Diggers, coursed in their veins.
Bollocks- the vast majority of my mates who went in those days were there for the usual reasons; they wanted to get drunk, stoned and hopefully find a shag whilst rocking out. The pontificating Leftism was something you had to put up with at Glastonbury, along with sets from Gong, but not at Reading or Knebworth.
I couldn’t be arsed with festivals anyway- I’d far rather have gone to Dingwall’s, The Marquee or the 100 Club or at a pinch Hammersmith.

N Satori
N Satori
1 year ago

A ritual as regular as the festival itself: the utterly predictable comments of preening wannabe rebel outsiders sneering that Glastonbury has become ‘oh so middle class’. They signal their virtue by showing how (as rebels) they yearn for the truly radical Glastonbury of yore.
Glastonbury Fayre first started in 1971 as a distinctly hippyish effort. It was all about the pyramid stage. An idea gaining credence at the time was that a pyramid form with the exact angles and proportions of the Great Pyramid of Cheops would concentrate mysterious occult energies. The stage was built accordingly with the belief that the summer solstice at the famed mystical location of Glastonbury was the perfect time/place to draw down those cosmic energies to heal the earth. Gaia, the hypochondriac, is ever in poor health.
The ‘Fayre’ was not widely publicised and didn’t feature any of the real top rock acts of the day (definitely not a British Woodstock). The event was filmed. Credited as a Nicholas Roeg movie, it’s still available on DVD. Should you so wish you can see the original ‘pure’ Glastonbury festival for the dull, muddy uninspiring event it actually was – hippydom at its most numbingly boring.

N Satori
N Satori
1 year ago

A ritual as regular as the festival itself: the utterly predictable comments of preening wannabe rebel outsiders sneering that Glastonbury has become ‘oh so middle class’. They signal their virtue by showing how (as rebels) they yearn for the truly radical Glastonbury of yore.
Glastonbury Fayre first started in 1971 as a distinctly hippyish effort. It was all about the pyramid stage. An idea gaining credence at the time was that a pyramid form with the exact angles and proportions of the Great Pyramid of Cheops would concentrate mysterious occult energies. The stage was built accordingly with the belief that the summer solstice at the famed mystical location of Glastonbury was the perfect time/place to draw down those cosmic energies to heal the earth. Gaia, the hypochondriac, is ever in poor health.
The ‘Fayre’ was not widely publicised and didn’t feature any of the real top rock acts of the day (definitely not a British Woodstock). The event was filmed. Credited as a Nicholas Roeg movie, it’s still available on DVD. Should you so wish you can see the original ‘pure’ Glastonbury festival for the dull, muddy uninspiring event it actually was – hippydom at its most numbingly boring.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
1 year ago

Playacting. It never ceases to amaze me that a certain number of physically adult human beings insist on living out their childhood fantasies in real life. Glastonbury. Stonehenge. Burning Man. Coachella. Seriously? This is mental illness on an industrial scale. Only an affluent culture could afford such an infantile fringe to exist.

Caroline Minnear
Caroline Minnear
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Gerald! You sound no fun at all.
You should totally reconnect with your inner child, take some mushies and let your hair down man. (I’m only half kidding)
Now we in the “affluent west”
have turned our back on God and worship technology instead, what other rituals or pilgrimage do we have if it’s not music and dancing together?
And what do you suggest is appropriate in place of such “childhood fantasy”

Caroline Minnear
Caroline Minnear
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Gerald! You sound no fun at all.
You should totally reconnect with your inner child, take some mushies and let your hair down man. (I’m only half kidding)
Now we in the “affluent west”
have turned our back on God and worship technology instead, what other rituals or pilgrimage do we have if it’s not music and dancing together?
And what do you suggest is appropriate in place of such “childhood fantasy”

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
1 year ago

Playacting. It never ceases to amaze me that a certain number of physically adult human beings insist on living out their childhood fantasies in real life. Glastonbury. Stonehenge. Burning Man. Coachella. Seriously? This is mental illness on an industrial scale. Only an affluent culture could afford such an infantile fringe to exist.

Mark V
Mark V
1 year ago

Is Marxism radical, it seems more like the religion de jour