In 1992, the mighty Iron Maiden headlined the Donington Monsters of Rock festival in England. The bill also included thrash giants Slayer, shock-rockers W.A.S.P., British hard rockers Thunder and The Almighty and an on-top-of-their-game Skid Row. It was an over-the-top, gloriously ludicrous, stinky day. Clouds of dust and tobacco floated above the denim- and leather-clad crowd as each band came and went.
One radio station was handing out promo 7-inch vinyl, which proved to be a bad move; people were biting chunks out of the edges and then throwing them around like ninja stars. And it was during Skid Row’s “Monkey Business” that I remember getting hit by one of the many bottles that was raining down around me. Warm liquid splashed my neck, and I instinctively reached up to touch it, smell it and identify it.
“Don’t do that,” said a nearby stranger. “It’s best not to know.”
He was right. But deep down, I knew it was pee.
In 1996, I attended the Phoenix Festival in Stratford (Shakespeare country), also in England. To this day, it’s the festival by which I judge all other festivals. The headliners of the four-day event were David Bowie, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Björk and a recently reunited Sex Pistols. Incredible! Elsewhere, the bill included The Prodigy (“Firestarter” had just blown up), a still-fresh Foo Fighters, Alanis Morissette (enormous at the time), Cypress Hill, Manic Street Preachers, Massive Attack, The Wildhearts (the best British rock band of the last three decades), and so much more.
It was unusually hot that summer for England, and drunk people were needing medical attention all weekend. At night, glass-eyed festival-ites were tripping balls — wandering between our tents like mostly harmless zombies, with the exception of the one guy who tore my buddy’s tent down in a rage, convinced that we were all laughing at him and had stolen his tent.
Rewind to 1991, and Perry Farrell founded the Lollapalooza traveling festival here in the States. I remember Farrell being interviewed on MTV back then — I think it was for the U.K. version of Headbangers Ball — and saying that the Europeans know how to do a festival, that there was nothing like Phoenix, Reading, Glastonbury, etc., in North America, and that he wanted to put that right.
So that’s what he did. Lollapalooza was born and, over the next couple of decades, did a great job of replicating the lawless, grubby, decadent festival vibe of Europe. Coachella was founded in 1999, and Bonnaroo followed in 2002. All three began life primarily as rock festivals and gradually evolved to include, if not be weighted toward, hip-hop, R&B, EDM and pop. Some like this, others don’t. Such is life, and progress.
Just before leaving England, in 2007, I attended Glastonbury, the jewel in the world’s music festival crown. Again, the bill was incredible, with the likes of The Who, The Stooges and Paul Weller gracing the stages. Typically, it rained so much that the muddy surface made getting around the vast space much like walking on the moon. It was heavy, feet were wet and cold, and noses were dripping. It was bliss.
I can’t help but contrast that experience, and all of my previous festival experiences, with my first Coachella, which came to an end on Sunday.
At the Reading Festival in 2000, I witnessed pop duo Daphne and Celeste get bottled so relentlessly by the crowd, furious at the inclusion of a mainstream act, that they had to leave the stage. At Coachella 18 years later, mainstream acts were welcomed with open arms. This removes the sense of underground cool — that the festival is a sanctuary for the oddballs, reprobates and misfits. On the flip, the wider genre inclusivity has resulted in a far more multiculturally balanced Coachella, which is a great thing.
Nobody was smoking cigarettes at Coachella (this is another very good thing), but at the same time, those carefully chosen Coachella costumes were still pristine by the end of day three. Granted, there was no rain. But where were the copious spilled beer, the dust and dirt, the general showerless stank?
Coachella was pristine, as were the people in it, from start to finish. It was easier to get a juice shot than a Coke, and even the burger van (surely standard festival food fare) advertised the fact that the meat was made with “grass-fed” beef.
And why so many selfies, Coachella? Literally, people blocking every path while pictures were taken next to anything that might constitute a landmark of some sort.
Healthy, clean living is good. I get it. But the de–rock & roll–ing of the mega-fest has coincided with a great sanitization. The cleansing of the debauchery. The idea of releasing demons for three days straight and then returning to normality seems to be gone.
And that just sucks.