Article by Sarah Williams.
Memories of festivals passed have been popping up on our social media timelines lately, reminding us of all the fun we’re missing out on in 2020. This year of cancelled live music and ultra-distanced friendships can be tough when we’re reminded of the good times, but punk rock festivals aren’t all hugs, bands and blazing sunshine, are they?
Let’s consider some of the stuff we won’t be missing out on.
Being with your friends in a big, sunny field is glorious… but you’re rarely able to completely escape the sea of dickheads that exists outside of your social bubble. This varies depending on the festival, but dickheads exist everywhere.
On the heavier end of the scale, you could find yourself at Reading Festival: a veritable ocean of GSCE-finishing cunts spending Daddy’s money on glitter and mandy, whilst bafflingly appearing actually enjoy silent discos. At Download Festival you may be faced with agreeable black-clothed moshers brandishing devil horns at every opportunity… but there’s always some lad who decides to set fire to your tent, lob gas cannisters about, break your nose in the pit or grope your tits when you’re queuing at the bar.
Smaller punk festivals are populated with more like-minded folk, who collect their litter and don’t leave people passed out facedown in the mud, but they’re not immune to a spate of dickhead behaviour. If you’re in mainland Europe and present as female, there’s a fair chance you’ll encounter some rampant sexism: I cannot count the number of flaccid penises I’ve had swung in my direction unexpectedly at festivals, usually when walking alone to the campsite at night. Why not put that dick on your head so everyone can see it? See also: anyone offering ‘tits for chips’ with a Polaroid collage of nipples bouncing under lifted tees behind them.
Regardless of the festival, there’s also always a mate for starts off as a Totally Normal Friend and, through the late nights, lukewarm lager and free-flowing pills turns into a Catastrophic Dickhead by the end of the night. You cannot escape.
Food & Drink
When it comes to festival beers you have two choices: queues for ages for an extortionately priced pint served in a plastic or paper beaker, or hoard a slab of supermarket cans in your tent in the hopes that they don’t get robbed. Invariable you’ll choose the latter, at the expense of having to cart heavy crates to your campsite, later reducing yourself to drinking warm, cheap lager until your mouth goes furry. I learned years ago that you can fit six whole cans of Guinness into a pair of Dickie’s cargo shorts, for the ease of carrying them around the festival site (if they’re not strip searching you at the gate). I learned that Guinness survived a few days under a sweating canvas better than its fizzier fellows.
Alternatively, you can decant some own-brand whiskey into a plastic bottle or a hip flask (never quite big enough). I’ve had a lot of cheap drinking success in the past by buying fizzy soft drinks in arenas, and pouring some spiced brassiere-rum in. Either way you’ll be drinking all day and pretending you’re not facing down a head-pounding, heart-racing disaster of a hangover in the morning, when you roll out of your sun-blasted tend to find that it’s a 20-minute walk through mud to the nearest water point.
I’ve been known to forget food for an entire weekend, but when I do remember to eat, the choices are limited. In fairness, the festivals I frequent nowadays have a lot of vegan options, but you still need to remortgage your house for a tray of chips. Don’t get me started on having to figure out the token-systems moderns fests employ – the reliance on Monopoly money fools you into thinking you’re not being fleeced, if you don’t lose them or get them wet.
I will never forget the first time I encountered the glory of a British festival toilet. How can any human being produce the literal mountains of shite and vomit that tower precariously above the Portaloo toilet bowl, spotted with tattered bog roll and resplendent in blue antibacterial-flush dressing? I once saw one that reached a full two feet above the rim, with a bloodstain on the wall behind it.
Worse than a war-crime portacabin (where there’s often a cleaner alternative a few doors along) is the foreboding ‘long-drop’. A shipping container brimming with urine that you can smell from a mile away, which you must battle through yards of questionably wet mud to reach. Am I walking in human poo? Once, at Reading in 2014, the stench that met me from the lake of faeces below the seat was so overpowering that I vomited violently onto the door in front of me. Judging by the mess, I wasn’t the first.
Conditions have improved in recent years (or at least I’ve started frequenting festivals with less anally-explosive clientele). Despite the improvements in toilet roll and fresh-water availability, lighting still tends to be lacking. Few will know the pain of trying to empty a menstrual cup in the pitch dark of a balmy summer’s night, while the cubicle around you shakes to the sound of a hardcore band you’d never heard of, often whilst completely off your face.
That is, if you can even find a toilet not already occupied by someone oozing out an urgent pill-shit, passing out before remembering to wipe. Just nip off into the trees behind – who cares if someone sees you?
“The journey’s all part of the fun!” This is the lie we tell ourselves, to make sardining into the back of a cramped car or van, piled high with sleeping bags and beer crates sound like a good idea. I famously had a great time driving 17 hours to Punk Rock Holiday a couple of years ago, but the whole reason that’s funny is because it was awful.
Let’s remember all the times where the journey to a festival has been so bad we thought it had ruined the weekend. Download: where we drank our entire case of Stella in the back of the car before 1pm, then queued for 7 hours to get to the campsite, losing multiple people in the process. Boomtown: where the miserable queue stretched on in the intense Saharan heat, only allowing 1-2 people in every five minutes due to shockingly poor organisation, leaving us standing holding our weighty packs for hours on end. Boomtown the year after: where I got the festival bus to the customer entrance, only to be told that I needed to walk the entire perimeter of the site to get to the artist entrance. You could see the artist entrance fenced off a few metres from the bus drop off point but ‘you’re not allowed to walk that direction’. Three hour hike it is.
That accounts for staying in England, where a long traipse across a muddy campsite is also inevitable. If you’re venturing to the European mainland you get the extra pleasure of navigating 4am ferry crossings with their overpriced hashbrowns, 15+ hour drives, service station bathrooms that you never have the right Euro change for, and a wacking great fuel cost.
It doesn’t end when you get there. If you thought the journey was bad on the way there, just try doing it all over again on the way back… with a four-day hangover and a job to go to the next day.
I was tempted to say ‘the weather’ here as my fifth and final festival fear. But instead, let’s be honest: every festival has its share of shitty bands.
If you’re attending a big festival that spans multiple genres, you’re bound to encounter a few acts that you consider to be pure trash. Worse than that are the halfway-to-mediocre rock bands that you hover and watch at the back of the tent, nursing a pint and quietly criticising for their extraordinary dullness. When we get home we remember all the great bands we saw, but rarely do we lament those wasted minutes spent enduring dull or cringe worthy performances.
Sure, you could go back to your tent, but that’s a walk. Instead you take a trip to the bar, or queue up at a concession stand. You fuel up, empty your bowels and wait for something better to come along.
I have a strong memory of eating pizza in the company of Brendan-Urie-solo-project-era Panic! At The Disco. I was onced faced by three stages of brutal hardcore, while trying to cure my hangover with the world’s tiniest orange-shaped bottle of Fanta. I could have gone my entire life without experiencing Hollywood Undead. I recall waking up to throat-warbled sea shanties sometime in Devon. Any folk stage is a dangerous lurk: you could find yourself floored by a virtuoso violinist or assaulted by overly-plaintive crywank fodder about the girl next door or the war in Iraq. This is also the natural habit of the ukulele and the banjo… beware.
As I’ve grown fonder of smaller punk festivals, I’ve found that the mid-afternoon DIY level bands are the best of the lot. No stinkers, there. Instead, it’s the headliners you have to be wary of. Headline-level punk rock bands often fall into the trap of being repetitive, worn out and harking back to the mid-nineties. Or they’re a band you’ve ‘heard of’ but that you didn’t listen to when you were 16, so you couldn’t care less. Rarely do you see a fresh, exciting new act at the top of a punk festival bill.
It seems churlish to go to bed at 10pm before the last bands have finished, but that invariably means you wind up nodding through Anti-Flag’s punk-by-numbers and endless ‘whooooaaaaa’s, or the truly soporific repetition of Good Riddance. BORING. I’ve sat through Pennywise’s entire set, just to enjoy the mass stage invasion for Bro Hymn at the end. I reached my limit with The Toy Dolls and went back to my tent.
While you’re missing all the festivals you could have attended in 2020, if it weren’t for the pandemic, spare some time to consider all the gross experiences you’re not missing out on. We’ll see you down the front… next year.
Article by Sarah Williams.