Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 21/08/2000.
I haven't been back to the V Festival since 2000, but it seems to be carrying on quite happily without me. The dates for 2008 are August 16th and 17th: a few tickets may still be available if you hurry.
That Kelis picture down there got hotlinked to a lot for several years after I wrote this, for some reason.
Tuesday April 17th, 1984
True story: back in the days long before I had my moderately responsible job in the computer industry, I went for an interview with British Telecom. (This is relevant, trust me.)
Graduate job interviews are hell to pull off: I know, I've been on both sides of the desk. You've got a spotty little herbert of a student sitting in front of you: they have no real work experience to speak of: you've probably got nothing in common with them whatsover. As an interviewer, it's a real struggle to pull something out of the interviewee's application form that you can talk about and get some sort of feel for how they think.
Mr BT noted from my CV that I'd listed music as a main interest on my form, and threw me a quite interesting question based on that: "If you were put in charge of a rock festival, how would you go about doing it?" I thought about it a little, and then gave a lengthy spiel about locating a suitable venue, getting the right artistic balance between the acts, the importance of promoting the show to the right punters, and so on.
He waited till I'd finished, and then destroyed my job prospects with a single question. "And how did you say you were going to finance this event?"
Oh, bollocks. Forgot about that bit.
These days, it'd be impossible for a graduate in my situation to forget about the financial angle of a major concert event, as pretty much every festival is sponsored up the wazoo. Some more than others, obviously: but generally people are pretty much agreed that in the UK, the worst offender is the V Festival. As its name and logo implies, it's sponsored by a certain all-encompassing corporation (who shall remain nameless here). The gig's promoted by their radio station: the only soft drink available is their brand of cola: special deals are available for getting to the festival on their trains: and the main stage is straddled by big adverts for their mobile phones. And that's not to mention another half dozen or so other sponsors with their logos plastered all over the place, and their ads on heavy rotation on the video screens in between bands.
So why go? Because, dammit, it works. In a very real sense V is the rock festival for people who don't like rock festivals. Since they started with V96 four years ago, the organisers have worked to remove all the rough edges generally associated with the festival experience. They've streamlined the drinks queues, got the transport to and from the venue running with Mussoliniesque efficiency, and kept every act on a strict timetable to ensure nobody misses their last train home. The two-day festival's spread over two venues, Chelmsford in the South of England and Stafford in the North: and cleverly split so all the acts who appear at Chelmsford on the Saturday repeat the experience in Stafford on Sunday, and vice versa.
If you think about it, it's very unnerving the way that rock 'n' roll rebellion has been packaged and sold to a carefully chosen demographic as a means of plugging mobile phones and cola. But much as it annoys me to say it, the choice of bands is sufficiently good enough to help you ignore that. Besides, I'm not doing Edinburgh this year and needed a good blowout for the summer. So assisted by Spank's Pal Grizelda, I spent an August weekend at the Chelmsford end of V2000. Here's what happened.
Saturday August 19th, 2000
One useful aspect of Chelmsford as a location is that it's close enough to central London to be able to commute by rail on both days: so Grizelda and I head up there on the train early on Saturday morning, and we end up at the venue by twenty past eleven, forty minutes before the gates are opened. However, we don't actually get to see the main stage till five past one, thanks to a combination of late opening and some ludicrously confused arrangements for exchanging tickets for wristbands.
We make it inside just in time to see opening act Andreas Johnson launch into his final number, Glorious. Luckily, it's the only song of his any of us really knows, so no real harm done there. (I have his album, and it's still the only song of his I really know.) Probably better to consider the Bootleg Beatles as the proper opening to the day. In an age where the whole concept of the tribute band has been utterly defiled by billions of cheap imitators (I swear my local recently put on an Alice Cooper tribute band called Alike Cooper), it's sobering to think that not only have the Bootlegs been doing this longer than any other tribute band you care to name, they've also been doing it longer than the Beatles themselves. It's nice that they're so authentic a copy, they're not ashamed to have a drummer with a lousy voice and a dubious sense of rhythm. They do a fine selection of post-Pepper classics, with Hey Jude an early highlight of the weekend.
Semisonic are next up on the main stage, to their obvious discomfort: "it's every band's worst nightmare to have to follow the Beatles", says vocalist Dan Wilson. To be honest they're a bit too dull to pull it off, but they do get it together at the end for a rousing Closing Time. Morcheeba, on the other hand, fare much better: their laid-back approach is just right for that woozy three-pints-of-beer-on-an-empty-stomach feeling that kicks in around this point in the afternoon. (Other methods of wooziness are available, judging from the suspiciously large clouds of smoke appearing over the audience during their set.) Morcheeba have a little trouble getting the more uptempo material from the new Fragments Of Freedom album to sit comfortably alongside the older chilled classics, but it's a top set nevertheless.
With All Saints set to hit the main stage, I decide this would be a good point to wander around for a bit. (Grizelda thinks they sounded okay, but the NME claims they were miming.) I check out the second stage, sponsored by A Shit TV Company and A Useless Music Website: the Brazilian bar sponsored by One Of Those Girl Drinks, with a glorious carnival atmosphere: and the Naff Hair Products dance tent, which is a dark sweaty club hell even at five in the afternoon. I would have gone to the third stage (Ugly Sportswear), but the tent was full at the time and they weren't letting people in. I saw a lot of the outside of the Ugly Sportswear tent this weekend.
I head back to the second stage to catch Saint Etienne for the first time since the New York gig I reported on last year. They take a little while to warm up, but once they do they perform a mixture of old favourites and beefed-up versions of songs from the new album, Sound Of Water. (The nine-minute How We Used To Live is looking like it's already booked a place on my Best Of 2000 compliation CD.) From there, it's a mad dash to stage three as all the fans of Dance Music With Girly Vocals rush over to see Moloko doing more of the same. Unfortunately, the third stage is massively overcrowded and they're still not letting people in: thanks to somebody's carelessness with the safety fencing, about 100 of us manage to sneak in the back for two numbers, only to be forcibly ejected by the security staff. I'm sure they're just trying to be careful in the wake of the recent Pearl Jam gig at Roskilde where nine fans were crushed to death, but they're still jobsworth bastards anyway.
I'm pondering all this as I wander past the second stage, where the Bloodhound Gang are trying to get audience members to participate in one of their pranks. "What are you so scared of?" asks Jimmy Pop. "This isn't a Pearl Jam concert. We're not going to kill you." Sorry, but that's my kind of joke right there. Regular correspondent Carole describes her fellow Filthadelphians as "amusing but perhaps not really talented", which is probably as good as summaries get. The Beastie Boys were doing this sort of thing with more wit and better props over a dozen years ago. Having said that, the between-song wackiness is addictive, notably a crowd-surfing race and a massed one-finger salute to the man they refer to as Johnny "Cokehead" Vaughan. (It's always nice when an American band takes time to research its local references.) In the end, it's Jimmy's final line that shows that the Bloodhounds know exactly where their target demographic is: "Goodnight, and congratulations on your A levels."
I get back to the main stage in time for Macy Gray, who is obviously completely barking mad, but in a good way. On stage the songs are much looser affairs than the crafted soul of her album: Macy acts like she's James Brown trapped in a woman's body, calling the changes like a bandleader and feigning death during lengthy instrumental passages. It's also a little disconcerting when she refers to us collectively as "England!" (at least the Bloodhounds managed to narrow it down to "Essex!") Still, she's great, loony dancing and all, and I Try is as beautiful as music can get in a field this size.
Grizelda and I end up hopping between the three stages for the headliners. Travis on the main stage show all the form that's made them one of Britain's most mediocre bands. We make it through five or six identikit rock dirges before giving up. At one stage Fran Healy starts babbling on about how he's hitting a midlife crisis at age 27. Piss off, you annoying child. It's bands like Travis that make me wonder whether it's just them being crap, or if indie guitar rock has always been like this and I've just grown up. Thankfully, Supergrass are on the second stage to answer that question: it's just Travis. No midlife crises for Gaz and the lads, as they wear their youth on their sleeve and motor through the hits with speed, aplomb, volume, and a better lightshow than the main stage. Couldn't tell you what Underworld were like on the third stage, as it was full and they still weren't letting anyone in. I see a pattern forming here.
Sunday August 20th, 2000
The clock radio plays Moloko's The Time Is Now as I wake up, as if to taunt me for yesterday's failure to see them. Damn you, Sarah HB!
No problems getting in this morning: by 11.40 we're sat under our favourite tree by the main stage, chilling out to the Coldplay album over the PA. Everyone's a little bit zonked after their first full day of festivalling, and we need something to lead us gently into the day. Toploader's opening set is perfect for this, as they don't have any pretensions to making anything other than good time pop tunes: the transcendent coda of Achilles Heel rounds things off beautifully. Bjorn Again should really tear the place apart at this point, but it's a little early in the day for the sort of crazed response their just-camp-enough Abba covers can generate. Never mind, they still manage to encourage the audience into the stupidest looking dancing outside of any stage that Macy Gray appears on.
The Brand New Heavies follow, and define the meaning of the term "dull jazz-rock noodling" once and for all. Thankfully, Coldplay come onto the second stage straight after and really cheer us all up. Only kidding. There's an interesting debate going on with my old chums at Film Unlimited at the moment, concerning the American critics' response to the British movie Wonderland: to a man they all seem to find it infinitely depressing. Contributor ASA1 made an interesting point: "I think they often confuse 'depressing' with 'melancholic', which as we all know can be a beautiful feeling. I honestly think it's a Northern European thing." I think this is the tradition that Coldplay fall into. Everyone makes the obvious comparisons with Radiohead (who can be depressing at times), but I'd be more inclined to compare them with legendary Mancunian melancholics the Chameleons, particularly in the guitar work and the ear for a killer chorus. It's only down to an accident of timing that they aren't performing on the main stage: they'd better get ready for it.
I finally manage to make it into the third stage, which for once is not full, as Horace Andy performs a set of solidly traditional reggae to a conspicuously spliffed-out crowd. (Apologies to the couple I stepped on on the way in.) Pleasant enough as it is, I'm only here for tactical purposes, as it allows me to be at the front before the crowds surge in for Little Miss Shouty Crackers herself, Kelis. It's a move that pays off in spades. The synthetic backings from the Kaleidoscope album are replaced by a hard, fast, predominantly female live band. The effect on the songs is devastating. Caught Out There speeds up into a huge funk-rock monster, crushing any man in its path and reducing him to dickhead puree. An all-female acapella cover of Born To Be Wild brings the house down, as Kelis and four backing singers rip into it like a pre-menstrual Flying Pickets. But that's nothing compared to the climactic fury of Smells Like Teen Spirit (oh yes), which instantly turns a several thousand capacity tent into a gigantic bloody moshpit. Performance of the weekend? Try gig of the year, and we may be closer to the mark.
Back at the main stage, I'm contractually obliged to cheer on fellow Mancunians James. I do appreciate that some people don't go for Tim Booth's fey nature and spazzy dancing. One bloke in front of us actually stormed out when they premiered a new song with the chorus "If you come home with me tonight / I'll make some coffee and some toast". Well, suffer, bitch. I'm always amazed at how well James work in environments like this: stadium rock tends to favour big tunes and chantalong choruses, and James tend to work more with subtle dynamics, building a simple chord arrangement up and then bringing it down again. Nevertheless, the effect is tremendous, aided on this set by a female string quartet that take the climactic Ring The Bells to levels it's never reached before.
Paul Weller, on the other hand, is exactly what you expect stadium rock to be like these days: solid rather than exciting, a little bit retro, a little bit too musicianly for its own good. He's better live than on record, though, as some of the old fire from his Jam days still comes through (notably in his repeated calls to the sound crew to turn everything up). And yes, the singles are still great, giving the Essex Boys in the crowd a chance to seriously Rock Out and start throwing audience-threatening shapes. Amusing to see the fiasco at the end of the set, though: Weller brings on Noel Gallagher for the final number, only to have the plug pulled on him by the organisers for overrunning. Useful tip, Paul: you could have had time to play that final number if you hadn't pissed away five minutes of the set with that terrible drum solo.
And finally, ex-Verve guy Richard Ashcroft in his third solo gig ever, a prospect fascinating enough to keep me away from Moby on stage two. (I don't even attempt to see Leftfield on stage three, as it's full and etc etc etc.) Ashcroft's new material has got short shrift from both press and punters alike: over-produced, over-ambitious, over-emotional, basically people seem to think it's all just too much. But hell, I'd rather listen to somebody who's trying too hard than a bunch of losers like Travis who don't even try at all. This is that Big Music that Mike Scott and the Waterboys were talking about years ago, and Ashcroft's new material deserves pumping up to this sort of scale. With a mixture of tracks from Alone With Everybody and the hits from Urban Hymns, he climaxes with a stunning rendition of Bittersweet Symphony: playing virtually the whole song on a lone acoustic guitar before the full glory of that Jagger/Richards-baiting orchestral loop comes crashing in. A perfect end to a pretty fine weekend.
So, yes it's over-commercialised, yes it's a festival with every single element of risk surgically removed, yes it's staggering just how difficult it is to find a taxi in Liverpool Street at 1am on a Monday morning: but the music and atmosphere are good enough to help you block that out and just enjoy the weekend. So watch out for it again in 2001. And when you go, don't forget to take a nice refreshing bottle of Spank The Monkey Cola with you, as you travel to Chelmsford via Spank Trains. You know I'm a brand you can trust. Being a monkey, and all.
gigsandtours.com is an online ticket agency, and its site includes the official V2000 web page [dead link]. Or at least, it did at the time of writing. Be warned that most of the V2000 sites listed here could be closed down at any time now the festival's finished. Anyway, the official page wasn't that hot: the most interesting thing on it was a series of links to the sites of the various bands performing, and you can find those, er, just under here.
Andreas Johnson, The Bootleg Beatles, Semisonic, Morcheeba, All Saints, Saint Etienne, Moloko, The Bloodhound Gang, Macy Gray, Travis, Supergrass, Underworld, Toploader [dead link], Bjorn Again, Brand New Heavies, Horace Andy, Kelis, James, Richard Ashcroft, Moby and Leftfield [dead link] all have official sites. Paul Weller doesn't. Luddite! [Okay, he does now.]
The Unofficial V2000 Site [dead link] is surprisingly good, certainly giving the official one a run for its money. News, reviews, a bulletin board, even e-postcards. This site's apparently responsible for getting rubbish girl band Hepburn pulled off the bill. Huzzah! The Other Unofficial V2000 Site isn't quite as comprehensive, but is still worth a look.
Chelmsford's a city in the making [dead link]: at least, that's what http://www.chelmsfordcityinthemaking.co.uk appears to claim. Find out for yourself whether it's true.
New Musical Express, as ever, is a tremendous source of information on what's going on in popular music. Their V2000 mini-site [dead link] contained lots of news and info in the runup to the festival, and now has a comprehensive set of reviews. Ignore all that shit they write about James, obviously.