24 June 2011
Mission Accomplished, Captain'Glastonbury festival. Show day.
I got a pretty good night’s sleep, getting up in time to catch the end of breakfast before heading back into the Glastonbury festival site around noon. There wasn’t going to be a great deal that I could achieve as other bands are playing on ‘our’ stage all day, but I wanted to have an opportunity to walk around the site, soak up some of the atmosphere, gauge the mood of the camp and maybe even see some bands play. Festivals are also the great crew crossroads of the world so I guessed I’d run into a hundred people that I know.
The mud was still pretty challenging but we all had our wellies so it was negotiable. The Glastonbury site is vast, and the further away from ‘downtown’ you get, the more out there and interesting it becomes. ‘Lost Vagueness’, ‘Shangri-la’, the healing fields, installations, encampments – there’s a whole section of festival-goers who will never make it anywhere near the Pyramid Stage. I wandered by the ‘Other Stage’ and saw a band called “The Naked and Famous” who turned out to be neither but sounded quite interesting in a minimalist electro-pop kind of a way. Further out at the ‘Spirit of ’71 Stage’ I saw the Noel Harrison trio playing a delightful folky set to about two dozen people, at which point I felt like I was getting somewhere into the heart of the festival.
By 2.30pm a gentle but insistent drizzle began to fall and at this point I realised that I’d forgotten to bring along the sodding umbrella that I’d dragged all the way from London. The punters didn’t seem greatly fussed by the rain. There was enough ‘first day’ energy in the air to keep spirits up and besides it wasn’t raining with any great conviction. I really wanted to see The Vaccines, as I love the album so was keen to see if they were any good live. I found my way to the ‘Other Stage’ just as they were starting up and allowed myself to be a punter for while. They were pretty good – took a few songs to warm up but that’s entirely fair enough at a broad daylight festival slot. After half an hour I began to feel the effect of standing still hatless and umbrella-less in the rain, so headed back to central command to dry off and warm up. That was pretty much it for my festival experience, but it was better than nothing.
The drizzle continued all day without ceasing which eventually started to become a drag. I retrieved my umbrella at least and also discovered the BBC compound (managing to blag yet another wristband pass to get in there) which is quieter and marginally drier than the Pyramid Stage backstage compound. It struck me for the first time that a real detrimental side-effect of the rain for the masses out there, aside from the obvious feeling permanently cold and damp, is that there’s nowhere to sit down. There’s very limited seating at the food and drink vendors (practically none undercover) and you’re not about to lounge on the ex-grass. Also, the energy required with every step just to lift your foot out of the mud becomes increasingly like boot camp.
The day wore on and eventually U2 arrived on site. Edge was in first as he also fancied a poke around, then the others gradually followed. They were in good form, really seeming quite peaceful about what they were about to do. Perhaps like me they felt that they were as prepared as they could possibly be, so we may as well just relax into it. Morrissey took the Pyramid Stage as the drizzle turned into a more committed precipitation and I had a group huddle with the band to show them (via sketches and photographs) what the stage layout looked like, as there would be no opportunity for them to actually see it until they walked out there to play. Then the final set list sign off and we were under starters orders.
Morrissey finished his set, so I had one last look around the stage to make sure nothing was obviously awry and headed for the mix position. The rain was pretty convincing by now so getting to front of house was extremely challenging, squeezing through the bedraggled hordes. I made it and took up my position by Ethan at the lighting desk. There’s no guest platform out front (who’d be brave enough to get there?) but just a few band guests made it to join us, including Damien Hirst who’d come to see the debut of his extraordinary video sequence for Real Thing. The opening of U2’s Glastonbury set was designed to be very video heavy, essentially being half an hour of ZooTV complete with the original visuals from 1992/93, plus the new Hirst piece. We realised that this was the antithesis of the expected ‘Glastonbury Spirit’ where we’re all very lo-fi and camp with the punters, but sometimes you have to swim against the tide.
I’d had a recurring waking nightmare of technical catastrophe that would leave me standing next to Damien Hirst, watching U2 arrive on stage and playing in front of an array of blank screens. Little did I know how extremely close we came to having this vision become reality. Finally, finally, after eighteen months of pontificating, we are all at Glastonbury with the intro tape of Bowie’s Space Oddity playing. This led into the siren sequence at the top of Real Thing and the video screens bursting into life with images of hatching flies in extreme close up (go Damien!) I noticed, however, that the two festival screens which were supposed to be carrying the camera pictures of the performers were black, and remained so as the song kicked in and the crowd went nuts. I’d expected the Hirst visual to appear enigmatic, but seeing it in isolation with no images of the band amid this tremendous sound was bordering on performance art. And was kind of fantastic.
I was to learn later that, almost simultaneously, two massive gig-threatening events had come to pass. Back stage, the BBC have their whole live broadcast set up and also, in a separate trailer, Smasher (our touring video director) had his whole set up to switch the screen cameras and control all the video playback material. Literally at the moment that Larry first started beating the hell out of his drums at the top of Real Thing, the generator powering Smasher’s truck died, dumping his entire system into darkness. Later he told me that he actually thought he was going to have a heart attack (no doubt, like me, having fantasised about worst-case-scenarios). He genuinely thought that U2 were now on stage playing in front of seven giant video screens showing diddly-squat, but then he noticed that the little back-up system he’d brought with him had kicked in and was happily running on its own battery. He stuck his head out of the trailer and could see that there was light blaring from the screens and that all was well. Smasher’s MacBook was running the Damien Hirst piece all by itself, and the day was saved.
Meanwhile on stage, catastrophe of similar magnitude was simultaneously being avoided by the narrowest of margins. Terry, who on the 360 tour plays keyboards and runs the computer click-tracks from ‘underworld’ beneath the stage, was set up on stage right. There’s no ‘underworld’ at Glastonbury and earlier in the day I’d joked with Terry that he would finally see U2 play live, rather than via the complex CCTV set up we have on the 360 tour. He was set up on Edge’s side of the stage, tucked behind one of the video screens that we’d brought. Between Terry and the front edge of the stage, the Glastonbury DJ had a little set up, to entertain the crowd during the changeover periods. Said DJ had decided to stay there to watch U2 and, going with the festival spirit, nobody objected him being there. Not, that is, until U2 kicked into Real Thing and this guy started dancing and jumping about like a lunatic, knocking over Terry’s computer rack in the process. Many songs are played in a manner we call “off the grid”, i.e. it’s just the four of them playing at whatever tempo Larry is beating out, but songs that play over loops or effects (e.g. With or Without You or I’ll Go Crazy), or that have synchronised video content, need to stay exactly in sync and so are played over a click track (that the audience don’t hear). All of this comes from Terry’s computer set up, and so do all of the video triggers that launch the visual images at exactly the right moment. You can imagine that this is not an uncomplicated set-up, and I’m sure poor Terry saw the whole thing in slow motion, as his central nervous system crashed to the floor.
Thank the universe that, just prior to hitting the deck, Terry’s machine had sent the trigger to Smasher’s video playback system so the Damien Hirst video sequence had launched. Literally seconds later, both Terry and Smasher’s set-ups had both been rendered useless but by then the gig had started, the band was playing and the visuals were running themselves from the back-up laptop. If you listen back to the BBC broadcast you can hear that during the first verse of Real Thing Terry’s “weedly-weedly” keyboard runs are missing because he wasn’t able to play them at the same time as scraping his computer off the floor.
On stage, of course, the band had no idea that any of this was happening but were facing challenges of their own, not least that the persistent rain had turned the stage surface into an ice-rink. Not only were the musicians finding themselves in entirely unknown physical territory but also in a situation where they had no idea what might happen if they attempted sudden movement. All of us then found ourselves in extremely challenging circumstances but by this time the rocket was launched and the energy of the moment carried everything. It turned into a great gig and the audience, gawd bless ‘em each and every one, managed to remain energetic and rowdy throughout even though I’m sure they were in considerable discomfort. I did have to laugh at one point. 'Elevation' is a useful gauge of crowd energy and I looked out of the mixer tower at this point to survey the field and see how they were doing. There was lots of hand-waving but I was surprised that there wasn’t more jumping up and down. I realised then of course that the reason they weren’t jumping up and down was because they couldn’t… 80,000 pair of wellied feet, sucked into the mud, so hand waving would have to suffice.
We made it through to Moment of Surrender and the last little treat of Out of Control (oddly my favourite two songs of the night), before retiring to the backstage compound to fall in a heap. I looked at my phone and saw I’d had texts from twenty-one people during the show, all raving about what they’d seen on TV, so at this point I finally gave myself permission to relax. Mission accomplished, captain. For once we didn’t do a runner but stayed at the gig to join the party. There was a hog roast (in a large tent, as it was still raining) where we ate drank and were merry. We laughed because, surveying the room, from the waist up it looked like the most A-list celebrity hang-out you can imagine, but from the waist down it looked like a farming convention.
At godknowswhat hour we did finally leave and headed for the town of Bath where we were to spend what remained of the night. I’d been warned ahead of time that I’d been bumped from the Hotel Fabulous to Mrs. Miggins’ B&B down the road, due to a rash of last minute guests and family. I didn’t mind as it was so brief a stay, and I could appreciate that these were unusual circumstances (plus Tour Management now owe me big time, which never hurts - I can feel a suite in New York coming on.) However, on arrival at 4am I discovered that my room at Mrs Miggins’ had been cancelled. I was face to face with the night porter who was highly accomplished at that particularly English art of giving the appearance of falling over himself to be helpful whilst actually being controlling, obstructive and all the while letting you know just how inconvenient the whole situation is for him in particular. I just said “Look, I’m going to take a seat over there, so when you’ve got a key, come and give it to me.” Some while later he did just that, and I headed up to the fifth floor. The key didn’t fit the door…