Andrew Eaton-Lewis: T in the Park, 20 years on

Revellers at T In The Park. Picture; Phil Wilkinson
Revellers at T In The Park. Picture; Phil Wilkinson
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WHEN I first heard about T in the Park, aged 19, I can remember having two separate reactions. 1. Fantastic, I don’t have to travel hundreds of miles across England to go to a decent music festival, and 2. Did they really have to name the whole thing after the lager sponsoring it?

Twenty years on, I feel more or less the same about T in the Park. I applaud DF Concerts (and, go on then, Tennent’s too) for making it happen each year, and wish the festival a very successful 20th year next month. It’s a world-class event now, its line-ups matching even Glastonbury (try to make a list of acts Glastonbury could get but T in the Park never could – it’d be a very short list). That a T in the Park slot is now the pinnacle of many Scottish bands’ ambitions says a lot about how much the musical landscape has changed here since 1994.

Twenty years on, though, I’m also glad that while I still don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to go to a decent music festival, I don’t have to go to T in the Park either. This year I went to Knockengorroch for the first time and loved its relaxed, intimate, child-friendly, hippyish atmosphere. I’ve still got The Insider and Doune The Rabbit Hole on my to-do list.

This is not a criticism of T in the Park. If you want to see all of the most talked about bands of the moment in one weekend, while drinking a particular brand of lager, it’s the best festival there is. But I think I always hoped for something else from festivals – idealism, possibility. For me the best festivals are the ones that, for a few days, conjure up something that feels like an alternative, utopian, less grey and less corporate vision of modern life, and in doing so send you back to normality with fresh eyes.

That, admittedly, is a big ask. This is not the 1960s, and perhaps it’s hopelessly naïve and idealistic to go to any festival with those sorts of expectations, or for a festival to raise them in the first place. But I can’t help it, and my problem with T in the Park, I think, is that it never seemed interested in trying. It just wants to sell you lager in a park. Beyond that, its principal selling point is just music, lots and lots of it.

Looking back, my happiest T in the Park experiences were the years where I went on my own, with no expectation other than ticking off as many bands as possible. I would get the first bus and walk around the entire site before midday to remind myself how long it took to get from stage to stage, then draw up a plan. 
I’d end the day by watching the headliner from the back of the crowd so I could get to the front of the bus queue quickly. The campsite? Not on your life. Not after the year I woke up in a puddle after a night kept awake by the loudest drunk people in the world.

Antisocial? Probably, but when I did hook up with friends I’d stress about missing bands. Socialising seemed trapped in an unhappy conflict with the principal purpose of the whole event – seeing lots of bands. I couldn’t think of any other reason why I’d be there, so anything that stopped me doing it just made me anxious. I was, I realised, behaving just like I did during a working day.

At Knockengorroch there weren’t nearly enough bands for this to be an issue. More than that, though, there was a sense of community, a messy children’s tent, political idealism, homemade costumes, a quietness and a stillness. I spent half an hour up a hill looking at the view, and returned home subtly changed.