Aidan Smith: Chaos is part of the fun of real rock festivals

T in the Park must go on, if only to allow me to rev up for a Slam Tent comeback, writes Aidan Smith

T in the Park at Strathallan Castle faced a range of criticisms which have little to do with the rock festival experience as so many of us have known it. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
T in the Park at Strathallan Castle faced a range of criticisms which have little to do with the rock festival experience as so many of us have known it. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

It was possibly the moment when I should have woken up and smelled the very uncoffee-like substance. The moment when I should have realised I was getting too old for music festivals. But there I was, about to submit to the Slam Tent.

If you’ve never been to T in the Park, this is the gigantic, wobbly, blue, rubber cathedral of techno and rave. I’d pretended it wasn’t there on previous visits – not easy given its size – reckoning that it wasn’t really me or my snob rock values. This time, though, I was going in.

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Honestly, it was like walking into a factory when Scotland was full of them. The heat generated by the crowd – all jerking to the insane beat like zombies in a fitness class – resembled that of a blast furnace. The clanking noise coming from the stage – no band, just a DJ playing records – was hellish. I say all this, of course, as someone who might be too old for rockfests but is also too young to have experienced the industrial revolution to know what factories were really like.

I’m determined to believe the Slam Tent was wildly exciting although you wouldn’t have deduced this from my pose that day – standing at the back, arms tightly folded, staring sternly ahead. Two girls, who looked to have consumed more than a couple of Cremola Foams, suddenly stopped dancing to eye me suspiciously, something that required them to prop each other up. In unison, they inquired: “Ur yooz a cop or somethin’?”

I have many such memories of T in the Park. I was at the very first one in Strathclyde Country Park and had a perfect attendance record at Balado, until the children came along. Once, I shared a bus ride to the site with Irvine Welsh with the charabanc displaying a “Not in Service” sign at the front. The last time I experienced that was en route to a Sunday School picnic, although Irv and I refrained from hanging streamers from the windows and leading the coach in a rendition of The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride.

Now, unable to swing a weekend off parenting duties – and with the kids still too young for that all-too-brief moment when they would be willing to be chaperoned by their father at a cool event without embarrassment – I watch on TV. But the festival is in some bother right now and I’m wondering if I’ll get the chance to make a return visit.

T in the Park had to take flight from its old airfield home because of safety fears over a gas pipeline but when it nestled into a new site in Perthshire at Strathallan Castle organisers discovered that ospreys had got there first. Wildlife concerns were followed by Nimby complaints. The inaugural Strathallan event sounded grim with mud, crushing, nine-hour traffic tailbacks and the occasional outbreak of violence among numerous teething troubles. Then the festival was hit with accusations of cronyism over its funding from the Scottish Government. Suddenly you wondered if people were starting to fall out of love with T in the Park.

Obviously these are issues which need to be addressed, and the organisers are promising that this year will run more smoothly. But if you’re a rock fan of a certain age it’s tempting to groan a little and liken the complaints to those of Waitrose loyalty-card holders when the Christmas deliveries arrive late and don’t have enough organically-reared turkeys, hand-picked back in September and each given a name, to go round everyone. In other words, just a bit middle-class.

Mud? Hold-ups? A spot of aggro? Today’s fest-goers should have been present in 1976 when these sort of hassles were the norm – indeed, you almost expected them to be listed on the tickets, with a money-back entitlement if they didn’t happen. That was the year I saw the Rolling Stones at Knebworth – or rather, caught the first 15 minutes of the main attractions’ set before the bus had to leave, crowning a day of rotten sound, sunburn, zero counter-attractions for the interminable between-band delays and having all our Pale Ale stolen.

In his memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life!, the music writer Mark Ellen summed up the middle-classisation of the festival in an entertaining rant: “You bastards, you don’t know how lucky you are. You’ve got halloumi. We had salmonella and chips. You’ve got Orange Mobile ‘Camp-Finders’ that make your tent light up when you text it. We slept in old fertiliser sacks. You’ve got Primal Scream beneath a harvest moon, the sky twinkling with Chinese lanterns. We had puddles and Van Der Graaf Generator.” Older than me, Ellen’s first festival was Weeley in swinging, downtown Clacton-on-Sea in 1971. Incredibly, it was organised by the local round table who fancied doing something different that summer after so many donkey derbies, and they managed to attract Rod Stewart, T.Rex and the cream of prog-rock, with the bands playing right through the night.

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By ’75 festivals had become better-organised, although it didn’t seem that way at the time. The apogee, or rather nadir, of organisation seemed to be Live 8 in London’s Hyde Park in 2005 where the hospitality area at the front of the stage was – rather clumsily, given the mega-gig was in aid of poor nations around the world – christened the Golden Circle. Inside it there was so much room and the grass was so manicured that Sir David Frost could sport his blue suede loafers with their gold buckles safe in the knowledge no-one would stomp all over them, far less nick his Pale Ale. This entitled and lifeless assembly enraged Madonna. “Golden Circle, get off your friggin’ asses!” she roared.

Not stayers, there will come a point when the middle-classes have done enough festivals and move on to something else. But I hope T in the Park endures. My kids have simply got to see me bodypop in the Slam Tent.