Although the British climate doesn’t really lend itself to outdoor activities, we are inordinately fond of them: picnics, cricket, and country walks are all part of the national psyche, yet all can become miserable ordeals when performed in the luke-warm drizzle which all too often passes for summer. The same spirit which got us through the Blitz can be seen when we gather round the barbecue, watching our breath condense in the air and muttering encouraging things like “I think it’s caught light” in a desperate attempt to talk the charcoal into combusting.
Music festivals are another weather-susceptible event: it’s now become so traditional for Glastonbury to be sodden, that you can detect a faint air of dissatisfaction if attendees don’t get their mud fight. Recreating the Battle of the Somme (albeit with slightly worse toilet facilities) isn’t my idea of a good time, so I was somewhat ambivalent to be given a ticket to The Big Day Out, an all-day festival taking place at Milton Keynes Bowl last weekend, featuring Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Ministry and several other bands not necessarily beginning with the letter M — my schoolfriend, Phil, had been coming down with a mate, who’d dropped out at the last minute. However, for once the weather played ball, and the day dawned gloriously sunny.
Although Milton Keynes is North of London, the quickest train route turned out to be almost Zen-like in its obtuseness: head South to Croydon, then go around London via Clapham and Watford. After a minor detour, caused by Phil leaving the tickets behind (fortunately, we’d stopped off for a fry-up, and were still close to the house), we began Metallicizing the train carriage. This process involves the freaking-out and eventual driving away of non-event goers, by sheer weight of black T-shirts and surly expression. By the time we left Watford Junction, this heavy metal version of ethnic cleansing had been completed, and control taken.
Milton Keynes Central, isn’t. Central, that is. At least, I don’t think so, unless the centre of Milton Keynes contains nothing but roundabouts and car parks. We obtained a first-hand view of most of these, while trying to find a cash machine, and came to the impression that this wasn’t a town you would wish on anyone except your worst enemy. Fortunately, there were buses to take us to the venue, and as we meandered down towards the Bowl itself, you could almost think you were on a quiet country walk. Save, of course, for the thousands of others going the same way: I hadn’t seen that much black since Frank Sinatra’s funeral, although there were rather more tattoos and pierced body parts here — you name it, they’d shoved a stud through it.
The Bowl itself is a natural hollow, and very impressive, especially once filled with 60,000 members of the Trenchcoat Mafia. To keep the hordes well-fed, there were a host of junk food stalls, selling everything from freshly-squeezed lemonade to roast hog (not the mention the unofficial vendors flogging hash fudge at a quid a go!). And to keep them occupied, there were stalls selling jewellery, CDs, essentials like sunglasses and sunscreen, as well as, inevitably, the opportunity to get any bits of your body you’d forgotten about, pierced or tattooed, with more or less permanence. Two stages had been set up, to prevent those annoying inter-band delays, and even at this early point in proceedings, you had little chance of getting within hurling distance of the front. So, we settled on the hillside, wishing we’d brought a pair of binoculars.
Musically, it was a bit of a mixed bag. The bill was heavy on the heavy metal, and it’s a genre whose effect relies significantly on power: the ideal place to listen to it is an angry teenager’s bedroom, and in an outdoor setting, the sound seems to float up and away. Some bands suffered worse than others: Sepultura and Ministry were almost unrecognisable, which was disappointing since the latter have previously blown me away, in a more confined venue i.e. one with a roof. On the other hand, Placebo exceeded expectations, right from Brian Molko’s opening comment: “Sorry we’re late, I’ve just been backstage having my cock sucked by Marilyn Manson.”
But, as at all festivals, music is only a minor part of the event, and people were clearly enjoying themselves. Pink is normally a colour more associated with the Spice Girls or Billy, rather than Metallica and Manson, but as the day wore on, it began to rival black as the dominant colour. It was apparent that this was the first exposure in some time to the harsh rays of natural light for many attendees, and the results were predictably sensitive-looking. Combined with the high rate of alcohol consumption (the queues for the beer tent were exceeded only by those for the women’s toilets), things began to get a tad boisterous at the front — a full-fledged water-bottle fight broke out while we awaited Manson. You got an idea how the French army must have felt at Agincourt, as wave upon wave of disposable containers spiralled down from the heavens.
As darkness fell, headliners Metallica turned up. We’d moved forward towards the stage, but never got closer than about 200 feet from it — oddly, you got a better view a little further back, as you weren’t two inches from the head of the person in front. I’m not a Metallica fan, but I will confess to being mildly impressed by their two-hour session, which set the place alight. Literally — the hillside was covered in impromptu bonfires, some of disturbing size. However, at 11pm, with one final, mini-nuke sized pyrotechnic, the day finished, and we scurried back to the station to retrace our steps home. On the whole, I did kinda enjoy it — though it also reminded me of why I hate festivals, and I think it’ll probably be several more years before I go to my next one…