I’m lost in a dark field, surrounded by tens of thousands of eager rock fans with a towering stage looming out of the black ahead of us. Suddenly the sound of an air raid siren transforms the anxious buzz of the crowd into a jubilant roar and four figures appear, each clad in bright orange prison jumpsuits with black bags obscuring their heads. The whole place erupts into an exhilarating frenzy of jumping, dancing and moshing as Rage Against The Machine launch into their storming performance at Reading Festival 2008, and I’m left awestruck by my first encounter with a festival headliner. In fact, the entirety of my debut festival weekend was unforgettable, establishing a lasting devotion and inspiring a significant element of my lifestyle and identity ever since.
To be honest, I’d initially decided to attend largely for social reasons (my friends were going and I didn’t want to be left out) rather than any particular interest in the music. At the time I was unfamiliar with the majority of the acts and only watched around a dozen bands across the weekend, but the overwhelming scale and spectacle created such a powerful sense of occasion and grandeur that it was an incredible experience regardless. Consumed by the irresistible hype and hysteria, I embraced the festival spirit and threw myself into the dense crowds, singing along to songs I knew and animatedly bouncing to those I didn’t.
The nights were equally fun, with the entire campsite adopting the feel of a chaotic war zone as anarchic adolescent exuberance ran wild. Fuelled by free-flowing drugs and alcohol, people were friendly and inclusive as they greeted strangers like friends, spontaneously congregated for mass singalongs, and danced around monolithic bonfires with reckless abandon. Some aspects were admittedly immature and irresponsible but at the time the danger only enhanced the thrill, epitomizing the feeling of being young, excitable and carefree.
By the end of the festival I was completely hooked, and already looking forward to returning the following year. I’d never cared much for the indie, dance and hip-hop genres featured at Reading though, and my attention expanded to other festivals that would offer a stronger, more specific focus on my preferred styles of music. Naturally, this led me to Download – the UK’s premier rock, metal, punk and alternative event, and heir to the Donington festival legacy left by illustrious predecessor Monsters Of Rock.
Unfortunately my first Download experience didn’t start pleasantly; after arriving at Donington I was deserted by the person I was supposed to be camping with, forcing me to pitch up alone. The prospect of spending the weekend by myself was daunting – especially since I’d never been there before – and I seriously contemplated packing up and heading home, but ultimately the promise and allure of the festival convinced me to stay and make the best of the situation. It turned out to be a great decision, as I ended up having an amazing time.
Even more so than Reading, Download had an aura of warmth and cordiality between attendees – a cult-like camaraderie induced by the common ground of alternative culture – and I felt a remarkable sense of acceptance and belonging. At every turn radios blasted music that I would never usually hear outside of my own headphones, while unconventional fashion styles displayed character and identity in defiance of mainstream tastes and trends. Days in the arena were spent rediscovering and revelling in old favourite bands – most notably the freshly-reformed Limp Bizkit – and exploring new ones, followed by nights roaming the campsite and soaking in the ambience. The level of unruly youthful energy was not the same as it had been at Reading, but the vibe was electrifying nonetheless.
The weekend as a whole was a resounding success not just for myself personally, but critically and commercially for the Download brand. It was one of those rare ‘lightning in a bottle’ affairs where everything fell perfectly into place, and this triumph launched the festival to unprecedented heights of status, acclaim and prestige. Even the often-troublesome weather was consistently flawless. The line-up – although on paper not the strongest – was very well balanced, and the headliners especially were marketed effectively with compelling narratives building into their appearances, creating the feeling that Download was more than just another stop on the tour. Almost all the bands delivered excellent performances to fulfil or exceed expectations; Slipknot in particular were outstanding, and their headlining set is widely regarded as the best in Download history.
Those first two festivals changed everything for me. Having survived one by myself, I was subsequently comfortable enough to go alone whenever necessary, and I also began venturing out to standalone gigs as well. They’re never as special or exciting but they’re thoroughly enjoyable and engaging in their own way, and have themselves been a major feature of my life. I’ve returned to both Download and Reading every year since and have no intention of stopping for the foreseeable future; they’re cornerstone fixtures on my calendar, bookending my summer and providing a constant, reliable source of optimism, anticipation and motivation throughout the year. I’ve also attended others over the years, including Sonisphere, Slam Dunk and 2000 Trees, each exhibiting their own unique charm and flavour.
Music festivals are so much more than just gigs in fields. Each event offers a new adventure, introduces countless new friends and bands, and provides practically limitless opportunities for extraordinary fun. Uncontrolled, uninhibited and unassailable, the liberating party atmosphere is always enthralling. For me, the very best part is being stood in the dark before a gigantic stage, watching one of my favourite bands put on a massive headlining show while a huge crowd goes absolutely crazy together. It gives me this sense of unspoken connection to everyone around me, and a feeling of childlike wonder at witnessing a special moment of exceptional beauty, magnitude and passion. The outside world disappears and we’re off on our own euphoric, ethereal little planet.
Festivals are certainly not for the faint-hearted – they may evoke enthusiasm to a kid-at-Christmas degree, but they’re arduous endurance trials, challenging punters’ resolve with difficult weather conditions, inevitable daily hangovers, debilitating sleep deprivation, and backbreaking physical exertion. However, if you’re tough and determined enough to persevere, you’ll be rewarded with priceless memories and an amazing experience.