There are a few things that I used to enjoy in South Africa that I’ve not quite cracked here yet. I enjoyed my mates, my residence, and my drink. Although I’ve yet to find a UK equivalent for these, I had finally found activities that seemed to surpass one of my other favourite South African pastimes: music festivals. Something about the friendly atmosphere, dedicated musos, and all-round fuckery kept me going to South Africa’s premiere festival Oppikoppi for years, and is likely to get me to go back. But since I was in Britain, I was to carpe my diem at the mother of all rock festivals, Download.
Official line up available at http://downloadfestival.co.uk/line-up/
Download Festival is a music festival that is set in Donington Park, England. While this is quite a long way from Scotland, it attracts people from all over the UK, Europe, and apparently the world. The festival has been going since 2003 (branching off another fest) and is a bit heavier than your average music festival, without dipping into Scandinavian church-burning metal. Just the way I like it. It attracts crowds of over 80 000 people through three days (five, if you’re a fool with a tent) and has a pretty good reputation on an island that has to compete with Glastonbury, Reading, and T in the Park. It also has its own lovable mascot, the Download Dog. Possibly since they’re both always pissing.
So I do it. And I am late for the bus that I’d booked to and from the event. I get to the station and my bus is nowhere on any of the boards, I have no idea where to go, and I am already lost until I see them. A collection of weird kids – dyed hair, black shirts, crates of beer, cigarettes, facial piercings – and I realised I had reached my stop. The trip was a fucking long one, about seven hours, but was made easier by a cheery bus driver. He spent pretty much the entire 420 minutes (ha) speaking about how stupid we were to spend a weekend on a farm and how he’d far rather go and watch some country western stars, and how his wife does this and does that. He interrupts himself now and then to try flog us some Irn-Bru. We have no CDs because it’s 2016, so us strange-kin are stuck listening to fucking One Direction on the radio on the way to mosh pits. Eventually, we draw near to Donington Park, and the excitement is looming in the whole bus. We near the East Midlands Airport and pass the demarcated road signs, but all we can see are fields and fields of nothing. I feel like a kid on a holiday trip, sitting up in my seat to see the sea, but staring out of the wrong side of the car.
We arrive and de-bus at the transport hub. It is only at this time that we realise how difficult it was going to be to carry all this shit across the farm, or “Village” as they called it. I grab my backpack (consisting mainly of beer and clothes), my borrowed tent, my borrowed sleeping bag, and my broken Tesco shopping bag of a borrowed blow-up mattress, some food, and “wellies”. Back home we call these plastic boots “gum boots” and they are not essential for Oppikoppi. That festival is dry, and the only people that wear them are the idiots from Johannesburg that think festivals all look like they do on 9Gag. They’re likely to wear those fucking Indian chief hats too. But I’d been strongly advised to buy a cheap pair and I’d done so. I’d look like a doos, but unlike your likeness, dryer was better.
I begin the great trek across the park and this place is massive. You have to walk past a whole bunch of martials who were failing to direct traffic as you pass plantations of cars, since you couldn’t drive in yourself. Along the way are people renting out wheel barrows to assist you with the hike, even though many people have made rudimental versions for themselves. But I, am a South African. And I’m sure there must be some Afrikaans in me that could not accept help in a trek from an Englishman. I enter and get my first view of the fantastic, rectangular Village and head to the far end where most of the campsites are. There are several camps and they are labelled by colour, each in varying distances from all the action of the Village. And as I get deeper in, I get to see what action there was. And one of the first things I saw was a rather large topless woman fallen over on the floor laughing hysterically and sunburned to high hell. Welcome to Download.
The Village end close to the gate was a bit adminy, with ATMs, lost and found, and a whole bunch of information points filled with people with very limited information. Moving on, you get your classic street food stalls of all ethnicities, cultures, tastes, and a vegan one too. In the middle, it gets a bit like a mall. There are spots where you can buy groceries in a tent, beer in bulk, and lockers to hide your shit away. Then you get to see the first bar The Hair of the Dog, an ale bar. This is opposite some bumper cars (or “dodge ‘ems”), one of many fairground activities available. As you leave the middle, the shops get weirder, with oxygen bars, goth clothing shops, and a guy whose major selling point was that he sold “shit cameras”.
Past all these shops are several marquees indicating mini-stages. They’re still capable of holding hundreds of people and have impressive sound systems, but are dwarfed by the arena. The Dog House is just near the end, and I begin to look for a campsite. Although it was Thursday and the arena was due to open only on mid-Friday, the camps were already packed. I paced around for a good hour, even skimming past the remote camps to look for a pad. Thanks to my tiny tent, I managed to park in the rear of someone’s site in the Black campsite, a stone’s throw away from The Pound, another tented stage. I set up, borrow a pump for the mattress, had a beer because mattress pumping is hard, and decide to sort my shit out before I got too involved.
I’m pretty notorious for losing my stuff, so I headed straight for the lockers to put my important shit away. I then head to the ATM so I could draw some cash and put my card away too. It was here that I was hit with my first curveball. No bank card. It must have fallen out somewhere. Surely. The alternative meant only £40 for a weekend of festival prices where I had no food. The lost and found guys became my good mates, and I spent the next hour or so retracing my steps and asking every stall I’d ever been near if they found a card. They had not. I remained positive, sure that someone would hand it in and all would be well. It was not a good turn of events. But it did prove that it was not my drinking that made me irresponsible, I was irresponsible all by myself.
Realising I’d spent too much money on a ticket to walk around a park not spending money, I checked the Village out a little closer, but this time at night. One of the biggest differences this festival had to Oppi is how much effort was put into the Village area. The night time had quite a vibe, the whole area was well-lit, and everything was geared toward the alternative music sub-culture. This involved a comedy tent, a cinema tent, a wall of death and various entertainment activities. Even the funfair ride I went on belted out “Bat Out of Hell”, as I got a brief panoramic view of the whole campsite, before realising I’d not trust anyone in that area code with engineering as I was to plummet to my inevitable death. After dying on the ride, I head to the Pound where a group of entertainers had put together a montage of the top music video each year from 1969 until this year, starting with the Who. It was excellently put together, but pretty long-winded. They tried to appease the crowd by making sure it was filled with inflatable guitars and drunk Welsh people. I had a quick look at the Hair of the Dog, which had a similar playlist, but an older and drunker clientele. Perhaps they were just on different drugs. I caught the last music video (Disturbed’s “Sound of Silence”) and stumbled to bed.
I was feeling uncomfortably normal in the morning, and to be honest a bit hot. This rain business that someone had spread about European festivals was clearly bullshit. I hadn’t packed open shoes so I trekked kaalvoet trough the Village, past Peter the security guard who insisted on high-fiving you every single time you passed, to the showers. Feeling fresh and somewhat sorted, I head to lost property to find my card. Nothing. Now there may have been panic. And then I remembered that a family friend had recently moved to Derby, a nearby town. What a stroke of luck. I phone him up to ask a massive favour and what was to happen but he was in Wales for the weekend. Well, fuck. It’s always something. I message my sister for some help since I didn’t think my parents would believe I lost the card before I started drinking. The best we could come up with was to find some someone to transfer money to that could draw it for me. The only problem is that I didn’t know anyone at the festival and I was to be the foreigner asking for people’s bank details. Such is my life. I told the folks I’d fucked up, and asked advice like children do.
Stuck with what to do, I heard the arena area had just opened up so I headed that way. This was quite a fair walk from the campsite, no matter what camp you were in. Eventually you get to the gate and are searched everywhere. The festival does not allow and food or drink in the arena for safety reasons. It has nothing to do with the inflated prices. At all. Although I have heard that the festivals are quite brutal here, and if the crowd thinks you’re shit, they’ll pelt you with bottles and cups filled with urine. So best err on the side of safety. Once you get through, everyone takes the booze out of their crevices and you get a panoramic view of the arena, at the top of a gentle slope.
At the top of the hill is a large dog head, there for some free advertising since everyone takes a selfie with it and InstaBookTwits it. There are about four major stages in the arena, with a couple more minor ones and various other stalls and camps that blast out music in the intervals. The dog head faces the main stage, or Lemmy Stage, the largest of all stages where the headliners closed each night. Off to the left, separated by stalls is the Zippo Encore Stage, the secondary but still massive stage, and on the right are two marqueed stages, the Dog Tooth and Maverick stages. The music was hardly the only thing going on, but I’ll try surprise you as I was surprised. The rest of it is taken up by more merchandise stands, food stalls, and bars. The food stalls are pretty much the same as the campsite with a bit more variety. The bars also vary, but with six official bars from Dog Bar 1 to Dog Bar 666.
After nosying around, I spot a stall for the coach company that brought me there and I remember they said they give away free shit. They gave me a badge. I was unimpressed. And then even more so when they asked me to take a photo with all of my friends. But they were the biggest connection I had and I went around like a low-level scam artist asking if I could deposit money in their account. No luck. I was disgruntled, but was not going to miss the reason I came there which was to watch live music.
I catch Alien Ant Farm on the main stage, as some clouds started to set in. They were alright, I only knew a handful of their songs, and they were a little past their prime, but they seemed pretty happy to be there and their front man dealt well with a pretty unenthusiastic crowd. It’s here that I first realised that every band that wasn’t closing that stage seemed to be rushing their set. They absolutely flew through their songs, with not much chatter in between. The line-ups were on strict times and each band needed to set up for their performances. This was OK for the smaller bands, but I’d have liked a fuller performance from the bigger guys. On the other hand, if you were headlining that stage, you took your sweet fucking time.
I was getting a bit parched and had not the funds to drink at the stages, and I headed back to camp as the rain began to start. It got a little harder, then harder, and eventually as I got to the Village, it was a full on monsoon. This was like a Highveld storm, but with more longevity. The rain was going sideways, backwards, and any which way but poesing down. I was hid under the roof of an information booth, where the people inside seemed not to know what this strange water from the sky was. Not only had I not packed a rain coat, I had also forgotten to take two of each animals, so we were all well and truly fucked. I waited on a slight lull in the downpour and swam across to my tent. And needless to say, almost to try and fit in with the rest of the camp, it had flooded.
I don’t know what’s so difficult about making a tent that’s waterproof, but I’d yet to come across one that actually was. Granted, mine was not quite as submerged as some of those downhill, but I’d never felt finding people worse off than me to make my situation any better. I had unpacked my clothes so I could use the back pack and so my clothes were all drenched. The cardboard boxes had disintegrated, and the sleeping bag scrumpled into a wrinkly scrotum. I’ve come to understand life can be separated into various “what the fuck?” moments. After kicking off my muddy shoes, stripping off my drenched clothing, sitting on a damp mattress; I cracked open a Scottish beer on a farm in England, wrung out my wallet with about £20 left , listen to people take of the end of days outside and took a second to try and take in what the hell was going on in my life.
I composed myself and noticed a message from my folks urging me to block the card and that I could possibly get money sent to me by the card people. This seemed unlikely but I tried to call the card company and things seemed to be going well. Then my phone died. I was over this bad turn of events and inspired by the slight easing off of rain. Dryish clothes, another beer, and whiskey hidden in a flexible bottle. Half time was over, I had had my oranges, and I was to go back into the field to get a good spot. Not even my mini great depression was enough to rob me of standards. I like to be in the front bit of the stage, so I can actually see people performing. Not right against the fence, those people had been there for hours, but certainly in the front section, and outdoor festivals allow for a decent view. Generally this involved a bit of weaving. I had not a pair of tits, which allows you to get away with anything in any crowd, but I am quite a short and because I was looking for space for one it was usually quite doable.
The next act I wanted to see was the Lemmy Kilmister tribute. His band, Motörhead, was scheduled to play that spot, but the lead man himself had died of cancer a few months prior. I was expecting an actual tribute, with artists playing bits of their favourite songs. However, when I managed to get a good spot, it turned out to be just a documentary. It was a good one, but still not as good as a musical tribute would have been. None the less, I learned more about the guy who drank a bottle of Jack Daniels for breakfast. An impressive populous of rock stars traded stories of Lemmy offering them crystal meth upon meeting them, getting them to down whiskey, and pretty much taking every substance known to man while jamming his over-driven bass. Only to be taken down by the big C. The defining moment must have been when they asked Lemmy if he had any regrets. Before they could finish the sentence he said no, not one. Later recommending his lifestyle since it worked out for him. I suppose it did.
But back to the live bands and it was finally time for one of my favourite bands of all time, Korn. I’d ended up next to a bunch of older Scots who provided some interesting British insight on the band, like that fact the Jonathan Davis (lead singer) was the most Welsh sounding guy who wasn’t actually Welsh, and a couple of them criticised his bag-pipe playing. There’s an argument about whether anyone can actually tell when bagpipes are off, but if there is, it’s the Scots. You see a real difference in the big-time bands here. Smaller bands have a little banner and scamper on stage to do sound checks. Big bands have effects and entire roadie crews that do a full set up, sound check and set down. Rock stars are there to rock. The rest is the job of peasants. Such is the hierarchy of rock.
Finally, Korn get onto stage one by one, opening with a classic “Right Now”. People like to say that they “lost their shit” when explaining how crazy they went. I didn’t even take my shit. I was just a shitless, awe-inspired wonder as one of my beloved bands belted out hit after hit spanning their 20 year reign. It kind of all flew buy, but this is possibly because I knew almost all of the songs and was fighting for my life in the mosh pits on the choruses. Mosh pits are sort of short outbursts of energy that occur in various sections of the crowd, where people break out running into each other and pushing each other like a large, scrappy rugby maul. It stems from the sort of feeling you get when a good heavy chorus gets into its rhythm, and because white people can’t really dance. They’re pretty insane, but not as dangerous as they sound. The unwritten rules are to keep your elbows down and pick up anyone who has fallen down. People follow the falling rule religiously, and most times moshers don’t make it to the ground before being helped to their feet. This gives you enough time to smile, look relieved, and get knocked back down by some guy behind you. Like most events, it can get ruined by some fuck who thinks he’s in charge or some guy who’s really trying to hurt people, but generally most people get really tired after a while and it fizzled out to catch your breath. I’m not a big lad, but I have my wits about me so I pick my moments to let out some frustration and it’s a good laugh.
Korn finish up, also cruising through their songs, and look a little disappointed that they have to announce Rammstein up next. I, however, was far from disappointed and was just blessed to have seen them, lucky to have not been hurt, and buzzing from the cheap whisky I snuck in. I peel off the side of the crowd for a pee, and by the time I get back there is a large cloth over the stage so you can’t see the goings-on behind on stage. Rammstein were a bunch of factory workers from East Germany, and it’s seemed to have inspired all sorts of construction going on behind the curtain. They eventually come out to start a long set of pyrotechnics, fireworks, and all sorts of visual spectacle. It begins with guitarists being lowered down from a scaffolding on two platforms, then followed up with the guitarists having sparklers tied to their arms, the lead singer shooting a crossbow of fireworks into the crowd, and fire going on just about everywhere including behind us. Lead singer: fire. Stage: fire. Soundbox that gets in everyone’s way: fire. This was Freddy Kruger’s Nightmare, this was Charmander’s wet dream and all it lacked was a naked Khaleesi to pop out of nowhere.
They may have skipped out on some of their more obvious English songs (“America” and “Pussy”) but it was a fantastic show to behold and the guys looked truly honoured and buggered at the end. The security then tried to get people out of the arena pretty quickly, but didn’t open any extra gates to make the process any easier. So you fall in with the crowds to head back. I manage to fetch my charged phone, get back to my tent, and get in a forty minute conversation with the woman at Cash Passport (in India apparently). It was half past twelve, yet I still managed to cancel my card, answer all the security questions and have money sent to the nearest Western Trade Union. I even managed to keep my language pretty civil. How mothers just know these things baffles me. This was a victory, but I was not sure where the nearest Western Trade Union was. Google said far, but the helpful police men in the camp said close. I assumed the easier one, and decided that I would be able to walk to there to get my cash. I got cocky, spent more cash, and checked out the Dog House. It was a similar vibe to the previous night, but more clubby. I got me a toasted sandwich and the chick at the counter threw in a coffee because I was so nice. It actually tasted like a boozy coffee, but the joke was on her, since is stumbled tentwards and collapsed on bed, ready to sort shit out the next morning.
Pt. 2 has been published