Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings on T in the Park: Music, Anthropology, a Festival-Camper’s Pro-Tips

Strathallan Castle sits aloof above its new tenants, the Tennent’s carting and swilling masses camped in colorful tents swathed in mist and and smoke from portable grills.  It’s noon on Friday, and campers are still pitching, and soundcheck rumblings aside, the music has yet to begin.  Shod in Bass boatshoes instead of (I see now) the requisite wellingtons, the T’s new pastures look to me as desolate as muddy and trench-cut Verdun, as God- and manforsaken as a potter’s field on Pluto.

And yet, in their bright wellies and slickers and headbands of plastic flowers, in their sweats and straw hats, carrying crates of Tennent’s and Manger’s cider in wheelbarrows and on sleds through the sludge, the bedazzled and bedenimed children stomp in the mud, celebrating from 10-12 July nothing but their own blessed and blemishless juvenescence … and Tennent’s lager.
[From (my notes for) The Skinny: Friday]

I pitch my tent in the Pink fields, as scenic a spot as a T’er could ask for, under Strathallan Castle and near a pond.  I don’t need the two people my tent’s instructions require for assembly – my long arms and determination are enough – but it isn’t long before I feel the first frosty fingers of doubt about my decision to forego pillow, blanket, and sleeping bag, and weather two nights under a comically small fleece throw-thing.  I raise a Canadian flag in hope of attracting my Torontonian friend and bandmate James Gilbert, along with my colleagues from The Skinny; but I can’t hang about, there’s work to be done.  I take a Cherry Bakewell for the road and head to the Media tent.  And …

If you want chronology, check out the Skinny’s coverage of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with reviews of the best bands and fun scene setting stuff – the reason I actually went to T.  I joined Skinny writers Claire Francis, Chris McCall, and Stu Lewis to review the bulk of T’s acts – but while I was jotting down Randy Jacksonesque notes about pitch problems and my own emotional fluctuations, I learned quite a bit about T, what makes this magiscule Scottish festival different from the other US and UK and EU mud-love-and-music fests.  So what follows will not be chronological, nor strictly musical, but anthropological, in style somewhere between Melville’s Maldive sketches and Goethe’s “jottings.”¹ For example:

On T’ers: Camping, and Neighborly Relations

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Strathallan Castle overlooks a scene more debauched than anything witnessed here since a Glasgow girls’ school took refugee at the Castle during WWII.

At 3pm Friday we’re sharing pints and stories.  I had pitched my tent alone and, despite raising the Maple Leaf, my friends and colleagues couldn’t secure spots anywhere near me.  But one makes friends quickly in T’s fields – for example, every time a drunkard crashed into one of my tent’s walls, threatening my supplies², they usually proffered a handshake and a coldish Tennent’s.

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The supplies, minus a (crucial) sheath of 17 Lidl-exclusive rice cakes and a (plastic) bottle of Lidl-exclusive (crunchy) peanut butter. I’d say this is all a T’er needs, but I did benefit from the super-secret Embo, a station selling 1 pound 80 breakfast rolls and 1 pound filter coffees to staff – in stark contrast to 6 pound breakfast rolls from just about any campsite vendor. Pro tip: If I were camping with friends, I would have brought three disposable grills (2 quid at Sainsbury’s) and a packet of sausages.

I spend the first night in unspeakable misery, self-medicating my way through the tail-end of a gastroenteritis spell, feeling the cold seep into me through only the plastic tent-bottom that separates me from the fast eroding ground, violently arranging my clothes into a “pillow,” and attempting to curl my 5’11” frame into a parcel that might be covered by my 4.5’x4.5′ cheap fleece blanket.  To the east my neighbors are doing their best to keep melodies from Friday night headliners Kasabian‘s thrilling set alive via throaty chants; to the west, my neighbors (a lovely couple from Glasgow) fight bitterly, for about four hours, breaking up twice, once drunk, and once sober.

(This east-west thing may give the impression that tents are pitched in a roughly grid formation, not by design, but the the cumulative effect of common sense.  No.  We are arrayed in a riot of nylon, tents pegged under other people’s tents, doors pointed in total caprice, camp chairs cluttering what one might generously have called the aisles.  They’re more like gutters, though, and by Saturday morning they’re filled with discarded clothing, empty cans, uneaten orders of chips swimming now in rainy ketchup, and what appear to be the remains of tents that were sucked into the earth overnight.  Pro tip: if you’re staying for Sunday night’s headliner, leave Monday morning or afternoon.  Searching for tent pegs in Night The Third’s dark and beery morass can make a hard man cry; and packing your tent and catching your bus is much more difficult when festival organizers insist on sending all campers on the longest possible route back to the fields – it took me 45 minutes from the end of Noel Gallagher‘s Sunday night set.  On top of this, there will be unholy queues for the buses, especially if you’re heading to Edinburgh.  Expect catfights.  Expect repeatedly to black out while riding home, despite the Rage Against The Machine you’re pumping into your abused ears.  Expect to arrive in Edinburgh around 4 a.m., having consumed your last Cherry Bakewell, the last of your rum.  But back to the people: )

By 6 a.m. Saturday all is quiet, bracketing my tinnitus.  I rise to use the Scotloos (more on these later).  By 8 a.m., my westerly neighbors are up, apologizing and offering me a leg of mutton, or whatever they’re roasting on their disposable grill, domestic hostilities suspended.  On this and the following morning we share pleasant exchanges, talking about what acts we caught, what acts we wished we caught, what … etc. etc.  The natives seem to like me, though we don’t get much further than pleasantries.  An American, a “writer,” the guy with the Canadian flag drooping soggily from his solo tent, I’m a bit of an anomaly in T Land.

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T Land: not bad from afar.

But as I walk back to my tent Friday night Kasabian’s cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” stays in my head, more than any of the clashing melodies drunkards shout well into the sodden a.m.  “Faces come out of the rain / No one remembers your name.”  In between songs like “Praise You/L.S.F.,” “Fire,” and “Shoot The Runner” (Kasabian’s live set is a Thing To Witness; their lyrics don’t impress) Morrison’s lines seem epiphanic.  It was misting at the Main Stage; road flares burned smokily and the band’s light show sent iceblue silks slicing through the watery air.  Faces came out of the rain … we’d remember no names.  (Even best friends, at that stage of intoxication, become strangers – as I’d witness later that night, in the BBC soap playing itself out in the next tent.)  It was a beautiful thing, this freedom to connect without commitment.  It became, for me, the word-token summing up with whole experience.

 

On T’ers: The Young Scot, in General

Indomitable doesn’t begin to cover the attitude of the pished Scot.  Take for example the picture of a pished Scot pissing: not in one of the hundreds of Porta-Potties that fence in T, but together, under the gray skies, in in-facing octagonal formation, into the yellow plastic sinks that the Porta-Potty users no longer consider suitable for hand-washing.  At night it seems just excusable festival behavior; in the morning, one recognizes its genius lies in more than expedience.  How does one avoid voiding on top of an unbelievably³ backed up Scotloo?  You can’t.¹†

The following could have been a footnote, but it seems too important to bury: on closer inspection Saturday afternoon, I realize what I’d taken to be sinks commandeered for urinal-use are actually urinals.  The sinks one usually sees like watchtowers outside rows of Portas at outdoor events like these … the Scots just don’t bother.  Perhaps this in-facing octagonal urinal contraption already exists outside of Scotland.  But it’s clearly a native invention – necessity-born, simple.  T in the Park is unique among UK festivals, my Skinny colleague Stu informs me on Saturday morning, because – despite the acts’ universal compulsion to praise Scottish crowds as the best in the world – it’s not as much about the music as “just about getting pished.  It’s their vacation.”  Pished, huh.  Now the word takes on a layered, protean symbolic significance.

So you’ll see plenty of catatonic youths couchant in mud beds in the food-and-entertainment area or even squatting in the middle of a headliner crowd.  During The Libertines show Saturday night I’m flanked on my left by a blue-slickered boy, no more than 19, dipping a coke spoon into a 50 quid baggie; to my left a girl squats in the mud, in some personal hell, attended by a few friends in the very picture of Florence Nightingale-style concern, but apparently uninterested in removing her from the crush.  Ahead, just past a shoulder-lofted boy in a “Will Fuck For Cocaine” hoodie the Libertines start the first single off their upcoming (third) album, Anthems For Doomed Youth, “Gunga Din”: “Just another day, it feels like nothing’s changed, oh fuck it, oh here we go again.”

 

An Aside: 2015’s Biggest Story in British Music: The Libertines re-formed and reformed.

As with any festival, campers and day-trippers have certain chief concerns: these include how to sneak bottles of hard liquor past the security guards²†, how to eat without breaking the bank on £8 pizza squares (no way to avoid this, sorry), and how to prioritize conflicting acts.  The T organizers are veterans by now, and do a fair job of not sending crossover crowds into existential crises, with the egregious exception this year of three must-sees playing simultaneously: The Libertines, Alt-J, and The Proclaimers.  I opt for The Libertines, having discovered the outrageous rockers only recently – many times have James and I drained locals of their change playing Libertines hits on Edinburgh’s Mile.  Alt-J won high praise my my Skinny colleague Claire Francis; I was sorry to miss them, though I did catch a bit of The Proclaimers’ “Sunshine on Leith” and “I’m Gonna Be,” belted by a rabid home-crowd in King Tut’s loud enough for all of us in the Media tent to enjoy.  The point is, I just couldn’t resist the appeal of the reunited Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, as well as – let us not forget – drummer Gary Powell, too talented for either of them, though of the three he seemed the most elated to be back, playing, alive, etc.

The Libertines’ lyrics are tragicomically self-chronicling: “Cant Stand Me Now” laid bare Carl and Pete’s manic-demonic relationship (“love-hate” just doesn’t cover it) while “What Became of the Likely Lads” debuted what seemed like minutes before the band disappeared into an 11 year hiatus.  Their T set Saturday is filled with their old hits, and becomes a constant (do-your-best-to-)singalong, while black-and-white stage footage on two flanking screens is interspersed with shots of the band from their younger days, glimpses into their brilliant fall.  “Gunga Din” proves what the lyrics more or less declare: that they’re ready to deliver sloppy, witty, wide-eyed rock again, as if no time has passed.  It’s the same old Libertines.  Another song played here live for the first time cements it: Anthems For Doomed Youth promises to pick things up where they left of 11 years ago.  They’re mellower, for sure – and thank goodness, or they might not make it to Anthems‘ Sept release date – but they do loosen up and start horsing around at the end, embracing and wrestling and bringing a fat tear to my eye.  Oh, wait – that was mud.  One only hopes that they ditch the vintage footage and transition from safe festival gigs back to the club sets where they’ll thrive, and maybe keep developing.  It’d be “nice” to see them at the next T or Glastonbury, but “nice” wears out quickly – we want them at Glasgow’s Barrowlands.

 

On T’ers: Why Bands Love Scottish Crowds

“These songs are just alright,” says Noel Gallagher, closing out T in the Park 2015, “but you people make them into extraordinary pieces of music.”  We didn’t know a big mouth in a leather jacket possessed that much self-awareness. With this Gallagher begins the Oasis anthem Champagne Supernova and the night dons a religious aspect, ancient, like the rites the Picts and Caledonians practiced on these very fields before St. Fillan’s arrival. Though he’s conjured clear skies and a dramatic setting sun, we seem unable to comprehend T without rain, and thus keep up a steady drizzle of Tennant’s and post-Tennent’s waste products.

In plenty of pubs and perchance perschnockered your correspondent has been known to declare Oasis the indelible brown smear on the white porcelain of this Kingdom’s pop consciousness. And though there isn’t anything sonically or lyrically interesting in his music, old or new – and though his otiose orchestra adds little to the arrangements or their performance – and though Gallagher’s own stage presence is muted, even statuesque … still, the crowd keeps up a constant roar of approval, giddy with recognition as each new tune begins. He’s relatable, they say; he has a keen ear and a felicity for phrasing; but the sum of his plusses can’t measure his appeal. All that matters is that he knows us and (says he) loves us, that we love him and know his songs. He closes with Don’t Look Back In Anger – which is, OK, a good one – and we leave blissed-out enough to bear with an incredibly ill-contrived exit plan. Noel Gallagher and the Something Somethings.  Not the best act we’ve seen, but the perfect end to one helluva festival.

[From (my notes for) The Skinny: Sunday]

The Libertines were not the only band to note T’s crowd as Scottish.  The LaFontaines were proud to be playing home turf; The Cribs tried to wrap themselves in the Saltire; Kasabian loved the young Scots; and Noel was (allegedly) thrilled … really, I can’t recall a band that didn’t praise Scottish festival crowds as the best, the world over.

I end up next to a young man named Andy during Gallagher’s set Sunday night, and like many others that weekend he spotted my notebook and struck up a conversation³†.  He was only one of a handful I met that night, one point in a network of conversation spanning Gallagher’s appeal¹‡, the Scottish Character, the Weather, the probability that certain tossed cups contained urine rather than Tennent’s, and various people’s girlfriends’ adventures in America.  Which isn’t to say we weren’t paying attention.  We were devoted to Noel; as I wrote in the Skinny, his set took on an unironically religious significance.  This Andy character let another Scot – let’s call him Angus, because I never learned him name – borrow his e-cig, and this Angus, a portly sort of probably cupcake-loving man embraced Andy several times, delcaring his love.  Angus’ love catalyzed by a shared e-cigarette overflowed into my general footspace, and soon we were talking – Andy even shoved people aside and thrust me into a gap, when a hoisted girl’s fanny obscured my view of the venerable Gallagher.  Now I had to juggle the seemingly conflicting truisms that Scots come to T not for the music, but to get pished, and that Scot crowds are the best crowds: my best compromise was and remains that Scots aren’t necessarily there for the music, but are there for the moment, and for plenty of bands, that’s the best a fan can be.

There’s a dark side to all this, though.  As I’m humping my bags across T’s empty fields, circa 12:55 Monday morning, having been misdirected twice, and despairing of catching my bus (I had no idea there’d be an hourlong queue), I pass a group of yellow-vested staff standing outside a Scotloo.  One shined a flashlight in – down, let me stress, into a corner of the floor, as if spotlighting a bomb, a handbag, a misdirected and remarkable turd.  I keep humping across the sea of mud and plastic.  And then I hear the point man say: “Are ye alright laddie?  Do ye know where ye are?  … Do ye know where ye are, lad?”

I was less shocked than challenged to fit this new knowledge in with what I;d already seen: was there a man curled up on the very bottom of the Porta? digging for truffles?  These thoughts turned more sobering, as I reflected that this man’s friends had left him – maybe not by any fault of their own, as it’s easy to disappear (into a Portapotty) in  crowd of thousands – but, still, that this man, who hadn’t come alone, had to regain consciousness alone, in a rank plastic poop receptacle, at 1 a.m. on Monday, with a cop’s torch in his face.

But even this sounded more desirable when I learned, two days later, that authorities had found a man dead at T in the Park, in a Scotloo.  This came couched in other humorous stories about intoxicated hijinks at T – like a man trapped in his sleeping bag and Tweeting for help, pestered by journalists to use his fading cell battery for interviews.  And I’m not at all convinced that I witnessed the dead man’s discovery, though it’s possible and even probable.

Suffice it to say T is different .  You can say it’s about money and not tradition – that unlike Glastonbury there are no flags allowed, and it’s filled with youngsters.  But as The Proclaimers remarked after their set, the young crowd can be a plus.  There’s a manic madness to T, a Dionysian quality of excess that can, in headlines days later, turn the heart and guts to a sack of stones – but acknowledging exceptions as exceptions, T promises and delivers extreme satisfaction along with discomfort and what might be medically confirmed as blood poisoning on a mass scale.  So T in the park is sort of like Tennet’s lager itself: it’s not for everyone, but it’s charmingly cheap, it’s effective, and it keeps a significant part of the world going on party nights.

Selah.


Notes:

1. No, I’ve not begun (in earnest) my irritating references: Melville’s “Maldive Shark” and Goethe’s “Doubtful …” (both 80p Penguin classics) were my only reading on this trip, and therefore influenced the pattern of my thoughts and, now, my prose style.

2. My ( … food) supplies were limited to a box of six (6) Cherry Bakewells, a pack of 17 Lidl-exclusive rice cakes, and a (plastic) jar of peanut butter to make said rice cakes palatableª.  With these I hoped to avoid £4 chipsªª.

a. Pro-tip: when you awake some graybright 4 a.m. incapable for whatever reason of spreading peanut butter on a rice cake without it crumbling in your fingers, leave the cake stacked within the plastic sheath, spread, and then remove.

aa. I did not avoid £4 chips.

3. First you will refuse to believe what you see, until you accept he image as totemic, this dark shit like a mutant Arionade, at once reality and suprareality.

1†. Unless you’re Media, and can drain your free Media Tennent’s into the clean Media restroom trailer, where the worst hygienic crisis we faced was a paper towel outage lasting under two hours.ª

a. However, when I awoke in the camping fields four hours before the Media Village would open, I was faced with the Scotloo, same as the peasants.

2†. As a member of the press, I bypassed security altogether – IF I brought bottles, I WOULD have passed unmolested and my booze gone uncontested.

3†. St. Vincent was a treat, especially after a half-dozen hard rock acts left me aching for a good guitar solo.  Her stuff is evasive, intelligent, just weird.  But while I was taking my notes in King Tut’s tent, a woman asked what I was doing.  I told her … and she kept looking over my arm, every time I clicked my pencil to write.  Most weren’t that invasive, but there is something … geographical in the Scots’ gregariou inquisitiveness.  There wouldn’t be many Andys in Germany, for example – no one cares who you are or what you do, and if one disapproves, it’s a quiet disapproval.  (And yes, I’ve subjected that generalization to extreme tests.)  We in the States maintain a completely schizo relationship with personal space – we don’t generally bother or question wackos, loners, or people like me, but neither do we have a problem vom’ing our opinions onto the uninterested – and you can absolutely expect more thoughts on this subject in the near future.

1‡. Relatability, he said.  “Manchester’s a working class town, and Glasgow’s a working-class town …”  Which is true, kind of, sort of.  Glasgow’s a culturally complex place, able to foster bands as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Admiral Fallow while selling out Nas and Earl Sweatshirt shows.  Furthermore the T in the Park crowd isn’t even mostly comprised of Weedgies, drawing heavily from the home counties as well as on Scots who can afford the tickets, the food, the time off work.

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