I’ve been thinking these past couple of days about the dubious furore that has been brewing around Jay-Z’s headline slot at Glastonbury, thanks in part to Noel Gallagher weighing in on the subject last week. There are a lot of issues about non-exclusivity, festival overkill, pervading fear of mud and so on that have impacted on Glasto ticket sales this year, which I can’t really be bothered to rehash here. What does interest me, though, is the perceived unsuitability of Jay-Z as a headliner of the festival. If he isn’t right for Glastonbury, then what is?
Some things to get out of the way first: obviously, Glastonbury has more acts playing than some festivals have punters, so the idea that unsuspecting campers will be subjected to 72 hours of inescapable, omnipresent hip-hop seems unlikely. It’s about more than the sort of foursquare Britrock exemplified by Oasis, too, which Gallagher characteristically suggested was somehow the ‘authentic’ sound of Glastonbury.
After a few barefoot reveries near the stone circle in the ‘90s, I’d be tempted to suggest that the authentic sound of Glastonbury was a gang of sleep-deprived trustafarians drumming in the dawn, or maybe someone playing an Ozric Tentacles CD in a hedge. But I must admit, the idea of something bucolic, a little mystical, redolent of the gorgeous Vale Of Avalon, seems ideal for Glastonbury, in the abstract at least.
The thing is, I was thinking about this the other day, and out of all the excellent Glastos I’ve attended, I could barely remember enjoying anything that actually fitted that bill; y’know, rustic, folkish, a tad psychedelic of course. I remember seeing Van Morrison invoking the spirit of Avalon in an incantatory “Summertime In England” back in 1989, which caught something of the local spirit. But listen to “The Common One” now, and it’s songs like “Haunts Of Ancient Peace” (which I’ve never seen Morrison play live, though in fairness I gave up on his live shows at some point in the early ‘90s) which resonate much more strongly.
The strongest musical memory I have of Glastonbury that year, as it happens, is something enormously removed from the ancient traditions of England, being a headline set on the Sunday night from Fela Kuti. It’s easy, in the midst of a festival, to get into some dewy-eyed, sentimental rant about the collective joy found in a temporary community, and the indomitable power of music to transcend location. Etc. But here – as with Tinariwen on the Uncut stage at Latitude last year – it made sense.
I guess Oasis have that power for many people. But I don’t see how the potency of Jay-Z’s amazing back catalogue need necessarily be depleted by it being played out in a Somerset field. In fact, the odd juxtaposition might just work in its favour. I remember talking to Kieran Hebden a few years ago, around the time he put out “Pause” as Four Tet and brilliantly hybridised electronica with the ambience and root sounds of folk music.
Kieran talked about how he would often choose a jarring soundtrack for his life. At home in North London, he’d often listen to folk music. Walking in the country, though, he’d play hip-hop or techno on his headphones. The incongruity didn’t lessen his enjoyment of either the music or his environment – if anything, it enhanced both.
In other words, maybe seeing Jay-Z at Glastonbury might be much more entertaining than seeing him in some urban arena. It certainly strikes me as more entertaining than seeing The Levellers there, whose folksy music, woolly idea of a counterculture, and jolly sense of collective effort probably make them, unhappily, the ‘authentic’ Glastonbury band.
I can’t, though, think of a band who were better suited to Glastonbury than Orbital, who could be both bucolic and urban, pastoral and euphoric, who drew on the egalitarianism of acid house and gave it an epic richness. But what do you reckon? Maybe we can compile our ideal Glasto line-up – so long, you understand, as we keep Jay-Z and Leonard Cohen on the bill?