Friday, July 08, 2011
HOP FARM FESTIVAL 1st July 2011 : The Human League, The Eagles, Bryan Ferry, Brandon Flowers
The Hop Farm, as everyone is legally obliged to point out, is without sponsorship. No beer adverts. No branded paper cups. No adverts between bands. It's not an excuse to charge you a fortune and throw adverts at you. It's not ITV2 as a huge logo stares at you, waiting in the rain for The Charlatans. It's Vince Power's own, personal crusade to return to the days when there was just Glastonbury, Reading, and Monsters Of Rock and a half-decent outdoor show was duty bound to bring people in if for no other reason then a paucity of competition.
Not so now. This is Vince's ego flagship. It must work. The money being thrown at this – and names as big as The Eagles and Prince (neither of whom are cheap dates) – seem to tell me that this is running at a loss, or the very least, not much of a profit. In fact, despite living only 18 miles from site, I've only paid for one of the four times I've attended. And I'm sure I cannot be alone.
Aside from an appallingly designed entrance process, the Hop Farm itself is one of the more charming, and unrestricted festivals. The choice of bands may be more akin to a mature, middle-management version of the V Festival, and it's hardly the environment that will see rampant art and fucking in the streets. If you are lucky, someone might dress as a bear, and snog someone half their age on a stag night. Before this, though, you are deposited in a charming – but not comfortable – old fashioned double decker bus almost directly opposite the stage. Therefore, on Friday night, I arrive just as Brandon Flowers arrives to promote his “Flamingo” solo album on days off from The Killers headline tour. By the time I enter the field, despite being 100 yards from him on arrival, it is 20 minutes later, as I walk half a mile through a country lane (which is unlit at the end of the night), through a car park, and wrestle three sets of security guards to get in to be spat out at the far end of the field half a mile from the stage.
Flowers meanwhile, is rampaging away, with his brand of strangely sincere country stadium indie. The influences he pleaded in The Killers, New Order at al., are here smoothed over and tempered with a deep love for clear Americana-period U2 and sincere, wide gestures. In all honesty though, not much of the crowd is here for Flowers – a smattering of Killers-related tshirts and a restrained reception belie that fact. The audience only show the slightest enthusiasm for a guest appearance by The Killers bassist for a rousing mid-set “Read My Mind”., and an air punching jig for his Flowers closing song, being “Mr.Brightside”. It's servicable, but clearly as a solo entity, Flowers will always be the Lou Reed to The Killers Velvet Underground, and plod along marking time commercially and creatively until his parent band indulges his desire for big crowds again.
Next up is the world's most posh rock star, Bryan Ferry. Keeping with Roxy Tradition, his band is 14 men and women strong, including 2 red bikini dancers. And his drummer is Andy Newmark who played with Pink Floyd (albeit briefly). Sadly, the Ferry set is less than impressive. Stuffed with obvious cover versions, within an hour, the voice of Roxy – and a man who valued a sharp cut suit and an expensive glass far more than talent, or sincerity – has squandered his currency. “I Put A Spell On You”. “Jealous Guy”. “All Along The Watchtower”. All are dispatched with the smooth, sanitised efficiency of a soap dispenser, or a song factory. For all his craft and technical ability, there's little sense that there's someone in there, a real live human being. It's not Bryan Ferry, its an imitation in his own body, effortlessly – and real art should be drenched in effort and passion and spirit – the robot flesh stands there and by rote, runs a programme.
10 START “LETS STICK TOGETHER”GO TO 20
20 START “JEALOUS GUY” GO TO 30
30 “THANK YOU THIS IS MY BAND” GO TO 40
40 START “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”
It's a great shame. I wanted to more than like Bryan Ferry : I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And whatever the fuss was about, that magic, has gone, and all that's left is a man pulled musical rabbits out of predictable hats.
On the main stage, the headliners are The Eagles. As I sit and watch Ferry plug away - £7 worth of paper box, chipped potatoes, and sliced cow steaming over the slow, maudlin British sunset – I realise, in the slow moment of a celluloid star who looks up after entering a cave full of vampire bats, that I am possibly the only male in this field under the age of 40. Certainly the only one who doesn;t sport the shaved head / white goatee look of a thousand aging Peter Gabriel clones, and one of the few not wearing a brown T-shirt proclaiming The Eagles Farewell Tour Of 2006. Seems like a lot of people went to that. One way a band can keep afloat these days is to sell brown t-shirts that stretch over middle aged spread. As The Eagles arrive by helicopter – the thwop of rotors a mini, non-sponsored rock Vietnam, drowning out Ferry's tuneless, apathetic mangling of “All Along The Watchtower” - the ennui of boredom, that even these, the days of our lives, are themselves, sometimes utterly unengaging. Ferry acts like a man queuing in a supermarket listening to his iPhone4G : too posh to actually rock, indulging in, acting out the idea that he is doing what a rock star is meant to do, the crowd equally engaged in the spectacle of acting the way a crowd is meant to act, with the half cut shorts, the rock t-shirt, the pint of lager, this is the thing we do now – it's about seeing and being seen, musical tourism, I SWEAR I WAS THERE, but no one, no one cares. Not at all.
Alternately, you could choose instead to indulge in the Human League.Sadly, I arrive to hear the god awful seal-in-the-bucket strains of the musical black hole that is Ocean Colour Scene. In the ear, and out the other, the strains of lalalalalalathedaywecaughtthetrainandidntjumpunderit. Having lived in OCS' hometown of Birmingham for 27 years, and steadfastedly avoiding their presence in any way at all – even going so far as to split-second leap out of a crowded arena at a mid-97 Oasis gig when they were supporting to avoid my ravaged ears reaching out and strangling me in a mercy killing – here I am, exposed, and in the same postcode as a convention of cloth eared numpties who wouldn't know class if it punched them in the nose. Luckily, nothing lasts forever – not even The Musical Nothing that soon fades from my ears. Luckily, the next flood comes to wash away the scum of sound. The Human League.
The Human League are a band I probably would never pay to see : and a band you could really only experience whilst staring up their nostrils in a small room. Some music works best in a certain size room, a certain velocity of atmosphere. And The Human League are perhaps some of the finest proponents of this. Opening with “Never Let Me Go” from their new album, the band – Phil, the Two Girls, and three Sleeperblokes at the back with an army of white painted technology – put on a cool, but not cold show : the males side affecting a detached, precise musical palette – Oakey a gruff, deadpan, discofied version of Andrew Eldritch, whilst, as ever, Jo and Susan preen and totter with no small charm, part teenage girl in the bathroom mirror, part knowing, cynical adult.
The hits keep coming. With a slew of sound the backroom boys present songs that even if you don't know them, you know them. The opening six-pack of “Tell Me When”, “Mirror Man”, “Love Action”, “Heart Like A Wheel”, and “Lebanon”are easily the strongest compact injection of pop of the weekend. When Oakey introduces “The Lebanon”, somewhat effacingly, he tells us “We are just a pop band and we're going to sing a song about a military conflict you don't understand in a place you've never heard of.” The song after that, it's all animated meerkats taking photos of strange tourist locations. The tent – 6,000 largely drunk cases of Bad Dad Disco Dancing – seems to let go of the idea that anyone else is watching. With “Human” - the girls shorn, the band as a quartet – Oakey takes us back to a fraction of a former life, when the Human League jostled their then dark, perverse vision with the fear of a nuclear future and contemporaries such as Soft Cell, and Depeche Mode. It's a relatively odd slice of retrofuturism, this set, that sits underneath a glossy pop sheen of songs that touch, largely and only, on the personal – the desire for acceptance, for belonging, for the fulfillment of who we want to be, and for recognition – I was here, I am, I was. Which makes the final song - “Together In Electric Dreams” - possibly a summation of everything The Human League ever try to achieve. It is both a history lesson, and a presentation of a future mankind could have had : but mankind, as a whole, chose The Eagles and fogey rock instead. As I leave the field, The Eagles are doing a song about loving somebody, or something, at a mogadon pace with the apparent enthusiasm of a man clocking on for work. If that were the last song, of the last date, of the last appearance The Eagles make in Europe, what a quiet, and perhaps, gasping exit the band made. I'm sure if you were there, and you liked The Eagles, you saw what you wanted and not what actually transpired, and your memories of another time might have covered the reality gap. But not to these eyes.
Certainly, though I did not see “Hotel California” performed in the flesh with my own tired eyes, I managed to hear it : albeit on a tinny iPhone from across the train on the way home. Whilst Hop Farm will never be the fresh new name that brings everyone to see the rising talent at the peak of an artistic sunrise, it is what it is, and not what it wants to be. What a glorious future we have behind us.