Everyone has their own personal horror stories to share about Irish festivals, and most of them directed at Oxegen, but last year took the biscuit for me. My wife and I were getting food after Paolo Nutini’s set and she popped off to the toilet. Normally at a festival like Oxegen, we’d always go together, but she said she’d be fine and insisted I not do the usual man-standing-around-at-entrance-to-women’s-toilet routine. So, I continued to queue. As she was making her way to the toilets towards the back of the main ‘arena’ she was tripped from behind, falling face down into muck. Her face was then held down in the muck by what she remembered as a young scumbag for what felt like a minute as she fought to breathe and fight him off. She managed to get rid of him but as she was trying to get back on her feet – as plenty of people looked on, a big crowd was making its way through the Main Stage area after Paolo — another joker came and put his boot to the side of her and pressed down forcibly. After a struggle as he and his pals laughed away whilst continuing to hold her down to the ground with a muddy boot she eventually got free and went to one of the two security guards standing nearby, who basically told her where the first aid tent was and when she asked where the water and disinfectant was so she could at least wash her face, one of them shrugged. “I dunno,” he replied. Mercifully my wife is ok, she wasn’t seriously hurt but she was shocked and felt humiliated.
If I was there when this happened I’d probably still be in jail today for GBH. I was only around the corner and I’m still kicking myself for allowing her to head off on her own. I’d also have happily been barred for life, or arrested for berating the security and asking why none of the happy festivals goers for whom the promoters proudly declare “it’s your festival” would not come to her help. That not a single person would come to the aid of a defenceless girl is beyond me and it just about perfectly sums up the audience Oxegen gets.
I don’t know if I’d call it lucky or unfortunate, but since Féile 90 I can safely say that I’ve been to practically every ‘major’ festival and large-scale musical gathering in Ireland, and more than my fair share of Glastonbury’s, Donington’s (including the dodgy Monsters of Rock days when we all had loads of hair and didn’t need such luxuries as a “second stage” and toilets), Reading’s, Bestival’s, Hyde Park Calling’s and what-have-you in the UK, a couple of European gems and quite a few flops both as a punter and as a working journalist. I’ve even had a hand in a couple of festivals myself down through the years.
I can honestly say that last year’s Oxegen was THE single worst festival I have ever been to. As a festival ‘experience’ this teenage wasteland is without equal. Since it moved from Fairyhouse to Punchestownm changed beer companies and rebranded itself from Witnness to Oxegen it’s always been a rather unpleasant experience by virtue of its bland, dirty and utterly unattractive site. Punchestown may have a decent lay-out, but it’s hardly rolling green hills and attractive natural oddities. Its long walks over gravel and concrete, lack of ancillary ‘features’, generally poor sound and lack of pleasant relaxation areas (aside from the VIP area of course) makes it one hard slog. Add in bands not being suited to either the festival itself, or the particular stage they’re on, and then ancillary stuff like a dreadful selection of drinks, the fact it ALWAYS seems to rain and ‘the kids’ on the piss (and pissing everywhere) and you get a bad old days festival. No matter how many millions are spent on upgrading the CCTV, or adding a big Stonehenge yoke at the gate, or adding teepees and tribute bands to the campsite, it’s always been a decidedly unpleasant experience.
But strangely, there was always a pull to go, largely because of some incredible bookings – Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addition, Orbital in a tent, Brian Wilson, Sigur Ros, The Who, Blur, Jay Z, Fever Ray etc etc. But after this year I can safely say that I, my family, and quite a few of my friends, will never, ever attend “Europe’s Greatest Music Festival” again.
Not only did my wife suffer a hugely unpleasant time, my sister was threatened by a group of nasty girls for having the audacity to sing along to Arcade Fire and a good pal – a rather well-known journalist and photographer as it happens – had the living crap kicked out of him on the Saturday night because he had the audacity to challenge a lad who had stolen his food; food he had just paid for in the main arena where thousands had gathered for Muse. He went after the guy who robbed it who fell, and next thing all hell broke loose as he was blamed for tripping the food thief! One randomer loafed in support of the food thief knocking my friend to the ground and kicking his glasses into his face causing cuts, then four more lads – completely unrelated to any of the other participants and totally unprovoked — reigned kicks and punches in, injuring him quite badly. Such was his fear he had to get the Gardaí to bring him off site.
It’s telling that the slew of ads in the last few weeks and the main mail-out image featured few band names, but rather a sea of damp people at the main stage cheering in the daylight under the slogan “it’s your festival”. Well, the ‘shareholders’ can fucking keep it.
Oxegen has never been about the music and it’s certainly not about the ‘experience’ the same way as Glastonbury, Bestival, Electric Picnic, Body & Soul at Ballinlough or anything that could market itself without listing any band names. It’s a piss-up, plain and simple. Aside from the incidents that had a direct impact on me, there was definitely more to it last year than just Heineken and smuggled in Buckfast. There was a genuine air of menace throughout the site, and as is my thing at festivals, I walk every inch of the site. As someone who’s worked in the music business all my life I love festivals, and I love exploring them.
There was always a gang of us who went to the Big O, but over the past few years that big gang has been reduced to just a handful of hardy souls. A 250 quid ticket is genuinely no problem to a lot of people I go to gigs and festivals with. They’d pay €100 (and have done) to see any of the big Oxegen bands do shows on their own. I think Oxegen’s biggest problem is that the people, the music lovers, who used to make up the lions share of the audience – at Witnness and at the first couple of Oxegen’s – just won’t go anymore. And that’s down to the crowd it gets now. “It’s your festival” they say. Well, it’s not. It’s ‘shareholders’ want to go on the piss; it’s for people who’ll happily queue for an hour at a big name fast food or pizza stand instead of an Irish trader with a handmade sign and delicious grub; it’s for people who have never held a music magazine in their hands in their life, who rarely buy music, and who only go to one gig a year and that gig is in Punchestown.
The oft mentioned ‘identity crisis’ has been with Oxegen since day one and in the past two years I think promoters MCD have recognised this with their TOTP bookings such as Lady Ga Ga, Beyonce, Jessie J, The Script, David Guetta, Black Eyed Peas, Kesha etc etc. Very few people sing along to Arcade Fire when they’re pissed and very few there this year will have one iota about the massive impact of Screamadelica. It’s thrash the shareholders want, and next year the promoters should just cater for this and just turn the Big O into T4 at the Beach. Their other bookings, the ones might attract genuine fans but who attract a few hundred stragglers into a tent can and should be corralled together into something like Lattitude, which was pencilled in for Belvedere in Mullingar not-so-long-ago but never materialized.
I had the pleasure of watching Blur from the side of the main stage with Alan Yentob from the BBC in 2009. Prior to this we’d walked through the site and he genuinely could not believe his eyes. We talked about previous festivals, and bands that had played, and when we came to The Who, he was astonished they had done it. Betcha Pete Townshend was too when he looked out at thousands of people waiting for the theme tune to CSI. Teenage Wasteland indeed.