I’m walking through a crowd next to Howard Marks, the near legendary Welsh dope dealer who wrote the 90s publishing phenomenon Mr Nice. The sea of fancy-dressed partying humanity either parts like the Red Sea dressed by the shopkeeper in Mr Ben, or wants to stop and say ‘hi’ to the man who has become emblematic of Bestival. Some of them are dressed as mermaids. A man comes past dressed as a circus ringmaster imaginatively accesorised with divers mask and flippers. Another is dressed in a sumo wrestler bodysuit and a pink tutu. We are on our way to see the Beastie Boys playing an acoustic set, and we are holding plates of food made for us by the local Women’s Institute. And all this is taking in a dingly dell valley on the Isle of Wight.
To say that Bestival is special is like saying that Glastonbury used to be cool. To be at Bestival is like being at the funkiest village fete that ever happened and even though it has grown from 7,000 to 20,000 people since it started in 2004, it always somehow manages to feel more like 3,000 people – more like a house party than a traveling city, which is what Glastonbury has become, complete with all the problems that cities bring (of bad neighborhoods and drunk mentalists waiting to ruin your fun, and for it taking hours to get from one place to another).
“Pretty much everyone arrives on the Friday night in fancy dress and carries that through over the weekend,” says Rob da Bank, one of the quartet of friends who first had the idea to take the spirit of Sunday Best - which started as a party night in Walthamstow where Da Bank would DJ to fifty people while wearing a horses head, or a Viking helmet –and turn that spirit into a three day garden party.
“We were having dinner sitting in the L’Elephant restaurant in Ibiza Town eight years ago,” says Ziggy Gilsenan, remembering the night the four of them first hatched the idea. “Rob da Bank, his partner Josie, me and my partner John Hughes and we knew we had to do something together.” Hughes had already introduced one of the acts he manages, the Cuban Brothers to Rob da Bank, “and the sparks had started flying straight away,” says Gilsenan. “Anyone who’s seen the Cuban Brothers knows them for their mad breakdance inspired Latino sets – they love to perform wearing very small leopard print thongs – and the idea of them compering a festival which was programmed by Rob da Bank just seemed like a lunatic marriage made in heaven.”
For me it was last year watching Suggs march on stage mid-set during the Primal Scream’s storming ritual, grabbing the microphone off a bemused Bobby Gillespie and announcing to the equally bemused crowd of thousands, “Some people say the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock n roll band in the world, but this lot…”
The first year was a storming success with 7,000 partygoers attempting to break the record for the World’s Biggest Fancy Dress Party, and acts like Chas & Dave playing alongside Basement Jaxx and setting the distinctive Bestival mix of old names from your youth playing alongside chart pop bands like the Scissor Sisters and some of the world’s best DJs, like Andrew Wetherall who this year will be playing a rock n roll set, at Camp Bestival – Bestival’s baby daughter, which takes place for the first time this year at the end of July at Lulworth Castle in Dorset.
“The idea behind Camp Bestival was that Bestival has gone from strength to strength and, by attracting the right people has kept that feeling of everyone being involved in a huge collective party but that a lot of us – including all four of the organisers – have now had babies and we wanted to start something with more family facilities, bringing back the idea of the Great British Family Holiday with a bit if a twist – so you can be watching watch Chuck Berry or The Flaming Lips onstage while knowing that your children are getting read to round the camp fire by a wizard with a beard,” says Rob da Bank.
Ziggy Gilsenan and John Hughes are due to have their first baby the weekend the first Camp Bestival takes place this year, “I may be up in stirrups on the side of the main stage, but I will be there – well, at least in spirit,” says Ziggy.
Meanwhile the line up for this year’s Bestival itself, which takes place on the first weekend in September reiterates Rob da Bank’s policy of programming the sort of diverse selection of music you only normally get by sticking your ipod on ‘shuffle’: Amy Winehouse and Underworld will headline, The Human League will perform an entire show of material from their classic album Dare, including the massive hit Don’t You Want Me Baby. They will then perform a second show of material from throughout their career. Gary Numan will pop up his electro head, Chas& Dave make a re-appearance, George Clinton funks it up and DJs like Zane Low, Laurent Garnier and DJ Yoda ensure the party never stops. and of course there’s the sort of acts you only stumble into on a Sunday afternoon: bands with names like the Fuck Buttons and Sombrero Sound System
Ask anyone for their definitive Bestival moment and you will get a set of answers that reinforce this diversity. For me it was last year watching Suggs march on stage mid-set during the Primal Scream’s storming ritual, grabbing the microphone off a bemused Bobby Gillespie and announcing to the equally bemused crowd of thousands, “Some people say the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock n roll band in the world, but this lot…” and then being helped off stage by a gentle bouncer in a way that made me think of the fantasy old people’s home I have in my head containing octogenarian Firestarters, Oasians and Stone Roses – still having a sing-a-long to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” while the white coated nurses dispense pills and colostomy bags.
But don’t let me give you the wrong impression, there are young people at Bestival too: fasands of ‘em looking fit and young and healthy in their clown costumes. What there aren’t is the ‘festiba dross,’ that dead level of staggering abusive punters looking for a fight or an overdose that you get at all other big festivals. Well we’ve all been there, I suppose, but the last thing I want to bump into at a festival is me aged fifteen at Reading, having had my entire tent stolen and living in a blanket like Bobby Sands existing on bath tub speed, mine swept lager and the occasional cup of tea. Luckily, you will never meet me, aged fifteen, at Bestival.
The Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 which was said at the time to be one of the largest human gatherings ever in the world, surpassing the attendance at Woodstock and included a line up which included Dylan, The Who, Hendrix, Miles Davis and The Doors.
Ask John Hughes what his favourite moment has been and he says, “looking out over the heads of the crowd last year as John Martyn was playing and realising what a huge thing we had created – how four people having a romantic dinner in Ibiza had got together, had an idea, and turned that into the most amazing party in the world – a party that reflects all four of us, Rob’s music and Josie’s eye for design especially.
Hughes may have brought the promotional skills and the gift of the gab necessary to convince an initially wary local council that what they really needed on their doorstep was the world’s largest annual fancy dress party, but it is Rob da Bank’s wife Josie, an ex-designer and now full time mother, who has provided the look for the whole thing which gives Bestival the vibe of an outdoor opium den crossed with a Bollywood brothel. From the chez longues and Indian umbrellas that are scattererd across the grass in front of the Bollywood Bar to the linings of the tents, “our biggest influence has come from our collective travels around the world,” says Josie. “The enormous pink silk flags are from Rajasthan, for instance and most other things I have designed and ordered from Kerrala in India.”
Part of the key to keeping the County Show on acid vibe has been John Hughes very wise technique of scattering much of the Isle of Wight with free tickets – so locals are compensated for the inconvenience of busy roads, and again the ‘mood’ is not the same as you get at the moving city festivals like Glastonbury and V.
And the locals, of course, love it. The Isle of Wight may be stunningly beautiful (if you hit the remote South and West coasts) but it’s hardly Nashville. Of course, there was the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 which was said at the time to be one of the largest human gatherings ever in the world, surpassing the attendance at Woodstock and included a line up which included Dylan, The Who, Hendrix, Miles Davis and The Doors. The unexpectedly high attendance levels (mostly non-tickets holders) led to scenes of chaos and, a s a result, in 1971, Parliament passed the "Isle of Wight Act" preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence.
As soon as that legislation was repealed, the Bestival boys and girls stepped in. Now that a couple of festivals happen a year on the Isle in one of those brilliant statistical anomalies, given its tiny size the Isle of Wight holds more music festivals per head of population than anywhere else in the world. Bestival though is the one that people come back from grinning like the last man at the marmalade jar.
“We must’ve done something very good on this Island to be rewarded with so much bliss,” says the on-line author of the Ventnor Blog,” (Subtitle: “it’s not just about Ventnor.”)
Ventnor, for those in the know, is where you must stay, although as Hughes has a habit of booking up hotel rooms en masse for his acts and staff, I’d suggest you get your butler on it straight away. Though many say that you really need to camp – and from yurts to velvet lined bivouacs complete with double beds the Bestival organisers will hire you a luxury camp, as well as welcoming those who want get their butler to put up their own tent.
Oh, and you also might want to get him onto sourcing your fancy dress for this year’s carry on: ‘30,000 freaks under the sea’. “So we’re kind of expecting mermaids and octopuses,” says Rob da Bank. “But there’ll no doubt be someone dressed as an Indian takeaway as well”.
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