I was at Reading festival in 1992 when Nirvana played what was to be their last gig in the UK; I saw the teenage superstar Billie Eilish play one of her first at the same festival 27 years later. But the music festival memory that sticks out most is when rap legend Eminem headlined Reading and I managed to get a ticket for my teenage son Sam at the last minute.
He was already a regular at festivals. For almost a decade, our family of four had made a weekend at Latitude in Suffolk a household tradition. The wisdom of this decision has often been unclear. Does dragging kids to watch ageing indie bands in tents really qualify as introducing them to culture?
I can confirm that taking a couple of under-10s into the comedy tent during a long set of jokes about sex in public places remains the worst parenting call we (by which I mean my wife) have made outside the privacy of our home.
These days it’s me, coming up to 50, who protests at the thought of standing in a field all weekend, knowing that it will take a week to recover. Each year my wife reminds me that I will change my mind once I get there. Each year I relent and remember that she is right.
In the car on the way, she tells us again about how she persuaded security to let us near the front for the secret Ed Sheeran set, or the time that an electrical storm struck up at the climax of a brilliant Damon Albarn show and everyone got soaked while our daughter slept soundly and dry in her buggy. Now a teenager, Beth is particularly sad that festivals are not happening this year and, as much as anything, it’s the ritual of looking forward to it that we’re now missing.
For Eminem though, it was just the two of us. Slim Shady would never play a lame family-friendly get-together like Latitude, but he was playing Reading. And now my son was 13, the tables had turned. It was his turn to inflict people singing sexually explicit swear words on us.
Could we who’d exposed his young ears to those foul-mouthed festival comedians really claim the language was inappropriate? Of course. But somehow that only made him more keen.
It was a one-day ticket, and we arrived mid-afternoon. Straight away, I sensed he could tell this was different to the festivals he’d been to before. All the tents were packed out. It was edgier too (there were no painted Latitude sheep for one thing) and the kids were cooler. As is customary on such occasions, I gave him my hard-won wisdom. “Keep your wits about you here, son,” I counselled vaguely. Though, in truth, if there was a target it was me, being about 30 years older than almost everyone else there.
As the evening began, we positioned ourselves for the main event. Wedged in with no escape, I endured one of the longest hours of my life watching a band called Major Lazer, the entire crowd dementedly shouting “Woop Woop!” over and over. Sam loved it. He loved it even more when someone nearby almost started a fight by relieving himself in the middle of 90,000 people.
Eminem was great. He swore a bit, rapped incredibly quickly and played loads of hits. A fan scaled one of the floodlights at the back of the arena and we held our breath. The crowd was packed tighter than any Sam had been in before but he didn’t look bothered. Occasionally, as the sea of people round us moved, he’d begin to bob further away from me. I reached out to stop him from going too far but knew I didn’t really need to any more.
The next year the four of us went to Leeds, the other half of the same festival. Sam prefers it to Latitude and, despite the fact that I am not studying for my GCSEs, so do I. Music festivals weren’t such a big deal when I was his age. Glastonbury was for CND and crusties rather than being broadcast live on the BBC. Now, along with Reading & Leeds, it is one of the defining dates on the music calendar.
Last year he met some school friends at Leeds and disappeared off with them. Because he’s been to so many festivals, we didn’t worry about this as much as we might have done. There was talk of an even bigger crowd going this summer to mark their exam results but neither exams nor festivals are happening. I hope we’ll all be back before long.
Neil O’Sullivan is the FT Weekend Magazine’s acting deputy editor
A very different summer
Football matches without fans, the quest for the most remote cottage and yet more childcare... Over the next three days, FT writers share what they have missed -- and what they haven't -- during lockdown and why this will be a very different summer. Explore the series here
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