‘What the fuck are you wearing?’
‘What the fuck are you wearing?’
We were getting ready for Download in a stately hotel room in Leicestershire, the promise of a romantic night away being the only way I could persuade my husband to accompany me to the UK’s biggest rock and metal festival.
I had chosen denim hotpants, biker boots, a leather waistcoat and a studded cuff. I had gone heavy on the eye make-up and was wearing dark purple lipstick, for the first time ever. I knew it was try-hard. But I was trying hard. My husband was smartly dressed in a blue polo shirt, ironed jeans and brand new Nike trainers. He looked like he was going for a gin and tonic at the Hotel du Cap, and I genuinely feared for his safety. I insisted I was going to buy him a band T-shirt as soon as we arrived at the festival, for his own protection.
‘You can buy it, but I’m never going to wear it. On principle’.
He smuggled me and my outfit out of the hotel before any of the wedding guests, golfers or shooting parties could see me, and we were off, in theory only a short drive away from Download. As we headed down the M1, the traffic became heavier and we began to spot more and more ‘metal’ cars- packed with bodies, tattooed arms pressed against windows, crates of beer in trunks, chassis vibrating with loud music.
I had a feeling of purpose, excitement- like-minded people heading somewhere together. I was part of something, I was one of them. But the traffic only became heavier and heavier.
How bad can it be? Four hours later, we had progressed little more than two miles. Engines were switched off. Every so often a sheepish metalhead would pop out of a car, glance furtively to the left and right them dash to the roadside to relieve themselves. When I made my own stealthy dash into the bushes I heard the muted blasting of every car stereo playing metal, mostly Iron Maiden in honour of the night’s headline act. We stuck resolutely to Radio 4, windows closed.
My husband said nothing but his silent wrath was filling the car and I wished I had come alone; I was going to be paying for this for a long time. I was even beginning to get disillusioned myself. I didn’t want to see metalheads drinking cartons of Capri-Sun and eating Marks & Spencer sandwiches on the side of the road. Illusions were gradually being shattered.
We had no supplies in the car and dehydration was beginning to set in when the first white shapes of the festival caravan park appeared on the horizon. It would have been in keeping with my metal failure to be admitted to the St John’s Ambulance tent for dehydration, due not to excessive alcohol consumption but to excessive traffic. We finally reached the festival car park, which stretched as far as the eye could see. We parked in a ditch, and there was a question as to whether we would need to be towed out, but it was too late now. We trudged for over two miles before we finally entered the arena. The atmosphere on the approach to the arena was muted, there was an atmosphere of frustration and disenchantment which I could tell was entirely due to the weather. Download is a three-day event and we were attending the final day. I had heard rumours of a washout, local newspaper headlines ‘Downpour 2016 Completely Flooded!’, ‘Don’t Go!’ etc, which I chose to ignore.
I had to look away when I glanced into the festival camp site- it was a vision of hell, abandoned tents floating on rivers of muddy rubbish. I felt for the people who were still here after camping for three days, and admired their tenacity. As we approached the entrance however the mood naturally lifted as the thumping became louder and we were close to our goal. Groups of metal fans, some terrifying, others less so particularly as they were wearing cagoules, high-fived strangers, shared beers and shouted things like ‘BRUTALITY!!!’. If he hadn’t been so desperate for a drink of water that he needed to get through the turnstiles and to the nearest catering truck, I knew my husband would have turned back.
Finally we were through the security gates, and nothing could have prepared me for the mud. We were standing at the top of a hill, next to a giant dog’s head (the symbol of Download) and from this vantage point, we could see the whole festival spread out below us, sloping down a hill. The enormous main stage was directly below us, and there were three other stages spread around, interspersed with food and clothing stalls and, absurdly, a fairground. From our position directly in between all the stages, four sets of metal music collided sonically into an indistinguishable clash and roar. It was nowhere near as loud as I had expected, the mud and rain somehow dampening and muffling everything.
Rivulets of fetid mud flowed over our feet. Further down the hill the rivulets were joining up and I could only imagine the hell at the bottom, particularly as that was where the toilets were. Within minutes my husband’s trainers were a complete write-off. There were a couple of stalls selling wellies, but he refuses to wear wellies as a matter of moral principle. He did, however, agree to buy ponchos and we donned those, I had to sadly acknowledge that no-one was going to appreciate my Topshop leather waistcoat.
There were people everywhere, moving slowly and gingerly through the mud. Some were sitting in camping chairs, forlorn and exhausted. A few, caked in filth from head to toe, were clearly regretting the comedy moment when they had decided to roll in the mud.
There seemed to be an inordinate amount of wheelchairs. I couldn’t tell whether this was because lots of disabled people like metal, or because the sight of the heroic wheelchair pushers just seemed to stand out.
In many ways it resembled a battle ground, appropriately enough given metal’s obsession with all things war-related. There was something quite poignant about all these bedraggled metalheads in cagoules. Somehow the atmosphere was still positive. Faces were grim but resolute, here for the music at all costs. Although there was plenty of alcohol, there were very few signs of drunken excess, only a few whiffs of marijuana here and there, and certainly no violence. Despite the frequent cries of ‘Brutality’ and the imagery of destruction and chaos, people were supportive of each other. This was not just because of the difficult weather conditions; metalheads look out for each other. Aggression is expressed but controlled. According to the musicologist John Powell, tests by experimental psychologists show that listening to angry music doesn’t actually make you more angry; in fact it calms you down by allowing you to express that anger sonically. There were also far more women than I was expecting, women of all ages and although most of them seemed to be accompanying boyfriends or husbands, they looked pretty metal to me.
I was in heaven; my husband could see how happy I was and I loved him even more for spending a whole day of his life doing something he hated. Although a part of me secretly wished I had some fellow metalheads to share it with, in truth there was no better person to be here with than the person who wanted to make me happy.
Images of glorious incongruity were everywhere. A man with a tattooed face offered me some hand gel as I came out of the portaloo. Three very short people with thick glasses and walking sticks whipped off their ponchos to reveal matching Shinedown t-shirts and danced in the mud, whirling their sticks above their heads. A man with a very long beard and a pierced chin nodded his head furiously to Gojira, fists and lips clenched, a confused baby wearing headphones in a carrier on his back.
We made our way to the main stage, where Disturbed were about to perform. Disturbed are a band from Chicago who play classic metal with a definite nu-metal bent, characterized by syncopated rhythms and a slightly computer-gamey feel. Frontman Dave Draiman, who sings in a pitch perfect operatic voice, has clashed with the anti-religious enclaves of metal since he is proud of his Jewish heritage, which can only be healthy for the genre. I was excited to see them perform as I had played a few of their tracks, but they were curiously lacklustre, failing to elicit a huge response from the crowd who, admittedly, were suffering terribly from the weather. Their rendition of ‘Ten Thousand Fists’ failed to raise ten thousand fists in the audience, although mine was proudly up there, to my husband’s embarrassment. At one point everything stopped and the guitarist took up his position importantly at the piano, so that Disturbed could perform a very serious and pointless cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, complete with orchestral backing track. The irony of a song about silence being played at a metal concert may have been lost on Disturbed but it was not lost on the crowd, and there was a creeping sense of boredom in the air before things got going again.
We moved on to the second stage to watch Gojira, a very technical French band who sing about the environment, spirituality and their feelings. This may seem a bit weedy for metal, but they get away with it because they’re French. They are also incredibly ‘brutal’, with technical, precision guitar playing, blast beats and stop-start rhythms, and they created such a powerful atmosphere in that soggy tent that both of us were fully energized for the rest of the afternoon.
In between watching bands we wandered amongst the stalls selling gothic clothing and knick-knacks, stepping gingerly, buying Slayer t-shirts for our sons and pink ‘My First Metal’ t shirts for the girls. I bought an Iron Maiden ‘Book of Souls’ tour t-shirt, replete with the all-important tour dates on the back, and simply owning it gave me a sense of belonging.
Nightwish were second to Iron Maiden on the main stage. Nightwish are a symphonic metal band from Finland, formed in 1996, with male musicians but a female vocalist, Floor Janssen, who has a trained operatic voice. They have an epic, cinematic style, apparently getting most of their inspiration from film music, and indeed their songs have been featured in a number of Hollywood soundtracks. They have had 13 number one singles in the modern home of metal that is Finland.
In Nightwish guitars are less important than the other instruments; the keyboard is prominent, they often use a full orchestra, and they have a player of uiellian pipes as a permanent member of the band. They sing about mythology, nature, and spiritual themes, even releasing an album about Charles Darwin which was surreally narrated by evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins. Their set at Download consisted of a giant sparkly spider, and an array of flame throwers.
The singer said things like ‘We’re SO happy to be here!!!!’, ‘You guys are AMAZING!!!’, and swished her hair in full circles during the breakdowns. I found them a bit light. In fact, I was rather proud of finding them a bit light.
The penultimate act we saw was Jane’s Addiction. This was one we could both enjoy- Jane’s Addiction are an alternative rock rather than a heavy metal band, and my husband was a fan as well. I was particularly interested in their guitarist, Dave Navarro, and as luck would have it we found ourselves in the front row, deep in mud but right in front of Dave. Navarro is ridiculously handsome and despite his thick black eyeliner, the epitome of masculinity. I believe I originally agreed to go out with my husband back in our university days partly because he looked a bit like Dave Navarro. However my husband and I had aged and greyed, while Dave looked exactly the same as he did twenty years ago. This would imply that being a heroin addict is better for your health than having four children.
He played the guitar with utter nonchalance, staring into space somewhere past the audience, almost no interaction between him and the band or the audience. He was so effortless but the sound he was making was incredibly full- hitting all registers. It was as if there were three or four guitarists out there. Jane’s Addiction spiced up their act by having cavorting women in bikinis being suspended from hooks, and this was all rather unnecessary but kept my husband interested. He was beginning to exhibit the early symptoms of trench foot and his reserves of goodwill were waning, but finally it was time for the main event, Iron Maiden.
Iron Maiden are the beloved godfathers of metal. They have been going for over forty years, having produced 16 studio albums, selling 90 million copies and touring the world countless times. Their line-up has changed slightly over the years but their winning formula hardly at all. They play classic heavy metal with precise, memorable riffs, anthemic choruses and even more anthemic guitar solos. The most fascinating aspect of the Iron Maiden phenomenon is that they have achieved their global success despite being almost completely ignored by the world’s media and radio stations. And most of this happened in the days before the internet and social media, so it was purely album sales, touring and fanzines. And of course their impeccable branding. Even people who couldn’t name a single Iron Maiden song or band member recognize the jagged red font and the evil grin of Eddie, which is emblazoned on a million t-shirts all over the world.
Download 2016 was a stop on Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls tour, and there was no expense spared on the set and effects. The theme was the Mayan empire, and the ruins and foliage were accompanied by an expensively-made animated film shown on huge screens. Bruce hadn’t bothered with a costume and was wearing a disappointingly dad-like padded gilet with a fleece underneath, and sensible shoes. But he made up for it with the quality of his singing and his onstage banter which made every member of the audience feel included. The guitarists bounded around the stage and swung their guitars around with glee- only Iron Maiden could get away with such a move in this century. The twin axe attacks were performed back to back or pointing at the crowd, in time-honoured fashion.
We made the very unmetal but canny decision to leave half way through Iron Maiden’s set to avoid the car park rush. In fact I had done the whole festival in the most unmetal way possible- day tripper, luxury hotel, drink of choice prosecco, accompanied by a man wearing a polo shirt. My husband was so triumphant that we had escaped from the car park before the hoards ‘We screwed everyone!’ that for him it made up for the rest of the day entirely. My legs felt as heavy as if I had run a marathon after a day of trudging through calf-deep mud. But I was happy, exhilarated, and wistful. This was my music, these were my people, and I had wasted so many years.