As V Festival 2016 gets underway, we look at the history of the Chelmsford-based festival on its 21st birthday
- Credit: PA
As it celebrates its 21st edition this weekend, V Festival has become one of the country’s biggest pop events.
But it was a rather different story in the early days, as Elliot Furniss reports.
It was the height of the mid-90s indie music boom; TFI Friday was essential viewing and the charts – and indeed the news bulletins – were dominated by Blur, Oasis and, er, the Spice Girls.
Independence Day was leading the box office, Dolly the sheep had just been born and football had “come home” with the game-changing Euro 96 tournament.
These days vast outdoor weekend festivals are ten a penny – so much so that if you were that way inclined, you could practically spend your whole summer hopping from one to the next, campervanning it through the nation and enjoying live music practically every night.
But with Glastonbury taking a year off in 1996 to allow the Somerset farmland to recover and give organisers a much-needed break, there was opportunity in the air – and Oasis, through their own mega shows at Knebworth, and the newly-created V96 festival capitalised on the temporary cultural vacuum.
To be fair, as a fledgling event V96 was still some way off the top-notch line-up of that year’s Phoenix Festival, which saw David Bowie, Bjork, Neil Young, the Sex Pistols, the Prodigy, the Flaming Lips and Foo Fighters on the bill, while some of those names appeared alongside Radiohead and Pulp at Scotland’s similarly impressive T in the Park.
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But V was in Chelmsford, “just down the road” (or about 40 minutes away from home on the Suffolk/Essex border) and nevertheless had, at the time, what seemed like a decent line-up to kick things off.
V96 was set in the grounds of Hylands Park, an undulating tree-lined space with the main stage placed perfectly at the foot of a gentle incline, creating something of a natural amphitheatre effect and enabling those at the back, to the top of the hill, a pretty decent view of the proceedings.
Saturday headliners Pulp were about as big as bands get (if they’re not Blur or Oasis, the two biggest beasts of the time) while Sunday night bill-topper Paul Weller had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks in part to his association with Oasis, hailed by the brothers Gallagher as one of their heroes.
Pulp packed their set with tracks from classic album Different Class, including the anthemic Common People, controversial festival anthem Sorted for Es and Whiz, and cracking encore tracks Disco 2000 and Babies (from His ‘n’ Hers).
Joining them on the first ever V Fest line-up were cheeky Britpoppers Supergrass, Scousers Cast, indie stalwarts The Charlatans, Elastica, and Sleeper – typical bands of the time – while the likes of the Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci added a psychedelic (and Welsh) twist to the proceedings.
Then there were brilliant guitar band Longpigs, king of trip-hop Tricky, chart wannabees Menswe@r and dance masters Orbital, along with the slightly leftfield bookings of Gary Numan and Jonathan Richman - not exactly the dream acts of most indie-obsessed 16-year-olds, such as myself.
V Festival grew quickly into one of the country’s biggest annual music events, with the 97 edition headlined by Blur, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, followed by The Verve, The Charlatans, Iggy Pop and Robbie Williams in 1998.
The seeds of the current pop-focused incarnation were sewn at the turn of the century with the likes of ex-Spice Girl Melanie C, girl group All Saints and singers Kylie Minogue, Nelly Furtado and Macy Gray making appearances in 99, 2000 and 2001, alongside more alternative names such as Happy Mondays, Suede and the Manic Street Preachers, as well as up-and-comers Coldplay in 2000.
More than ever, this year – the festival’s 21st birthday celebration edition – it’s full-on pop, with Justin Bieber and Rihanna leading the way and Little Mix, Jess Glynne, Sia, Bastille, Katy B, Jake Bugg and David Guetta also due to play.
It’s something of a shift from those indie-rock roots, but a reaction to the proliferation of festivals that have cropped up across the country in the past couple of decades offering more alternative acts. V organisers know that the pop crowd want a weekend under canvas, and are offering the biggest chart-pleasing party around.
V has traditionally attracted a certain demographic, with its close proximity to London, and is seen as a great weekend out for people living in south Essex. And it’s always had a heavy commercial aspect to the proceedings – it’s now sponsored by Virgin Media – leading to it getting a bashing from the critics.
Back in those early years, it was the short-lived Virgin Cola brand that was the only soft drink available on site, while the range of food and booze on offer didn’t have a patch on what you can get at a current equivalent.
These days there are partnerships with Smirnoff, Aussie shampoo, MTV, Carling, Weetabix, Radio 1, Capital FM and others.
There’s also a notable lack of variety among the acts – with three big K bands the chief culprits. The Killers have been top of the bill in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2014, Kasabian played in 2007, 2010 and 2015 and Kings of Leon appeared in 2008, 2010 and 2013. If you’re a regular (and many are) then I can imagine it has become a tad repetitive.
As well as the shift from rock to pop, probably the most noticeable change is the cost of the thing – back in 1996 I paid £25 for a Saturday ticket to see Jarvis and co and had a cracking day at my first ever festival, then £50 the following year for the whole weekend – worth every penny!
By 2002 it was up to £39.50 for one day and in 2004 it had reached £45.50. However if I wanted to see Justin Bieber (which, believe me, I don’t) and the like, I’d be looking at £97, plus booking fee, for just that one day of entertainment. Quite a price hike, but one sadly not that out of line with the industry.
I’ve been to V five or six times, but not since 2008. Would I ever go back? I can honestly say that unless there was a significant shift in programming, or I was writing a review and going on a jolly, then no, which is a shame because those first couple of years really were fantastic fun and a great introduction to festivals.
For the full line-up, visit vfestival.com.