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It’s standing room only for Sunday Service at the Parish Church of Beat-Herder. The congregation are heckling to get started, and the choir are shifting restlessly down front.
Finally, the vicar mounts the altar, to the reverential cheers of a room ready to unleash Heaven. She (yes, that’s right, they’re very progressive here) instructs us to turn to page 12 of our hymn books, and we begin swaying and wailing in joyous unison: “Watching the people get lairy, it’s not very pretty I tell thee…” (told you they were progressive).
British worshippers are famously dreary, but the Deep South has got nothing on the Deep North when it comes to a good hard praising, particularly when we’re giving thanks for one of the best ‘boutique’ (it means ‘bargain’ in Lancastrian) festivals in the UK with a cheesy pop sing-song. If you’re awake at 3pm on day 3 of a festival that turns off the music at dawn, you must be reasonably lucid, so this is not the blurred yowling of an inebriated karaoke session, this is projectile joy.
Somewhere between California Dreaming and I Gotta Feeling, a fellow worshipper tells me that last year’s fancy dress theme was the letter ‘A’, resulting in a lot of animals wandering round the site. She had been dressed as a cat, and was minding her cat business at her tent when a punter dressed as Ace Ventura stormed over, asked where she’d been and demanded she follow him. They arrived at this tiny wooden church in the Quality Street area of the site to find Noah herding all the animals inside for the Sunday service, as fast as Ace could round them up.
As we progress letter-by-letter through the words ‘Beat-Herder’, this year’s fancy dress theme is ‘T’. Among the most heroic and inconvenient efforts are a man wearing a table, and another a tent. There’s an entire Wimbledon-worth of tennis players, and more people dressed as Twister than there are people to grope their massive dots. It’s the homemade costumes that are worth finding, whether great or shite. I’m in the shite camp as ‘Twitter’, wearing a mutilated blue dress, a head-sized blue Angry Birds toy, and a whiteboard on which I invite people to write their analogue tweets.
One friend has come as tourettes, in a t-shirt covered with handwritten cards bearing various existing expletives, plus new ones like ‘fulcrum’, ‘Burnley’ and ‘Audrey Roberts’. Another is a tranny-saurus – a towering bloke in a pink dress and a cardboard dinosaur head. A passerby asks us to guess her costume. We fail. Turns out she’s ‘a tripped-out twat with two pairs of ears and a tail’.
Then there are the professionals. One friend has made an absolutely beautiful pterodactyl outfit. Although she is bollocked every few minutes, she gets more joy from strangers identifying her costume than she does shame from their spelling corrections. Our Mr Tickle spots another Mr Tickle – both equally high quality efforts – and they square up to each other, arms all over the place trying to slap each other.
But the stars of the festival fancy dress day are two Transformers, who have spent an entire year building their fully functioning, light-up costumes, aided by a model-making degree. The sight of them standing side-by-side at the urinals is almost as spectacular as the sight of them dancing. One small child is as taken with Optimus Prime as everyone else, but, recognising the other as a baddie, proceeds to punch him repeatedly in both helmets until she has to be dragged away. These are the dangers of a job done too well.
This kind of effort only mirrors that of the festival itself in creating a world so detailed and mental that no boredom can exist, despite its tiny size. The rest of Quality Street consists of a functioning pub, a garage with people dancing on, in and around the cars they will wake up in later, a tattoo studio, a barber’s shop, the Hotel California, and a two phone booths with a hidden tunnel between them. A huge dark wooden fence contains a secret doorway, leading to a tiny disco with a light-up dance floor, both invisible and inaudible from outside.
Elsewhere on site, the stages are no less elaborate. The Beat-Herder Working Men’s Club Tent is a mess of cheap 70s decor and notices praising the Queen Mum and warning against Craig Charles and divebombing. A TV in the corner plays old episodes of Coronation Street. Stern signs warn that no rave is allowed in here.
The brand new flame-shooting Chinese style fortress is full of dancing bodies within ten minutes of the gates opening on Friday afternoon, and remains that way for the rest of the weekend. It splits the hardcore dancers nicely in two between here and the Toil Trees – the wooded dance arena which is badly needed for laying around between the hours of sunburn o clock and half past heatstroke.
We’ve lost a stage this year in the modest Rajazzle tent, but gained one in the form of the much more theatrical Maison D’Etre, a pitch black chalet with washing hanging from the ceiling and plants everywhere. This is the tent of mysterious technical errors. Red hot looping beatboxer THePETEBOX accidentally deletes a layer of Basement Jaxx, and authoritative sample wizards from the past, Public Service Broadcasting, have a massive old TV set which should be full of projections and isn’t. Regardless, these are two of the best sets of the festival, and without these hitches being announced I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Jimmy Cliff, Groove Armada, Chic and Roni Size may be this year’s one-off must-sees, but they share equal billing with the Beat-Herder family: the Lancashire Hotpots, Foxes Faux, La La & the Boo Ya and Captain Hotknives, without whom the festival just wouldn’t be the same. The Hotpots are the live backbone of Beat-Herder, warming up the main stage mid afternoon with panto tunes in flatcaps, pirate costumes and high vis jackets – the latter for the bang bang thumpy dance mix (“I si’thi flower, shekkin’ th’ass, shekkin’ yer bumcheeks, shekkin’ yer be’ind”). A conga absorbs so much of the crowd that there’s a queue to join it.
Chains and brands are noticeable by their absence, in an effort the programme claims is ‘to protect it from the callous that is the corporate world of cock’. And although the allocated amount of security is on site somewhere, there are none to be seen other than down the front of stages, on gates, and in the campsite, where they pounce on the odd inevitable thieving bastard. The festival’s roots are in a freeparty scene which relies on self-policing and DIY input, and this is the atmosphere the promoters are going for, even with a 12,000 capacity, fully-legit festival.
If it all sounds about as worthy as Worthy Farm circa 2013, nobody’s milking an ironic load of cash from this anticapitalist wet dream. “We might just break even this year”, one of the promoters tells me happily. I’ll bet you this year’s Glastonbury profits that Michael Eavis hasn’t thought of this as a positive result for quite a while.
What the rewards lack in finance, they must make up for in pride. Regulars obsess about this festival. You can even get a tattoo of the festival logo on site. If there was a Parish Church of Beat-Herder all year round, every Sunday would be just as packed as this one.
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