From Iceland — 192-Hour Party People

192-Hour Party People

Published July 14, 2006

Grapevine goes to the Roskilde Festival

192-Hour Party People

Grapevine goes to the Roskilde Festival

It would take a die-hard stalwart of a Guns ‘N Roses fan to be satisfied with the million-dollar joke the distinctly ungainly Axl Rose pulled on his 60,000 strong audience. Swaggering onstage almost an hour after they were scheduled to start, he led a bandful of elaborately decorated sessionists through a note-for-note recital of their hits, but disappeared backstage after suffering some sort of fall after their first couple of songs. His helpless band then grooved and improvised incredibly obnoxious solos for well over ten minutes before Axl returned… only to evaporate again after another song or so.

It was something one might have expected to happen at some ridiculously overpriced Guns ‘N Roses revival show in a sold-out stadium in California, with halogen searchlights illuminating advertising zeppelins wafting above the crowd and hundreds of thousands of people flooding the parking lots, offering their bodies to Satan in exchange for one ticket, one chance to catch a glob of Axl’s spit on their face.

But no. This was the first night of international headline acts at Roskilde Festival 2006, an outdoor music festival in a township of the same name. It is the largest music festival in Northern Europe, and attracts audiences from all over Europe, including, in great numbers, Icelanders, who thanks to their close relationship with Danes and their country, have been attending diligently since its inception in the early seventies. This year, they hosted over 170 bands performing on six stages and 80,000 guests tended to by 21,000 volunteers.

Axl Rose Is An Idiot And An Icelander Turns Down A Free Drink

So a lot of people had come for many other reasons than to watch Axl Rose behave like a complete prat. Even though such behaviour should maybe have been expected from someone who willfully inflicts upon his fellow man atrocities like November Rain, a little professionalism couldn’t have hurt.

Disgusted with the disrespect the old man was showing the 60,000 people watching, I decided to go and wait for Sigur Rós in the Arena tent nearby, only to find that they hadn’t started yet, and some incredibly terrible band was playing. Now, I hate a lot of music, but this was indescribably bad. It sounded like something college students might accidentally play when not smoking pot or masturbating to pictures of Natalie Portman… good God, they were bad. Haphazard melodies, awkward dancing, smug grins, banal guitars, unnecessary keyboards and general lameness flooded the stage and audience; they were so bad that you could practically smell the shit wafting in the air as they played, a scent so strong it almost overpowered the earthy tang of weed in the enclosed tent.

I checked my schedule to find out who these musical toilet plungers were, only to discover I was at the Odeon tent, not the Arena, and was in fact watching Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! while Sigur Rós were on the other side of the concert area from me. I sighed gently at my own obtuseness and made my way through the crowd still watching Guns ‘N Roses attempting to improvise their way out of their Axl-lessness, with extraordinarily bad results.

When I finally got to the Arena the place was absolutely packed, with the crowd extending far beyond the actual edge of the tent and into the yard surrounding it. My view was perfectly dismal, but from what I heard, Sigur Rós’ show was particularly illustrious, and well worthy of the massive crowd they had drawn. Their songs practically beamed with a crisp and vamped-up energy that was well received by the largely Icelandic audience, and I did feel a distinct sense of pride, as well as surprise at just how many Icelanders had come.

The fact that they would travel 1,300 miles to see a band from their own shores seems to offer a glimpse of huge amounts of respect and devotion Sigur Rós fans show their idols. Another glimpse of this had been offered earlier in the day at one of campsites erected by the sizeable number of Icelandic people at Roskilde. One of their fans, a girl of about 20, actually turned down an offer of free alcohol to have an untainted experience at the concert.

“I’m going to see Sigur Rós tonight, so I’m not going to be, you know, drunk,” she said. The solemn silence that followed suggested many in the tent wished they had done the same. Not many bands I know inspire people to make such sacrifices, especially at the international bingefest that is Roskilde. Everyone, it seems, was there to get immensely wasted. Even the most devoted of music lovers all had grand intentions of observing their band of choice through the bottom of a bottle… or through a gigantic cloud of smoke.

The biggest acts, such as Tool, Bob Dylan, Scissor Sisters, Kanye West, The Strokes and Roger Waters all played shows seen by well over 60,000 people, and all the concerts I saw were well attended, and it’s not that people didn’t care about the music, it’s just that it played second fiddle to the primary purpose of Roskilde. The only people who go there and remember enough of it to tell you about it will no doubt tell you a sad tale of woe and suffering, whereas the people who have the best time will remember next to nothing.
Good Clean Fun
The music was all conveniently grouped onto the different stages by genre. The Odeon catered to the wide variety of marginal acts tentatively labelled ‘indie’, the Metropol was home to the various electro, breakbeat and dance acts, including at least a dozen post-show DJs. The Arena contained the more progressive end of rock, while the Ballroom hosted the various ethnic acts, with anything from tribal drum music to reggae to soul to Latin; Carlos Santana will no doubt have felt at home here, but if he had been playing, the Orange Stage would have been his venue. The famous Orange Stage has provided a forum for Beastie Boys, Marilyn Manson, Suede, Metallica, Korn, Iggy Pop, Bob Marley, Ray Charles and Radiohead to name but a few since its inception in 1978, with most of them playing at the peak of their greatness; the Orange Stage was, basically, home to those who had made enough money to prove they could entertain 60,000 people.

As commercially motivated as the Orange Stage’s line-up was, it at least provided variety, as opposed to the pretentious genre-oriented shelf-stacking the festival organisers were pulling as far as the rest of stages were concerned. It seems to go against every principal of an open-air multi-genre festival to encourage people to stick to their music of choice, and many people felt they had done a bad job, anyway. A group of kids I spoke to were agonising over who they would see on Friday night, Bob Dylan, Death Cab For Cutie or The Streets, all of whom performed nearly simultaneously.

There were several acts which were universally admired, or at least should have been; even people who wholeheartedly despised electronic music would be hard-pressed not to appreciate the antics of 64-year-old Annie Nightingale, a British nightclub DJ swirling around in her booth to her fairly standard and badly mixed breakbeat electro as the crowd applauded ironically and took giant tokes of their joints so they could giggle some more, but hey, at least they were seeing something new.

Swedish hair-metal proggers Evergrey didn’t draw quite so big a crowd, but they didn’t care in the slightest, playing as if in front of a sold-out stadium of worshippers instead of the mixed bag of bored metal enthusiasts and Opeth fans trying to make the most of their Roskilde bracelet. Evergrey’s music may not have been that daring, or even interesting, but man, did they rock. They positively glowed with intense conviction as they soloed and slammed their way through one of the best half-hours of metal I’ve ever seen. They easily outdid their fellow Swedes in Opeth, whose noncommittal performance completely lacked in the purity and energy inherent in Evergrey’s performance.

And although a lot of people might try to tell you that Deftones and Tool were really great, what they probably don’t know is that a little British band called Amplifier did exactly the same thing they did, only much better. The charismatic three-piece and their curving, whiplike hard rock also outdid the more fashionable side of rock appearing at Roskilde 2006, such as Wolfmother and The Raconteurs, but then again, someone beating your face in with a brick could outdo them.

Which, incidentally, there was very little of at Roskilde this year. Most of the emergencies paramedics had to deal with were accidental in nature, and the only physical altercation I heard about the whole time I was there was my friend Tumi getting incredibly drunk and whacking someone upside the head with a bottle when an argument over whether PCs were better than Macs got a little too potent.

Nor was there a single reported instance of rape, a remarkable fact considering that there were well upwards of 90,000 people there. Europe’s youth, it seems, found an excellent way to have good, clean fun while still taking in massive amounts of intoxicants. That certainly seemed to be the motto of Iceland’s most infamous of colonies on the vast Roskilde campsite, Niceland.

A large festivity tent in the far reaches of the camping grounds, Niceland celebrated its second appearance at Roskilde this year, if celebration is an appropriate term for what I witnessed upon my first visit there. I visited the camp at about three in the afternoon, and most of the people there were still in their tents recovering from last night. The Nicelanders that were awake sat hippie-campfire-style in a circle between the tents, which had been covered by a larger tent, and told stories of varying misdeeds they had committed.

To them, it seemed like Roskilde was some sort of mammoth school dance where all the punch was spiked, another excuse to spend a week in wastoid land, and maybe see a couple of shows while they were there. Another Icelander I spoke to told me as much. “I’d say it was about 70% atmosphere, 30% music… it’s just one big party, being here.”

Getting Along Like A Tent on Fire
I would have liked to talk to that one again on Sunday, the last day of the festival, if only to see if he was as partied out as the rest of us. By then Roskilde had become little more than a shabby mess of sunburned bodies ambling about in the scorching heat, which had been growing steadily day by day, finally hitting the unbearable level at the festival’s culmination. I attempted to cool myself off with a 35-ounce juice box of impossibly bad red wine and amused myself by trying to pick out who had been spending the most time in front of the orange stage, a group instantly recognisable by the fact that they had sunburns on the left side of their face only. Most of the shows were, naturally, during the sun’s long descent to the western horizon, resulting in some endearingly asymetric tanlines.

When the sun finally set, Roger Waters was piping out his pompous plethora of overrated bilge, and the ever-present aroma of weed in the air became overpowering, proving once again the exact value of Pink Floyd to a sober individual: Zero. I was more excited for the events coming up later that night, a ritual that has lived with Roskilde for some time now.

When the festival is over and people have little need for their tents, a great many feel that taking the tent back home would be needlessly complicating things. Add to this the fact that most of the festivalgoers never want to see the inside of a tent again after the freezing nights and sweat-drenched mornings they were forced to spend, and you’re left with a whole lot of useless tents. And what better way to put the pointless structures out of their misery than completely destroying them?

Veterans of Roskilde had been intriguing me with tales of the destruction since the second day, recounting how gangs of up to a dozen young men had roamed around the campsite, bearing the skeletal remains of already-gutted tents as weapons and approaching them, only to ask politely “Oi mate, can we wreck your tent?”

This year, people were even more forthright, often simply running up to a tent and getting underway with its demolition without giving so much as a bellow of warning to any inhabitants that might still be inside sleeping. An extremely drunk kid I met was stumbling between two tents brandishing a can of lighter fluid. When I asked him what he planned to do with it, he just stared at me, bewildered and paranoid. A short silence followed, during which he no doubt deduced that my concern for the safety of festivalgoers and my own drunkenness meant I wasn’t one of the completely useless volunteers roaming around the campsite. He then proceeded to wander toward a collection of tents a short distance away while I watched soberly, swearing I would interject as soon as he tried something stupid.

However, he never reached the tents. Another guy with a baseball cap jogged up and spoke to him in Danish before leading him away.

“He a friend of yours?” I called and took a swig of my cherry wine.

The second guy turned around and smiled. “Yeah. We just sent him out to get some lighter fluid. We’re gonna burn our tent. Want to… come and watch?” he slurred drunkenly.

“Sure. Why not?”

I walked with them, attempting to decipher their speech, only to fail miserably. Like many Icelandic people of my generation, I spent most of my Danish classes doodling band logos and staring out of the window. My limited knowledge of the language does definitely not extend to understanding heavily intoxicated Danish natives discussing the intricacies of setting fire to their tent.

When we finally got there, the Danes introduced me to about five or six of their friends, who were busy pulling sleeping bags and other camping paraphernalia out of a largish, blue-and-white tent. There was a sense of urgency to them, as if they had to burn the whole thing down before they reconsidered their actions, but judging by the drunken guffaws and gleeful lustre in their eyes, reevaluation was the last thing on their minds.

With the tent emptied, there was only one thing to it. The second Dane, who had introduced himself as Åge, staggered in a circle around the tent while hosing down the base of it with the lighter fluid. A friend snatched the can away from him and gave the inside a couple of healthy spurts. Before I could ask how they intended to start the fire, Åge’s friend, the very drunk one who had bought the fluid, pulled out one of those grill lighters with the trigger and safety on them, wavered around for a second as if about to fall over, and touched the fluid with the flame on the end of the lighter.

The lighter fluid turned out to be a waste of time, as the sudden crackle of incinerated material and swiftly carrying flame revealed the tent to be mostly polyester. Åge’s friend took a quick step back as the others laughed and opened beers, while Åge, evidently the leader of the group, produced a joint. The tent needed to be relit several times, as the flame quickly burned out, but once the groundsheet caught fire, the whole thing burned steadily for about twenty minutes or so, although it was impossible to say how long we really sat there, slowly letting the laughter die out as the tent collapsed softly in front of us.

There is no escaping the mesmerising effect of an open fire on the human eye. So enraptured were we that it took us a minute or two to notice the people staring at the burning structure, and I found myself amazed at how unconcerned I was that a safety volunteer might arrive. I just couldn’t understand how this was a bad thing.

A couple huddled together at the edge of the light, the girl pointing wide-eyed to the air above the fire, where wafting embers of polyester were being tossed into the air, carried upwards by the heat. I looked to my left, where Åge’s friend was busy throwing up on the grass. Åge simply watched, smiling calmly before he noticed me watching, and grinned mischievously, showing perfect teeth.

The best way to get to denmark:
IcelandAir flies direct flights from Reykjavík to Copenhagen.
For more information, log on to
Icelandair provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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