Each year, come July/August, I go through the same routine. I check the line-up for this years Sziget music festival and see how few names I recognise. Then I have the same debate with myself: to go or not to go. And each year, despite the best of intentions to let this be the year that I get out of my box and break down those comfortable walls, I never follow through. I find an excuse and I chicken out.
The seven-day Sziget music festival has been running since 1993 and now features more than 1000 live performances over the course of the week. This year, Thursday sold out with Lily Allen on the main stage. 85,000 day tickets were sold that day and all festival goers were contained on Óbudai-sziget, a 266-acre island on the Danube.
In my defence, I am musically clueless. It’s as if the music world stopped turning for me in the 1980s. I detest crowds with a passion, unless I’m neatly corralled in my allocated space where you can’t stomp on me, elbow me, or spill your pint on top of me (strangely though, I have no problem with crowds at a racetrack…mmm…). I can’t abide being marked up, paying over the odds just because I’m one of a captive audience with no choice other than to pay or go without. But this year, I actually went. Just for one day. But I went.
It was muddy and the mud stank like the wet fur of a million dogs. This was the second-last day and those who were camping for the week were looking a little like they’d been dragged through a ditch backwards. As a newbie, I let fly with my fair share of oohs and aghs. I was impressed. It’s like a little city with post offices, pharmacies, shops, a consular office, bars, and restaurants. All that was missing was a church. There were UK police and police from Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in uniform and on hand to help. Signs showed meeting points for Australians, Dutch, Nordic, Indians and more. You could buy a festival phone to keep track of your mates and everything was paid for using a festival card that you topped up as you needed at one of the many banks around the place. You could even get married there, have an HIV test, or check your mental health. There was an Irish stage, a world stage, and various other tents and stages that featured specific types of music. I could have stayed all night at the circus pitch – remarkable stuff.
Prices seemed quite standardised and certainly more expensive than the usual Hungarian fare but for the many international heads (I heard that over 70% of attendees come from abroad), it is still cheap. Hidden amongst it all is a pub that operates on the island year round. It accepts the festival card but has its own prices (about half of what you’d pay elsewhere) – a good place to know. People were walking around with small pails of cocktails. Wine bottles were being emptied into plastic containers. Beer was being sold by the vat load and yet there were surprisingly few obvious drunks and those who were a little the worse for wear were in great form.
The place is dotted with interesting art installations and there is plenty to see and do. Were I to do it over, I’d go in the morning and wander around before the crowds got too much. Then I’d sit for a while near the circus, spend some time at the world stage, and perhaps hand-pick a band or two that I really wanted to see.
First band on the main stage that even was an Indie band from the UK – the Bombay Bicycle Club. Needless to say I’d never heard of them but they were good. I could listen to them. At 7.30 Madness appeared and I was back in the kitchen in Northbrook in the mi-1980s with Messrs Jackson and Dowdall doing their take on Suggs et al. in the kitchen. Great stuff. They sang all the classics to which I even knew then words. I never fail to surprise myself.
Crowdsurfing was all the go and I watched a little age-struck as people were bodily passed across the crowd, mentally calculating that there wasn’t enough wine in the world to make me trust in the hands of strangers. Towards the end, Our House and Baggy Pants roused the younger ones, as if turning on a collective memory switch. It became just a tad hairy, as they barrelled through the crowd to the front, regardless of what or who was in the way. By this stage, I’d had enough. There’s a limit to the amount of discomfort I can handle. Prodigy were next up – the main act that night. I listened long enough to realise that I am not and will never be a fan. I just didn’t get them. So I went in search of good music – Budapest Bar.
And from there to the World Stage for some reggae. By this time, I was running on empty. Completely knackered. Twelve hours was as much as I could handle. I was pretty impressed that I’d lasted that long and more impressed with the set-up. And while I love the idea, I can’t for the life of me imagine a whole week of it. Next year, I’ll be in Africa, so the internal debate can be postponed. In 2016? Who knows.