Mark, My Words: beware, Stormzy, the folly of the too-soon headline slot

A grime Glastonbury is something to celebrate, argues columnist Mark Beaumont, but will Stormzy fall foul of the Curse Of The Darkness?

Ever wondered what might happen if all of the Russian bots were suddenly reprogrammed to troll the world in the style of Noel Gallagher? Wonder no more. Just rewind the internet to November 15, the day that Stormzy was announced as the first headliner for Glastonbury 2019. The booking was “utterly embarrassing!” and “the biggest joke of the year”, according to someone who clearly hasn’t heard Donald Trump say anything at all. Glastonbury was “selling its sole”, presumably to the Institute For Botulism Research, or to a scrap metal merchant interested in extracting all of the laughing gas cannisters embedded in it. “RIP Glasto,” wrote one Twitterer, either forgetting that the festival has previously survived a Shakespeare’s Sister headline set, or for some reason assuming that a grime act topping the Pyramid Stage will prompt the world’s most ambitious drive-by.

 

 

Personally, I’m with the mandem and galdem (and nonbinarydem? I’m way out of my depth here, to be frank) of Crew Stormz. Many are celebrating the announcement as a triumph for UK rap and an overdue recognition of the cultural driving force that is grime’s all-conquering second wave. Stormzy represents the epitome of alternative British culture in 2018, and absolutely deserves a prominent place at a festival that prides itself on encrusting the zeitgeist and taking potentially diehard-angering chances on acts they really believe in, once all the money’s cleared. Not to have grime acts playing a substantial role in Glastonbury 2019 would be like Strictly Come Dancing without the possibility of divorce. He’ll make Jay-Z ’08 look like Ed Sheeran ’17 too. I’ve watched Stormzy destroy tiny clubs, own massive festival stages and steal entire award ceremonies; the guy’s a tornado in a tracksuit.

But look past the few morons who are objecting to the idea of a grime act headlining and seem to think that the only other thing to do on Friday night at Glastonbury is join a Hare Krishna bridge tournament, and the naysayers often have a point. Stormzy, goes the most prevalent argument, only has one album. One hour’s worth of music (including interludes), plus a couple of EPs and a mixtape. His only guest spot hit was with Little Mix, and it would take balls of titanium to get them out in front of 100,000 people within reach of mud-smothered cartons of manky falafel. He’ll have finished album two by then, and maybe even released it, but who’s to say that it doesn’t go down like Rupert Murdoch on an open-top bus parade through Liverpool? As impeccably relevant as he is, a totemic figurehead for the most exciting genre of the age, is it not perhaps a tad premature to hoist him alongside a few of rock’s elder statesmen, with such limited ammunition, to prove that contemporary music is still producing fresh legends?

The Killers turned down festival headline slots after the success of their debut album ‘Hot Fuss’, aware that this isn’t the sort of prestige slot you want to rush into like someone off Gogglebox applying for president of BAFTA. Come out of it looking unprepared, dazzled, out of your depth or clearly suffering from chronic hit deficiency and you’re straight back behind The Courteeners in the queue for that sort of opportunity again. And it’s not just Stormzy’s future on the line at Glasto ’19 – as the first UK rapper ever to headline the festival he’s stepping up for grime itself. One high-profile fuck up could derail the grime locomotive’s charge into cultural domination faster than giving a feature spot to MC Clegg.

The worry is, the audacity of headlining a festival after just one or two albums has a success rate roughly equivalent to the average team of cack-handed bozos on The Crystal Maze. Oasis (Glastonbury 1995) and The Strokes (R&L 2002) pulled it off, but they arrived boasting hugely acclaimed, multi-million-selling, culture-crushing debut album phenomenons; Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’, though an undeniably great breakthrough moment for grime, barely dented any end-of-year lists and shifted a massive-for-2018 – but hardly seismic – 300,000 copies. On the other hand, Arctic Monkeys were swamped by the Pyramid Stage’s scale in 2007, and when The Darkness rode the 3 million sales of ‘Permission To Land’ to the R&L headline slot in 2004 it was their death knell. They looked like such a laughable pastiche of a Reading Festival headline act that the joke stopped being funny and 60,000 pretend metal fans instantly sobered up, glumly removed their freshly ironed Def Leppard t-shirts and wandered off, mid-set, to get a job in insurance. Where, ironically, they’d be exposed to a whole lot more of The Darkness.

 

Even Florence & The Machine, who’d go on to tedious, eardrum-puncturing success as festival headliners in the years to come, struggled to fill the ninety minutes of their top slot at Latitude 2010 with just ‘Lungs’ to rely on, and had to play their good one twice. Such desperate, over-ambitious measures broadcast to that audience, and the festival community at large, that you’re just not as ready for it as you think you are. One stiffed album later, you’re so yesterday’s news you’re catching Pokemon down the Met Bar with Jedward.

So I’d urge Stormzy not to milk his modest catalogue to the max for Glastonbury 2019, but to make it a grime takeover. Leave all beef in the meat amnesty bins, invite the whole scene onstage, knock out every hit of the past fifteen years, prove that grime is a Pyramid-pleasing extravaganza just like Jay-Z did for hip-hop in 2008. Put it on the Glastonbury map, and from there it’ll seep into the leylines. Those are some mighty big boots Stormzy’s stepping into; for grime’s sake, give ‘em some welly.