Essex has given many gifts to the world. The county’s capital, Chelmsford, claims to be the “birthplace of radio” due to the establishment of the world’s first “wireless” factory, established on Hall Street. Colchester, meanwhile, was one of the first settling points for the Romans when they stomped their way over in 55BC. Bands including Blur, Depeche Mode, The Prodigy were formed in Basildon, Braintree and beyond. But its most well-known musical gift, perhaps, was V Festival – the summer season’s trashy but loveable underdog. Year in, year out, without fail, it would serve up the most baffling line-ups – and we loved it for that.
But no more. Over the weekend, it was confirmed that RiZE festival, the V Festival replacement that took place last year for its sole outing in Chelmsford’s Hylands Park, would not be returning. After 22-years of lad rock, dad rock, pop stars and flops, that penultimate weekend in August in the county capital’s park will be noticeably quiet.
This comes as little surprise, mind. Despite V Festival’s Britpop beginnings, with Pulp, Blur, The Verve and more playing across the festival’s first three events (96-99), it lost focus in the last half decade. Repeat bookings – The Killers (4), Kasabian (2) and Kings of Leon (3) all headlined multiple times in less than a decade – an identity crisis and rising costs meant that punters all but lost interest in the two-day festival.
The mid-’00s, however, were something of a golden era. In the mid-noughties, V was an integral part of the festival scene and became a crucial player in the festival calendar. Coldplay had one of their first headlining gigs there in 2003, while Radiohead, Morrissey, The Strokes, Foo Fighters and Oasis all made Hylands Park (and Weston Park, Staffs, too – but I’m an Essex boy, so indulge me) their stomping ground.
It also had a track record of actively pushing some of the new acts up the bill. Kasabian were one of the opening acts on the NME Stage in 2004, while Biffy Clyro, The Wombats, Stormzy and Wiz Khalifa all got sizeable and crucial slots as they made their name.
Being Southend-born and Brentwood-raised, the Hylands Park get-together soon become mine and other teens’ first experience of live music. Muse, who were coming off the back off their Wembley Stadium appearances the summer before, and, er, Pigeon Detectives were the draw for me when I was able to make the plunge in 2008 (the first time my parents let me go). It had all the trappings and tribulations of a first festival too. I overpacked heavily, brought about 300 bags of crisps for a single day, lost my phone during the aforementioned Pigeon Detectives frenzy and spent two hours queuing to get out of the car park. I remain baffled by the decision by the festival to place the Main Stage in the same field with a gigantic Oak tree in that was impossible to see past.
But V lost its appeal for me and others. Ticket sales dropped off and in the final few whimpers – 2014 onwards – tickets were available all the way up to the gate. Meanwhile the lineups had become predictable. Artists like Scouting For Girls, The Kooks, Stereophonics, Madness and Calvin Harris may have got an easy cheque every other year, but it tested the patience of the surprisingly loyal fans.
So the festival looked for other avenues to serve the next generation of punters. Dedicated music stages were replaced with corporate VIP areas, while booze-sponsored tents with the same staggeringly repetitive playlists turned select corners of the festival into the overpacked, sparkly scrum of a Brentwood high streets Slug and Lettuce. The TOWIE-fication had come and robbed V of its charm, in favour of hair-styling booths, showy but unsatisfying grub and an ever-changing layout.
When it was on its last legs, disgruntled punters pointed to the festival’s overwhelming embrace of pop music as The Reason I Stopped Going. In fact, the diverse lineup and offerings meant that fans from across the board could get their teeth stuck into new types of music. When Oasis cancelled (and would eventually split) in 2009, my friends and I went to watch MGMT instead, and while waiting, just so happened to catch Lady Gaga in one of the festival’s smallest tents, not long after the release of her debut album.
A year later, Rihanna staged a prop-filled, pop-banger smackdown on the Main Stage, and in the following decade, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber visited Hylands Park – most likely thinking it was London. Artists like Amy Winehouse, Alanis Morrissette, Taylor Swift and more all got crucial placings over the years. These sets were often the busiest and most memorable.
V Festival’s legacy, then, has become a confusing thing. Those who went to see P!NK and Jay Z in its final outing in 2017 were likely worlds away from the Parka Monkeys who went to watch Liam Gallagher perform at RiZE a year later or those who first rocked up to see Pulp back in 1996. But it gave several generations a real pick’n’mix of British music, one dazzling, sloppy lineup at a time. Us Essex natives wouldn’t have had it any other way.