A parallel universe where punters pay to see tribute bands and no one knocks the line-up? It exists, as Jordan Bassett discovers
Bowie died five months ago. And yet here he is, delivering a set in which he’s grabbed his crotch while dressed as Ziggy Stardust and nestled a skull beneath his arm while crooning ‘Fame’ as the Thin White Duke. “This ain’t rock’n’roll,” he caterwauls. “This is gen-o-cide!” That deranged expression of desperate self-belief, which barrels into the glam-rock stomp of ‘Diamond Dogs’, is delivered to a dancing crowd of at least 5,000 fans. They’re hyped up on a Friday night headline show that’s featured renditions of ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘China Girl’ and ‘Suffragette City’. Pirouetting across the enormous stage, guitarist Mick Ronson roars, “Where the fuck are ya?!”
We’re at Glastonbudget, the world’s biggest tribute act festival, held every year since 2005 at Turnpost Farm in Wymeswold, rural Leicestershire. That wasn’t the real Mick Ronson. The man draped homoerotically around him during ‘Starman’ wasn’t David Bowie; he’s John O’Neill, 50, a retired builder from London. The band are called Absolute Bowie.
But the facts don’t seem to matter here. Teens with neon-painted faces wobble on their mates’ shoulders. A middle-aged man snarls along with every word. A sinewy old bloke busts moves and waves a top hat. It’s safe to say Glastonbudget appeals to a broad audience. And why not? For 95 quid, you get six stages, three nights of camping and a boozy spring bank holiday knees-up.
The festival bill includes The Stone Roses (The Clone Roses), The Killers (The Fillers), Oasis (Oasish) and Pink (she’s called Pink). The VIP tent’s a bustling who’s-who of “No, seriously, who’s who?” A not-quite Axl Rose swaggers past with a pint. As befits his rock’n’roll reputation, there’s a rumour he smashed up the bar last year. A sort-of Michael Jackson, decked out in a red military jacket, glides by.
The festival was created by 40-year-old Nick Tanner, who formerly ran pubs and regularly booked tribute acts. One night, on the piss, he and a friend hatched a plan to host a bigger tribute act event. A few pints on, it became Glastonbudget. They found a farmer who loves rock’n’roll and the festival found a home. That home now attracts 10,000 punters – not bad when you consider that just 680 people attended in 2005.
Attendance grew through word of mouth. “It grew 700-800 people every year,” says Tanner. “It was all organic.” This is a family affair: his septuagenarian parents sell brochures and his sister runs the box office. “I think the appeal is that it isn’t in-your-face like other festivals,” he says. “We have a bit more of a grassroots feel.”
That rings true, but perhaps what’s most surprising about Glastonbudget is the massive scale. The Main Stage and the second stage (dubbed the Big Top) don’t look much smaller than their Reading & Leeds equivalents. There’s everything you’d see at a mainstream festival: lads in naff bucket hats, women wearing T-shirts from a previous outing to the event and stalls that flog inflatables, including a great deal of sex dolls.
The punters’ enthusiasm for Glastonbudget is obvious. Louis, 16, says: “The tribute acts are better than the real thing – everyone’s more buzzed about being here because you’re closer to the stage and feel closer to the band.” Vicky, a woman in her forties, dances chaotically at the rear of the sprawling crowd for Absolute Bowie. Her daughter Daisy watches, arms folded, with acute embarrassment. “We’ve been for the last three years and it’s so friendly,” Vicky says. “The atmosphere is fantastic, the groups are amazing – it’s just like the real thing. You can’t help but do this!” she shouts, pogoing wildly. Daisy’s malaise visibly deepens.
Earlier in the day, a sex doll soared overhead as Oasish (they have a gingham-shirted, mid-’90s Noel and a Pretty Green-clad, mid-’00s Liam) led a Main Stage singalong with an acoustic rendition of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. A quick dash across the field reveals that Prodigy tribute Jilted Generation have turned the Big Top into a seething mosh pit with a bilious, gleefully obnoxious performance of ‘Firestarter’. People love to moan about the line-ups at mainstream festivals, but who could quibble with this?
Two acts return every year: Oasish and Queen tribute act Mercury. “Keep those two and the majority of people will come back,” says Tanner. He wanted Mercury and Absolute Bowie to perform a duet of ‘Under Pressure’ (“That would’ve been something pretty fucking special; even the real ones didn’t do it live together”) but the latter turned it down.
Watching John O’Neill’s lovingly crafted Bowie show, replete with light beams, costume changes and huge images of the man himself on screens, it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t mess with the formula. Speaking about the death of the man he’s impersonated for 12 years, John says: “Man, I was broken for a long time. I was crying every day for about two months.”
As Bowie waves goodbye after ‘Diamond Dogs’, a woman similarly weeps in the crowd. The acts are fake, but the love here – for Bowie, for Glastonbudget, for sex dolls, it seems – is palpably real.