It was past noon on Friday June 27th, and I was in Oxford, travelling North. In itself this was strange, as this is rarely the case for me, and never without good reason. North of Oxford there is a certain altitude I am not entirely comfortable with • if only because there is simply more sky.
But I had good reason. Press passes to the Blenheim Palace leg of Wakestock festival beckoned, and there was a certain bent appeal in the notion of experiencing a festival in the grounds of a stately home; the original Woodstock.

I say the Blenheim leg because Wakestock would later be making an appearance in Abersoch, North Wales. For anyone with good taste though, it was the first appearance that was the more important. Wakestock had been running up in Wales for a good few years, but this was the first time they would appear in the Home Counties. And there were all sorts of ugly precedents to set; not least because these kinds of shenanigans aren’t a regular occurrence in the grounds of said palatial complex.

As I drew ever closer to my destination, passing immigrant detention camps and homely Cotswold villages on my way, I paused to reflect on the irony of the situation; Churchill’s ancestor the Earl of Marlborough built the palace to his own glory, but had the good sense to place it within an estate bigger than most micro-nations, away from the masses of the great unwashed in Oxford. Now by a cruel twist of fate those lovely people at the National Trust had thrown open those same grounds to the most depraved examples of those same masses, to use as they saw fit. As if to fire a mission statement at the crowds, the promotional material featured wakeboarders • a filthy degenerate hybrid of watery athlete and sex symbol • and the palace itself, resplendent in its millions of panes of smashable glass and defilable walls.

Whilst I don’t wish to dwell on any negative aspect for any length of time, it would be negligent to ignore the organisational problems that were not confronted: Coming into the village you would barely know that a festival was happening but for the hordes of filthy, would-be fornicators. Signposts were non existent, and gate staffs were doggedly responding to the same questions time and again. I can understand the desire to avoid any hassle to the inhabitants of Woodstock, but a greater availability of information would have been a better compromise with the greasy campers than letting them get lost in the florally certified postcard town. In all truth I got lost. The layout of the site itself was also highly falliable, with the festival entrance as far from the village and house as possible. The campsite itself sat fat in the path of any route to the stages, lake or house, increasing the temptations to theivery for any day visitors, who were marked out by the absence of wristbands. The only glimpse the crowds were even allowed of the house was across the waters of the lake; “you can look but don’t be getting ideas about touching”. Publicity was also pretty low, although I may just be reading the wrong magazines, because the wakeboarding circles were clued up to the hilt. The event did not sell out, much like ‘that Glastonbury festival’ which fell on the same weekend. It is improbable that the festivals split an audience • even though some acts were playing both • and this may simply be a reflection of some greater social disillusion with the concept of festivals.

Still, there were compensations, and a V.I.P camping pass, replete with goodie bag and hair product greeted me with open arms. What I hadn’t expected was a £15 surcharge ‘for charity’. Which charity was not specified, nor whether it was optional, or even why the hefty sum of £15 was involved. Suspicions of gate staff fleecings run rampant. In all actuality the “V.I.P” was a misnomer, simply allowing access to a lifeless bar and half decent toilet facilities. It was the AAA passes that were the most highly prized, but unless you were musically, athletically or physically gifted, these were simply out of the question.

The line-up for the event itself was pretty shiny, although this has come to be expected. With the inclusion of the Happy Mondays, it spanned three decades and as many stages • although one was devoted almost entirely to DJs and canned music.

The first band I was enthused enough to visit were the Cazals, playing the ‘Beach Arena’; a big top which was not designated for the headline acts, but attracted big crowds nonetheless. The Cazals themselves are yet another example of good but slightly frustrating indie pop, all Jarvis Cocker-alikes whose svelte attire reflected the dearth of audience. They were followed by Royworld, who have been attracting a certain amount of positive feedback amongst certain circles. Repeated technical failures led to chanting from the proto-masculine football fans who had apparently materialised to witness the show. After the multiple anticlimax, which had all the joy of losing your buzz after finding that you have drunkenly slaughtered your favourite pet, they managed to pull things together to perform a commendable set. They are all the keyboardy goodness of bands like Coldplay and such; not amazing, but perfectly suited to a dinnertime setplace.

The event had several strong links with XFM, but the organisers had neglected to realise that XFM is London and this was Oxfordshire; resulting in blank faces when people with names like ‘Goldierocks’ introduced bands. The “XFM stage” was also allocated the biggest tent, but by comparison, the Beach Arena had far better bands. Avoiding some bands on the grounds of taste, we elected to stay rooted to watch ‘Friendly Fires’, who had been recommended by a girl with a fantastic figure. And they were a lot of fun; a Speedy Gonzales contrapuntal rhythm section married to the kind of keyboards you’d expect on something like ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’, or some of the more loved, less well known Muse tracks. At times they did sound like cheesy 80s dance pop, but that was part of the attraction.

It was no place for the epileptic. Another major organisational failure was the insistence • particularly in the XFM arena • to run the bands early. Clearly they had been allocated more time to change sets than they needed and the organisers had chosen to count their blessings and run early. Whilst it was refreshing to see a gig start early, rather than late, it was not cute, rendering the programmes that had been whored to the crowds for a fiver redundant. It also meant I was forced to miss Australia’s Cut Copy • who are sensational on CD and will be on the rise this summer • in order to catch Groove Armada. In all fairness to the organisers, they were trying to co-ordinate at least three different institutions • the National Trust owners, the Musicians and the Wakeboarders • as well as countless pieces of equipment in a muddy field, we should not criticise them out of context, but I should have liked to explore their tantalising lineup in all its glory. However, all such thoughts were forgotten, when we crowded into the XFM arena to witness one of the most glorious moments of the year.

There is an ideal of summer, in which the limits of realistic possibility and the concept of paradise converge. This ideal encapsulates glorious warm sunshine, watersports, music festivals, friends, iced beverages and sex. For whatever reason • be it the British weather, or some other dreary reality • this ideal remains on the very periphery of actuality; forever failing to manifest. But around sunset on one fine Friday in 2008, Groove Armada played the definitive ‘At the River’, and human paradise was resident at Blenheim. The synthesizers and major chords were a major boost to the dreariness inside, but it was the trombone solo that truly took us from ecstatic to euphoric.
In a tent so cavernous, it could not help but feel like a rave, the laser lights, adding another element to the fun. It was only when listening to their set that I realised that so many good tunes have been written by the band, and nothing would be more likely to make me venture to that Balearic fleapit Ibiza than the thought that GA would be the soundtrack to the adventure.

Groove Armada were unquestionably the headliners, but when they had finished, the audience trooped en masse to the Beach Arena, where Pendulum were gracing the stage. Weirdly they were following Hadouken which was probably a reflection of a management decision to give respect to GA by moving Pendulum from the XFM stage to the smaller stage. In full knowledge of the fact that the crowds would be coming from the other tent, the band elected to wait until the tent was rammed to the steaming rafters before unleashing the beast. The potential for death by crushing in a set like that was understandable • let us not forget Roskilde • and security niftily closed up the entrances and opened up the walls so that the audience could enjoy the fun from the grass outside. Needless to say the set was incredibly hectic, but reports from inside the crush said that the sound system simply couldn’t handle the squelchy synths and bass that we have come to expect. Nonetheless though, it was a dirty end to a good first day. Those who could handle the pressure continued on to the dance tent, but even that finished fairly early, possibly a compromise between expectations for late night craziness and some respect for the campers who had been parked right next door. Eventually the scheduled fun was rounded off and the crowds headed back to their own tents for hand-crafted madness. Some people went to sleep.

Having successfully criticized the organisation a bit too thoroughly I should at least point out the sensible decision to timetable the music and athleticism to compliment each other. The watersports started at 10am and went on until 2pm, at which point the main arena opened and the music started for those riders who were a bit too keen there was also a pool gap in the arena, with a winch catapulting riders across rails and ramps instead of the boats. The crowd compromised a heterogeneity of individuals, some seeking purely musical nadirs, whilst others were only there for the boarding. Certainly the athletes themselves could not be up too late, having to wake early enough to be suited and booted and on the water at 10. Most of the crowd opted for an awkward mix of both; catching sunburn and attempting to fend off the feverish hangovers whilst lakeside. The walk from campsite to lake took about 20 minutes and few made it more than twice a day. When you were there, you were there for the duration. The lake itself was sculpted by ‘Capability’ Brown and 500 Irish scallies back in the days of Marlborough himself. And it truly was perfect for the day.

Talking to a few of the riders, I learnt that it might even compare favourably with the original location of Abersoch. Carved out of the Cotswold hills by sheer manpower and shovels, it is sheltered on at least two sides by steep wooded banks and as such the water is less affected by the wind. The clouds of the previous day were still present, but had ceased their complete coverage, allowing a break of glorious sunshine just long enough to make you feel the need to strip down, before closing over again and chilling you out. The boarders themselves were gifted individuals and would make composite acrobatic flips seem like childsplay. Then the announcers would announce ‘and he’s only 13’. Childsplay you say? There’s nothing like watching wakeboarding to make you feel completely inadequate. And with that in mind I shuffled back to the main site to witness the first of Saturday’s acts.

The expensive redundant timetable told me that the first act would be ‘XFM Band Winner’ in the Beach Arena, I smelled an incomplete production, but what could be done? Consulting with a mildly more informed sound engineer, I learned that they were in fact ‘Hyenas’. Hyenas were a pretty decent band, and under similar conditions I might have selected them to open a similar event. With their red & black colour scheme and skinny leather trousers, they were reminiscent of Tito and the Tarantulas, a lot of sassy attitude that was lost on the pretty vacant audience, much like the acoustic quality. After them it was off to see the Sylvias; a semi acoustic band whose selective use of a reverb pedal was rendered inert by the cavernous tent and the emptiness thereof. Pulling influences from country and folk, it wasn’t really my scene, but I could understand the appeal. They weren’t really what the stage needed though. I couldn’t really concentrate when I realised that my debit card had gone missing. Potential for losing something critical at this kind of even is quite steep and once again no-one knew where the lost property was.

In the meantime it was off to see the Mystery Jets, another element of the ‘nu rave’ scene • although they have apparently been around since the 90s • of whom we have heard more than we have heard. And of the stuff we have heard, the most interesting elements • such Blaine; as the father figure in he band and coming from Eel Pie Island • have ceased to be a reality. They have been churned into another generic indie band. Halfway through the last song the inexplicable mosh pit started bouncing, but by then it was far too late. On grounds of taste we elected to miss Calvin Harris and play drinking games instead; racking up the necessary drunken half-concealed belligerence necessary to watch the Happy Mondays. Most of the rest of the crowd did not realise what an opportunity to observe the grandest element of our dance heritage this was and were off watching Elliot Minor instead. As Ollie Cornish from pointed out; “You’ve got to remember, a lot of these people are wankers.” Bez himself • who apparently also tried his hand pretty successfully at Wakeboarding • graced the stage, with his completely inaudible and probably empty maracas, and these teenage swine were sitting in circles in their tents talking about losing their virginities. The sound quality was rubbish, but we all know the 24 Hour Party People story well enough to now that however crap they are, they are in fact the greatest songwriters alive.

When the world ends, there will be a rave, and the Mondays will be playing; the epitome of human nature, imperfect and beautiful. Once again the mosh pit flares up. The Happy Mondays are essentially all about love, but the savage undertones are barely covered by that veneer and the catharsis of the pit is hard to avoid. Once we had sated ourselves with Happiness, we decided to check out Elliot Minor in the Beach Arena. It was good fun, but possibly more because of the Relentless/Spiced Rum/Jagermeister I had downed, rather than any musical competency. They were not a solo acoustic number as you might expect but something in the vein of Drive-Thru Emo; all fun if yr in the mood, and I certainly was. They also managed to run at least one broken chord intro that would do credit to Bellamy or Beethoven.

We decided to end the night with Funeral for a Friend rather than Mark Ronson on two principles. Firstly, they would be playing their own songs, and secondly everyone knows that there is a ‘Fun’ in ‘Funeral For a Friend’. Negative labels such as ‘Emo’ and ‘Welsh’ have been applied to FFAF, but we should remember that they are a brilliant example of Rock music at its best, as evidenced by the smiling, sweating, moshing crowd. Furthermore, they are known and loved. “She Drove me to Daytime Television” received suitable acclaim from the audience, but it was the line ‘I am nothing more/than a line in your book’ from ‘Juneau’ that struck a particularly pointed chord with me. Never FFAF! You can have a pigeonhole in my heart too. And weirdly enough, in the middle of my own county, I feel as though I should be Welsh, as if I am intruding upon something certifiably beautiful. To be sure, it was not the most musical stuff ever, but it was definitely the stuff of memories. And with a sick guitar solo on ‘Escape Artists Never Die’ the night faded into oblivion.

Sunday started with Red Roots once again performing the ‘XFM Band Winner’ slot. Weirdly enough there are certain similarities with Saturday’s ‘Hyenas’. Once again there is a certain dark sassiness to their performance, and it was coupled with a sound that was hard to define. Naturally the word ‘Roots’ leads you towards Reggae, and there was some of that, but there was more than that, and whilst the lead singer was a black guy in a trilby, the drummer was a pasty long haired rocker. They were not overly talented; a simple fact that although they were competent enough, they were not engaging. Nonetheless they were fun to watch, and even the 5 string bass player broke with the usual traditions and moved about a bit.

Following them were rising Oxford talent ‘Little Fish’. My first reaction was ‘God damn, she is hot’. Little Fish consists of a male drummer and a female guitarist/singer who came out in a skinny spotlessly white top and drainpipes, with scarlet braces. Needless to say, the male proportion of the crowd loved it, and many of the females were appreciative too, particularly with the ‘Come with me/to my room’ call and response. The stripped down band format worked pretty well, and exceptional vocal talents were exhibited for which other people require batteries of special effects. However, someone should point out that the ultra-high screams aren’t doing anyone any favours they will kill her throat just as they are doing to my ears. Little Fish were followed by another rising Oxford band; A Silent Film. Opening with the most recent single from their anticipated debut album; ‘Sleeping Pills’ set the tone for the coming half hour. They have frequently been accorded adjectives such as ‘grandiose’ and ‘stadium-sized’ and, on a festival stage, it is hard to argue any other case, they quite simply rock. If that apocalyptic rave ever did happen, A Silent Film would be worthy of the opening slot, setting the tone for one final evening of euphoria.

By far the crowd favourite was announced by the sentence; ‘This is our treat, for us, it’s for you, but really it’s for us’. Underworld’s Born Slippy has made appearances in A Silent Film’s live sets before, and receives a lot of love on their Myspace page, but seeing it live makes you realise that they have transcended the original song into something else entirely. I only have one criticism, and that is of their decision to end the set with then relatively unknown new single ‘You Will Leave a Mark’. It was perfectly decent, but left us with a feeling of incompleteness. After them we went over the dance tent • officially the ‘South Stage’ • to check out the Nextmen, a group of DJs that I had been meaning to check out for a while. Their selection of garage was ok, but the sound quality was flaccid and the audience were relatively disinterested.

It was good daytime fun, but not really what was needed. There was then an unsightly gap in the day before the real madness began. The Young Knives were boycotted for political reasons, but Estelle could not be missed. Once again there was a poor sound quality. For some God-unknown reason it was all bass and no treble, and for a female artist this was not A Good Thing. It was at least helping to draw the crowds in from outside, but even with some absorbing audience there was simply too much space overhead to hear her noises properly. There was definitely a gradient of love in the audience, from those in the centre who were singing ever word and dancing like complete lemons, to those who were only there for ‘American Boy’, to the hippy tramps at the back who were only hiding from the wind. For ‘1980’, Estelle choreographed a hasty group wave in her friendly London chatter. ‘American Boy’ was her closing track, and it received a lot of love from the audience. Rumours that Kanye West would be beamed onto the video screens proved unfounded, but it proved a more than acceptable fair nonetheless.

Those of us who had little interest in Wakeboarding left the main stage, intent on avoiding the prize giving which would be relative gibberish to us, even if it was the first ever Wakeboarding prize giving at Blenheim. Instead we went over the Beach Arena to see the Futureheads, whose famed live spectacular was not to be missed. In much the same way that FFAF have been associated with the birth of Emo, the Futureheads have been linked to the rise of ‘Nu Rave’; an unfortunate coincidence which has done few favours for them. However, seeing them live they are rockier than one would expect, altogether A Good Thing. They certainly churn out a number of well known tunes; ‘The Beginning of the Twist’, ‘Decent Days and Nights’, ‘Area in Ruins’. This wasn’t the waltz and crazy dancing ensues all over the place, big smiles all over. By now those of us who have been here since Friday are caked in uncomfortable layers of grease, particularly from the bacon butties, but only it seems to galvanize the best of us to continue the fun. One of the themes of the Festivals seems to have been cover versions which have acquired permanent new owners. Pendulum made a point of playing the Prodigy’s ‘Voodoo People’, whilst A Silent Film dragged out ‘Born Slippy’ again.

Mark Ronson of course played Saturday Night, and now the Futureheads were playing ‘Hounds of Love’; a behemoth of sheer lovability. But we had yet one more band to go: local yokel superstars Supergrass. The night before I had had a dream where some told me I was ‘like God, but without the waistline’. Looking up onto that stage I cannot think of a more applicable compliment for Gaz Coombes; the East Oxford rascal who went on to be the frontman of a band known worldwide. I had been thinking I was catching drifts of ‘Pumping on Your Stereo’ all day • a track which sounds brilliant heard from a distance • but when it finally happened the crowd was the only place to be; right in front of two guys dressed as a chilli and a banana. There was a lot of love for the guys from Oxford, and not without it’s due; the band exhibited a consummate professionalism, even going as far as to play ‘Alright’ • “one we haven’t played in a while”. There were a couple of questionable choices; the Police cover to end the encore was lost on many, as was the choice of ‘Fifa 05’, a song they can’t be getting out very often. All in all though, it was a very fun set, perhaps the ultimate way to end such a brilliant festival. Others chose to see the Streets instead, but reported that they were not that special. Late in the day, Supergrass were simply brilliant. We did progress to watch Pete Tong; a man with a face for radio, but by then the haze had truly descended and all that I can remember • and wish to repeat to you • was the Mr Brightside remix, which did good things for us.

All in all, the festival was a good idea, if imperfectly executed. It was the first time something like this had been done on these grounds, and ultimately we should be grateful because it was a good precedent. Blenheim is certainly perfect for Wakeboarding, and wakeboarding is a good excuse for a festival. Roll on Blenheim Wakestock 09.