Even with some fairly stiff competition, the V Festival (“v”, predictably, for “Virgin”) somehow manages to be Britain’s most overtly commercialised event. Virtually everything is branded, whether it’s the stages, guest areas, mobile phone recharging stations or even, in something of a new low, inflatable chairs, which are proudly emblazoned with the Sony Ericsson logo. The crowd of largely young, excitable festival-goers are meanwhile continually battered with advertisements for ringtones and downloads. Notoriously, it was a requirement of Morrissey’s headlining set last year that he had to announce before one of his songs which number to text to download it; such behaviour seemed only slightly credible from a man whose “Paint A Vulgar Picture” so shrewdly satirised corporate greed.
Yet there are undeniable advantages to the environment. V is a remarkably non-threatening festival, with few of the rougher edges prevalent at other large-scale gatherings. This is at least partially due to the line-up, which this year favoured a number of artists who have the effect of musical soma, such as Snow Patrol and KT Tunstall. It is very hard to want to begin a riot when the musician you’re watching is singing about love, peace and harmony, entirely without any of the irony which made stadium rock briefly acceptable post-U2.
Given that there is literally nothing cultural on offer save the music, unless a couple of late-night film screenings are included, the V Festival stands and falls by its line-up, which is normally one of the best in the country. This year was no exception; two massive American headline acts (The Killers and Foo Fighters) gave the po going masses all the muscular guitar-based anthems they could want to sing along to, whereas lower down the bill was a mixture of reliable stalwarts (the Manic Street Preachers, gamely trotting out a set they must have played so many times they could do it in their sleep by now) and just a hint of something slightly edgier. Iggy Pop jumping around, throwing himself into the crowd and causing havoc on stage is now de rigeur for a performance, but the intensity and verve with which Tim Booth, managing to look sinister even while clad in a skirt, fronted a reformed James was an abject lesson in not every band reunion coming over as a cynical cash-in.
The event attracted a great deal of publicity due to the “will she, won’t she” appearance of Amy Winehouse, the extraordinarily talented and self-destructive young singer whose constant appearance in the tabloids has turned her into something of a national obsession. In the end, her hit song “Rehab” proved an all too telling description of her rumoured whereabouts. Yet, even in her absence, she proved a totemic figure; the cult American rapper Kanye West played a few bars of “Rehab”, describing it as “a song I have to listen to every day”, to wild applause, and, more bizarrely, grizzled dad-rock act Ocean Colour Scene briefly referenced it during their workmanlike set.
It seems doubtful that anyone would go to V in either of its dual sites in Chelmsford or Stafford in search of musical enlightenment. Nor did this year’s miserable weather help matters. But it’s efficiently organised – a blessing when you want to get home on a wet, cold Sunday night – and there’s an undeniable frisson to seeing some popular bands at the top of their game. Whether that translates into it being a truly legendary festival, however, is a moot point.