Budapest’s annual music festival is better attended than Glastonbury but chances are you’ve never heard of it. It’s planned as a British gathering which is why Sziget feels like a home away from home. It even has bobbies on the beat…
By Lee Gale
Now in its 19th year, Sziget in Budapest is a week-long festival on the wooded Obuda Island (sziget translates as island in Hungarian) in the middle of the Danube. Hungary’s major tributary, rather than being a bubbling, lead-infused, froth-churning black snake connecting industrial heartlands, would actually make an acceptable image for a 1,000-piece jigsaw.
The Royal Suite in Budapest’s Four Seasons hotel is one of Europe’s most luxurious spaces. It’s here that Prince stayed for a few nights when he played a three-hour set on Sziget’s “Day 0” – AKA Tuesday. Prince is Sziget’s biggest pull to date, a major coup, although ticket sales – the price was £45 – were less than expected. Hungary, too, is deep in economic gloom.
Prince enjoyed the vibe of Sziget so much that the following afternoon he returned to the site to catch Portuguese singer-songwriter Ana Moura on the Europe Stage. Unfortunately, the Europe Stage is to the rear of the Rock-Metal Main Stage, and as Prince settled in for his show, Motörhead hit full-flight. Perturbed, the 1:72 scale pop deity asked if Motörhead could be turned down. The request was politely but sensibly rebuffed.
We fly from Gatwick on Friday on an easyJet Airbus A310 (£300 return, plus £50 excess baggage) with the Prodigy aboard. They’re placed in Row 1, meaning all the passengers file past, grinning, like it’s a Victorian freak show. On arrival, Budapest is baking. While Keith, Liam, et al shoot off sharpish to Sziget, we hop aboard a PR-planned flight in a Cessna 172N training aircraft operated by Malev, the Hungarian national carrier. Skunk Anansie are prowling the Pop-Rock Main Stage, so we’re not really missing anything. Pilots are worryingly young these days – ours was, at most, in his mid-twenties.
While pulling a number of fantastic, teeth-grinding turns and the sort of dips that make your neck push into your shoulders like a figure from Seventies football game Striker, it’s clear that the festival below is nowhere near the scale of Glastonbury. This is no bad thing. It isn’t pleasant knowing you’re utterly lost, miles from your tent and too wrecked to go another step. Nevertheless, despite the island’s size, Sziget’s attendance figure for the week, 390,000, is almost double that of Glastonbury’s.
Sziget’s policy of booking bands is to look to Britain – indeed, during our stay, the festival organisers are genuinely interested by the opinions of festival-experienced UK journalists. The roster is packed with homegrown fancies. Before GQ.com’s arrival, Pulp, Hurts, The Maccabees, La Roux, Kasabian and the Chemical Brothers have played and are already back home ringing their mums, asking if they can pop round on Sunday for dinner.
Alongside its Anglophile disposition, Sziget is keen to promote the gypsy scene through its Roma Tent, a fact that sticks in the craw of Jobbick, the local far-right faction who, while Dizzee Rascal is playing, has blocked the main entrance to the site in protest. Hundreds of revellers are practically barred entrance to Sziget, with a single line of staggeringly patient youth being drip-fed through the VIP entrance.
Events become heated as Jobbik, who share a love of close crops and black T-shirts – ably assisted by a local managerie of “gangsters” – attempt to storm the entrance but are repelled by a determined line of riot police. It’s Hungarian handbags, but nevertheless a steady stream of polite locals approach to explain what’s going on. Concerned of a crush, a nearby makeshift bar by a local Audi dealership seems the sensible option, and as we hear the pounding beat of Prodigy’s “Diesel Power”, we’re left to admire the trim of an Audi A3 2.0 TDi.
If the Sziget experience is one of surprises, one of the more bonkers sights on Saturday comes not from the stage, but at a sweltering thoroughfare by the Hungaricum Village. Emerging from a dust swirl stroll two uniformed British bobbies on the beat, bringing an odd reverse-psychedelia to the proceedings. Curiosity prevails: “Are you really British policemen?” The shorter one nods, and the recognition of the Avon & Somerset Constabulary badge dissolves all doubt.
“We’ve been invited over by the Hungarian police,” explains PC Adrian Rigsby. “We’re a multi-national response. We have two British officers, two German and two Dutch. We’re a high-profile presence and we’re used as a link so if British people have a problem here, they can come to us. The reason behind us being here is that we’ve policed Glastonbury. My colleague, Ross, and myself have done 30 festivals between us in the last 20 years. We’ve got a fair bit of experience at understanding how a large festival works.”
As PC Rigsby takes a call on his radio and strides away, a pair of middle-earth monkey-type creatures with extremely bulky backpacks approach. It’s assumed these long-distance bipeds are a challenging East European folk comedy duo. They’re unnervingly lifelike – you wouldn’t approach this man-and-wife pigmy twosome if there were no other people around. “Ooh, you do go on,” the female creature says to her partner. They’re from northern England! Judging by the conversation, it’s evident the female is keen on male human company but, as she is quick to point out in a style reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket, “Festival-goers do smell a lot, don’t they? They all need a good bath!” She’s right, of course.
The perceptive nose of australopithecus Hyacinth may be influenced by nearby “toilet alley” – the dreaded festival lavatories. I stopped visiting festivals in the mid-Nineties due to the portentous contents of Glastonbury Portaloos and for regular Sziget ticket holders, toilets remain an alarming downside of Hungarian pop revelry, something only apprentice plumbers should have to witness.
Even worse, there’s a new Euro development in the form of a four-sided plastic outdoor urinal, without shelter, so passing grandmas, elderly teachers and female vicars can cop an eyeful if they glance in the wrong direction. VIP toilets, however, have come along leaps and bounds. Running water, neon lighting, sinks, soap, toilet roll, even dedicated attendants – a visit fit for a Prince.
The VIP area is a class apart. Raised on decking and fitted out with white vinyl settees, it spans the left flank of the main stage. Having missed Dizzee and the Prodigy the evening before, Saturday is spent studying pop performances. EastEnders-apeing songbird Kate Nash has the 6pm slot, dressed today in black and white stripes replete with bat wings and that trademark fringe which, as always, is spirit-level straight. Her backing band – all ladies – have had their hair done. Kate mentions the English riots to a largely baffled crowd who wave Romanian, Dutch and Italian flags.
A lithe local in the crowd sports the message, “Marry me!” across his well-defined, long, thin chest. There is a wild cheer when he is picked out by Sziget’s cameraman and with popularity secured, he’s transported via the audience’s fingertips to the stage. The comedy develops when Kate’s potential suitor is permitted to take up residence by her feet like a faithful dog. Kate spends the remainder of her set giggling, while husband-to-be, without a trace of self-consciousness or doubt, beams appreciatively, pointing to his chest and nodding. RADA should take note. Sziget loves it.
But it’s Kaiser Chiefs who prove the winning package, belting through “I Predict A Riot”, “Ruby” and “Oh My God” with such enthusiasm that the Euro crowd is captivated. The pace is relentless and as night falls, dust rises through the movement of dancing feet. Seasoned festival performers, Ricky Wilson & Co know the audience is not watching the tiny figures leaping about on stage but gazing at the two whopping TV screens either side. The wide-eyed Yorkshireman directs his own Sziget pop video, grabbing the lens and singing directly to you. “Ricky Wilson needs his own TV programme,” a nearby music journalist notes, “and he’ll probably get one.”
Back at the downtown four-star Mercure Budapest Korona (rooms from £52 a night, fully smoking bar. mercure.com), attempting to buy not-necessarily-needed glasses of red wine, standing by the front desk is – look! – Kate Nash and her all-female band and female manager! There are tinges of Goldfinger about the scene. With Dreher lager (£1.75) and mojito (£4.85) earlier having conquered mind, body and tongue, it seems fine to enter into deep discussion with this approachable British star, watched with bemused interest by teetotal Blackpool punk alumni John Robb.
“I’m not exactly a fan of your music…” my well-meaning conversation begins and from that point on, there is excavated a conversational hole. I once watched with interest a JCB attempt to power up the slope of house foundations it had just dug during the great London downpour of 2006. As the cavity rapidly turned into a swimming pool, thick diesel plumes blasted upwards, with the driver screaming, “Cam an, you c**t,” at his digger. This situation was on a par.
Oof! Category-A hangover. Budapest hotels don’t have kettles because Hungarians don’t drink tea. For obvious reasons, Sunday is a slow starter. Outside, the temperature pushes upwards and the minibus’ bumping and grinding to the festival site mean the body’s gauges creep agonisingly into the green. John Robb doesn’t smile but is happy to replay the Kate Nash conversation from the previous night in deadpan fashion: “You said you hated her music,” he says. “You said you didn’t like the gig and thought she was rubbish. You said you couldn’t wait for the gig to finish.” It’s unlikely, but he knows I can’t recall every detail and I close my eyes.
The fresh air, a zinging wrap from Nordsee fish bar by the main stage and a pint of Dreher brings the screaming apex of the hangover to heel. There follows a manageable malaise. At Freddie Mercury Avenue (Sziget’s main walkways are named in honour of pop’s big-hitters), GQ is invited to play one of the larger shoot ’em up games in European history at the Vodafone Stage, a small dance arena surrounded by banks of screens that stretch 100 foot vertically. From a single spot, the screens converge giving a wide-angle Astro Wars-style laser spray. Vodafone’s Richard Sherwood, a resident of Budapest (who, it transpires, went to school with my missus), explains the rules: “Dodge the bullets.” Needless to say, the final score doesn’t trouble the top 150. I’d wipe the floor if this was an Amiga.
On the main stage, Gogol Bordello sweat heavily, their high-velocity jolts of Gypsy rap, Gypsy rock and Gypsy metal giving Sunday’s visitors an unexpected early surprise. They should have headlined, no question about it. Their set is so lively, so loud and so menacing that the crowd, intent on circular dancing, have to stop every few minutes and smoke to calm their faltering nerves.
The remaining acts are similar in sound and gripes. Death and fear is a well-trodden path tonight. The National are spectacularly downbeat – not party music at all, this. And they’ve got beards. The Manic Street Preachers play their greatest hits, which is difficult enough in an office situation, so this is a lengthy test. We go shopping and find an earring stall and a place selling spectacular jacketed chips with biting garlic mayonnaise sauce – a tour de force.
Ealing’s White Lies follow. They are not prone to stage movement, but have two fantastic 1987-type anthems in “Bigger Than Us” and “Streetlights”. The atmosphere raises but at the root of the performance is Harry McVeigh’s panelled shirt. Was it a gift from his mother? It’s a strong anti-fashion statement. In truth, White Lies are more Tears For Fears than Joy Division. They’re not quite headline material, but it’s a brave decision by Sziget, nonetheless. There’s nothing wrong with putting your neck on the line.
So is Sziget a viable alternative to Glastonbury, Reading and the Carlings? Beer is half price, but mojitos are £5 and don’t last long. Hotels are a third cheaper than Britain, and if you book your flight early, you’ll pay as little as £64 return with easyJet. We’d love to have come across a Sixties soul stage or a UK indie DJ, but Hungary has heavy-metal edges. Even so, there’s something magical about walking through trees at night among fairy lights. There’s a friendly atmosphere and most people speak English – the Hungarians are taught at school. I’d jump at the chance to return in 2012.