The inaugural Festival No.6 in North Wales mixes Sixties spy drama with the better elements of indie rock. Despite the rough red wine and absolutely miserable weather, it proves an outstanding, curiously British, cultural gathering
By Lee Gale
Taking the paranoia of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner and adding Britain’s foremost purveyors of rock-dance crossover – ie New Order and Primal Scream – sounds like the loose plot of a late-morning dream, the sort of wonky scenario you find yourself in once the alarm has stopped and you’re drifting idly back to Boboland. Despite the weirdness, Festival No 6 piques the interest. If cheese and brown sauce can magically combine in sandwich format, then maybe merging an ingenious but frequently unfathomable Sixties spy series with cooler aspects of British indie music might just work.
It’s a preposterous concept. For a start, Portmeirion, where The Prisoner was filmed, is not some field in Wiltshire. It’s a slightly unnerving Italianate village on the estuary of the River Dwyryd in North Wales. But maybe that is the pull. It just had to be witnessed. After all, Festival No 6 is billed as a one-off.
Festival No 6, on from 14-16 September, doesn’t have the feel of a regular British music gathering. Numbers are limited to 6,500 and the average age of the reveller seemed markedly higher than you’d find at Glastonbury or Reading/Leeds.
The hub of No 6 is a ten-minute stroll from Portmeirion, sitting beneath Castell Deudraeth, a Victorian castellated mansion, on a wickedly sloping field. It may have been pleasant grassland on Saturday, but a relentless downpour that lasts most of Sunday turns open spaces into a sloppy, shiny quagmire, meaning you can slide from a conversation with the chatty ladies at the Cath Kidston stall and reach the main stage minutes later by gravity alone. But does this dampen our spirits? Not a jot. We want information… information…
Oysters (£8) and prosecco (£6 a glass), available in The Castell Gardens, are a welcome change from the 40 types of beefburger and tie-dyed mung beans usually associated with alternative events but unexpected opulence is certainly in keeping with Festival No 6’s more refined vibe.
In direct opposition to this, the South African red wine available at all the stages (£18 bottle; £6 large glass; £4.50 small) is so repulsive that a measure of Stardrops all-round cleaner would taste sensational by comparison (a Stardrops hangover might be more manageable too). Due to a severe headache for much of the weekend and a general feeling of unease – not unusual at festivals, it has to be said – food intake is low, but morsels that made it past the clacker are deemed fantastic.
Whitebait and perfectly crispy chips should instantly make the menu of all High Street fast-food joints, while the sky-high sugar content of Scottish tablet, bought from an old-fashioned sweet stall, help enormously with the dithery effects caused by that devastating plonk.
In the VIP bar, Bez bounds in with an entourage of wide-eyed, Cheshire Cat Mancunians, whose ages range from 25-55, much to the chagrin of security. Some are clearly still out from a Happy Mondays gig in 1990. Possibly the partaking of certain substances might have been better concealed; there are toilets for this sort of thing, you know.
Walking about the site with a guitar strapped to his back is Carl Barat, the dirty-fingernailed troubadour, dressed in all black, here to present new film The Libertines: There Are No Innocent Bystanders, while down at the bar, by the windswept, rain-lashed Estuary Stage, Julie, sister of New Order’s Gillian Gilbert, can be seen chaperoning various members of the Morris-Gilbert clan. And just to add to the unusual vibe, at various junctures, Mini Mokes, with registrations reading: TAXI, zip past your legs while passengers smirk, “Be seeing you.”
Primal Scream are Saturday’s headliners. Their sound engineer deserves medals and a rapid pay rise for his endeavours. “Swastika Eyes” is a monster, like being inside a washing machine at 1200rpm, while the re-programmed “Loaded” sounds so fresh on the ears that it feels like being hit round the head with a watermelon. Most men can only move rhythmically after four pints, but the Primals, on this form, loosen you up after two. Bobby Gillespie is fluid, a slinky spring, a metallic liquid with a tambourine; and he’s in great voice.
Sunday night is chillier, damper, autumnal, Welsh, and we have hangovers that have overstayed their welcome. We wear cagoules and our once-fancy city shoes are caked with mud. New Order take to the stage in full Patrick McGoohan get-up, proper Prisoner garb, and receive a rapturous reception for it. They’re not a number, they’re free Mancs.
The electronic pioneers take a little while to come out of their blocks – it isn’t the finest rendition of “Regret” you’ll ever hear – but once Bernard Sumner finds his voice, it’s business as usual, providing a crammed tent with a slew of New York- and Germany-influenced dance gems, including sensational updatings of “586” (with big screens emphasising the 6-6-6-6-6-6), “Isolation” and, best of all, a fabulous 2012 reworking of “Transmission”. It’s bang on.
The inclusion of “Here To Stay”, the end-credits music for Factory fairy story 24 Hour Party People, is an offbeat inclusion, but may be acting as a statement of intent, particularly as the song’s title is displayed large on stage. And just in case ex-bassist Peter Hook is peering through binoculars from a pirate ship in the bay, the words FOREVER JOY DIVISION on large televisions will only serve to antagonise (an interview with Hook, prior to the release of his new Joy Division book, will shortly appear on GQ.com).
New Order performing “Blue Monday” can’t possibly outstrip the version sung each night in Portmeirion by the Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir, proving that a truly world-class song will translate to even the most distant music genres. Still brimming from their night away at the GQ Men Of The Year awards earlier in the month, second-bass chorister Gareth Hughes mentions in the Castell Deudraeth bar, “This has been the craziest months we’ve ever known.” Or words to that effect. It’s late, and the choir is loudly working their vocal chords even on their time off. They’re a solid bunch, very friendly and hugely professional. They steal our hearts this weekend.
Kevin Cummins, rock photographer
“I’ve actually been here before. It must be 30 years ago. I came to shoot some pictures of Citizen Smith for the Radio Times. They were using Portmeirion as an Italian village for the Christmas special. They were supposed to be on holiday. So they used this. The Prisoner was very trippy, wasn’t it? I’m here to watch New Order. I’m staying nearby in Portmadog… which is not far enough away, ha-ha. On a Travelodge in an industrial estate. I think it was probably an industrial unit at one point. It doesn’t get better than that, does it?”
Will Burns, poet
“I contribute to Caught By The River [caughtbytheriver.net] which is a literary nature-writing website. I’m from New Cross in London, and I’ve come over for the day, which is why I look quite fresh. I’ve just seen some friends who are slightly worse for wear. I remember parts of The Prisoner… I don’t think it was ever explained in the series what powered the Rover balls. Is there an animal inside? A kind of steroid hamster? Portmeirion is very strange. It’s like a folly, but a whole village. You wouldn’t be able to do it today, would you?”
So what’s next? The Ipcress File meets shoegazing? It would probably work. An insider says that Festival No 6 will make no money. An insider also says that there are three Festival No 6’s booked in. This same person mentions that the festival would be moved from September to May for 2013. But who could you possibly book to top New Order? Journalists are the water that power rumour mills, but gob all mighties, spouting off in bars, grind the ears: “We’ve already sorted out the headline act for next year: the Smiths, ” someone says on the final evening. Who this wide-eyed person is, I don’t know. Sounds interesting, though, doesn’t it? Morrissey in a Patrick McGoohan blazer? Now that would definitely work. You heard it here first.