We didn’t start the Fyre – a short history of music festivals gone very wrong

A new documentary suggests 2017's Fyre Festival was the worst music event ever. But as Malcolm Jack discovers, there are other strong contenders

Music festivals: a weekend of forging through endless masses of pongy humanity, warm stale beer, Portaloos like steaming gateways into the bowels of hell and drunken meltdowns at five in the morning where you find a trouserless stranger in a bucket hat asleep in what you are almost completely sure is your tent. And that’s when they go well.

As the new Netflix original documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened entertainingly attests, music festivals sometimes go very, very badly indeed. Especially if they’re staged on a Bahamian desert island by a fraudster social media bro, and swiftly descend into a kind of millennial Lord of the Flies.

Does Fyre deserve to go down in history as the worst music festival ever staged? A quick look back across the last several decades reminds us that, thanks to such traditional scourges as drugs’n’alcohol, poor planning, inclement weather, unscrupulous promoters and good old-fashioned stupidity, history has seen more than its fair share of less-than-utopian music weekenders.

Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival, 1972

Griffin, Indiana, USA

Some 300,000 people on a site laid out for just 55,000, only three police officers among them, torrential rain, next to no food nor water but bacchanalian quantities of intoxicants – what could possibly go wrong? Many of the scheduled bands cancelled – including Joe Cocker, the Allman Brothers and Black Sabbath (yup, not even Ozzy was having any of it). Riots broke out, anarchy ensued and the crowd burned down the stage. Need we go on?

Pink Floyd: A Momentary Lapse of Reason in Venice, 1989

Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Not a festival as such, but a huge free outdoor show that saw prog grandpas Floyd perform on a floating barge in a lagoon adjacent to Venice’s historic central square. In what fusty local cultural custodians called a “barbarian invasion”, 200,000 Italian longhairs swarmed the city, leaving behind 300 tons of garbage, 500 cubic meters of empty cans and bottles and accusations of mass toileting on historic monuments. The subsequent fallout brought down the Venice mayor and government.

Woodstock ’99, 1999

Rome, New York, USA

It’d be wrong to blame the likes of Limp Bizkit and Korn for the unmitigated disaster that was the 30th anniversary emulation of Woodstock, but nu-metal and all of the bone-headed intolerance, casual misogyny, calls to violence and destruction and terrible guitar widdling that came with it certainly helped set a grim tone. In shocking scenes which could scarcely have been further removed from the original hippy mecca of yore, promoters ripped off punters and participants wantonly, fires were started around the site, fights broke out and there were multiple reported rapes and sexual assaults. A 50th anniversary Woodstock this year has much to do to restore the festival’s good name.

Glastonbury Festival, 2005

Pilton, Somerset

A bit of mud at Glastonbury is to be expected as readily as the sight of bong vendors, Billy Bragg and many a naked quasi-hippy’s unwashed nether regions. But the 2005 instalment of Britain’s biggest music festival turned into Mudageddon after almost a month’s worth of rain fell in a few short hours, washing away tents and leaving the entire site up to its back teeth in thick brown slime. A Dunkirk spirit prevailed and everyone pulled together to get through the worst of it, ie a Coldplay headline set.

Fyre Festival, 2017

Great Exuma, Bahamas

Like a Tinder date who turns out to have far less teeth, hair and personality than their profile implied, in real life this supermodel-touted luxury festival proved ugly as hell, as drunk, hungry, music-less and profoundly out-of-pocket young fans were left stranded in paradise, sleeping in disaster relief tents, fighting over mattresses and water and forlornly Instagramming pictures of processed cheese sandwiches. The worst festival ever? Fyre promoter Billy McFarland has plenty of time to ponder on it in jail.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is on Netflix now