Secret Garden Party returned this year – to the surprise of many – with a scaled-down rehash of the boutique trailblazer last seen in 2017. Whilst the festival firmly delivered on its promise of a ‘serious party’, there were also serious problems that left many disgruntled. After bowing out at such a glittering high point, was it a mistake to try and resuscitate the magic five years on? We went along to find out.
Five years ago, we were told that punters would party in the Secret Garden for the last time. The announcement that Secret Garden Party would re-join the festival circuit in 2022 was therefore unexpected and met with lively anticipation (tickets sold out almost immediately). Founder Freddie Fellowes had prophesized the eventual resurfacing of an event, though claimed it would emerge like ‘a phoenix […] from the ashes’, entirely reinvented. Less a phoenix from the ashes, the 2022 return was more like pouring petrol onto smouldering embers and hoping for the best. Not much was new, but flames sprung back nonetheless.
Just like the SGP-of-old, an impressive number of genres were on show this year. There was, however, a clear emphasis on electronic music across the fifteen stages. The main avenues were soundtracked by sunny house during daylight hours, and more experimental techno and electro material as the night unfolded. In various crevices of the arena, indie-rock, ska and jazz also found strong footholds. The smaller stages were the more captivating, often successfully playing upon weird and wonderful themes. Particular mentions go to the enchanted Chai Wallahs, the self-explanatory Skulloon (think big skull, big balloon), and the elusive G-Spot stage, which aptly moved around every day.
The music was exceptional at times: Desert Sound Colony, LCY and Alec Falconer all delivered classy DJ sets; Broken Brass, a band hailing from the Netherlands, spun the crowd into a frenzy with a storm of screaming horns; and David Rodigan deserves a special mention for his age-defying, soul-swelling energy. If you fancied a break from the music, entertainment could be found on the giant slip n’ slide, or the dodgems that blasted DnB virtually 24/7. Quirky details, like the sunflower field discovered inside a portaloo, also kept folks amused.
Each night, crowds dutifully flocked to see the headliners on the main stage: Self-Esteem, Kae Tempest, London Grammar and Metronomy. All their performances were solid, if slightly at odds with the predominant energy. The sound-system was not so solid, and frequently cut-out on one or both sides. Disappointingly, the technical trip-ups meant that a 58-person strong orchestra, destined to play a mainstage disco-set, couldn’t appear at all. The crowd, meanwhile, was oblivious to this omission, as a huge paint fight erupted over the rocksteady sounds of David Rodigan, which was an unforgettable moment.
Various other infrastructural issues dulled the festival’s glow. Faecal mounds festered in the portaloos from Friday onwards, rendering them unusable, and piles of rubbish-bags grew into stinking sculptures. Poor internet service meant that the ‘cashless’ festival was almost entirely dependent on cash for the first two days. On that matter – no signal made it impossible to look up the deliberately ‘secret’ headliners, meaning much of the line-up remained a secret.
The festival team have responded to complaints, apologising for the ‘unhealthy state of affairs’ which they accredited to supply chain issues. There have also been muttered criticisms of the line-up, to which the team have reacted more defensively. People were unreasonably expecting ‘Glastonbury sized artists’ from a much smaller festival, claimed an SGP spokesperson. A fair point, although the ticket price was not far off ‘Glastonbury sized’.
Irrespective of that conversation, an enduring fact remains: people had a lot of fucking fun. For most, it was four days of vibrant, pulsating hedonism. Inhibitions were confiscated at the gate, allowing for unrestrained (manic) dancing, and total immersion in the SGP spirit. The emphasis on love and inclusivity spread a buoyant positivity that, along with copious quantities of party supplies, flung revellers far into each morning.
SGP’s illustrious history undoubtedly leaves it more vulnerable to scrutiny. Had it been framed as a new festival, people would probably be more forgiving of the blunders. In attempting to resume the glory days, the organisers came up against the hallowed image of SGP that had formed in the popular consciousness. But, if the Gardeners take notes from this experience, and redirect some funding from aeroplane acrobatics towards the basics, then they might just get there in the coming years.