There is an absolutely brilliant polemical cartoon about Tiesto called ‘The Trancecracker’. Susy, a wide-eyed school girl of about 10 years is invited to see Tiesto DJ-ing by her excitable young friends: and she is going to go, until her battle-scarred, eye-patch wearing grandfather intervenes. He warns her that the new millennium’s emperor of trance is wearing no clothes, that he is the embodiment of fakery, a false prophet, responsible for the grotesque recuperation of the grass-roots spirit of rave:
“The trance cult says not to party for your own sake, but to party for the sake of the DJ. At the top of the trance pantheon is Tiesto, the most marketed human stereo ever. When you go see Tiesto, you are not contributing anything. You are being a spectator. You might as well be dead.”
Raves should be Temporary Autonomous Zones, the comic concludes – a reference to Hakim Bey’s 1991 anarchist tract of the same name. The argument is that creative freedom, indeed all freedom, is to be found in non-hierarchical, non-permanent states like the free outdoor and warehouse raves of the late 1980s, which incubated and embodied the rave ideal: namely, “the party ethics of selfless hedonism”. Other big-name, big-ego DJs are implicated in the Thermidorian period of consolidation and corrosion which followed the acid house revolution, but it is Tiesto who stands as Bonaparte. To add insult to injury, Tiesto has monetised his treachery with phenomenal success. 25,000 people are paying £45 (before booking fees) to watch him play records in Victoria Park in east London – that’s more than £1m in ticket revenue, for a three-hour DJ set. No wonder everyone hates him.
The intermediary stage in this process was the deification of Superstar DJs like Sasha, Fatboy Slim, Carl Cox, and Paul Van Dyk, stars who rose exponentially in the late 1990s, and then burned up upon re-entry after the millennium. Out of that apparently organic process of change and decay came Tiesto (born Tijs Michiel Verwest, in 1969), a nuclear version of the same: someone, something, altogether less human. He rarely says anything public beyond variations on “I love you guys!” and “Wow what a crowd!”, and seems immune to drugs, orgies, and controversy. His Twitter feed is a rolling litany of faux-humble delight, a cascade of giddy exclamation marks. People whisper dark rumours that he is the creation of a wealthy PR guru friend, who at the start of the noughties saw the potential for a new uber-superstar DJ – a singular, hyperstar DJ who would make the others look like mere disc jockeys, and absorb their dormant power.
Tiesto tours hundreds of nights a year, normally to crowds of 10,000 plus. The records he breaks are usually more impressive than the ones which he plays – most notably that he DJed to 45,000 people in Holland in 2006, the largest single-DJ show in history. He won DJ Mag’s ‘DJ of the Year’ award three years in a row 2002-04. He is the only DJ to have performed at an Olympic opening ceremony (Athens 2004). His sold-out shows at London’s o2 in 2008 played to an aggregate audience of 100,000 people, and used 500,000 watts per gig.
At 2pm on a Friday afternoon in July, I’m playing Tiesto bingo on the Central Line eastwards – and winning. The train heading to his London mega-show in Victoria Park features a pair of girls in pink deely boppers and furry knee-high boots, muscular Italians wearing wraparound shades even though they’re in a tunnel, lads in ironed polo shirts clutching energy drinks, and white dreadlocked Australians wearing flip-flops and three-quarter length surfer shorts with meaningless squiggles on.
Exiting Mile End tube station, I almost walk straight into a 20 something cradling two slender cans of energy drinks, wearing a t-shirt that spells out in block capitals FUCKED BEYOND BELIEF. It’s like a giant ‘you are here’ arrow for anyone wondering if they’ve got off at the right tube stop for Tiesto. First generation raver casualties with salt and pepper hair and rusting piercings linger happily alongside future generation raver casualties: late teens in tans, trainers, and pseudo-mystical tattoos – the girls in spaghetti strap tops, the boys in pastel colour Fred Perrys.
I’ve finally got an answer to a question I’ve long pondered while browsing generic yoof-orientated clothes shops: namely, ‘who buys these slogan t-shirts?’. The kind that say IF FOUND, RETURN TO THE PUB, or A WASTED WEEKEND IS NEVER A WASTED WEEKEND, or, perhaps best of all, TELL YOUR TITS TO STOP STARING AT ME. None of these, in all their glittering wit, quite match the t-shirt depicting Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster chopping out a line of coke.
None of these, in all their glittering wit, quite match the t-shirt depicting Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster chopping out a line of coke.
The talk on the 15 minute walk down Grove Road, past ticket touts getting quietly nailed by the local cops, is of summer holidays with families, exorbitant London house prices, and dinosaur stadium dance acts like Faithless and The Prodigy. Pubs along the route to the park are targeted with giddy zeal: a gang of 15 lads swing merrily towards The Victoria, singing lewd songs about kestrel and birds (the brand of lager and the gender, respectively; it wasn’t an ornithological hymn).
Further down the road, gym chain Fitness First are selling bottled water for £1 a pop, using it as bait to sign up new customers. Another trestle table displays a smorgasbord of rave accessories: cheap shades, whistles, glow sticks and bunny ears (a fiver to you mate). Two teenage lads peruse the trilbys before rejecting them for being too ordinary. “Nah, let’s get one of the really stupid hats”, they beam, moving onto the stripey jester numbers.
As I approach the site, the security cordon at the main entrance is looking imposing, if accidentally festive, the high-vis jackets arranged in layers of sharply contrasting colours. First is a phalanx of ten stewards, checking for tickets and a basic level of sobriety as initial entrance criteria, then ten security staff, gently frisking and looking for booze or other contraband in bags. Behind them are four Metropolitan Police dog-handlers and their wards, smiling in navy blue overalls (the handlers, not the dogs), and being pulled around by the leash. Behind them are eight stern looking beat officers in helmets and shirt sleeves. There is a knife arch sitting next to the main gate, but it doesn’t look like it’s being used – and when I ask, I’m deflected towards the press office.
The atmosphere is very cheery though. Even people in the queue for the portaloos are WAHEY-ing, taking pictures of each other and clinking beer bottles. There’s something uplifting about any event in a public park in London in the summer, official or unofficial, free or extortionately-priced, spontaneous or sold out nine months in advance. In a way it almost doesn’t matter what’s happening. Several people at the Tiesto gig allude to this spirit – people who don’t particularly know, let alone worship him, who’ve come along because, y’know, you only live once, and it’s a big event, in a park, in the summer, in London – and you can drink, with your friends, outdoors, and not be compelled to sit in your living room, on your own, watching TV, with the curtains drawn, against a backdrop of wind and rain. Which is really fair enough, when you think about it. Pop music would be shit – and substantially less popular – if it only had obsessive fans, and no casual ones.
A week before the gig, I met one of the former. I was at a friend’s birthday drinks in a pub, telling someone about my plans to see Tiesto, when an Irish girl in her 20s spun dramatically around on her chair to face me:
“Oh my god… Tiesto! Are you talking about Tiesto?? I LOVE Tiesto. He’s like…” she rolled her eyes skywards, trying to summon an appropriately heavenly combination. “He’s like… Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson and Madonna, rolled into one.”
Inside the cordon, you are confronted with oceans of dayglo paint, applied to clothes, skin, and hair with varying degrees of skill, from very sloppy to very intricate. A lot of people just have a pink or yellow ‘T’ on their faces, down the bridge of their noses and across their foreheads. Some waggish lads are wearing drunkenly-applied, full-face ‘beards’ of orange paint; their girlfriends have yellow glow sticks in their pink cleavages – for easy access, presumably – and ‘TIESTO’ written in yellow up their arms.
The colour swatch for the whole gig is bleached skies above, bleached grass underfoot, and fizzing fluorescence in the middle.
They’re contributing more than the pallid grey London skies deserve. In fact the colour swatch for the whole gig is bleached skies above, bleached grass underfoot, and fizzing fluorescence in the middle. Two men have taken the ancient human idea of ‘costuming’ literally, and are wearing Top Gun overalls; two others are looking a mite chilly in an outfit of just bright yellow hot pants and flip-flops: lacking in pockets, they’ve stuffed their phones and wallets into the tiny bit of latex they’re wearing, next to their other valuables. It doesn’t look very comfortable. Holland football shirts and wigs, meanwhile, number in the hundreds (Tiesto is Dutch, and the Dutch football team wear luminous orange, so it’s a convenient fit), while Tiesto branded shirts number in the thousands. The uniforms may vary, but it’s still an army of sorts.
I accost Chrissy and Neil from Folkestone because I just have to – she is in a sort of ersatz Playboy bunny outfit, complete with bunny ears, chain smoking fags; her boyfriend Neil is wearing a very short pink mini-skirt, a pink tie, and nothing else. What do you get out of raves this big? “The best thing is meeting people from all over the world,” Chrissy effuses. “Last year we met these Colombian drug dealers, they were great!”
And you’re Tiesto super-fans, presumably? “Nah, it’s not about the music today. I’m really more into house anyway,” says Chrissy. “And Tiesto’s really… straight, to be honest. I flashed my tits at him in Ibiza once, when we were backstage – but he just walked away.” She seems slightly flummoxed that anyone could turn their nose up at such a treat. Eventually, quietly, Neil chips in. “Since we arrived we must’ve had our photos taken almost 50 times. I don’t know why people keep staring.” I try not to look at his mini-skirt.
I try and catch this Platonic ideal of hyperstar DJ worship, but he disappears into a miasma of scuffed up dust, scattered burger onions, empanada crumbs, and empty cans of perry
In the middle distance, a man in a jet black t-shirt with TIESTO IS GOD emblazoned in white is passing through the crowd. I try and catch this Platonic ideal of hyperstar DJ worship, but he disappears into a miasma of scuffed up dust, scattered burger onions, empanada crumbs, and empty cans of perry. Of all the unashamedly bourgeois things on display in Victoria Park today – and there are a lot – my favourite is a double-decker bus converted into a Pimms bar, fully plastered in company branding. It’s £21 for a medium sized plastic jug of Pimms and Lemonade, plus £5 for the, er, jug deposit. “Let’s start a fucking riot!!” wail Tiesto’s main support Pendulum with the bare minimum of conviction, on a stage far, far, away.
Back by the main entrance, I edge towards one of the Police dog-handlers and ask if they’ve had a busy day. “Oh god yeah, we’ve pulled in over a hundred people and it’s still only 7 o’clock! We keep running out of police officers to do the searches – there’s only 40 of them. Hopefully our work makes the event safer” he says sternly, throwing his dog a ball as a reward for nailing another punter. “The dogs start to get tired, when they’ve been so busy – we make sure to give them breaks: half an hour on, half an hour off.”
When they find someone they’re suspicious of they put the perp’s hands together, lifting each thumb and clasping them together, as if in prayer – before leading them away to be searched. A passing punter, a man of about 25, interjects to tell the cop in absolute sincerity: “can I just say, you’re doing an absolutely great job”.
Finally, it’s time for the start of Tiesto’s three hour set. The lights dim and then turn to focus down on the stage, the thudding intro tape starts, and suddenly the crazy has hit. Next to me, a big ginger guy in a wife beater and shiny shades with BIG RED written in pink on his arm, above a drawing of a heart, is zoning out, his eyes shut, his arms in the air. He’s not in a trance, but he’s sort of trying. His girlfriend taps him on the shoulder to ask for some water. He looks briefly irritated, like a sleeping person swatting away a fly, then returns to his reverie.
Then a 41-year-old Dutch man walks out, backlit by a picture of his own smooth face, the height of the entire stage, his actual face visibly beaming too, even at a distance. “Tiestoooo” roar a totally straight-laced looking couple behind me, the kind of people who almost certainly work in PR. While some lose their shit, arms aloft in rapturous praise, even 300 yards away from the stage, others stand in a circle drinking and dancing, facing their friends, rather than DJ. It’s a bit like going to the Vatican and then standing at the back of the massed ranks pilgrims, totally ignoring the Pope, and having your own private prayer session. I rather admire the insolence.
The euphoric peaks in Tiesto songs are undeniably his greatest musical asset – as with all trance, it’s about a gradual build, followed by the dramatic head-rush of a drop. It’s the musical equivalent of a rollercoaster. A good 15,000 hands are in the air when they know the drop is coming – Tiesto mirrors the song’s dynamic by coiling his right arm back like a spring, before whipping it diagonally across himself, as if to say whoooooooooooooo-ZOOSH. Then the ever-resonant vocal line from ‘You’ve Got The Love’ begins – “sometimes I feel like putting my hands up in the air…”. It’s a collaborative remix by three trance producers of a cover by Florence and the Machine – so about twelve degrees removed from Candi Staton’s original – but it’s still a genuinely wonderful moment. Try disparaging the smiles on 25,000 faces, it’s fucking hard. These people aren’t idiots. It’s just the most direct, the most efficient route to a high – even if very few people actually seem to have entered a trance-like state, aside from BIG RED, who is still going at it hammer and tongs.
It’s not easy to guess just how many punters evaded the police sniffer dogs, and are now reaping their illegal rewards – not when you’re standing in a dark field – but there are more and more arms around shoulders as Tiesto’s three-hour marathon progresses. A man walks past with FREE HUGS written in yellow on his bare chest. At 9.15pm, half way through the three hour set, he deigns to speak at last. “Hello London”, he says, and a streamer bomb of white paper explodes. It’s as lucid a statement as anyone seems to need, fist-pumping the air extra hard at the recognition.
Tiesto makes as large a physical gesture as one man turning a 2cm wide knob can do, the rattling, grinding synth builds, and we’re off on another mass sing-along
Tiesto makes as large a physical gesture as one man turning a 2cm wide knob can do, the rattling, grinding synth builds, and we’re off on another mass sing-along, this time to one of his own songs: “We! Are! Your friends! And you’ll! Never be alone again!”. The sky has morphed from pale into a glowering murky blue-brown, and as the night starts to draw in, the smoke cannons start and the backdrop lasers amp up.
Meanwhile the same double-dating guys who were having a noisy double-date-domestic outside the Thai noodles stand earlier have kissed and made up with their respective girlfriends, and are now selling pills pretty unsubtly by the left-hand fence. A guy stumbles past us at a 45 degree angle – he’s so fucked that his top half is totally lopsided, as if it’s about fall off. His bottom half is managing to do remarkably well considering. One of the dealer-geezers collapses laughing in my general direction. “Bruv! That guy is taking it TOO hard!”
In a night of constant wandering through and around the crowd, I see plenty of amusing collateral damage. there’s a gurning Eurocell bunny with a Mediterranean tan and a blond Mohican who seems to have decided to try and land a foot for every single beat, key and bass tweak coming from the stage: he looks like he’s stuck on fast forward. Meanwhile Superman (or at least, someone dressed as Superman) is going nuts, spinning around like kids do when they want to make themselves dizzy. In front of me, an Aussie in her early 20s tells off two city boys with shades tucked into their shirts for not dancing. They both look unimpressed, but duly point one limp finger in the air, in time with the distant, wind-caught beats. Her job as self-appointed Fun Enforcer done, she moves on to the slightly frumpy couple next to them. “Are you having a CONVERSATION??” she asks rhetorically, wagging her finger. She mimes a dance, grins, and moves on.
For the finale, I pincer in to the side of stage, which is rendered darker by a few trees and the fence to the backstage area, and feels a bit more intimate. Two of the four 18-strong speaker-stacks are hanging right above, but the sound in this spot doesn’t suffer, and the grinding gears of ‘Satisfaction’ really work in the dark. You can’t see any burger vans or merchandise tables from here. Or much else, except the top-lit hands in the air in front of the stage. A few guys are using the cover of darkness to shiftily snort coke off the backs of their hands. Another hail of streamer bombs drifts back towards the stage, giving it the appearance of a residence that has naively opted for the ‘trick’ option on Halloween. “Hello, can you hear me? Now put your hands in the air, for a century” – ‘Century’ is another singalong about nothing more complex than raising your arms above your head, and it’s another highlight.
Tiesto does a rare bit of actual knob-twiddling, before blending and teasing in his infamous remix of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, composed especially for the Athens Olympics. His arms are in the air, soaking up the crowd-worship – but I’m not convinced they’re necessarily worshipping him, anymore. Everyone’s in their own personal Olympic closing-ceremony montage, running slow-mo through the strobes, eyes clenched shut and arms aloft through columns of rising steam.
I wander towards the back of the arena. It’s about 10pm, half an hour from the Hackney Council curfew, and a few people have started trooping slightly sadly towards the gate. In the main they’re not casualties – though the odd punter is doing their best impression of a spatchcock poussin, being dragged along by friends wishing they weren’t being The Sober One. The others, people who have just had enough already, occupy a slightly sympathetic posture as they slope off towards the quotidian noises of the high street. It can’t do wonders for your sense of voracious Bacchanalian spirit to be leaving a summer night in the company of The World’s Biggest DJ early, in order to beat the traffic, at a time that civilised countries would barely be thinking about eating dinner.
It can’t do wonders for your sense of voracious Bacchanalian spirit to be leaving a summer night in the company of The World’s Biggest DJ early, in order to beat the traffic
As the encore drags on, four pretty girls hover outside the ‘Video Makers’ tent flyering people on their way out. “It’s a project for the next Tiesto DVD” one of the girls explains – a compilation of video clips made by Tiesto fans at his concerts. So who’s paying you to do this today, Tiesto’s record label? Or the sponsors SanDisk, whose logo is plastered everywhere? “No no, we’re employed by a marketing company called Flavour, who’ve brought together the two companies”. I must have looked confused – not least because I was confused. Which two companies? “SanDisk and Tiesto” she smiles, not batting an eyelid. “So do you want a flyer or not?” I take a flyer.
“Win a private party with Tiesto!” they read – but looking up at the crowd, they don’t seem to want a private party, but a public one. “Capture your experience tonight” say the videos – and they are. This isn’t the Glastonbury-esque image of a hundred thousand digital cameras and mobile phones pointed as one at the stage. More people are photographing and filming their mates, and the crowd, than the spectacle. As people grasp each others shoulders and sweatily interlock their arms for the group photos, the word ‘Tiesto!’ has replaced ‘cheese!’. What he represents as a millionaire Hyperstar DJ is grotesque, and his music will probably remain permanently unfashionable. But really, Tiesto’s hyper-capitalist rave brand is a conduit for something much more innate, and much more autonomous.