In the first half of my twenties, I substituted the desire to go abroad and explore foreign lands for standing in muddy English fields to watch as many bands as I could possibly squeeze in to three days. This was a time when the British festival scene was considerably smaller and there were only really two main events to go to – Glastonbury and Reading. Just attending these two was enough to stretch the limited student finances to breaking point, so it was probably just as well that there weren’t a lot of others going on. My first of the era was Glastonbury in 1990 and the last major festival I went to was WOMAD in 1995, having finally started branching out from solid indie rock.
At the end of it all, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t go back to the likes of Glastonbury unless I was playing there in my own band and set out on my efforts to put such a combo together. Still haven’t made it back yet. One day though, who knows?
I did however get a crack at being a music journalist, when I wrote up a review of the 1991 Reading Festival. This was published in college rag The Printed Image and can be found in full glory below.
What does every journalist open a festival review with? Yes, a quick recap on the weather, of course. Naturally, arrival at the site was heralded with seriously heavy rainfall. Memories of last year’s Glastonbury Festival came flooding back, of having to cross oceans of mud to reach anywhere resembling a good view of the main stage. However, the mud soon ceased to be a problem, as you would cease to be too if you were trampled on by 30,000 pairs of Doc Martens.
It is very easy to find your way to the site if you’ve never been to the festival before. All you need to do is follow the long flow of greboes heading in the same direction. The festival goers took on the form of a funeral procession. Almost everyone was clad in black, but I suppose with The Sisters Of Mercy headlining the Sunday night, it was to be expected. For a finishing touch, the procession was complete with an array of flowers (admittedly all on James T-shirts though).
BABES IN TOYLAND delivered the first excitement of the day, and were obviously eagerly anticipated, judging by the mass migration towards the stage. Spearheading the new wave of all female US hardcore bands, the Babes set out to prove that they could make as much noise as the boys on the bill.
SILVERFISH turned up next to thrill us with their screaming guitars and blistering noise. The guitarist Fuzz, was clad in a tuxedo while Leslie happily swore at the audience as if she hated them. And with songs like ‘Total Fucking Asshole’, who’s to argue?
NIRVANA followed Silverfish, sounding even harder and grittier. Nirvana have recently fled the Sub-Pop nest to join the elder statesmen of hardcore, Sonic Youth, on Geffen. A major label doesn’t mean any compromise on their sound either. Introduced by John Peel as ‘another dandy little combo’, they kicked Reading into a higher gear in preparation for the bigger names that were to follow.
You can always hope for something special about the day when DINOSAUR JR grace the stage. J Mascis looked a little bored but that didn’t undermine their combination of soaring guitars, brilliant noise and great melodies. ‘I Live For That Look’, ‘The Wagon’ and ‘Freakscene’ all helped to drag out the sun, kicking and screaming, to brighten the day and the moods.
For all those suffering from hardcore fatigue, there was either the comedy tent or POP WILL EAT EATSELF, who changed the mood by giving the crowd an opportunity to dance instead of slam. The Poppies made a very spirited attempt to put on a good show, with smoke and backdrops, and they succeeded in being entertaining if a little tacky. All the PWEI classics were rolled out including ‘Def Con One’, ‘There Is No Love Between Us Anymore’ and material from the recent ‘Cure For Sanity’ LP. They really brought the crowds to their feet.
SONIC YOUTH, Friday’s co-headliners, were out to kill. By the second song, Thurston Moore was already hurling his guitar around the stage. This was a band who clearly belonged up there in front of an audience where they could take their fusion of experimentation and extreme noise considerably further. They slugged their equipment around so much that they had to tune up between most of the songs. Kim Gordon ended the set by jumping up and down on her bass guitar as if the instrument had offended her family, while Thurston Moore continued to hurl his guitar over the edge of the stage like a dog on an extending lead. It’s times like these that you’re grateful not to be one of Sonic Youth’s guitars! Highlights of the set included ‘Teen Age Riot’, ‘Mary Christ’ and ‘Dirty Boots’ (surely the theme song of the day).
Suffering blistered ears and a battered body from Sonic Youth, IGGY POP, Friday’s headliner, started out as a real anti-climax. He failed to make very much of an impression, despite his prancing around like Mick Jagger on heat, his claims of having been ‘sent here to rock this shit’ and the removal of most of his clothes (often dropping his jeans too). There was little distinction between the songs and there had been far more powerful bands on earlier. Still, I suppose even ‘living legends’ must have their time to warm up and Iggy Pop is no exception. ‘China Girl’ (yes, that one) broke the pattern by sounding different, and had me on my feet; ‘Real Wild Child’ got everyone dancing, while ‘The Passenger’ was even granted an audience singalong. By ‘Lust For Life’ the boredom had been forgotten. He encored with two Stooges songs, ‘No Fun’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. When we thought that it was all over he came back for one more song, the old R ‘n’ B classic that he had retitled ‘Louie Fuckin’ Louie’. It may have taken a while, but Iggy Pop showed us why he was up there at the top of the bill.
Saturday turned out to be an altogether more varied day with the emphasis on ‘pop’ music on the bill. The first (and only) disappointment of the day were FLOWERED UP. Imagine a third rate Happy Mondays with Cockney accents and all the songs sounding the same and you’ll get the picture.
That left the brilliant TEENAGE FANCLUB to make the first good impression on me and give me reason to stand up. They succeeded. Kicking off with the classic ‘God Knows It’s True’ and ending up with the rolling ‘Everything Flows’, they managed to pack in as much serious fun as possible. Teenage Fanclub were clearing playing for themselves and having a whale of a time while they were at it. They gave a more diverse element to the day’s billing with their swaggering Dinosaur Jr/Neil Young guitar sound.
Seeing as this year’s festival seemed to be full of those who’ve hit the limelight very quickly (Neds, Babes, Fannies), this gave a great excuse to put BLUR on. This is a band who both want to be big and who will be. Damon, the singer, loped on stage looking completely stoned and proceeded to spend the entire set falling all over the place like an Orang Utan with his spine removed. From catchy pop ditties to swirling hippy anthems, Blur smothered the audience with adoration and were loved in return. Damon must have been watching Sonic Youth (albeit in slow motion), the way he was knocking things over, including himself. If this man had a guitar, he would be dangerous. Whenever a roadie ran on to put back an unfortunate mic stand or Dave’s cymbals, Damon tried to mount him. Future headliners?
DE LA SOUL were so bad at Glastonbury last year that I decided to skip them this time, making THE FALL the next band to grace the stage. Even the existential miserable bastard Mark E. Smith seemed in high spirits today. He was actually smiling when he kicked the roadie off stage! Keeping with the band’s tradition of barely ever playing anything more than a couple of years old, this year’s ‘Shiftwork’ LP was really brought alive. This is quite sad because it means a largely excellent back catalogue gets ignored, with virtually the only ‘old’ song they played being ‘Big New Prinz’. Still, Mark does like to keep himself on his toes. An encore was called for and delivered in the shape of last year’s Festive 50 chart topper ‘Bill Is Dead’ and the title track from the ‘Shiftwork’ LP. ‘Always different, always the same, they are the reason I listen to pop music’, John Peel is quoted as saying when asked to describe The Fall. They are now in a league of their own.
That left two bands to round up the day and the best were (naturally) left till last. Simply put, CARTER THE UNSTOPPABLE SEX MACHINE were brilliant. Rock festival purists would undoubtedly have been horrified at two guys running around on stage with a drum machine and backing tapes for accompaniment. Despite the fact that Carter are better suited to slightly more intimate venues than a 30,000 capacity outdoor arena, they didn’t let this spoil their set and their sound was far from lost in the open air. They were also very well received. The set was opened with ‘Surfing U.S.M.’ and continued with many faithful renditions of tracks from their last LP ‘30 Something’. When Carter play live, the songs sound no different from their vinyl counterparts, but that is testimony to how good their records are. That’s why it’s better to see them live; because you look stupid stage-diving in your bedroom. ‘Sheriff Fatman’ and ‘This Is How It Feels’, the Inspiral Carpets number, formed the first encore and ‘G.I. Blues’ closed the set completely.
Watching JAMES in concert is always both a pleasure and an experience. Tonight’s spot at the Reading Festival was no exception even though my view was mostly obscured by the large gut of a front row security guard. James have now reached a stage where you have to have an opinion on them. Every third person you pass on the street is wearing a James T-shirt. For a band that have been together in various incarnations since 1983, it’s a surprise that it has taken them so long to get this far. James have a back catalogue that many bands would kill to have written themselves. From the opening shot ‘What For’ (a single that deserved to be a massive hit), through to the end ‘How Was It For You’ (their first taste of Top 40 success) and the encore of ‘Come Home’, there was never a dull moment. All the old songs were revitalised and sounded as fresh as if they had been written yesterday. The new songs were all gems in their own right. Tracks like ‘Hymn From A Village’ tend to lose their vulnerability under the expanded line-up but that’s not to say that the song wasn’t done justice to. The band put so much energy and vitality into their performances, it’s as if each one is playing for the last time and is trying to outdo the other while still staying in complete harmony. Tim puts so much into it that he appears to be hyperventilating between each song. Of course, even bands of magnitude have their problems. The early part of the set was brought down by bad sound. It took times trying to start ‘Walking The Ghost’ before Tim gave up and went for another mic. But there are always the highs with the lows. After they played ‘Sit Down’, the crowd broke up the order by singing the chorus back to the onstage assemblage at such a volume that the band couldn’t carry on. It is moments like seeing the look of elation on Tim’s face as he sat and surveyed the mass of singing faces that make it all worthwhile. ‘Lose Control’ followed, stripped down completely to acoustic guitar and vocals. They manage to keep their stage shows fresh and alive by constantly changing their set around and making each show unique. James have finally arrived and they are untouchable.
Seeing as the Main Stage had such a patchy line-up, I decided to spend most of the day in the Mean Fiddler tent. Naturally, it took a few bands for the atmosphere to warm up. WELL LOADED did nothing for me at all. They in fact sent me to sleep. TOASTED HERETIC were marginally better, yet still not enjoyable. LOVES YOUNG NIGHTMARE were fairly good, or worth applauding anyway. The tent packed out for the next artist, CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, appearing in trademark red beret and round shades. He was great, giving us a run through his greatest moments, including old Damned favourites ‘New Rose’ and ‘Smash It Up’, and ‘Glad It’s All Over’. He left the stage with a cry of ‘Buy my records, you fucking bums!’
THE POPINJAYS sprang up next to inject a bit of fun into the proceedings with bouncy melodies and catchy choruses, after legions of Damned fans left the tent. The girls didn’t look as if they expected to go down too well. Despite this, they were very well received.
Swansea’s very own indie favourites, THE POOH STICKS, followed some out of place jazz band. They were really good, even though I knew none of the songs. Amelia Fletcher guested to add some sugar to the harmonies and Hue finished off by squirting the audience with a water pistol!
FATIMA MANSIONS were the next band that I saw in the Mean Fiddler, who were just fascinating to watch. Cathal Coughlan has enough venom in him to put a charging rhino to sleep, while his excellent choice of songs showed that it is possible to sing about political matters and not come across as a load of pretentious toss like THE GODFATHERS (Main Stage). He must come off stage completely exhausted after his performance of a marionette in a cyclone. Fatima Mansions closed with the epic ‘Blues For Ceausescu’.
NEDS ATOMIC DUSTBIN were the only band on the Main Stage that I bothered to see anything of, and that was only about twenty minutes worth. The Neds played a selection of new songs and their hit single ‘Happy’ in the short time that I saw them. They were as energetic as ever and looking as if they were having a great time, which is what it’s all about really.
NEW FAST AUTOMATIC DAFFODILS proved themselves to be as effortlessly brilliant as ever, exuding their gritty funk grooves to the point where the tent felt more like a club than a gig, and everyone was dancing. New FADS are not as raw as they used to be but that does not make them mellow by any stretch of the imagination. Tracks included ‘Big’, ‘Fishes Eyes’ and ‘Man Without Qualities’. The crowd were seriously disappointed when the band left the stage and didn’t come back on. Because there were so many bands on at this tent, they all had to play condensed versions of their normal length sets.
The choice between the headliners was easy. It was either a case of standing in a field amongst a bunch of preening goths listening to the pretentious drivel of THE SISTERS OF MERCY or packing myself like a sardine into the Mean Fiddler to experience Bristol’s finest, THE BLUE AEROPLANES.
They were well worth the wait. People who were pissed off about New FADS short set soon forgot their grumbles. As is always the case with The Blue Aeroplanes, there seemed to more people up on the stage than down in the crowd. Their mixture of ‘beat poetry’ with layers of guitars (and a weird Polish dancer) seems to work every time now. The band rolled off such favourites as ‘Jacket Hangs’, ‘…And Stones’, ‘Yr Own World’ and their Paul Simon cover of ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. Even the indecently young looking guitarist Rodney Allen got his own singing spot. Gerard looked like Rodney’s father next to him, placing a firm parental hand on the young lad’s shoulder. Are The Blue Aeroplanes pretentious or brilliant? Probably a bit of both, but that’s OK because sometimes pretension works. Tonight, The Blue Aeroplanes soared. But they do prompt the question: Was Gerard Langley born with those shades on, or what?
If you want to know what the festival was about; not being able to shower, shit or shave properly for five days, eating cold junk food and drinking warm beer, but being able to see loads of brilliant bands, don’t ask me or take notice of any of the reviews. Get yourself a ticket for Reading ’92 and experience it for yourself!
(all pictures courtesy of www.musicpictures.com except for Iggy Pop, courtesy of Reading Evening Post)