In true rock ‘n roll tradition, it was twenty years ago today… I went to my first music festival. Blimey. Reading ’89 was where I found free love in a field in the middle of Berkshire. Actually it was a car park just outside of Reading town centre, and there wasn’t a great deal of free love going around either to be honest. But still…
Reading ’89 was a tipping point in the history of UK rock festivals. Donnington was still the domain of good old-fashioned British metal – Live to Ride, Ride to Live; Glasto catered for the tree huggers, long before it became part of the Establishment’s Summer Season. Reading meanwhile was the home of the Quo, Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler.
Something had to give.
Ever keen to cash in on the chaos, the Mean Fiddler organisation took control of Reading in ‘89 and decided to re-brand it as a festival for the indie kid. With a Stone Roses T-shirt (first batch, natch!) a Crazyhead baseball cap and a pale indie kid complexion, Reading ’89 was on my radar.
I wasn’t alone, with the bill featuring The Wonderstuff, PWEI and Crazyhead being something of a call to arms for the kids I use to hang around with in South Nottinghamshire every weekend. Tickets were bought, bags were packed, and time WASN’T booked off work. Whoops.
There was a slight oversight in that the Rock Trip fun bus (oh yes!) was scheduled to depart the Fair City right outside my place of work early on the Friday morning. Never underestimate the camouflage capabilities of a Crazyhead baseball cap.
And so there we were, Reading bound and all ready to ROCK. I wasn’t really sure what to expect to be honest. This was my summer holiday for the year, and my first time away from home for the weekend without any proper adult supervision. I had noted that Forest were away at QPR on the Saturday afternoon, and this would be my escape route, should the indie kids of Reading prove not to be to my liking.
I needn’t have worried. We arrived in a festival come car park shortly after lunch, just in time to be greeted by an hour long feedback set from Spacemen 3. It was truly like entering into anther dimension. I thought crossing over into the Leicestershire border was living life in the fast lane at the time. The space cadets were already out of it, long before I even had the chance to find out what skinning up actually meant.
Stone Roses T-shirts were everywhere, less than six months since the debut release. A heavy cloud hung over the festival site, an aroma of which I hadn’t experienced before. My world was about to change, but not before I had to suffer a self-indulgent, and totally inappropriate scheduling, of a set by Swans.
I can’t remember much about that first Friday. Like I said, my world was about to change. The House of Love jangled their way through the early evening, and I think I had something of a strategic lie down when Bjork and The Sugarcubes came on stage.
New Order were poised perfectly for the Reading rock of old meets the leaner, meaner indie kid. Their set was a mixture of electronic bleeps, forged together with chunky bass riffs. I started to dance in a highly excitable way, something of a pale skin indie kid faux pas.
On site camping was what you would expect for five hormonal male teenagers. Sexual fantasies, pot noodles and farts – for three days, solid. Forest away at QPR came very close to becoming an option early Saturday morning.
I soon realised that Reading isn’t exactly a festival. There was no community spirit and little artistic endeavor to be experienced, except for bottles of p*** being catapulted towards the front of the crowd for the entire weekend.
Away from the Melody Maker Main Stage and the only other option was the Mean Fiddler tent towards the back of the arena. An alternative bill of The Cropdusters, Clive Gregson & Christine Collister and Francis Sidebottom offered a break from the tedium of The Mightly Lemon drops and Voice of the Beehive (another mistake booking?)
The afternoon lull passed away when The Scottish Friend became rather drunk, and managed to put his size 10 DM’s right into the resting head of an anarcho hippy type who had collapsed from cider, and was trying to sleep it off by an ice cream van. A chase of sorts followed, but it’s remarkable how even a Crazyhead baseball cap can keep you hidden away within the Reading crowd.
Billy Bragg was a highlight for me on the Saturday evening. I remember an early outing for Sexuality and a blown up condom floating around the front of the stage. These small details maketh a festival for a young man.
New Model Army somehow found themselves in the lofty position of second only to The Pogues on the Saturday night. I remember a very angry Slade the Leveller coming on stage, fully clogged up and kicking over an amp. Phew, rock ‘n roll.
And then it was time for The Pogues comedy road show. This was the balmy days when yer man Shane was still tolerated as a ‘lively’ stage presence, rather than a bloated pub bore. It was fine for the first half hour; the second half hour seemed slightly tedious. By the third, fourth and fifth half-hour, I was back at base and tucked up nicely in the tent. Memories are slightly hazy, but I’m still convinced that I awoke in the early hours with the sound of Shane still mumbling out some nonsense from the Main Stage.
A brief trip to the town centre on Sunday morning (booze and bog) and we were all set for Super Grebo Sunday – that’s something you don’t see on Sky Sports HD. Crazyhead, PWEI and the Wonderstuff – this was the soundtrack that has carried us around the rolling wolds of South Nottinghamshire all summer, and to have the Midlands grebos transported to Berkshire felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Crazyhead were crap, the Poppies were more interested in drum loops and the Stuffies introduced the dreaded fiddle into their set for the first time. The scene was over, and so was our weekend. No one wants to hang around for a Sunday evening headline set from The Mission, especially so with work on Monday morning crashing in and a sickie to try and explain away.
We didn’t return to Reading again. I’m not sure why as a bill the following year of The Cramps, Pixies and, um, Inspiral Carpets seems rather appealing. I was done with the pale indie kid thing and had Glasto and a sun-tan was within my sights for the next decade.
I made a return of sorts to Reading in 2002 for work purposes. I was dispatched back to Berkshire with a B ‘n B booking, a laptop and instructions to file copy on the hour, every hour. I was like a school leaver returning to his old playground. Too cool for school and far too old for the exploding NY chic indie scene (yeah, right) of the time. I took up residence in a local boozer and filed copy wire for three days whilst drinking myself stupid offsite.
And so Reading remains unique amongst UK festivals as a sixth form rites of passage. It is pitched perfectly in the calendar as one last jolly with the old crowd before University beckons.
Twenty years later and you can’t walk around King’s X on a Friday morning without some sixth form oiks trekking off to a random field outside of the Home Counties to watch some sub-standard indie landfill band. Festivals are the new shopping malls, something that you do as a lifestyle choice, and not as part of a tribal musical experience.
I’m still watching Billy Bragg and the Wonderstuff. Crazyhead – come on home. We need you now more than ever.