Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #10

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

The Reading Festival 1992
Little John’s Farm, Reading – 28th–30th August, 1992
Also in attendance: Wayne, Andy G, Stu, Clive & Steve P

Part one
It’s generally accepted that Glastonbury is the mother of all festivals. In the early 90s, I attended four consecutive Glastos, culminating in the 25th anniversary festival with that legendary Pulp headline slot.

But the festival I have the fondest memories of, certainly the one I have more stories about, was the 1992 Reading Festival. This was back in the days when it was a stand-alone event, before it became ‘Reading-Leeds’. And of course, this was the year that Reading hosted what some regard as the ultimate festival performance – ‘twas the year Nirvana headlined, their last ever UK show.

Of course, no one was to know it would become the stuff of legend. Nirvana were the biggest band in the world at that moment, so there was obviously a lot of anticipation for that coveted Sunday night slot, but it would be another 20 months before Kurt Cobain’s premature death so the real significance was unthinkable. Strangely though, when I think about that weekend, I don’t immediately associate it with Nirvana. I think of Public Enemy.

Anyone that’s ever been to a music festival will tell you that it’s the event itself that makes it, not a particular band or artist. In fact, the more festivals I attended, the less it became about the music for me. I loved exploring, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells that would inevitably come my way. The people you meet, the company you keep, the food you eat, the various, um, other things you try out – the collective experience of festivals really has to be sampled by everyone at least once before they die.

And so my Reading weekend started out in my beloved VW camper van with five mates – Wayne of course, Andy G, Stu, Steve P and Clive – each of whom was determined to get to the site totally trashed. We arrived early Thursday evening. My camper couldn’t accommodate six pissheads for the whole weekend, so it was decided Wayne, Andy and I would kip in the van, while Stu, Steve and Clive would pitch a tent outside. My grandfather had kindly given me a large polythene sheet when I mentioned to him that the van had a leaky roof. He suggested it could be used as a makeshift awning which when tied to one side of the van, could be pulled up over the roof to keep the rain out and pitched down the other side. That’s what we did, and the lads set their tent up underneath, thus doubling their chances of staying dry in the event of rain.

The weather – the bane of festivals. We always see images of mud-covered throngs dancing in a quagmire that resembles the Somme, and this is how it seems the media loves to portray such occasions. Truth is, I attended four Glastonburys on the trot and came home with sunburn each time. Not a drop of rain whatsoever. The summer of ’92 was generally a good one if I recall, but it had rained the weekend prior to the festival. By the time we arrived at the Reading site though, there had been a couple of dry days and the ground was firming up nicely. The forecast was good and the mood was upbeat. Regardless, we felt rather smug that we had prepared for rain just in case. Van parked, tent pitched, awning in place – we were set. “Crack open another bottle of cider and roll a fat one boys,” I announced to my already inebriated compadres. “It’s time I caught you up!”

My real story begins on Saturday, day 2 of the fest. Friday had passed without incident. I watched the Milltown Brothers, Mega City Four, an immense performance by PJ Harvey, the legendary PiL (during which the ever-affable John Lydon mooned his bare buttocks at his adoring public) and the Wonder Stuff on the Main Stage. My one regret in hindsight is that, for some inexplicable reason, I failed to wander over to the Session Tent to see the magnificent Cardiacs. Stu delighted in letting me know how great they were.

I don’t recall what bands I saw on Saturday, though I’m fairly sure I caught Buffalo Tom’s set, seeing how they had recently released ‘Let Me Come Over’, their third album, a record which I still rate in my all-time top 10. Wayne raved about Shonen Knife[1] in the Session Tent and I immediately felt pangs of jealousy that I hadn’t seen anyone yet who had blown me away like that. Until…

I had no desperate urge to see either headliner that night. I wasn’t into rap music at all, so Public Enemy held very little appeal to me. The other stage hosted BAD II, a ‘new’ version of Big Audio Dynamite. I knew little about them and despite being fronted by Mick Jones, I couldn’t get that excited about them. So I decided to catch the end of Ride’s set, watch the start of Public Enemy, then stroll over to see a bit of BAD II, before finding a doughnut van for supper. What happened instead was one of the most mind-blowing musical experiences of my life.

The one thing I never prepared myself for was the sheer power of rap music. When Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X bounded onto the Reading stage and let rip, they bowled every one of the thousands of witnesses into the middle of the following week. I mean, seriously – Reading had always been traditionally a rock music festival, yet here was a hip hop act, practically unheard of at such an event and almost the antithesis of what many felt live music should be, completely stealing the show.

I stood, open-mouthed in awe, as they fired track after track after track at me with such ferocity, such emotion, such raw unrestrained power – Shut ‘em Down, Bring The Noise, Don’t Believe The Hype, Fight The Power – BANG! BANG! BANG! Public Enemy slayed me unlike any band had ever done before or indeed since (though the White Stripes and Arcade Fire came pretty close). That show was a true epiphany for me. That show took everything I thought I knew about music and shredded it mercilessly in front of my eyes. That show wiped the canvas clean and forced me to think again.  

That show completely fucking changed me.

You see, music has to touch you personally for it to really make sense. There has to be something that resonates in you before you can truthfully say ‘I get it’. Alas, some never experience this and are destined to forever remain tuned into soulless commercial radio stations. Rap music had never touched me like a lot of other music had, so it is safe to say I never ‘got it’.  I was 12 when White Lines by Grandmaster Melle Mel came out in 1983. While I now acknowledge it as one of the greatest singles of all time, I could never have been expected to connect with the anti-drugs message of the lyrics. Its delivery was even newer to me – these guys weren’t singing, they were just bellowing stuff aggressively. But then, rap was still pretty new back then – the first proper rap record Rapper’s Delight by Sugarhill Gang had only come out four years previous.

For nearly a decade I carried with me the theory that rap music wasn’t really worthy of the classification of ‘music’. But that Saturday evening in a field in the south of England I had my perception of the genre altered for good. Rap wasn’t just music, it became performance art.

“IS EVERYBODY HOT?” Flavor Flav yelled to the crowd. A tumultuous “YEAH!” resulted. “We’re gonna pray for rain to cool everybody down,” Flav continued, before leading the crowd in prayer.

Now, I’m not a religious person, but something tested me that evening. Not only were my musical beliefs coming in for a severe battering, but my almost non-existent spiritual side was dragged out of hiding when, within hours of Public Enemy and tens of thousands of disciples (old and new) calling to God to open the heavens, it actually happened. It rained... and how. The first I became aware of it was being awoken by a loud banging on the side of the van (a dodgy lock on the side door meant it could only be opened from the inside). The guys in the tent wanted to come in.

“We’re flooded!” they wailed.

“Has the tarp blown off?” I asked.

“No, we’re pitched in a puddle!”

It was true. The makeshift awning was holding true, but the rain was filling a dip in the uneven ground right where the tent was – they were being flooded from underneath! There was one hell of a storm outside and unfortunately, Steve, Clive and Stu were in the thick of it. Before we knew it, the van was full of the lads’ kit that they’d salvaged before they clambered in themselves and all six of us – one half dry and warm, the other half soaked – attempted to drift off back to sleep. There was mixed success. It was now cramped and humid in that van and I never completely managed to get comfortable again. Besides, I still had She Watch Channel Zero thumping around in my head. Sleep? Not a chance, boyeeeeeeee…

To be continued….


[1] 22 years on, and I will finally get to see Shonen Knife - they play Cardiff next month.


  1. I was always jealous of yee lot across the pond having these amazing festivals. We never really had that over here. The nearest we had was Féile or "The Trip To Tipp" as it was also known. It was held in a Gaelic (GAA) sports stadium. Camping was miles up the road so there was a lot of time spent drinking trays of beer going from the camp site to the stadium. Some might say, that's not such a bad thing, but the trays of beer were heavy so a lot of drinking had to be done to make it lighter!!! Féile only lasted for 5 years in Tipperary. They tried to move it to Cork but that didn't really take off. The line up was never as good either. Don't think they could attract the bigger stars. One of the big bands I did get to see though was One of The Stone Roses final gigs. They even released live tracks from it on their final EP.

  2. I lived in Reading in the '90's. (Was intending to stay there 18 months, ended up being 8 years).
    I was working in a major hotel in the city center, where nearly all the bands stayed during the festival. In 1992 I was back of house though and didn't witness this:

    The barman told us about this bloke in a dress sitting at the end of the bar. He ordered a whisky and immediately threw it on the ground, smashing the glass. He then ordered another, smashed it, and another and another...
    Nobody stopped him and nobody paid attention to him. Everybody acted as this was a normal thing.