Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Memories of a thousand* gigs #11

(* 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 two (In case you missed it, Part One is here.)
When it was time to get up, Wayne, Andy and I decided to wander off site to get some brekkie in town and let the others get themselves sorted. Truth be told, me and my soft, country boy ways, I really wanted some clean dry clothes that morning, but there were none. All the bags saved from the tent overnight were soaked through. They had been inadvertently chucked on top of the other bags in the van and soaked them through too!

I went about the rest of the weekend in a daze. Tired, and wet, and still reeling from the previous evening’s assault on my senses, it all seemed rather surreal. The Sunday started with a stroll to a takeaway just offsite and the chance to use a proper toilet. But the site itself was a quagmire. Once we assessed the damage, we realised how lightly we had gotten off. The two Scottish lads who were pitched near us lost pretty much everything. Their tent was destroyed. (I seem to recall we invited them to spend the final night in the van with the rest of us, but can’t remember if they accepted.) That final day resembled to a ‘T’ the media’s clichéd depiction of music festivals. It rained incessantly, there was no escape from mud. The Session Tent – a huge marquee like a circus tent which hosted the festival’s ‘second stage’ – had lost its roof in the storm and half the bands scheduled that day were cancelled! But, perhaps more bizarrely than anything, everyone had a smile on their face.

I reached the main stage on that Sunday just as John Peel introduced Björn Again, the world’s most famous Abba tribute band. Yes, really.[1] For 40 minutes, everyone there sang every single word to every single song. We were knee deep in mud and all everyone was talking about was Nirvana, but here we were bellowing Abba classics at the top of our voices. This was years before it became supposedly cool to love Abba again (you know, before people who had long forgotten about them flocked to see the godawful cheese-fest that was Mamma Mia and subsequently declared Abba as the greatest group ever or such like.) This was the closest you could get to seeing Abba live, and we were cold, wet, muddy and waiting for the noisy rock bands to come on. Maybe it was ironic; or maybe it was recognition that Abba actually were one of the greatest groups ever. Most likely it was a bit of both. Either way, Björn Again really rekindled the festival spirit and when they finished, several thousand soggy people were grinning like idiots. This was all swiftly followed by the ever-reliable Peelie spinning Nine To Five by Sheena Easton…

Of course, where there is mud and an inebriated festival crowd, there will be mud fights. Some of the battles will be amongst the audience members. Watching someone on the main stage (I forget who exactly), I suddenly saw a section of the crowd disperse and a big pool of mud was revealed. In the middle of it, writhing and wrestling, were two complete nutters (male, female… it was impossible to tell), covered head to toe and trying to grab random onlookers to join them as they wallowed (hence the crowd dispersal). It was later that evening, as I relayed these events to the boys back at the van that Stu piped up: “Yep, that was me and Clive! You saw us? Aw man, if I’d seen you, we’d have definitely dragged you in too!”

Inevitably though, some of the mud was always going to be hurled towards the stage. It seemed to start with L7. For the uninitiated, L7 were four female grunge-punks who weren’t exactly backwards at coming forwards. I loved that whole Riot Grrrl movement they found themselves part of, in spite of the fact that, being male, it really shouldn’t have appealed to me.  Bands like L7, Babes In Toyland and Bikini Kill were all about female empowerment and sticking a big one up to the male chauvinist-dominated music industry, media and rock music consumer. But I admired that, modern man that I was. Not in a patronising way either, women always offered something different to the male perspective in rock music and these bands were exactly that – different.

Earlier that year, L7 performed their hit Pretend We’re Dead live on trashy late night TV show The Word. As the band thrashed the final chords of the song and proceeded to trash the set, the cameras caught singer Donita Sparks with her jeans around her ankles and her bits in full view on national TV; it was enough to leave even host Terry Christian speechless! (See it here, in full gruesome detail...[2]) Now, being pelted with mud during a frustrating set at Reading, Ms Sparks took things one step further. Rather than simply telling the offending audience members where they could stick their mud, she simply rummaged around in her pants, removed a blood-stained female sanitary product from inside herself and lobbed it into the crowd, yelling: “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!” Cue another rapid crowd dispersal…

The mud-flinging continued for a while (predictably it reached a peak during Mudhoney’s set!) before things began to settle down as the time for Nirvana drew nigh. Sadly, I hadn’t quite gotten into Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds by that point, so couldn’t appreciate the majesty that adorned the stage as the sky darkened, but I was there as Kurt Cobain was pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair while wearing a blonde wig and hospital gown (a sardonic swipe at the rumours of his and Courtney’s health in the media), and the legendary headline slot kicked into life and what would become a significant moment in rock music history began to unfold.

That history would have it that this was Nirvana’s defining moment; that this really was the world’s greatest band at the time at their absolute zenith. It is believed by many that this was one of the greatest rock shows of all time. Yet I was rather underwhelmed. Sure, I remember it and yes, it was a pretty good show. The band was on form and Kurt seemed surprisingly cheerful and boyish, quite charming in fact. Yet I wasn’t blown away. I left the Reading Festival in 1992 with loads of great memories and stories, but while everyone else spoke of being there as Nirvana ripped the place up, I recall how on the previous night Public Enemy absolutely destroyed me.

That PE show made me feel like I’d been assaulted, physically beaten by a gang of politically-aware African-American freedom fighters wielding the most powerful weapons in existence – passion, words and FUCKING IMMENSE BEATS.


[1] As odd as it may seem, the reason Björn Again played at all is because Kurt Cobain insisted on it as a condition of Nirvana headlining. Or so the story goes.
[2] The You Tube clip is labelled 1993. It's wrong, it was definitely 1992. Honestly!

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