dimanche, septembre 05, 2004

Reading Festival, Richmond Avenue, Reading

And the name of the world's worst band is...

By Simon Price

05 September 2004

Despatch from the Berkshire front. Rain incessant. Flooding biblical. Trench foot rife. Morale low. Cavalry has already lost seven horses, artillery is stuck in quicksand. They tell me it will all be over by Christmas. If I never make it out of here alive, please inform your mother that she has a penis.

On a day straight out of the Great War, only the true entertainers survive, so it's probably not a great surprise that curtain-raisers Goldie Lookin' Chain are the "surprise" hit of the Reading Festival, and their heavily Gwent-accented catchphrases - "your mother's got a penis!" etc - are as all-pervasive this year as was "Timmah!" a couple of years back.

The Welsh prankster rappers are rivalled, in the multi-membered mayhem stakes, by south-Londoner nine-piece Do Me Bad Things, the most blatant, gold-plated Ones To Watch that I encounter all weekend. Kitted out in trilbies and matching white/black outfits, DMBT play thrilling, no-rules glam-blues and soul-metal, with a perceptible edge of danger to it, a kind of Running-With-Scissors Sisters. Indeed, if the Scizzy Sissies had grown up in south London and listened to Seventies rock instead of disco, this is how they might have turned out.

They're followed by another supremely watchable troupe of chaos-mongers. Pink Grease, careering into one another, shrieking in ludicrous falsettos, wearing batwing blouses borrowed from their mums and playing basslines borrowed from The Cramps, are the gayest looking straight men in rock. They make the real New York Dolls, appearing on the main stage, obsolete.

Polar opposites to Pink Grease, but just as conscious of the importance of eye candy, are British Sea Power, whose intellectual, moving, epic, enigmatic rock is augmented visually by stuffed herons and owls, and a cult audience who flock to the front in vintage army uniforms, waving large pieces of foliage. Marvellous.

Some bands seem immune to the climatic conditions. There's a fantastic moment, during The Hives' set, when the Jumbotron camera zooms in on one be-spatted foot, pure white, unsullied by the quagmire. Proof, if it were needed, that Howlin' Pelle Almqvist walks on water. Similarly endowed with bulletproof self-confidence is Har Mar Superstar. And it's justified. The tide of humanity heading over to the Radio One stage shows that, despite his absurdly low billing, HMS is the tent-filler of the festival for the second year running.

Another buzz band, TV On The Radio, look amazing. Five people, four black, three with afros, two with dreads, one with an impressive Santa beard, they play heavy-headed blues-rock which takes you on a journey (from Hendrix via My Bloody Valentine). I've seen enough to know that they're very good, on their own terms. I've also seen enough to know I never want to see them again.

It quickly becomes clear that, for the second year in succession, The Libertines will be performing without the ever-troubled Pete Doherty. After strumming through "What a Waster" and a couple of other fan faves, Carl Barat asks if we have any requests. Nobody is sufficiently impolite to say "Yeah, we want Pete."

With each passing year, Reading seems to be separating into two festivals which happen to share the same terrain and time. The majority crowd are here for the punk-metal, the cooler minority to seek out the eclectic, arty indie stuff. But, even as an unashamed member of the latter faction, it's difficult to avoid accidentally catching the dire likes of Flogging Molly on the Concrete Jungle stage, which a friend of mine wearily christens the Tattooed Imbecile stage and which, with poetic synaesthesia, smells pungently of human waste.

The tattooed imbeciles' gods are Green Day. In another life, I interviewed the punk trio, amused by what I took to be their ironic take on slackerdom (songs about sitting on the sofa, unable to do anything but masturbate, drink beer and watch TV). I was quietly appalled when they told me they weren't being ironic and "y'know, sometimes that's just the way you feel..." Tonight, helped by a trumpeter in a bunny costume, they play a covers-heavy set. "This is a song written by The Clash," says Billy Jo, before playing "I Fought The Law", written by Bobby Fuller.

I've often wondered what the worst band in the world would be like. After watching the Dropkick Murphys, I need wonder no more. More or less an American Pogues, the Murphys come from Boston, used to wear kilts, and are the embodiment of the tendency of Yanks to claim that they're "Irish" just because they've got a couple of freckles and their great granny once drank a half of Guinness. At one point, while the singer sings earnestly and passionately and his bandmate tootles on a tin whistle, the Jumbotron cuts away to soft-focus footage of a soaring seagull. I kid you not.

Most Improved Act are the already-mighty Franz Ferdinand, who have added a pleasing new showbiz element to their live show. Plus a couple of new songs, "This Boy" and "Young Diary", which show that their astonishing debut album did not scrape their talent-barrel dry. New material is something The Darkness desperately need. As much as I adore them, they're below par at Reading. They've more or less admitted that they're knackered, and bored to tears with playing the same album night after night. They premiere one new song, "Hazel Eyes", which has a Scottish folk feel. Another one, still untitled, is only half-written, and ad-libbed live.

Jack White needs a shave, but face fuzz aside, The White Stripes are faultless, compelling and intensely thrilling. They even throw in the rarely-played "Hello Operator" as a treat. Another shock selection comes from Morrissey, who brings grown men to tears by opening with "How Soon is Now?", which creates enough goodwill to carry him through a set which, though frequently superb, is perhaps overstuffed with dirges (not to mention a slightly senile rant about getting a speeding fine in nearby Caversham).

By Sunday afternoon, the soil underfoot has solidified just enough to be manipulated into handy, missile-sized clumps by anyone with a malicious bent. This is bad news for Finnish pretty-boy goth-rockers The Rasmus, who are pelted with chunks of mud and bottles of urine by smelly punk kids. A few stray objects are hurled The Streets' way too, but Mike Skinner's charisma is strong enough to pacify the haters. "One bottle of piss and one bag of chips," he says phlegmatically, surveying the debris around him. "That's not bad going."

The next serious bombardment is directed at 50 Cent. We've established, then, that Reading Festival-goers are not too keen on 1) feminine-looking men, 2) rap music and 3) dare I controversially surmise, black people. (Check out the Dislikes section of any alternative rock kid's internet profile, and tell me that the words "hip-hop", "ghetto", "R&B", "urban" and "wigga" are not code.) Although his crew, G-Unit, look petrified, 50 Cent himself stands there grinning broadly as the missiles rain down. He has, famously, experienced a lot worse. He has also, it transpires, read the small print on his contract. If acts at Reading play less than 15 minutes, they forfeit their fee. At 15 minutes and one second, 50 Cent is gone.

One wonders what the organisers make of it all. To date, they have creditably tried to keep the Reading bill interesting by throwing non-rock acts into the mix, but how long can this policy survive in the face of literal mud-slinging? One day, the tattooed imbeciles may get the festival they deserve. And it will be rubbish.


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