The August Bank Holiday has swung round with its usual, startling annual regularity, so that means it’s time again for the Reading Festival (these days strictly the Reading and Leeds festival, doubtless brought to you by some bland and ubiquitous corporate lager – the spirit of alt rock endures). This year’s main stage headliners are Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and Blink 182. (Blink 182 headlining? For the second time?!?)
Inevitably, as a greying fortysomething nostalgist blogging about music that was most in vogue twenty years ago, without even a madeleine moment my mind drifts back to Readings past. I’ve just spent a few minutes losing myself in these old line-ups, both the festivals I attended (92, 94, 98, 03) and those I missed (err, the others).
My first trip there, as you probably worked out from the paragraph above, was in 1992. I’d wanted to go in 1990, but for some reason hadn’t: probably simply that Donington took precedence that year for me.* (Unlike the plethora of festivals these days, in the early 90s there were only really three UK festivals each summer: Glasto for the hippies, Donington for the metallers \m/ and Reading for the indie kids.) The main reason that Reading trumped Donington by 92 was, of course, that Nirvana were headlining. The band had been at Reading the year before, playing the main stage mid-afternoon, but in-between times Nevermind‘s release had made them one of the biggest bands in the world and, ably assisted by Pearl Jam’s Ten, Seattle’s grunge scene the coolest movement in rock music. There was absolutely no competition in my mind between Nirvana headlining Reading and Iron Maiden (yawn) headlining Donington.**
I went with a bunch of people, and we pitched our tents, some four or five of them, in one of the fields alongside the stream that goes through the campsite. We were near a ‘Cool as Suffolk’ flag. (Is Suffolk cool?) August 1992 was one of those months when visitors to Britain wonder if summer ever actually reaches these shores or simply gives up at Calais. The campsites were already pretty muddy when we got there; the rain kept coming and turned them into a mudbath.*** I had to buy a pair of army boots to get me through the weekend – the trainers I’d brought with me hadn’t lasted five minutes.
My memories from the first two days are a little hazy, alcohol and dope readily affecting me in the way they were intended to affect me (hurrah). Public Image Ltd – John Lydon sporting a vivid green suit – were in fine form on the Friday, as were the Manic Street Preachers and Public Enemy on the Saturday, the latter as headliners. The Manics blasted through their set, including an edgy cover of Guns’n’Roses, ‘It’s So Easy’. I’d been looking forward to seeing Smashing Pumpkins, as their debut album Gish was a permanent fixture in my tape deck back then (it remains my favourite Pumpkins album), but the wind blew their sound around badly. All I can remember of Rollins Band was just how angry Henry Rollins was – possibly because he was onstage wearing only a pair of black shorts, and his knackers had shrivelled up to nothing in the biting wind – and how a brief break in the clouds allowed the sun to bring out the vivid colours of his back tattoo.
Then on Saturday night, the storm came. One of our tents – a large, old-fashioned one with a wooden cross-pole – broke and became unusable, as did another. I have a memory too of someone taking a piss in the field not that far from our tents. The muddy ‘water’ in the field lapped round the zipped door to the tent I was in, but somehow didn’t flood us out. The next morning we surveyed the damage. If we wanted to camp on the Sunday night, we’d have to cram into the few remaining tents and hope the rain held off. By the entrance to the field we were camping in, there was a tractor planted in the mud, its back wheels barely visible, presumably semi-submerged after a failed attempt to get something unstuck. Possibly the Ark.
[The videos may not work on this webpage, but you can click on either the Youtube links or the hyperlinks below the videos to watch them.]
I remember going to see Pele and Revolver that Sunday afternoon in the Session tent, and perhaps also Screaming Trees on the main stage, but some time that afternoon we made the collective decision to abandon Reading and go some place dry and warm. Mudhoney and L7 were also on the main stage later that day, so it was a tough call, possibly influenced by a concern that we didn’t have enough alcohol and dope to anaesthetise us all for another night in the swampsite (not that I’ve ever needed much of either to be off on my own little planet).
This meant, of course, missing Nirvana, the main reason we’d gone there in the first place. But, we coolly reasoned, Nirvana would be back in the UK in the near future, and if we didn’t try to camp another night in that field then we might still be alive to see them. So off we trudged, along with many of the other festival-goers – there was quite a queue of traffic slip-sliding its way out of the venue – to spend a dry and warm evening in a pub with Nirvana dominating the jukebox and the conversation.
We must have been out of our tiny little minds. Nirvana were electrifying, their set etched in the memories of all who were there (and doubtless some who weren’t). From the moment Cobain was pushed out onstage in a wheelchair,**** wearing a blond wig and a big white medical smock, the band gave a cold, soggy crowd everything they had to give. Reading 1992 was one of Nirvana’s greatest gigs – or so I’ve been told. (Did I mention that I wasn’t there?)
And it was the last UK show that Nirvana ever played. They were booked to return to the UK in March and April 1994 to support In Utero: the shows were initially postponed after Cobain’s overdose-induced coma in Rome on 3 March, and then cancelled after his desperately tragic suicide just over a month later. I just wish we’d managed to stick it out for one more night, or – better still – that Nirvana had returned to our shores in 94 and many times again after that.
Setlist (not that I was there): The Rose, Breed, Drain You, Aneurysm, School, Sliver, In Bloom, Come As You Are, Lithium, About a Girl, Tourette’s, Polly, Lounge Act, Smells Like Teen Spirit, On a Plain, Negative Creep, Been a Son, All Apologies, Blew
Encore: Dumb, Stay Away, Spank Thru, Love Buzz, The Money Will Roll Right In, D-7, Territorial Pissings
* The Donington 1990 line up was Whitesnake, Aerosmith, Poison, The Quireboys and Thunder, since you ask. (And you wonder why we needed Nirvana and the grunge movement to shake things up.) A whole five bands on one stage on one day constituting a festival. In those days we probably had to eat gravel, and be grateful for it too.
** The Donington 1992 line up was Iron Maiden, Skid Row, Thunder (again), Slayer, WASP and The Almighty – taking the longer view, not actually that bad a line up, if you like that kind of thing. The Almighty included their set as a bonus disc on the first edition of 1993’s Powertrippin’ (their ‘grunge’ album), and it sounds like an excellent performance. Iron Maiden released Live at Donington the following year: a strong live album from a band whose singer was heading for the exit door.
*** In this of all years, I refuse to use a lazy simile such as ‘like the Somme’, or make a joke about trenchfoot, though it was damn cold (for August), wet and windy.
**** He was pushed out by Everett True, the NME journalist who first reported in the British music press on the Seattle scene, gaining the movement wider recognition, especially over here in Europe. He also claims to have introduced Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love, so let’s not garland him too enthusiastically. He’s more than capable of blowing his own trumpet anyway. Here are my thoughts on an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2011, ‘10 Myths about Grunge‘. That autumn, a wealth of articles came out marking the 20th anniversary of Nevermind‘s release – and its 20th anniversary re-release – here is a particularly thoughtful one by Lauren Spencer for the Observer, 18 September 2011.