The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part two

In the first part of my recollections of Reading I recounted how I’d only done the odd day here and there, but never a full weekend. That was to change in 1996 thanks mainly to the line up, which I still say is one of the best to have been at any festival in the UK in my time of going to festivals over the last 25 years.

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The entire weekend was going to be topped off by The Stone Roses so it’d have been rude not to go. Yes, the Roses were not the same force, and half the band were gone to be replaced by session musicians but we didn’t care! It was the bloody ROSES!!

1996 was also when Britpop was still raging but the peak years of 1994 and 1995 were gone, and frankly we were approaching the fagend of Britpop but we didn’t know it at the time, though the likes of Kula Shaker and Gene should have been a hint things were on their last legs, but hey, the rest of the lineup looked ace!

And so it was that myself and my hippy mate Zeb decided to go down together as a sort of dry run for Glastonbury in 1997, so it passed that we’d be one of lots of people going down from Leicester’s legendary pup, the Pump and Tap, but seeing as we didn’t like some of them, or that they’d made other plans we found ourselves quite happy to go down together and play it by ear. First of all I had to get myself a tent, as up til now I’d either borrowed a tent or blagged it, and frankly I wasn’t prepared to do that, so I go myself a nice cheap single skin tent. More of this later…

We’d agreed to go down on Thursday morning as frankly, the less time spent in Reading the better, but we wanted to set up early, and see a set Rocket From the Crypt were going to play at the Virgin Megastore in the centre of Reading on Thursday afternoon, so early on a grey Thursday morning I met Zeb in the Pump and Tap carpark for the start of our Reading adventure.

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Zeb had brought one of his less flashy sports cars to drive down, but seeing as we weren’t going to put anything in the car beyond us, our tents, bags and sleeping bags it didn’t matter as we were going to stock up once we’d set up onsite and headed into Reading city centre to get some beers after the Rocket From the Crypt gig, so off we sped from Leicester to Reading with the full intention to have a bloody serious good time.

The trip down was uneventful and fairly painless of traffic jams as we’d pulled a few short cuts to come down the opposite route to what everyone else would be taking. It was a longer route but it got us there quicker without being stuck so we pulled into Reading early Thursday afternoon with the sky still grey and wondering whether to drop rain upon us as we pulled into the car park. As we did pull into the festival we saw the camping fields (Reading’s bands are held in an arena, with camping all around it)  were filling up near the arena quite quickly, so unloading what little we had between us we headed to find ourselves a good spot in a field not too far away from the arena. Luckily we realised that it was only the first two or three fields that were full and all the other fields were still pretty empty as I don’t think it was even 1pm yet, but we did learn that if we wanted to get in the field by the arena (as Zeb had really wanted) we’d have to get there earlier. That was a lesson for 1997 but I leap ahead of myself…

We set our tents up, with both of us struggling to put up new tents, but we couldn’t have spent more than 45 setting camp up in a very large, empty patch of field and hoping that any neighbours we’d get were not utter wankers.

See, the thing is about festivals is that a large part of the enjoyment of a festival is down to the people you go with, and if you’re not in a big group then you’ve got to hope your neighbours aren’t tossers which was the thought in both our heads as we left our tents to wander into the centre to find a decent pub, see Rocket From the Crypt and get some beers and food for our wee camp. As we left we looked back to see our tents looking lonely for what would be the last time that weekend…

Before the walk into town, we got our wristbands. Now this is a bit of a Reading ritual but basically it involves waiting in a queue to get a horrible plastic wristband (as it was then) which became a serious pain, but fuck it, this was our badge of honour that we’d got in and were officially part of the festival!

The walk into town was slow, but we were taking everything in and this is where I need to point something out in that Reading in the early to mid-90’s was carnage but it was chilled carnage. It was dirty, nasty and drunken but people went for the music, the laugh and to enjoy themselves without being a dick. Again, I get ahead of myself as this is for another part of this series of blogs, but getting back to 1996 Zeb and myself found a lovely spit and sawdust pub called the Duke of Edinburgh which is no longer there, but we got our drinks then, sat down in the sun which had just come out and just smiled like loons as we chilled out, which is of course, the point of festivals. After a couple of beers and a chat with a few other festivalgoers, we headed into the centre to find the Virgin Megastore and the Sainsbury’s so we could get our bearings. The gig wasn’t til late afternoon so we wandered about, got something to eat and squeezed near the front of the Virgin Megastore for what was a bloody storming gig by Rocket From the Crypt which made us both feel like we were fucking alive.

After that it was to Sainsbury’s to grab some beers and food, and by food I mean pork pies and Pringles which is the sort of food you can safely store in a tent, and anyhow, who needs food when you’ve just bought 48 tins of cheaply strong lager?

The only problem with buying  48 tins of cheaply strong lager is lugging them back to the festival, and then to your campsite, which means an awful lot of rest-breaks as both Zeb and myself struggled with the vast amount of beer (did I mention Zeb also bought a load of cheaply strong lager?) back to our site. After what seemed like an age we got into the festival again, and slowly shuffled back to where we’d camped only to find our lonely wee tents were no longer lonely, but surrounded by tents, but not as you’d expect now with nary an inch of space but a crowded site, but with still plenty of space for a fire and to sit together. We just walked through the large group of young girls on one side, and dumped our stuff down outside our tents before being greeted warmly by two lads from Birmingham who were camped next to us. I wish I could remember their names, so I’ll call them Jasper and Ozzy. Ozzy was a fitness instructor, while Jasper was an accountant or something like that. It didn’t matter as we discovered they were sound lads as they were chatting away to us, and the banter between the four of us started flowing into the early evening and ended up spilling into the pile of young girls also camped next to us, who weren’t all young girls, there were some lads who didn’t have a chin (this became a running gag all weekend) but they were from Oxford, and most of them were up for a laugh as it was their first real festival for most of them.

As the evening morphed into the night, I pulled out my massive bottle of dodgy Russian vodka I’d brought from work, and we all started losing those little boundary lines you get when you meet strangers at festivals and we found ourselves becoming one large camp, which frankly was more than either Zeb or I had hoped for when we were sitting planning this at the Pump and Tap months earlier. We even had a couple of police officers come over to warn us that people were nicking from tents, but they really came to try to have a laugh with us but as they did the rain started and the skies opened which drove everyone into their tents and ruined the party.

By this time it was dark, so possibly midnight, but as the rain hammered down I quickly realised why one should never buy a single skin tent as the water started coming through into the tent to form a lovely little lagoon in one corner. Eventually the rain stopped, and I used a T-shirt to mop up what I could and try to get my head down, which was the last real sleep I ended up having til I got home to Leicester on Monday.

Friday morning say me rise early to try to dry out the lagoon, and head into town to get some breakfast while trying to sell one of the spare tickets I had (did I mention I had a spare ticket thanks to work, plus I had another spare ticket to give to my mate Sarah to sell, but I’d neglected to arrange to meet her so was hoping to stumble across her in a tent or something), so I shouted to see if Zeb was up, which he was and we assessed the situation was basically, wet. As we were standing around Ozzy and Jasper got up, as did a few of the girls but Zeb and myself decided to got for something to eat and get a programme so we could see who was on when. For younger readers I need to point out that there wasn’t any dapper booklets you hung round your neck, no, we had to buy a programme which was an A4 booklet within the programme or hope that the festival stuck times up on a blackboard by the information points.

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When we came back to the tent the Brummies were cracking open the beers and suggesting a wander into town for a pub brekkie, which seemed like a good idea so off we went with there being hours til the first band we wanted to see which was the Butthole Surfers, so off we went to find a pub which we did and it was closer to the festival than the previous day’s pub, but sadly it’s no longer there but it was a great little pub. We played darts badly, drank beer and had some greasy food while bonding and having a laugh before we realised we should really get back to the festival to see some bands, but first a little detour to our tents to have some Smirnoff blue label vodka..

That proved a bad idea as we got quite pissed, and dozed off so I woke up to see that Zeb had also dozed off sitting near the increasing hill of empty beer cans by our little camp. The others were asleep, and the girls had left to go into the arena hours earlier, but I managed to wake Zeb up and managed to roughly arrange with Jasper to meet before The Prodigy later that night by one of the beer tents.

We managed to get into the arena to catch the end of Ice T’s set, and get ourselves together as frankly we were hammered, and the day wasn’t even halfway through yet, plus the Friday night lineup was something to look forward to. I left Zeb for a while so I could go and watch Bis who were at that point one of my favourite bands, and I have to say, put on a bloody amazing show that evening but the main attractions that night were the double header of The Prodigy and Rage Against the Machine who were both at their peaks in terms of creativity and sheer power as live acts. I left the second stage where Bis played to meet up again with Zeb, who’d found the Brummies so we stocked up on beer and found a good place to watch the main stage for the rest of the night, which meant catching the tail end of the Offspring who surprised me as they were much better than I was expecting, but I was horribly drunk.

This is where I need to take a break from the narrative to point out to younger readers that although Reading was rammed in those days, it wasn’t full of wankers. Yes, it was tasty and full of drunken sods like we were, but the overall mood was that of a lot of people having fun at the end of summer. There was also a feeling that people were there to enjoy the music rather than a box-ticking exercise before they go to university, but again, I get ahead of myself.

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As the night progressed we drank more beer, saw a bloody awesome set from the Prodigy who blew everyone away to such an extent that it’d have been bloody impossible for any band to follow them, so Rage Against the Machine had to and most other times they’d have played a blinder but in that context they paled against the sheer force of nature which the Prodigy were that night. They didn’t play a bad gig, far from it, but they couldn’t match what had preceded them but that aside we all felt privileged to have seen two amazing bands play great shows to a great crowd. I was also amazingly drunk and happy by this point as we left the arena on that first night to head back to our camp to crack more tins of our cheaply strong lager and just banter which we did. In fact we spent most of the night chatting, and we pulled the girls over to carry on some more bantering as we all realised Ozzy had his eye on one of the girls and she had her eye on him…

I can’t remember when exactly I passed out, but I do remember waking up suddenly at dawn wrapped in my sleeping blanket in my tent feeling like death warmed up, and although I was near death I wanted more! Plus, I needed to flog the spare ticket I had and find Sarah as the value of the tickets were dropping and also, I knew I was going to run out of money if I didn’t at least get 20 or 30 quid for the ticket. That was the only bit of stress. It was Saturday. The main blowout day of any festival. This is where you’ve bedded in, adjusted to living as you are and are either loving it or hating it. I was loving it.

First things first though. Pub!

 We got Jasper and Ozzy out of their slumber and headed into town back to the pub from the previous day to again fail badly at playing darts, drink some beer, but the plan was to get back in time so I could see the bloody wonderful Ruby, (the first of two bands on the day fronted by wonderful Scottish singers)  but sadly I seem to remember us arriving back in time to catch the fucking woeful Kula Shaker. Still, this game me time to top up with beer, and realise I’d forgotten to flog my spare ticket, or find Sarah so I could give her the spare I got for her but Moloko were on and I was drinking so one has to deal with life’s little priorities.

Much of the Saturday afternoon was spent hanging out with the other lads, and after watching a great, but frankly utterly out of place Billy Bragg set, and a bonkers Julian Cope set which saw a lot of younger people look bemused, it was all about Garbage who were proving themselves to be a bloody great band, and it was nice to see Shirley Manson become successful as I’d followed her career since Goodbye Mr MacKenzie, and had bumped into her a few times at gigs in Leicester and London. They played a great set and Manson fronting the band was and is a sight to be seen, but when they were fresh and raw it was truly fantastic.

After Garbage it was Black Grape. Neither Zeb or myself had much interest in Black Grape, and we’d also been distracted by the two girls we’d met just before Garbage, so rather than watch Chris Evans introduce Black Grape and watch Britpop eat itself we decided to go off with two strange girls as you do. Again the mists of time have wiped their names from my memory, so I’ll call them Thelma and Louise. Thelma was a girl with long red hair who took an instant shine to Zeb, while Louise was a mentalist with dark hair to took a fancy to me, so we went on a wander around the arena for a laugh for a while before Zeb and Thelma vanished into the night, leaving myself and Louise to dive into the comedy tent to quite literally trip over Sarah. As I dusted myself off I gave her the spare ticket for her, but I didn’t chat for long as Louise wanted beer to indulge in nocturnal pastimes, which is where I draw a discrete veil over the next several hours (I’m sure imaginations can fill in any blanks) and we arrive in the story at Sunday…

I woke up in Louise’s tent which was in a field not to far from ours, so I made my farewells with the vague promise of her turning up at our camp later, and headed back as the morning broke to head back to my tent to try to grab a few hours unbroken sleep as I’d now went without more than 40 minutes or so of decent sleep since Friday morning, and seeing as this was the last day I wanted to recharge a bit for it. I got back to our camp and things were still quiet though I could hear movement and voices from Jasper and Ozzy’s tent while Zeb’s tent sounded quiet. Great! I could sleep for a bit as it was just gone 7am and I reckoned nobody would stick their head out til gone 9.

I mist have been asleep for less than an hour before I was woken up by Zeb asking if I was awake, which I was by this point. Thelma was still in his tent and the chap told me the story of the previous night, which again, I’m sure you can paint a picture if you use your imagination. Zeb told me she wanted to know if Louise was in my tent, so I crawled out of my sleeping bag to inform her I’d not long left her at her tent and she was ok. She stayed and chatted for a bit as Zeb and myself sat looking wasted, and she left before I cracked open the last of my cheaply strong lager as I decided I’d finish the festival as I started. Shortly after Jasper got out of their tent to tell us that Ozzy had pulled one of the Oxford girls and he’d had to pretend to be unconscious while the pair got up to the sort of things that again you should use your imagination for.

Eventually Ozzy and the girl woke up, joined in our little party and had a laugh about the night before as it seemed everyone was getting their end away the previous night apart from poor Jasper. I realised my priority was to flog my spare ticket as this was the last chance I’d get but as the Stone Roses were playing and the day had sold out, I reckoned I could get 50 quid for a ticket. Zeb and myself also needed some beer for that evening back at the tent as the Bummies, the Oxford Girls and us had all agreed to have a massive blow up after the Roses back at our camp. So with this in mind, we steeled ourselves for a walk back into Sainsbury’s where Zeb and myself bought lots of very, very cheap but strong Latvian lager and on the way back I sold my spare ticket for (I think 30 quid) which was vastly less than I’d have got if I’d put my arse in gear and flogged it Friday morning, but it was more than enough to supplement what little money I had left and in fact Zeb and myself had taken to eating from the Salvation Army tent (50p for soup and bread!) to save more money for beer!

And so we were ready for Sunday. We’d all went to the pub again for one last time, and agreed we’d all hang out for the last day from Ash onwards.When Zeb and myself got back to the arena there was a very damp (it’d rained again) Moby confusing the hell out of a load of ravers as this was when he was in his guitar phase which was actually bloody good. We stopped to watch the Wedding Present for a bit after that and then went back to our camp to meet up with everyone else. As we got back everyone was enjoying themselves, so we took a series of pictures with everyone in front of what was by now a small mountain of empty beercans. I have no idea where these pictures are, or who have them but if by some chance someone reading this was part of this group and have them, then please let me know!

Anyhow, we were pumped for the final few bands of the weekend and we were all seriously excited for the Stone Roses. but before that it was watching Ash playing such a blinding set that brought a wee tear to my eye. At this point I think I fell in love with Ash. Next up was a band Zeb and myself were dying to see which was Sonic Youth, but they decided to be utterly pish so lets move on to the main event which was the Roses. By now we were all dizzy with a mixture of delirium, excitement, sadness and booze. The Roses were a defining band for a generation, and for people like me this was important, and they’d not played the year before at Glastonbury so this was the chance to finally see them live.

The skies were dark. The crowd was primed. The stage was set. The band took the stage. The guitar started to play. The singer came on stage. The stage was seriously set.

Then Ian Brown opened his mouth and the next sound everyone heard was 40,000 jaws hitting the floor in unison. Brown was simply awful. I looked at Zeb who looked around him to see people with their eyes open wide in amazement. Jasper, Ozzy and the Oxford girls were equally confused but as the first song ended we said ‘ah well, he’s just warming up, it can’t get any worse?’.

Yes it could.

This is the point where legend now says that grown men were in tears and you have to normally take legend with a pinch of salt, but in this case legend plays down just how awful it was listening to this in a field in Reading, while at the same time having all the great things about the Roses come crashing down in flames in front of your eyes.  Zeb had a girl turn round and burst into tears, Ozzy had to calm a lad down who was crying and getting angry, while myself and one of the Oxford girls tried to calm down a couple who were spitting rage at the stage.

By the time I Am The Resurrection started  there were three choices; suffer the rest in anger; laugh at it and and enjoy what you can as you watch a great band die in front of your eyes or go watch Underworld who were now starting to draw a large crowd at the tent they were playing in. People were running from where Underworld were playing pulling people to what was by all accounts a blinding set, but the horror of the Death of the Roses needed to be seen if only so I can sit here 17 years later and say ”I WAS THERE”.

The Roses ended mercifully. Our mood wasn’t dampened as the dip we’d had was only temporary as we’d decided to carry on having fun so as the crowds left the arena for the last time that weekend we all looked back at the great, not to mention utterly memorable, times spent there but the festival wasn’t over yet as we were going to have one last night of fun back at the camp. And have fun we did til the wee small hours until we had to give into our bodies and accept we all had to return to the sad, boring normality of reality and this crazy wonderland was coming to a close so to our tents and sleeping bags we all went with the promise that we’d say cheerio in the morning.

Next morning saw us all rise early to avoid the rush home, or at least, miss as much of it as possible. The girls were first off and eyeballs were getting wet, then Zeb and myself said our farewells to the Brummies which made the eyeballs even wetter before we both looked back at the mountain of beercans, and vowed to do Glastonbury the next year, which we did. Before all that planning ahead though, we had to get out of Reading and back to Leicester as 60,000 people were also leaving Reading and it was a bank holiday Monday. Easier said than done, especially for poor Zeb who was suffering from lack of sleep and was driving so I tried to stay awake to help keep him awake. Eventually though after about five hours we got back into Leicester to go our separate ways and have an early night, and meet up down the Pump and Tap the following week. We didn’t want to carry on drinking on the bank holiday all-dayer the Pump had on as we were both skint, knackered and drained.

Zeb dropped me off at my house and I remember walking into the front room where my housemate Roz, and her boyfriend Matt were sitting watching telly. I dumped my stuff off in my room and collapsed in a chair as Matt made me a cup of tea and a sandwich while I told them as much as I could about the weekend. Roz asked if I was going down the pub to which I replied I was skint and only had enough money for lunch at work until payday on Thursday. Matt then offered to loan me 20 quid til Thursday.

Fuck it, they’d seen I was on a high and I was buzzing not wanting the weekend to end so I took him up on the offer, and headed down the Pump only to walk right into Zeb who had a big grin on his face which said ‘I knew we were never not going to come down’. Well, for the rest of the night we carried on drinking and laughing, but I ended up getting a load of beers bought for me, so I barely broke the money Matt gave me.

The weekend had to end though. I had Tuesday off but had to go back to work. I didn’t want it to end. If I could, I’d ensure I could go back in time and live virtually every second of that weekend whenever I wanted.If only time wasn’t linear we could do such glorious things…

I remember walking home after the Pump closed that night in what was a bright clear sky looking at the stars wishing my life away. I was also very drunk/tired so this probably explained my poetic frame of mind but I climbed into bed wanting only to do the previous five days all over again, and again, and again, and again……

Next time, let’s tell the story of Reading 1997….

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4 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part two

  1. Pingback: The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part three | My Little Underground

  2. Pingback: The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part four | My Little Underground

  3. Pingback: The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part five | My Little Underground

  4. Pingback: Oh Yeah, It Was the Start of the Summer: A Short tale of the Reading Festival 1996 | My Little Underground

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