It is Reading Festival this weekend, the largest festival to take place in the UK for nearly two years since Covid kicked in. It is of course a shadow of its former self where barring the likes of Stormzy, there’s a barren roll of talent (Liam Gallagher??) on the main stages, though to be fair there’s some decent stuff if you search through the smaller stages.
Back in the day, Reading used to be the big end of summer blow out to the festival season which kicks off properly with Glastonbury, and now lasts from April through to the dog-end of September. See, climate change does have some advantages…
1999 was a pinnacle of sorts. Looking back at it now the lineup seems even better than it did at the time plus at the time I never paid to get in having gotten freebies for everyone, I mean, just look at this lineup!
The only sort of naff day was the Friday, where The Charlatans produced a glacially tedious set which was improved only by people coming running to get mates to see the insane filthy antics Nashville Pussy were doing in one of the smaller tents. That isn’t the story I’m telling though, the one I’m on about is one of the most talked about festival sets in UK history that was watched by far, far fewer people who’ve actually been in a field watching it at the time. I’m talking about Kevin Rowland’s Saturday afternoon slot.
Rowland had just brought out an album of cover versions, My Beauty, for Alan McGee’s Creation label, and it was generally being savaged by the music media though time has been kind to it.I can’t remember why, but Rowland was offered a 15 minute slot after Pavement but before The Divine Comedy so it seemed a nice fit for Rowland to play before a band with obvious Dexy’s influences, and also Rowland hadn’t played live in at least a decade so interest was high. I’d spent most of the morning and early afternoon in the arena since the ear-bursting glory of Atari Teenage Riot, but decided to nip back to the tents to changes clothes (it was by now a glorious summer day, as was all the weekend) grab some food and the rest of the crew for the late afternoon onwards.
We were camped in the field the furthest from the arena which was a trek and a half as you’re talking about the field on the far right of this picture. In years prior I’d camped relatively close to the arena so this year I was pretty remote which ended up being fine as this year was the first year of kids starting fires and generally being cunts on the Sunday night which ended up becoming a big thing in the decade afterwards.
So we marched through the fields on a boiling hot day, and got into the arena as Pavement were closing their set. The others weren’t bothered with Rowland, but I wanted to see it out of interest but I have to admit to seeing if there was going to be a disaster playing out on stage in front of 80,000 people. Anyhow, I grabbed myself a cold beer just as Rowland came on stage to perform You’ll Never Walk Alone (I think) first. I wondered why there were some boos and laughter, then I turned round and saw what was going on up on the stage.
Rowland was in a dress with two ‘exotic’ dancers turning out heartfelt cover versions of songs many in the audeince neither knew or cared about, especially on day two of a festival where people by now were in full festival mode and drunk. To say it was a garish sight was an understatement but I’d seen more garish on a UK festival stage in the previous decades, but this set would have went down a blinder had it say, been on a stage in the Green Fields of Glastonbury a few months earlier. However it wasn’t the repulsive sight the tabloids claimed it was, nor did it go down as badly as the music press said it did but it was a bizarre set at a festival not known for it’s tolerance of anything which wasn’t guitar based music. A crossdressing 80’s icon turning out covers pushed that to the limit, though not to the scale of Daphne and Celeste the following year.
Sadly the aftermath broke Rowland who took years to come back from that 15 minute set and much of that can be laid at the feet of those journalists drooling to lay into a celebrity but he wasn’t even the worst act on the main bill that weekend. That was the Red Hot Chili Peppers who are shite, and probably somewhere in another reality turning out 15 minute bass solos but that’s another story for another time…