The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part three

Part one. Part two.

This is the story of my experiences at the Reading Festival and last time I explained how the festival in 1996 was, and still is, one of the best festivals I’ve ever went to. This time I’m going to outline the years of 1997 and 1998.

After 1996, myself and my mate Zeb decided whatever happened we’d do 1997, and after doing that year’s Glastonbury together we were looking forward to that year’s Reading even if the line-up was, well, a bit thin to say the least.


Britpop was on it’s sad last leg’s but it was to have it’s Altamont moment to put it out of it’s misery with the release of the third album by Oasis, Be Here Now.

This was due to come out on the day before Reading Festival (you can see the date on the cover), so it’d be something that would be the talk of Reading. None of this especially mattered to Zeb or myself as we were planning to get down early, get pitched in the field right opposite the arena and hopefully get neighbours as good as the previous year.

At this point I was in a bit of a mess as I was between homes, but I wasn’t going to be miserable so off to Reading we went early on the Thursday morning. If I remember right we left around 8am which got us down to the site at Reading around 10am and into the field by the arena shortly afterwards to find that field pretty much empty, so we picked a spot, set up, got our wristbands and headed into to town to recapture the fun of the previous year. Sadly the nice pub we found in 1996 was now closed ~(though the other one which sold breakfasts was still open) so we headed into town to Sainsbury’s to stock up on beer and snacks.

On returning to the campsite we saw the field was now rammed and that a group of students were surrounding us. We got chatting to them and found out they’d bought a copy of Be Here Now on tape, but couldn’t play it. Luckily Zeb had brought his Walkman with some external speakers, so we all huddled round the speakers in a humid field in Reading one Thursday afternoon in August in 1997 to hear the most eagerly anticipated album of the Britpop generation.

It was rubbish.

The sense of crushing (and I mean crushing) disappointment was high. Even now when I hear a track from it I can’t stop laughing at the pompous arseholeness of the album. It is a testament why pop stars shouldn’t be allowed to take too much coke and believe their hype.  It also somewhat set a tone for the weekend.

The students pretty much kept themselves to themselves for the rest of the first night, not to mention the weekend, and we’d noticed that the festival was full of youngsters. Not the 18-20 year old’s who you’d  normally see at a festival like Reading, but kids from 14-17. We were in a field of them, so we didn’t find anyone cool to chat to or get horribly drunk with so we just wandered round the site for bit on the Thursday, drank a lot and spoke to a few other mates who were there. Next morning we’d promised to go to the pub for breakfast and not miss half the first day because we were drunk.

Friday saw us get up early on a dry, but very humid day to walk to the pub for a bit of breakfast and there we had a chat with a few other older festival goers who also noted just how young the crowd were this year. Still, we had a jolly time in the pub and early in the afternoon headed back to the site to catch Earl Brutus who were a band I quite liked.In fact most of Friday was spent watching the type of band I quite liked at the time with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Stereolab being warm ups for me for Suede who were probably at the peak of their success at the time and did indeed turn out a great show. but the day felt a bit lacking in something, plus the festival really was full of very, very young kids who’d clearly never been out by themselves  let alone being set loose alone at a festival as tasty as Reading could get.  As we headed back to out camp after Suede we noticed how things felt a lost tastier than previous years and the general standard of rowdiness wasn’t as good natured as previous years. When the acrid smell of burning plastic hit our noses we perked up and kept our eyes open for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday saw us again up early. We sat around drinking and playing cards for a bit before heading for breakfast at the pub which saw us both getting very, very, very drunk and heading back to leer at Saffron from Republica who are a band I slowly grew to like, but were the perfect mid-afternoon festival band of the 90’s in that you didn’t need to pay attention when you were hammered. In fact the Saturday was mainly like that with the exception of The Orb who played a great set, and although I didn’t mind the post-Richey Edwards Manic Street Preachers they were a shadow of a band without him, which still put them ahead of most of their contemporaries, but that night’s gig was average at best,

In fact the whole weekend was average at best so far which is something Zeb, myself and some friends who were sitting around a mate called Dig’s camper van on that horribly humid Saturday night were saying. It was alright, but nothing great.The entire weekend was a sticky mess which was alright.


Sunday saw me woken up by Zeb saying someone had nicked his speakers and he was fed up. We toyed with leaving early but he wanted to see The Verve and I fancied Metallica so we stuck the last day in order to see an amazing average Metallica set with 49 minute bass solos and a tedious line in macho nonsense.This was after noticing again that the site was full of 15 year old’s running around like something from William Golding’s worst nightmares. We did however notice this was mainly focused round where we were camped, and the fields just around it, so we thought things would be ok that last night but as the first rumour of toilets going up in flames hit, followed by us actually seeing one go up in flames we really weren’t having much fun.

Monday saw Zeb wake me shortly after dawn. It was starting to piss down with rain and the humidity broke hard. I packed up quickly, legged it with Zeb in what felt like an escape and headed back to Leicester thinking I was pretty much done with Reading and anyhow, I had more important things to sort out like my life, plus 1998 seemed a lifetime away.



1998 however did roll round and things were on the up. I’d got myself what would be a long term girlfriend (Tash) and by the time Reading rolled round we were living together in Leicester, and the line-up for 1998 looked bloody wonderful as it’d been supplemented by the collapse of the 1998 Phoenix Festival.



The Saturday especially was just a brilliant line-up. Friday was good because of Ash, and Sunday was the tale of the tailend of those Britpop chancers (and the Divine Comedy who were a touch apart) but on the whole I had to go.

I don’t remember if Zeb wanted to go down or not, but Tash wanted to go so we went down together for what was her first festival of this scale, and although I was wary of the toilet burning antics of the previous year I knew we’d not get a camping spot anywhere near the arena as we were going to get the bus from Leicester to the festival which was a first for me, though I was wary of it.

As it turned out I didn’t need to worry. The bus left Leicester on a warm sunny day the Thursday before the festival and arrived eventually late in the afternoon onsite. Tash had overcome her wariness about going to a festival with 60,000 other people and was now very excited, which was tempered somewhat when I told her we had to lug our stuff along from the drop off point to find a decent place to camp. We got through the gates and walked for a while as all the campsites near the arena were rammed, so we went further out and eventually found a good spot near an older group of grungy types rather than the hyperactive kids who seemed to be ricocheting across the site by the arena.

After we set up, we went to get our wristbands before going to a walk into town to get beers and snacks. As we did we bumped into a mate Doug, who I’d first met six years earlier while working at a comic convention back home in Glasgow. He was there with his relatively new girlfriend, Andrea who he’d met in Yorkshire and they were camped together fairly near us so we hung out for a bit and Tash and Andrea amazingly hit it off like old friends from the off, which was nice for Doug and myself who could talk comics, and comic related nonsense while getting quite drunk on the first night.

On the Friday we’d arranged to meet up and I’d take them all to the pub where Zeb and myself had used for breakfasts, drinking, darts and chatting up the ladies, though I was obviously skimming over the latter this year. Here we all continued to bond and have a jolly time til we went back to the arena for a day of music, and of course the mighty Ash! to help us on our way Doug had bought some speed so against the better advice of Tash and Andrea we proceeded to neck some which quickly made us both slowly fall asleep. In fact all I remember of the Friday night is the Afghan Whigs coming on and passing out before waking up nearly 12 hours later with a very narked girlfriend in the tent next to me. After some desperate apologies We went to meet to Doug and Andrea in the pub to see a very sheepish Doug who had also passed out the previous night. I came up with the bright line ‘I don’t think that was speed’ to which Tash and Andrea ripped the piss right out of me for saying the bloody obvious.

Moving on from Doug and my own stupidity we looked forward to the Saturday line up which was spectacular. Tash and myself had agreed we’d take a break during Supergrass to get changed for the night and some food, but otherwise we were camped in front of the beer tent on the right hand side of the stage (my favourite spot) for the day from Bis onwards.

This was more like it. The music was good, Asian Dub Foundation showed just what a spectacular band they are, while Doug, Andrea, and Tash were confused by Lee Scratch Perry but I bloody loved what he was doing which was making all the 15 year old kids waiting for Foo Fighters eyes and ears bleed.

After seeing Foo Fighters for the sixth time in three years, we went back to the tent to get some food and change quickly before the double bill of The Prodigy and then the Beastie Boys. There was a bit of needle between the bands after the Beastie Boys had criticised the song Smack My Bitch Up by the Prodigy and had asked them not to play it in their set before the Beastie Boys came on. That resulted in Maxim from the Prodigy to make it perfectly clear what he thought, and the Prodigy played a blinding set before the Beastie Boys also played an amazing set. Ultimately the fans won!

Sunday was a pretty poor line up as it was the Britpop chancers day, so we all got very drunk, enjoyed a lovely set from the Divine Comedy, while ignoring the dross like Gene and Shed Seven before seeing what was the last time I saw a great set from New Order. Unfortunately for Garbage they had to follow that, and sadly although they were good, they were a bit overwhelmed by what had come before not to mention the occasion itself.

As the night ended we said our farewells to Doug and Andrea with a vague promise to meet up whenever the next comic convention was held, and off we went for our last night under canvas. Now there was a bit of trouble from all accounts but we never saw anything where we were camped, though when we were leaving to get our bus back to Leicester we saw burned out toilets and a lot of wrecked tents.As said, Reading was tasty but this was a different sort of rowdiness which felt much, much darker than just people getting drunk and being loud, but we were yet to see the festival change from one where people who loved music turned up to see bands, to one where people turn up because it’s something they do before going to university. That wouldn’t be clear to me until 2001.

Before that however there’s 1999. That’s for next time.