The Rise and Fall of the Reading Festival part one

I’ve spoken about festival culture in the UK from the late 80’s, and had a huge focus on detailing my history of Glastonbury in previous blogs, but I’ve not really touched on Reading Festival, so here’s my little potted history of my experiences at Reading, not a history of the festival itself though there’s a little bit of that in my story.

Reading was always a festival I had no interest in when I first stumbled across the idea of festivals back in the 80’s. This is mainly because it looked bloody awful with dinosaurs like Budgie, Gillan and Whitesnake making up the headline acts, but the nadir of the festival came in 1988 which featured Meatloaf being bottled off stage and the festival itself becoming a bit of a laughing stock.

The following year saw the festival give itself a royal kick up the arse when Mean Fiddler took over and suddenly made the festival attractive to a new generation who weren’t just into metal and wanted something more, so within a few years Reading gained a reputation for having bright young talent from the Indie scene across Europe, while still getting the big American bands.

Part of the attraction of Reading was the way you could buy a day ticket, so if you wanted to go for just a day to enjoy a band you wanted to see you could which was a huge advantage over Glastonbury, but as I’ve pointed out before Glastonbury wasn’t just about the bands. Reading however was, and if you didn’t want to sit though bands you hated then the day ticket was a nice way to dip your toe in.

I didn’t get myself down to Reading until 92 for the day to see Nirvana,  which was the last time I’d go until 1995, but even on that one day I instantly loved the thing for the sleazy, drunken end of summer party that it was. See, the wonderful thing about Glastonbury is that it’s a celebration of everything good, positive and wonderful about summer, our culture and society generally. Reading used be a farewell to that as well as wallowing in the Bacchanalian joy of everything good and bad about summer, and also, as it was held in a pretty dreary city which suffers from not quite being London, but not quite being somewhere where it can develop it’s own character and culture. In other words it’s a perfect place for everyone to impose what they want upon the festival.

I don’t remember much of 1992. We turned up early on Sunday and had started drinking the day before, plus when we got in we carried on drinking hard so by the time Nirvana came on we were hammered. I can at least say I may have been there in body, and possibly, spirit.

I did a few other days over the next few years, but ultimately the day trip is fun but it’s not the full experience as it’s really foreplay for the main event, so after 1995 and an incredibly fun day which saw me with very short, dyed red hair for reasons which to this day I’m unsure about, but I did decide to dye my hair red which made me look like this.

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This was taken at the legendary lost Leicester pub, The Pump and Tap on a Sunday shortly before Reading in 1995, and the other chap with the long red hair is Steve, who now has no hair at all, but there you go….

1995 was fun and everything as we were getting in free as we’d got free tickets from the brewery as I worked for the same local group which also owned the Pump, so we belted down early on the Sunday, got hammered and I do remember Neil Young being quite bloody awful.

After 95 I wanted to do a full Reading Festival and lap up all the sleazy joys it offered, and with Glastonbury taking a year off in 1996, there was a gap so in early 1996 myself and a mate, Zeb, (who’ve I’ve mentioned before) came up with the plan to go down.

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That however deserves a blog of it’s own, so in the next part of this I’ll go into the details of what still is one of the best three festivals I’ve attended in over 20 years of going to festivals…..

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Let’s party like it’s 1999-Glastonbury 1999

I’ve covered my own little history of Glastonbury from the highs and lows of 1992 and 1993, the sun and dust of 1994 and 1995, the mud of 1997 and the crapness of 1998 which takes us up to 1999, obviously…

We reach a period in my often quite turbulent and messy life where I’m actually quite secure  and settled. I was living with my then partner Tash, and my job was day manager and wine and spirit buyer for a chain of licensed venues across Leicester, including the mighty Pump and Tap. In fact I’d been in this position since doing my back in, and been in a cosy relationship for over a year. I wasn’t doing anything naughty, plus I was genuinely quite chirpy and settled.

So by the time of planning the 1999 Glastonbury I had to deal with introducing Tash into my life. She’d already seen the comics side of things by going to the first Comics Festival in Bristol earlier in 1999 and was now ready to go diving into the first festival…

Firstly though I needed to sort out a lift. The group I’d arranged to camp with were the extended friends of Denise, the girl I went to Glastonbury in 1995 with, so I knew them well but Tash only knew Denise, and not the others and some of the others were a bit, well, messy…

Firstly though, a lift!

A week or so before the festival I spoke to Chris who’d come with me in 1998 and endured the hell of that year, and neither of us wanted that again, especially Chris who became quite ill after 1998’s festival. Chris at this point managed the tapas bar which was part of the same group I worked for so I spent a week wearing him down until he finally said ‘ok, I’ll drive us down’ only after sitting in down and studying the weather forecast for an afternoon.

We couldn’t go down on the Wednesday due to various people’s work commitments, so I agreed to meet Denise somewhere at the top of Big Ground, the big camping field in front of the main stage and this was in the twilight era before everyone had a mobile so meeting them was purely a matter of luck, but they were keeping some space for us which meant being really lucky.

The other thing was that Chris didn’t have a ticket, and neither did his mate who was also coming but as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, it was dead easy to get in however myself and Tash had tickets so the plan was formed. Chris would pick both of us up on Thursday morning and we’d get there late afternoon, find Denise’s camp, get set up, unload the car and get settled before dark. Job done!!

Thursday morning came along but Chris didn’t. Early afternoon came along but Chris didn’t. Now Tash and myself were packed and ready to go. The cat was safely looked after and we were ready to go. I’d tried calling Chris at home, and at work but he wasn’t answering at home and work said they thought he was with me?!

At around 2pm Chris pulled up outside the front door of our little house. The car had broken down as soon as it started so he’d spent the last two hours in a garage getting it fixed and his mate had let him down with a tent, but I had my old tent which I loaned him so he and his mate could get some cover instead of sleeping in the rain and mud like he did the previous year.

We eventually headed off and sped quickly out of Leicester with me navigating. At this point Chris broke it to us that we had to cut through Bristol to pick up his sister’s boyfriend who was a student at Bristol Uni, and did I know a quick way to Bristol? I said yes, and this ended up with us taking the most roundabout route ever as instead of just cutting down the M5 and being direct, I decided to me a smartarse and took us through Oxfordshire which was very nice in the sun but it was an arse over elbow route down to Bristol and everyone in that car made that clear.

Ah well…

Eventually we hit the M4 at late afternoon just as all of London and the South East were pouring down to the festival. Joy. There’s nothing worse than being stuck on a motorway going to somewhere but going nowhere. That was the M4 on this afternoon.

Eventually though we got to Bristol around late afternoon, but we’d arranged to meet Chris’s sister’s boyfriend at Temple Meads station and we were slap in rush hour. Joy. We’d not bought any provisions or beer yet either so we were skating on thin ice timewise so we really didn’t need to sit around Temple Meads waiting for this lad to turn up. So we spent about an hour sitting in the carpark outside the station, but Tash did bump into one of the lads from SFX magazine who she knew through her brother who offered us both some work which we were daft enough not to take up. Tsk.

Eventually this lad turned up around 6pm, and we quickly discovered why Chris had been cagey about him. He was a cock. A total and utter cock. The fact he was at Bristol Uni should have been the hint but no, we were not prepared for his cockness.  We loaded everyone back into the car, and before Chris got in I asked Chris if he was camping with us, to which Chris said he wasn’t sure.

Fuck.

One the way out of Bristol we finally stocked up on beer and food, and it was here that we tried for the first time to ditch the lad in Knowle, but sadly we didn’t as he managed to jump in the car and bray loudly about how much fun we all were for having a laugh , etc.

Fuck.

Seeing as it was now early evening as soon as we got out of Bristol and hit Shepton Mallet we also hit the queue to get into the festival. It was here we again tried to get rid of him as he staggered out of the car to try to chat some girls up in the car in front of us, which was a classy thing to do when your girlfriend’s brother is giving you a lift.This prompted another attempt to dump him. We failed.

Eventually the queue started moving quickly and as this lad was out the car again trying to chat up these girls, Tash and Chris’s other mate in the back seat pulled out his rucksack, dumped it at the side of the road, jumped back in shouting ‘GO!!’ as we saw clear blue sea between us and this lad. The last we saw of him was him running futilely dragging his rucksack behind him trying to catch up with the car while we managed to pull away into the village of Pilton and a good, safe distance from him.

Thing was all this fun and games had made us forget the fact it was now nearly 8pm, we hadn’t got in to meet up with Denise nor had Chris and his mate worked out a way to get in, though Chris had brought his Showsec jacket from the previous year to try to blag in.

Then before we knew it we were onsite!

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Now it’s worth noting that in the pre-spoilers era that you didn’t know that the festival grew or that something had changed until you turned up to see it for yourself, and this year the festival had grown massively, plus the fact we were turning up very late on Thursday night meant we were far, far away from the main entrances which meant a very, very long trek from the car to where Denise’s campsite would possibly be in Big Ground, not to mention we had two people without tickets to get in all before dark which at this point was starting to creep in.

We parked and decided to take what we needed and travel as light as possible, which meant tents, rucksacks, sleeping bags and only a slab of beer out of the four we bought back in Bristol. First of all though was getting Chris and his mate in. This happened to be quite easy after Chris tried the Showsec stunt for the second year running and failed yet again, but as I told him that Al Green was due to play he was fired up for it as I knew he was a massive fan so the cry of ‘AL FUCKING GREEN!!!’ was heard all weekend….

Thankfully some cheery Scally’s were around who’d nicked one of the stamps (back in those days there were no wristbands, just stamps to say you’d paid) the doorstaff were using to stamp people on the way out. For a tenner each the pair were promptly stamped, and we all got in with only the small problem of finding Denise in the increasing darkness to worry about.

It’s hard to stress that trying to find your way around the festival site in the dark with two people who’ve never been loaded down with stuff with tens of thousands of people milling around is not a fun experience so let’s say I held back the fact we’d have to walk up a very steep hill to get where we needed to go til the last possible minute. I was cursed more than once, however Tash wanted to camp with someone else who was female that she knew, and there was still the slight possibility that Denise had somehow managed to keep us space for our tents.

As we eventually got to Big Ground I then went on the only clue as to where Denise was camping which was it was near the Kids Field. Also I used my big mouth to shout her name very loudly which after about ten minutes actually worked when I heard her shouting back! We’d managed to somehow stumble across them in the dark, but there was a hedge between us which we managed to crawl through to find Denise and her crowd safely camped up (as they had been for nearly a day) with space to cram two tents in! to this day I have no idea how I pulled that off, but we were on the verge of just camping where we were standing which was about two metres from their campsite.

The priority now was to get the tents up, but we still had stuff sitting in the car so Tash, Chris’s mate, Denise and some of the others helped put the tents up while Chris and myself went back to unload the car. In the dark. When people were still pouring in. However the next day was forecast to be a scorcher and none of us fancied lugging stuff in the boiling sun so off we went in the dark chatting and quite desperate for a beer as we’d forgotten to bring any with us out of the small amount we’d carried in that first trip.

We got to the car after a good hour’s walk back. Grabbed what we could carry, leaving only a small trip to pick up some wine in the morning, we headed back but once we were through the gates we ended up being split up and I ended up completely losing my bearings and being lost for what felt like hours as I lugged slabs of beer up and down hills before eventually finding where I needed to go and turning up at the campsite to find that Chris had been back for nearly an hour and everyone else happily chilled out round the campfire and our tents had been put up.

I collapsed, grabbed a beer and fell asleep only to be woken by Tash to tell me to go to bed. To this day I’ve never had as good sleep at a festival as I did that night. Normally I wake up at festivals at dawn regardless of the state I’m in but I was asleep til nearly 9am! I crawled out the tent  to find that everyone had been up for hours and I hadn’t even noticed Tash getting up and out of our tent.

The plan for the Friday morning was to get some breakfast, have one last trip to the car and then chill watching bands. REM were playing that night and most of us wanted to see them play, but first things first. To the car!

Problem was the weather forecast had been right and it was boiling hot. We dragged ourselves the miles to the car, picked up the stuff and emptied the car and very slowly headed back stopping only for a spot of lunch at one of the beer tents where we took part of some very nice beer as Chris and I were beer snobs, but Tash just wanted cider seeing as it was hot and we were at a festival….

Eventually we got back just as everyone was off to see Blondie. In all the excitement we forgot about bands, but we couldn’t be arsed going down however where we were camping was perfect for the main stage as we could hear perfectly, plus see the stage fine if we squinted through the hedge and saw the giant TV screens at the side of the stage.

After Blondie, Tash wanted to see the sight so I did a big tour of the site as I’d done with people in 97 and Chris and his mate tagged along in what became a bloody fun afternoon as I took them all up to the Stone Circle to see the site from the top of the valley.

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It’s an impressive site when you see it for the first time but the things you don’t get in a picture is the noise. It’s unlike any other festival and incredibly hard to describe. There’s also the smell which depends on the weather. If it’s wet, it smells very farmy and damp and quite dank. When it’s sunny it smells of sugar and sweet things. The sweetness is actually things rotting, and the sugar is the alcohol.

Getting back to the main area we watched Hole, who were actually not too bad compared to the previous time I’d seen them at Reading the year after Kurt Cobain’s death where it was like watching a nervous breakdown happen live in front of thousands of people. However this was ended by a rain shower, so we headed back to the campsite as Chris really had enough of being rained on after his experiences the previous year.

Thankfully this was just a passing shower, and the sun back back quickly and hard as the rest of the day was building up to REM who were quite wonderful.

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At the end of the night, we wandered round a bit but headed back after an hour or so to the campfire and the camp antics. Chris and his mate had found some weed and had spent the night being stoned which was a state they stayed in for the next few days..

Saturday again brought the sun. By now Tash was happy and settled into the festival, and everything was quite jolly. She wanted to see the Manic Street Preachers being a huge fan of them, and I really wanted to see Ash and Joe Strummer, but first it was a wander around to show Tash the comedy stage and all the little bits and bobs which make Glastonbury so unique.

The Saturday is a bit of a blur. I remember some serious rain which lasted an hour. I remember being back at the site trying to defuse an argument as some tosser had stumbled onto our campsite and was being a cock with one of the group. I remember loving Ash. We watched the Manics. We had a load of banter at the campfire, and I don’t remember details, just flashes of light and colour.

See, that’s the thing with these blogs. You might have noticed that the descriptions of getting to the festival are more detailed than the descriptions of the festival itself. There’s several reasons for that; alcohol is one, but a festival tends to blur. Only a sound or a smell brings back a memory. I’ll often go to Glastonbury and remember something from a previous year that I’d forgotten about until that point.

Anyhow, we quickly move to Sunday and another lovely day. We’d all appreciated the weather, especially Chris and myself after the previous year’s horror, but here’s the other thing about the last day at a festival; you’re settled and don’t want to leave. The day was a lovely perfect one as we started out with Chris and myself going to one of the bars at the bottom of Big Ground for a long matey chat while everyone else chilled at the campsite.

Then the afternoon was all about Al Green and that was a sheer joy but everything was building up to the Fun Loving Criminals who we were all big fans of at the time but it was a dizzy blur for all that day til the time when FLC came on stage to what is still one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen at the main stage.

After them it was Skunk Anansie who none of us especially wanted to see, so the idea was to grab some food, get changed and have a wander round the last night’s antics. Problem was we all decided to grab a hot dog from the same stall and that came back to hurt us all about 30 minutes later as it came right back up as we all threw up in the hedge that was our shelter and home that weekend.

I was especially wiped out for some reason and all I wanted was to climb into my sleeping bag, but Tash was in a better state so she sat outside with the others as I lay there sweating out the food poisoning listening to Skunk Anansie being crap and realising this was the last band to play the main stage this century as next year it was the 30th anniversary and a new millennium. Back in the heady days of 1999, millennium fever was rife and everyone was caught up in it. Even me. It also proved to be a benchmark for Glastonbury itself, but this was one last hurrah for the festival in the century it was born in.

As we got up the next day again after sleeping most of the night, and packed up we all knew something had past in some way. The increasingly corporate side of things were becoming easier to see at the festival which you never used to see, even the year before. It was difficult not to avoid the TV cameras, or the feeling it was becoming something else, even more establishment in places as you now started to see yuppies and tourists in designer wellies pose around the stages waiting to be seen. BBC presenters were everywhere. Something had shifted that weekend but we didn’t really know what, and it wasn’t until well into the new millennium that we’d see the results. Right now, it was packing up to go home.

So we did that. Made our farewells to Denise’s crowd and hiked back to the car for the long, quiet journey back to Leicester where Chris dropped myself and Tash back home to a happy cat and a comfy bed to end that year’s Glastonbury adventure….

The next year was the year 2000. It felt like something that would never come when you were growing up as it felt so far away but it was six months away and the next Glastonbury was a year away. Would we survive?

Of course we did, but in the next year my life changed drastically. More of this another time…..