Reading: A festival for street fighters

Reading is here again. Chris Mugan looks at its troubled past when gangs battled and bands cowered under flying missiles
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The Independent Culture

You may never queue to watch a documentary of its history, as with countercultural touchstone Glastonbury, but Reading Festival remains one of the most important music events in the UK.

From seedy days as a meet for leather-clad rockers, the annual Thames-side gathering has evolved to become a mammoth showcase of contemporary tastes. Its Somerset rival may have the ley lines, Big Chill the crèche, but Reading has sheer numbers of quality acts. And it is still on the rise, with this year an increased, sold-out capacity of 80,000.

It was not always so. This venerable institution actually began in 1961 as the National Jazz Festival, only taking the name of its current Berkshire home when it arrived there 10 years later. Having enjoyed the likes of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and The Who at previous events, 1971 was far from a high point. Its headliners included prog outfit East of Eden and jazz rockers Colosseum, shortly before they split. Good job you sat on chairs in those days.

A £2 ticket got you Rory Gallagher, Lindisfarne, Wishbone Ash and Medicine Head. Especially notable was a comeback appearance by Arthur Brown, after his original group had split following his one-hit wonder "Fire".

"I can't remember much, not any specific events," he admits. "Reading was post-Isle of Wight and very well organised, with stage bouncers and a compere. That was the difference between it and early Glastonbury, which was more slapdash."

Brown's self-proclaimed "rock theatre" troupe Kingdom Come provided one of music's less triumphant returns, though the band hung their singer from a crucifix, years before Madonna used the pose. Showmanship has long been a major facet of Reading, from Lemonheads' Evan Dando crossdressing to a naked Nick Oliveri from Queens Of The Stone Age.

For much of the Seventies and Eighties, though, Reading was a bad joke, in poor taste with a dirty edge. It was dominated by scruffy men with greasy hair, and the audience was not much better. Then named Reading Rock, the weekender was dominated by heavy metal acts and an attempt to introduce punk with The Jam and Sham 69 in 1978 was dropped after fights between greasers and the spikey-haired newcomers.

Throwing missiles at performers became an institution during these dark days, so much so that festival-goers were asked to clear rubbish by chucking bottles on stage where security staff would collect them. Meatloaf should probably have the last word: "Do you wanna hear some music or do you wanna be stupid and throw things?" The response was emphatic.

This state of affairs changed in 1989 when Mean Fiddler was brought in to organise proceedings. Promoter Vince Power had the contacts to bring the institution up to date. His first line-up was a snapshot of a burgeoning indie scene: New Order were at the height of their powers, while The Pogues were one of the most irrepressible live acts around and The Sugarcubes provided edgy thrills.

Nirvana in 1991 was one of those "I was there" moments, while seven years later Reading was the location of New Order's comeback. After the Britpop slump, Reading now enjoys a balance between guitar pop and more heavy outfits such as Metallica.

Yet while Reading has been spruced up, its less than salubrious traditions have crept back. In 2000, US pop duo Daphne & Celeste arrived after the success of cheeky hits "Ooh Stick You" and "U.G.L.Y.", a title that sums up the reaction of the crowd that reportedly included their own urine in the hail of missiles. By now, glass had been banned from the arena, which only led to a more imaginative reception for 50 Cent. Furniture and fireworks formed part of the welcome.

Such incidents suggest that the Reading crowd are close-minded, a theory that is not entirely fair. After all, eyelinered pop rockers Good Charlotte suffered a similar fate and Finnish cuties The Rasmus got showered in mud, so it is more a case of snobbery against teenie groups. The audience enjoy raucous entertainment, so the likes of Cypress Hill and Eminem have both successfully headlined. This year, Dizzee Rascal is more than capable of doing the business.

Otherwise, it is a bill that provides a snapshot of today's scene. Friday's line-up has Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs, while the next day sees a much deserved headline slot for Muse. Just before them come Arctic Monkeys. That leaves Sunday as rock day. It is headlined by Pearl Jam, with support from Slayer.

And could we be talking about an unheralded band from this year that headlines future festivals? Reading fans are above all music fanatics, so will be happy to check lesser stages for the next Nirvana. Gigging workhorses The Fratellis could ram the Carling stage, Little Man Tate may earn the "next Arctic Monkeys" title while Mastodon could live up to their billing as the future of heavy metal.

Whatever happens, you can be sure that while rivals soothe the soul with Fairtrade lattes, Thai massages and New Age lectures, a corner of England stays true to more robust values. This year's performers beware.

The Carling Weekend: Reading Festival runs from today to Sunday ( www.readingfestival.com); interviews by Sarah Birke

'A SHOT OF ADRENALIN WAS THE ONLY WAY THE SHOW COULD GO ON'

ARCTIC MONKEYS: MATT HELDERS

When we played last year there was a bit of a buzz around us but we had no idea what would happen. Until then we'd only played to audiences of 300-800. Six thousand people came to the Carling tent. People said it was like when the Foo Fighters first played. It's not a foolproof plan that on filling the Carling tent you become famous, but it has happened quite a bit.

JULIETTE AND THE LICKS: JULIETTE LEWIS

Reading in 2005 was easily the best moment. It felt like we'd arrived but still had so much to prove. Our performance wasn't amazing but I think we totally won the audience over. There was a really feisty crowd: they booed 50 Cent off stage, which shows there is justice in the world, and they definitely appreciated the Viking helmet I wore.

EMBRACE: DANNY MCNAMARA

When we headlined the second stage I'd just seen Badly Drawn Boy for the first time. His set had been really moving. When we walked off I got a warning that we were almost over our time and would be fined £1,000 a minute. Damon was at the side of the stage. I asked him if he wanted to come on. He found a guitar and joined in on the chorus to "One Big Family".

THE ORDINARY BOYS: PRESTON

At Reading last year I got flu. As everyone, caked in mud, migrated to Keane, I sat in the St John Ambulance HQ. A shot of adrenalin from the doctor was the only way the show could go on. The flu cocooned me in a haze of lethargy as I dragged my limp limbs up the scaffold. But as I read the banners being held up in the front row, the rush hit me. God, I love festivals.

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