Reading Festival

Bye bye Baby, Baby bye bye
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The Independent Culture

Sales of wellington boots, a Reading local tells me with some sadness, are down this year. Apart from a couple of spells of drizzle on Friday, there's no call for rainwear. But I wonder how the tracksuits are going...

Storming the stage in regulation chavwear (or, in Dwain P Xain's case, scooting around in a disabled person's shopping buggy), Goldie Lookin' Chain utterly defy the conventional wisdom that the joke's over and the game's up. New material such as the single "Your Missus is a Nutter" (" I've never seen a woman make a skinhead cry...") and "Sister" , a standout track from GLC's second album Safe as Fuck, absolutely steamroller Reading, and are, if anything, better-received than the hits ("Your Mother's Got a Penis", "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do" ), with arm-waving fans and neutrals alike chanting the choruses by the second time they roll around.

The tension which originally electrified those early Pixies comeback gigs has now made way for the Charles'n'Kim show, in which the singer and bassist trade gags and japes, but the sheer visceral imperative of Pixies' music is still unmatched, and the power of Black Francis's vivid imagery - take " And the whores, like a choir, go UH! all night..." ("Hey") or "Run outside in the desert heat, get your dress all wet and send it to me..." ("Cactus"), for just two random examples - remains undimmed.

The British consumer is an admirably sceptical beast. Before Babyshambles' allotted stage time, the Radio 1/NME tent is half empty: nobody believes Pete Doherty will actually show up. Those of us with backstage access, however, already know that he's onsite (although this, admittedly, is still a few light years from guaranteeing that he'll actually perform). Later, word filters back from the Artists' Enclosure that he's barged into Razorlight's dressing room and nutted Johnny Borrell. (What Borrell's crime was, and whether it was deserved, remains unclear.) As soon as he actually lollops onstage, in a ripped white V-neck, looking like some 1970s thespian hellraiser, the tent is stampeded by girls shrieking "My baby!!!". A few songs later, once it becomes apparent that there's going to be no Doherty freak show tonight, and that Babyshambles aren't even the Worst Band In The World any more (as they were at Hyde Park a few weeks back), and merely a competent indie rock band (albeit an unrehearsed one, which tends to happen when your leader keeps sacking and re-hiring you at will), there's a steady drift away again. Mediocrity is no way to go out, Pete.

The real star of Sunday is, without question, Marilyn Manson. Wearing a military gaberdine coat, a black eye-stripe, silver teeth and black thigh socks, swinging a chandelier amid a fog of dry ice, gloomily intoning a song from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (and what a different film that would have been if the producers had given him the lead role), he's the only act who looks like a rock star, and whose entrance causes a genuine shiver of excitement. His only rival is his own guitarist Tim Skold, with his peroxide locks, smeared lippy and skeletal Victorian crinolene. During "mOBSCENE", a fan waves a crucified inflatable sex-doll topped by a halo: a very Marilyn Manson statement.

"Last year I was 21", lies Iggy Pop, leading The Stooges in the most extraordinary, talked-about performance of the whole weekend. As Ron Asheton's flamethrower guitar razes the fields through the songs that invented punk - "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "No Fun", " Loose" - The Ig, exhibiting an energy to match many bands one-third of his age, mounts an amplifier and humps it, stallion-like, leaps into the crowd and emerges with his chest cut up and bleeding (just like the old days). There's widespread fear that those low-slung jeans might slip lower and unleash the beast. "Reading!" he yells. "We're The Stooges and we're happy to be here." He pauses for a moment. " We're happy to be anywhere."

A wildfire word-of-mouth discovery in one of the smaller tents at last year's Reading Festival, Do Me Bad Things are promoted to the opening slot on the main stage - a slot traditionally reserved for a fun, crowdpleasing act (previous occupants have included The Darkness, Goldie Lookin' Chain, The 5678s and The Moldy Peaches). DMBT - after a false start and an apparent diva hissy-fit in which they walk off after half a song ("we blew the speakers", they tell me later) - are perfect, with their berserk, boogie-tastic soul-metal revue, the backing vocalists' high-heeled, hip-swinging dance routines, and singer Nicolai Prowse's multiple costume changes.

Who will make the leap to the big-time next year? Arctic Monkeys are the undisputed champion tent-fillers of the weekend - if you want a look, you have to crane your neck through the external guy ropes - but the jury's still out. From 100 yards away, they come over as just another lad's band playing chav indie; still songs such as "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" ("Your name isn't Rio and I don't care for sand... Dancing to electropop like a robot from 1984...') suggest there's more to these Northern chimps than meets the eye.

"Why don't we have a drummer?" says one of Test Icicles in response to a heckle. "Because it's hip hop!" Hmm. TI come over like a trio of Nathan Barleys, with their bright yellow T-shirts, bright pink guitars, and posh-accented promises to "fuck shit up!", and instructions to "get crunk!" and "back da fuck up!", but their chaotic rock-techno with ranting/screamo tendencies is, for a band who seem to be messing about at being in a band, not bad at all.

The Paddingtons are proof that the post-Libertines barrel is not one of infinite depth, and that the latest scrapings are more sawdust and splinters than substance. With their Dennis The Menace sweaters, Rottened-up hair and pork pie hats, and their reheated riffs from the shabby second wave of Seventies punk (UK Subs, Sham 69), they look and sound like a mere composite of the bands on the Dublin Castle jukebox.

Eccentric Norwegians Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band draw a more curious audience than most daytime knob-twiddlers in the Dance Tent. Fronted by two Keith Moons upfront playing live breakbeat drums with freeform electro-jazz overtones, they juggle sticks and urge us to "scream like girls".

By the time rising UK grime star Kano takes the stage, I can't get close enough for a proper listen, such is the swelling throng. But there's no doubt that he is fast. Super-fast.

Juliette and The Licks could, as a celeb-led band slumming it with the dirty rockers, face a similar reception. But Juliette Lewis fearlessly stares it down. Strutting to the mic in Viking horns, wearing a bikini, with her legs apparently sprayed silver, she gives Peaches a run for her money as a pugnacious female frontperson. The Licks themselves make a decent scuzz-rock racket and, during a cover of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy", the Hollywood hair-twirler crowd-surfs to the end of the tent and back again, to the consternation of her bodyguards.