Pop: Reading and writhing

The last big rock festival of a soggy summer was no damp squib - just a little moist round the edges, say Rhiannon Batten and Richard Hill
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AS SATURDAY sunshine spread across the campsites circling Reading Festival, temperatures inside the arena added a certain tang to the sweat and chips vapour stockpiled from the night before.

Friday's young crowd, with their sherbet-coloured hair, henna tattoos and more metal on their body than the average tank, had been an enthusiastic and pretty well-behaved bunch, body-surfing and moshing to the sternum- crunching staccato guitars of the three smaller stages. Breaks were taken for near-end-it-all bungee jumps and visits to the friendly site cannabis- pipe trader. Later on, the same crowd stood glued 20-deep outside the Dr Martens talent-fattening stage watching as Gomez sucked in the last joules of warmth from the air and breathed out lazy-beat Southport swamp blues.

With Glastonbury '98 sinking into another covering of chocolate milk- shake mud and Mean Fiddler's Phoenix Festival cancelled after poor ticket sales, Reading Music Festival offered 1998's chance to be a festival worth turning up for. Although more than 100,000 did make the trip last weekend - enticed by a decent weather forecast and a line-up bolstered by the aforementioned cancellation - the British festival spirit still seemed a little damp round the edges.

On the main stage on Friday, Rocket from the Crypt and The Afghan Whigs, immaculate in their gangster threads, gained a good few ticket sales for their forthcoming indoor British shows, and the young rascals Ash impressed, but the smaller stages were no match for the deific presence of Page and Plant, except to the skate punk kids, who ran off bored.

What had seemed a large crowd on Friday seemed immense on Saturday and, despite the efforts of the night-time litter patrol, the morning ground was a soft carpet of plastic forks, well-trodden chips and greasy newspapers. The queue for the toilets soon prompted people to head into the bushes. There were too many people in too small an area.

It wasn't only the ground that suffered. Despite Sunday's performances by Dee Jay Punk Roc and the maturely rehearsed but still cutting attitude of New Order - moving the twentysomethings to punch the air nostalgically - it was clear that the four music tents were too close together to give the bands what they needed to be really heard, even by festival standards.

And the music from the main stage was just too quiet to rock. Saturday's rendition of The Prodigy's "Firestarter" whimpered out more like "Firefighter" and the loudest sound of the weekend was probably the mid-set belch from the Foo Fighter David Grohl.

More exciting were battles waged by the performers. First Money Mark, after bringing the marquee down with his opener of Hammond stand-up funk, abandoned his set prematurely as his equipment died piece by piece.

Then word warfare raged between the two main-stage headliners after the now all-grown-up Beastie Boys requested that The Prodigy cut "Smack My Bitch Up" from their set.

Beastie Adam Yauch seemed to absorb the bad karma in his Krishna-orange boiler suit, however, and in any case, the 40,000 or so who jumped up and down to both sets were not sweating over polemics.