ROCK / The not so great outdoors

FASHION NOTES from the Reading Festival: nose rings are still in this summer, and some people are wearing their sweatshirts tucked into their combat trousers. Fears that the popular appetite for festival entertainment might have been sated by Glastonbury and the new Phoenix event in July - set up as a rival to Reading, but now being run by the same people - proved unfounded.

The atmosphere on the first night is very jolly, though this is no thanks to the music. Eight or nine years ago, crazed Texans, the Butthole Surfers, were one of the most exciting bands in the world - combining unrepentant debauchery with compelling folk-protest overtones. Now they are a very sad spectacle indeed; shirtless singer Gibby Haines parading a beer-gut for which he ought to have got planning permission, their music a horrible necro-rock panto.

One unexpected side-effect of their unremitting awfulness is to make Ned's Atomic Dustbin sound tuneful. The third corner of the Stourbridge scruff triangle, opposite the Wonder Stuff and Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned's Atomic Dustbin's appeal has never been easy to fathom, but tonight they are a little raft of melody on a sea of sonic sludge. True, enormous numbers of people are on- stage thrashing away at guitars, but none of them seems to be plugged in, and what comes out of the speakers is oddly gentle pop music.

There is nothing so ephemeral on the mind of Rage Against the Machine, the night's big draw. These are four very serious young men. Their snappy but simplistic conspiracy theorising, hammered home with ferocious funk-metal attack, provokes radical bouncing up and down. The fact that all their songs are exactly the same does not yet seem to worry anybody, but musical direction may be a problem in the future. The guitar twiddles that punctuate the tantrums of hyperactive singer Zack de la Rocha summon the dread spectre of Carlos Santana.

Not since the glory days of Uriah Heep has a Reading bill boasted worse headliners than Porno for Pyros. Singer Perry Farrell is revered as the founding father of America's 'Lollapalooza' counter- cultural carnival, but the respect seems to have gone to his head. His band's music is an unhappy blend of stadium grunge and lounge jazz, and if Rage Against the Machine have appropriated the earnest idealism of late Sixties protest culture, Farrell is the heir to that decade's worst tradition of self-indulgence.

A 10ft Canadian 'hermaphrodite' on stilts sprays the crowd with something unsavoury through a rubber genital attachment. Farrell's attitude to his audience is similarly giving. He alternates between abuse and fatherly concern: 'This is your life] Think about it.' The people do think about it, and vote with their feet, retreating en masse to the second stage, where tinny Cork comedy power-poppers The Frank & Walters must be stunned by their increased pulling power. Farrell is left to rant and rave at an increasingly threadbare crowd: 'Tell me I suck, that way there's hope for the future.' OK, Perry, you asked for it.

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