ROCK / Good to be back inside that fence

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The Independent Culture
THE BIG corrugated iron fence that protects the world from the Reading Festival is every bit as ugly as it was in the dark days when Bonnie Tyler dodged volleys of urine-filled cider bottles. This year, there are reasons why a person of sound mind might want to be inside that fence.

But in the middle of Friday afternoon, this is hard to understand. The Beatles, The Sex Pistols and Marvin Gaye could be playing and it would still be a depressing prospect. Everyone looks so miserable. The T- shirted tribes of 'alternative' youth wheeling hungrily around the merchandise stalls seem to be celebrating a conformity more drab than anything the mainstream could dream up. This is the bands' fault as much as the crowd's. The cheerily mundane and appallingly badly-dressed Mega City Four even leave the stage telling them how great they look.

As darkness falls, things brighten up. The slate grey skies, which have threatened to turn inside out at any moment and transform the whole proceedings into some awful human swamp, decide not to.

P J Harvey, prone to over-exposure, have benefited considerably from going to ground for a while. Their leader, Polly Harvey, wearing Jim Morrison's old leather suit just back from the cleaners, certainly plays a mean guitar. If her mannered vocal style still shows its influences (Patti Smith, Siouxsie, Ian Astbury of The Cult) a little too clearly, the band's numerous new songs seem to have shaken off the self-congratulatory dreariness of their debut album. They also do a natty version of 'Highway 61 Revisted'.

John Lydon, born showman that he is, has, by the cunning expedient of not being too successful, wangled the best time to play. With his white baseball kit set off by the setting sun he makes Virgin's decision to abandon PIL look pretty silly. The rhythmic undulations of the band's earlier line-ups have been ironed out into strange flat slabs, but these are ideally suited to the outdoor life.

Witless hecklers are gleefully dispatched - 'There's nothing wrong with masturbation; that's the trouble with you youngsters, you're all afraid of your sex tools' - and Lydon claims his rightful place at the centre of our national life. 'There's not many good English things left, but I'm definitely one of them.'

The Charlatans' sudden rise to fame a couple of years ago seemed to do terrible things to their self-confidence, but the introspective tone of their more recent material doesn't stop them busting a collective gut onstage. Organ, guitar and rhythm section shuffle and batter away in impressively close harness beneath the ultra-nasal tones of Tim Burgess, but the band's two or three top-flight singles still stand out too clearly from the rest of their set.

Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff makes a game attempt to take the night by the scruff of the neck; responding bitterly to Lydon's taunts that 'this country's gone soft in the last 10 years', but he doesn't quite manage it. For all his mouthy swagger, Hunt never seems to have really expected his band's achievements to measure up to the groups he grew up on.

Successful as The Wonder Stuff are, greatness has never been an option, though their more recent fiddly folk-pop numbers like 'Size of a Cow' do have a new and welcome Dexy's- ish warmth about them. Even the inevitable advent of Vic Reeves, and Tommy Roe's 'Dizzy' cannot conceal the fact that the night's biggest pop moment has already happened; just before the headliners come on, when the crowd unites in awe and pleasure singing along with Right Said Fred's 'Deeply Dippy', played over the PA system at full volume with accompanying searchlights.

The Reading Festival continues today.

(Photograph omitted)

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