ROCK / Rock around the clock

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE place in Somerset you won't find any New Age travellers this weekend - well, in theory - is inside the Glastonbury Festival. The organisers have responded to local pressure by cunningly banning dogs (on strings or otherwise) and camping in the car park. All over the rest of the county, would-be convoys are hemmed into lay-bys by battalions of police with armoured cars and trained swarms of killer bees.

In front of the festival's main pyramid stage, the crowd exchanges wry looks. Here we go, it's the Velvet Undergound again. If ever there was a band that was not meant to be heard under an open sky in surroundings of outstanding natural beauty, this is it. Which is partly why the idea of them, the original anti-hippies, playing here is so funny. Lou Reed performs 'Rock and Roll' in the style of John Cougar Mellencamp, and someone punishes him by turning his guitar off. This leaves 'Waiting for the Man' to the clanking keyboard and inspired monotone of John Cale. He manages to create a real claustrophobia, which in this setting is a notable achievement.

The four Velvets lead each other off the stage like wise old elephants. We shall not see their like again, until the next time they play. On the far-off NME stage, the Beatles could have reformed and nobody would know about it - do not believe the hoary Woodstock myth of a festival as a shared cultural experience; the trek to the other stage is such an epic one that if your timing was bad you could spend the whole weekend shuffling back and forward through throngs of grim-faced pleasure-seekers and never see a band. It turns out that the Beatles have not reformed but, the next best thing, Teenage Fanclub, are playing.

However, amplification glitches render the nation's finest pop group more or less inaudible. So for all their jolly entrance - a barrage of balloon footballs kicked Rod Stewart-style into the crowd to the Match of the Day theme tune - and characteristic between-song bonhomie, there's no way of telling if their year of messing about in recording studios has been well spent. Encouraging their least vocally gifted constituent to sing the line 'I don't want to be well-known' seems rather cruel though.

Crueller still is the sonic contrast with the Black Crowes, back on the main stage. The Atlanta heritage-rockers get the most beautifully clear outdoor mix imaginable, and it is hard not to enjoy them even though I know it's wrong. Chris Robinson might have studied at the Bobby Gillespie school of dancing, but he's got the kind of voice you can only be born with. There's no discounting the possibility that his absurdly bendy body is actually being radio-operated by Wilson Pickett.

Back on the tinny stage, NME headliners Suede cope manfully with the great outdoors. Brett Anderson wiggles his spread-hipped bottom with such vigour that it threathens to detach itself from his legs and torso and go flying into the crowd (what a souvenir). Bernard Butler's guitar loses none of its fluid delicacy, and they even do a new song - 'Still Life' - that will be good when they've practised it.

The Midi Circus is techno's answer to Glastonbury - an awe-inspiring medicine show of mad beat-freaks, mutant knob- twiddlers and incompetent jugglers. At 3.30 in the morning there are two huge saucers on the walls of the Brixton Academy, squirming full of foot-long maggots. This seems a rather disturbing image for the projectionists to be foisting on an impressionable young crowd, many of whose minds are by this time subject to a high degree of chemical interference, but nobody seems too upset.

On stage, things are even scarier. Three men dressed in Creature From the Black Lagoon outfits are trying to eat each other, and a deranged, stripped-to-the- waist skinhead is dancing as Bruce Lee would if someone had really upset him. All but hidden behind his modest but deadly array of home-made instruments is the centre-parted head of Cornish wunderkind Richard James, aka Aphex Twin and other aliases too obscure and numerous to mention. This man fully deserves his reputation as the Mozart of techno, and it will be interesting to see if future generations find his music as easy to listen to as ours does Wolfgang's.

An extraordinary assault of random tempo-changes, bass earthquakes, jackhammer treble and all-round electronic savagery, James's music is most easily likened to the sound of a circular saw finishing off a particularly stubborn tree trunk. It also has passages - in 'Audax Powder', for example, from his recent double album Surfing on Sine Waves (Warp) - of exquisite pastoral beauty.

The other stars of this all-night show are Orbital. An altogether more human spectacle, Kentish brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll wear little torch glasses, which jiggle brightly along with their heads. Their music has more to hold on to than Aphex Twin's. Like him, they are not big on words - both their excellent albums have been called Untitled - but their songs build up around simple, and usually very pretty, repeated patterns. Waves of recognition wash through the crowd as each little melodic flurry begins to establish itself and the cumulative effect is pure machine-age delight, with a hint of calypso.

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