READING FESTIVAL 27-29/8/93
Wahey! Three days of soap-dodging and the occasional top musical recital by popular beat combos sounded like too good an invitation to miss, especially with the less-than-last-minute inclusion of the debut British appearance by The Most Influential Recently Reformed American Band That Aren't The Velvet Underground, of which more in good time.
After spending most of the Friday afternoon trying to prove that my companions partial ticket was legitimate we arrived in the arena in time for Babes In Toyland's performance, which I was secretly rather impressed by, having never been too keen on any of their vinyl output: songs like "He's My Thing" and "Handsome and Gretel" are classics of their sort, and their set featured the first of the weekend's (too?) many 'interpretative' dancers (Exploding Plastic Inevitable, anyone?), this one clad in what looked like nowt but a nappy and a chain.
Next up were the charmingly-named Butthole Surfers, who were also pretty good until the novelty value wore off (i.e. after about ninety seconds). They can kick up a powerful rock 'n' roll type noise, are adept mic-stand conjurers and can badmouth the competition (and themselves) as well as any other contenders, but their only gimmick appeared to be the vocalist's continuous sampling of his own output. Next.
Back To The Planet - one of the great successes of the weekend in my humble opinion. They may only have one tune, a sort of electronic dance/reggae-ish thing with one foot in the Rod, Jane and Freddy back catalogue, but it was entertaining, and that's the point (isn't it?). A gold star for pilfering an Erik Satie riff, on their new single "Daydream".
Final band of the night, and inexplicably placed as a headlining act on the main stage, were Porno For Pyros, whose main claim to fame is that they feature two-thirds of Jane's Addiction. They too had an interpretative dancer or three, they too had a deep seam of crowd hectoring to mine, but unfortunately, apart from thirty seconds of sublime jazz rock that sounded like the best band Frank Zappa ever had in his life, they had very little in the way of music. Pass.
Saturday: first band of interest to these jaded (and by now earplugged) ears were FMB. Rather presumptuously stars of C4's "Next Big Thing" series, they sound like every white-boy indie-guitar rock band you'd never want to listen to. "Play the one you used to play at the end of every programme" requests a member of the audience, and sure enough they do. "This is the best moment of my life" trills the singer at one point. Oh dear...
Some hours later, the Ozric Tentacles took to the main stage, an event that brought the crowd down off their feet. An English field in summer is probably the ideal venue for their Santana meets The Orb jazz/prog/space rock-type excursions, all of which seem to follow a similar meandering course. They win the Muso award, apparently without shame.
I went to see the Drop Nineteens a) because I'd heard and liked their "Winona" single and b) because I really can't take Therapy?, who were the alternative. Unfortunately their Indie Guitar Band stance looked a bit old-fashioned (shoegazing, anyone?) and even "Winona" sounded too relaxed for its own good. A pass, again, but maybe it would've been different had I known more of their material...
...but then again, maybe not. Back on the main stage Siouxsie And The Banshees played a blisteringly impressive set, with incredibly powerful, energetic performances of the only two songs by them that I knew, "Peek-A-Boo" and "Kiss Them For Me". I couldn't say why I enjoyed them so much - the presence of instruments on the stage which weren't guitars or drums perhaps, the lighting, the fact that it had gone dark - but they were my favourite act of the entire festival so far.
Until...The The had, almost uniquely, actually bothered to bring some kind of stage set with them (broken windows, suggesting urban and industrial decay, emotional bankruptcy, heartbreak...or maybe just an enthusiastic game of football), but they needn't have bothered with such glossy frippery: Matt and his musicians (including a harmonica player...another instrument that isn't a guitar) did incredible takes on much of the superior "Dusk" album, "August & September", "Heartland", "Uncertain Smile"...virtually a perfect set. They'll be touring Britain in December, and are thoroughly recommended by me.
The bill for the final afternoon looked a bit lacklustre, and the likes of The Jesus Lizard ("If any of you can guess any of the words to this next song, you win...this stage!!"), and the disappointing Grant Lee Buffalo and Juliana Hatfield Trio failed to dispel this impression. But the evening should've been much better.
The Lemonheads: I like them. They're capable of writing top quality three-minute (and less) pop tunes with an acoustic-y edge that would be a bit difficult to translate into arena-filling terms. Regrettably everything got played loudly and raucously, bashing the subtleties out of sensitive tracks like "Ride With Me" or "My Drug Buddy". "Frank Mills" worked, for some reason, probably due to it being a cover (from the "Hair" soundtrack, of all places).
Dinosaur Jr: Why so loud?? Apparently at Dinosaur Jr gigs the merchandise stands do a hefty trade in earplugs and I can appreciate why. Again, the (slightly less evident) subtleties of their songs got trampled by the amplitude, but after a shaky start crowd-pleasers like "Just Like Heaven", "Freak Scene", "The Wagon" and "Start Choppin'", erm, pleased. Best bit of a mildly disappointing performance was the lengthy closer, "Thumb" (I think, though at the time I was convinced it was "Green Mind"). All the above, however, were mere support acts for the band I'd been waiting all weekend to see. You may not be familiar with the name Big Star, but bands like R.E.M., Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub all cite them as an influence. Led by ex-Box Top Alex Chilton, they made three albums, with three different line-ups, in the early seventies, and then imploded. Earlier this year Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens got together with two members of The Posies, and have finally brought the Big Star name to Britain.
What were they like? Well, I'm a fan, so I'd say they were wondrous no matter how shambolic their performance, but my companion requested copies of the back catalogue, so it looks like I wasn't the only one to think they were unbelievable. Admittedly the first few songs sounded a bit rough, Chilton appeared not in the best of health and seemed to be dragging, slowing the rest of the band down, but soon they warmed up and started attacking a selection of songs that really have no peers: "September Gurls" (good enough to bury the memory of the Bangles' version forever, if not longer), a stunning "Ballad Of El Goodo", "Thank You Friends" infused with just the right amount of contempt and loathing for the audience (q.v. Butthole Surfers, Porno For Pyros), a tighter than tight cover of Todd Rundgren's "Slut", almost incredibly, a cover of T.Rex's "Baby Strange" (the best Big Star song Big Star didn't actually write).
Any disappointments? A few, minor ones really: they didn't play "Stroke It, Noel" or "Kangaroo" (which would've been difficult to play live anyway, without a string section or Mellotron respectively), the band's admiration for Jody Stephen's singing bordered on the fawning, which, judging by the noises he made was sarcastic, and the encore: a cover of "Kansas City" that barely struggled above pub-rock competence/excitement level. It would've been nice to hear Alex's fabled tones more often, only singing for about half of the set.
"Play "Thirteen"", shouted a member of the audience. "Play the lot", shouted another. If only they had the time...the best act of the Festival, one of the best performances I've ever been privileged to witness (with historical interest too). Nothing more may come of the Big Star reunion (although a charity single, in which they duet with Teenage Fanclub, has already been released), but given the dent that Big Star have already made, albeit quietly, on music as we know it, they can rest in the knowledge that they've already done much more than enough.