Thursday, August 27, 2015

Memories of Reading Festival 2007

The 2015 Reading and Leeds Festivals kick off tomorrow. This means that Britain's railways will soon be clogged with eager young campers who have spent the past few days practising their tents and wondering whether or not Gaz will manage to smuggle in that bottle of Smirnoff he's been saving all summer.

While they brace themselves for the weekend ahead, I'd like to take a moment to tell you all the story of my first visit to the Reading Festival...

My first Reading festival was an ordeal before I'd even boarded the train. Under the impression that the Carling Weekend was a mandatory rite of passage for newly-minted sixteen-year-olds, I had booked my ticket within seconds of the box office opening, all the while assuming that my friends were simultaneously sat at their computers, F5-ing the Ticketmaster website, doing the exact same thing as me.

In fact, each and every one of my friends had independently decided that the 2007 Reading Festival line-up (see above) wasn't good enough to warrant the effort. Given a few days' notice, I could perhaps have changed a few minds, but demand being what it was at the time, tickets had sold out completely before I'd had a chance even to try. I was off to the Carling Weekend, all right, but unless I could find somebody to camp with, I would be going on my sorry own.

Fortunately, destiny intervened. Roughly one month prior to the August Bank Holiday, I crossed the Channel for a short tour of Normandy with the Cardiff County & Vale of Glamorgan Music Service youth brass band (I was one of two baritone horn players; in retrospect, I'm rather surprised that my tragically uncool teenaged self was even allowed into the hip Skinsian utopia of the 2007 Reading Festival). During that week in France, I befriended the band's drummer, a slightly older boy with Sideshow Bob hair who - hallelujah! - was planning to attend the festival with a group of his friends. He very kindly allowed me to join his party and I, relieved, allowed myself to think that the hard part was over.

I was wrong, but it must be said that at least some of the hardship that followed was my own damn fault. For whatever reason, I had decided that my dad's knackered old one-man tent would be sufficient accommodation for four nights at a major rock festival, and it was only when I reached Richfield Avenue that I realised my calamitous error.

Ever since I returned from that punishing weekend in Berkshire, I have lived by the following code:

To determine how many people a tent can comfortably house, look at what it says on the box, then subtract one.

If ever you find yourself preparing for a weekend in the wilderness, I beseech you to follow this simple guideline. If you're going it alone, be sure to invest in at least a two-person tent; if you're going to Glastonbury with your other half, go no lower than a three. Tent manufacturers, you see, think like Bender from Futurama:

"Not enough room? My place is 2 cubic metres, and we only take up 1.5 cubic metres. We've got room for a whole other two-thirds of a person."

Technically speaking, I fit perfectly well into that one-person tent, but as it turns out, human beings aren't IKEA storage cubes - we need more than the space our bodies physically occupy. I would only recommend a one-man tent to campers who are happy to spend their entire holiday lying perfectly still whilst all of their belongings sit outside in the rain.

Now, to be fair, it actually didn't rain a drop during my stay at the Reading Festival, but somehow I still ended up absolutely soaked. This was partly due to the thick layer of condensation on the ceiling of my tent (seriously, I can't believe I survived four nights in that thing), but it was also largely the fault of the bloody security men who stood guard in front of each stage while the bands were playing. To ensure that nobody dehydrated and died whilst waiting for their favourite act, these people were supposed to be periodically handing out cups of water to the mass of bodies in front of them; what they were actually doing - more often than not, it seemed - was simply throwing the water at the crowd, drenching us and, crucially, failing to hydrate anyone.

But, hey, at least the bands were worth waiting/getting wet for, right? Well...yes, mostly, although there were a few high-profile disappointments in the form of, um, the headliners. I didn't bother with Razorlight, obviously (I mean, Jesus), but I did bother with both the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Smashing Pumpkins and frankly I wish hadn't. The former had an early stumble when Anthony Kiedis tripped over a cable during the very first song; in addition to making Kiedis look rather silly, this accident also caused Flea's bass - that is, the beating heart of the RHCP sound - to come unplugged, making everything sound suddenly rubbish and lifeless. The roadies plugged it back in pretty quickly, of course, but it was clear from that point onwards that the band had not only fallen off the horse but lost the horse entirely. Hanging around for the rest of their set was a waste of my Saturday night.

The Pumpkins were better, but looking back, I should never have chosen a reformed Smashing Pumpkins (featuring only half the original line-up) over The Hold Steady, who were headlining a different stage at the same time. While their musicianship was impressive enough, Billy Corgan and Co. played too many new songs and not enough classics; almost all of my SP favourites were absent from the setlist, and the neutered acoustic version of 1979 did little to make up for all the long, dull jams that we apparently needed to hear.

(It admittedly didn't help that The Smashing Pumpkins had to follow Nine Inch Nails, who remain one of the best live acts I've ever seen.)

Of course, even when I was watching a truly excellent band, my experience was somewhat marred by the innumerable crowdsurfers who kept kicking me in the back of the head. Prior to the summer of 2007, crowdsurfing had seemed like a cool, rock 'n' roll thing to do at a concert; at some point between my dozenth and umpteenth blow to the skull in front of the main stage, I realised that it's actually incredibly inconsiderate. If you ever feel like riding the sweaty meat wave into the waiting arms of some burly bouncer, bear in mind that most of the people on whom you're about to 'surf' are paying attention not to you but to the band on stage, meaning that they'll be completely unaware of your douchebag antics right up until the moment you land on top of them. You cock.

Now, I don't mean to give you the impression that the Reading (and, by extension, Leeds) Festival is some kind of hell on earth. In spite of the iron-booted crowdsurfers, the waterfight bouncers, the Unsmashing Pumpkins, the coffin-like tent, the overpriced food, the absence of any friends, and the frankly horrifying toilets (I still have nightmares about falling into one of those holes and drowning in the unspeakable cesspool below), I actually had a fantastic time: I saw loads of greats bands across those three days, and the enthusiastic audience made even the average ones seem pretty awesome.

And, to be fair, the people I ended up camping with were pretty cool too, even if they did scare me a little. You see, reader, I was a pretty sheltered youth: I was sober until the age of nineteen, and I've still never had a cigarette, let alone illegal drugs of any sort. The Reading party, on the other hand, were very experienced in such things; people were drinking, smoking, dropping acid, and doing all sorts of things I'd only ever read about before I caught the train to Berkshire. One of them looked like Jesus, and so everyone called him 'Jesus' (I never did find out his real name; his girlfriend went by the name 'Bongo Mary' for some reason). At one point, I returned to the tent for a quick break from watching bands, only to find that my fellow campers were kicking a butane battery around like a football. I went back to the bands pretty quickly after that.

Still, kids, if those are the kind of shenanigans that appeal to you, I'm sure you'll have a fab time at Reading/Leeds this weekend. The line-up isn't as good as it was in 2007, but who needs Nine Inch Nails and the Arcade Fire when you've got Bring Me The Horizon and Mumford & Sons, eh?

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