I recently came across some handwritten notes I wrote about going to the 1999 Reading Festival in England and thought it might be fun to share. MIGHT be. The notes were scrawled in a daily planner a few days after the festival while I was in Scotland. Looks like there’s quite a bit missing. Let’s see how my memory is….
In 1999, I was looking for any excuse to get out to the east coast, as I’d started dating Katie, who I met online while she was attending Columbia University in New York City. She came to visit San Diego first and soon we were trading off turns visiting each other in between long phone sessions. As a lifelong Anglophile, I’d always wanted to go to a British festival and be in a sea of people who knew how to jump and sing in unison to bands most people in America didn’t know or care about. While the lineup wasn’t as amazing as it had been through most of the decade, there were still plenty of favorites on the bill plus bands I’d never heard of with names like Doves, Orgy and Coldplay that I might learn to love….or not. So I finally planned a trip to England and Scotland with stops in NYC on the way to and from.
Judging by the few photos I took in New York, it appears that we went cd shopping, ate at Tom’s Diner and saw Detroit Rock City. It was summer so it definitely wasn’t the trip there where I saw snow fall for the first time at age 28. Off I went to London, where I stayed in Hampstead Heath with olde highschool friend Vivienne and her husband Josh. We went out to dinner my first night there and Josh excused himself to make a phonecall, then proceeded to go to a corner and talk to himself. I’d never seen a hands-free phone device before and I thought he was nuts for a quick second. I’d been to London a few days back in 1993 but this time, I had more time to see some sights, hang out with Comes With A Smile‘s Matt Dornan (above), meet Pat Fish and Max Eider after a fantastic Jazz Butcher duo show (click for JBC tale) and wander a bit. My surviving notes begin the day before the festival…
I slept late, walked round Hampstead for awhile then went off to the outskirts of London to visit Minus Zero Records, home of all things pop. It’s a great little shop crammed with cool stuff and the main man, Bill, was nice enough to give me some goodies in exchange for the hush-hush cd’s and videos I’d brought them. In a story straight out of a movie, the two owners of the shop had got in a row years ago and split the shop right down the middle, both doing business separately in the same room. Unreal. I’m sure I could’ve stayed all day with them, trading stories of various concerts and (Jason) Falknerdom. Finally ended up back in Hampstead and went off to meet up with Viv, Josh and internet friend Julia to have dinner.
Julia’s wonderfully mad, definitely a rocker. Jason Falkner is her one concession to pop. We found a place in Chinatown for us to have a great Chinese meal, all of us sharing a variety of dishes and gabbing away. Julia saw a friend of hers on the way back to the train station and we left her to club hop the night away. I was off to Paddington Station where I took a train to Reading, about a half hour away. My hotel was a 15 pound taxi ride away and plenty posh. A bit useless with me and two beds.
I channel surfed awhile, watching “soccer” programs and a not-to-be-believed game show called Naked Elvis. A host asks random trivia questions to two teams while a bloke dressed as the King takes off clothing after every round until he’s fully naked, shaking his little Prince Charles for all the world to see. Unreal. They really use sex more here than in America. Adverts use scantily clad women like it’s going out of style, no matter what the product. Also, saw a clip of a ridiculous song called “Mambo #5” and laughed at the stupid stuff that becomes popular in Europe and never reaches American ears. Wrong again, Yankee.
The next morning, I’m up and out to an unmanned (meaning free) train station into Reading proper. Quite a bit cheaper than another 15 pound cab ride. Loads of kids to follow to the festival site, just on the edge of their beautiful, small town. Bootleg tees are quite good and I nab one with all of the bands on a shiny soccer style jersey for just five pounds. People are buying cases of beer from huge trucks parked along the side of the road. You can bring in almost ANYTHING to the festival except glass bottles.
Past the main entrance is a SEA of tents where people camp for the festival. It’s a little muddy from recent rains and already lined with trash. I tossed up my camera to a guy in a tower to take a picture of the view. He was nice enough to return it.
Right away, I recognize the main stage that I’ve seen so many times on the telly. Black backdrop, huge banners and tv screens on either side. The grounds are huge with food, clothing and whatnot throughout. There is a main stage, a BBC1 tent, a stage for lesser known groups sponsored by Carling beer, a dance music tent and a comedy tent. They’re packed for almost every act.
I spent most of the first day by myself. I broke down and paid six pounds for a program which came with a series of laminates with set times for all of the bands playing for the whole fest. I took a few seconds each day to write down every band I’d like to see so I could have a loose schedule. I arrived just in time to watch bratty all-girl Cali band the Donnas open the mainstage activities. 5000 miles just to see Bay Area girls start the show. The crowd didn’t know quite what to make of them but they were great as always.
The day previous, I talked briefly to producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Stone Roses, Radiohead), who I do an extremely lo-fi website about. He was very nice and we made plans to meet up at the festival, which we did after seeing a very good new semi-Radioheadesque group called Muse that he recently produced. He took me back to meet the band who were as nice as everyone else he ran into. We spent a couple of hours walking around, seeing bands and talking to people he knew, some of whom had heard about or even seen my site. I felt like a disappointment by not being a raving obsessed fan but did manage to ask him a few questions without being too crazed. He was full of stories and was more than generous.
I’ve already written about most of this part of the day, seeing bands like Guided By Voices and Echo & The Bunnymen with John, in “My afternoon at Reading Festival with an invisible rock legend”. Me giving him a real rockstar moment right as the Fall was writing a legendary Reading tale backstage was maybe the highlight of the whole trip, so do give it a read. After John left, I caught Gene and Stereolab and got ready for the nighttime festivities. Watching a popular British act in a massive crowd was high on my to-do list but I still skipped seeing the headlining Charlatans, who I’d been missing for eight years to see Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Elastica absolutely destroy in the big tent. It’s still my favorite concert crowd I’ve ever been in the middle of. Absolute insanity. I ran over to the mainstage just in time to see the Charlatans encore with “Sprongston Green” too.
The other highlight of the day came in the Melody Maker tent, where bands signed autographs for masses of fans all day long. Afterwards, they did indie-karaoke, which I’d read about last year. I’d always dreamed of getting up at a UK festival and singing something quintiscentially British, namely Pulp’s “Common People” but, unfortunately, someone had already chosen it. I picked Blur’s “Country House” off of their list and watched as person after person ruined song after song. They handed out thumbs up/thumbs down cards to the hundred or so people watching and after the first verse, the hilarious MC would let the crowd decide if they should continue or not. Most everyone got the big buzzer, including the people who got up and did “Common People”, who were AWFUL.
When my name was finally called, I walked onstage and said how I’d always dreamed of getting up at a festival to sing in a British accent. The crowd was instantly against me and the thumbs down signs went up. I knew it didn’t matter because I was ON and, after the first verse, I was greeted with a sea of thumbs up. Unfortunately, the guy manning the karaoke machine misunderstood the MC and cut me off during the big “IN THE COUNTRY!” buildup, leaving everyone screaming at him. All the people running the thing were apologizing to me, shaking my hand and making sure I got my prize (a free beer). A couple in the train station reognized me on the way home and told me how great I was. My best review ever. Praise from real life Brits!!! I vowed to return the next day and get it right.
Another night in my posh hotel was enough for me to decide to cut short my stay there by two days. $100 a night to sleep nearby just wasn’t worth it, as tired as I was by day’s end. I left my bag at the train station the next morning and planned on going back to London at the end of day two. I met up with Julia and her boyfriend Ray at the festival and they had an extra backstage pass for me, which meant nicer toilets with shorter lines, rock stars everywhere and actual places to sit (chairs and tables or grass, which by this point was hard to find on the trash strewn festival site). It also meant meeting Julia and Ray’s rockset friends. I assumed I’d be surrounded by the pageboy haircut wimps but here I was hanging with the leather/stud clad mob, all of whom were funny and nice as anything.
No sooner had we arranged my backstage access than it was time to go see Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s fame. He’d been making headlines lately, taking out an ad of himself in a dress in some prominent music paper. Sure enough, he came out in drag and, joined by two lingerie clad stripper types, did a few Vegas style classics (“Concrete & Clay” and “Greatest Love of All”) on a bare stage. At one point he got underneath and licked the bum of one of the girls with a full close up showing on the screens. The water bottles rained down upon him as he held his ground in all too hilarious seriousness. He lasted about four songs.
Julia and Ray joined me on my return trip to the karaoke tent only to find that AGAIN “Common People” was already taken. I spied “Alright” by Supergrass and when it was my turn, the Saturday crowd was MUCH bigger than it’d been the day before. I got up and noted that I’d been listening to these British people ruining American songs (crowd: “Rar!”), that they should show some respect when singing songs from another country (“RAR!”) and then asked them who’d won the war in 1776 (“RAAARRRRRRR!!!”). Again, I knew I could antagonize because I could actually sing a little and proceeded to produce a dead-on Gaz, including some loverly falsettos that wowed them. Even *I* was surprised by their reaction until I realized that the sound guy was pumping in a festival crowd’s roar over the speakers. Still, I finished in fine form, holding the last note forever and doing a Johnny Rottenesque finale (“Aaaaaaal-RRRRight!”). People yelled “SUPERGRASS!” at me all day. Heaven.
The British concertgoers are great. Massively appreciative, huge singalongs and all jumping up and down in unison if you’ve got a good, punchy chorus. I spend a lot of time hoping to engage in conversations but only have a few good ones for most of my time there. They’re all pretty amused I want to take pictures of their shirts. Very few recognize me as American right away because it’s so noisy and I’m lapsing into Britishisms anyways.
There is an incredible mix of people at the festival. Lots of freshly dyed hair, goths in full black attire, LOADS of tshirts displaying American bands and folks of all shapes and sizes, some 30-40,000 strong. This year, the same acts travel to Leeds in northern England and stage the exact same show the following day but it hasn’t seemed to lessen the size of the crowd here at Reading (Leeds had around 20k folks, so I hear).
I only have vague memories of seeing Pavement, Beth Orton and Cinerama during that day, thanks to some pictures. I’d already seen Bluh do a set of entirely new songs that year and there were worries that the same would happen here when they opened with “Tender” but when they went into “End Of A Century”, we all breathed a sigh of relief. After a night at Julia and Ray’s, we returned for Sunday, traditionally more of a “Rock Day”, which started out in fine fashion with their friends the Backyard Babies, who didn’t disappoint. After that, it’s all a bluh of seeing Cornelius, Hepcat, Fountains of Wayne and a brilliant Flaming Lips, early in their blood and video days.
I didn’t get the traditional British festival downpour, more closely associated with Glastonbury, but it was still everything I’d hoped for. I departed the next day, by train, for Scotland where I hit the three main cities, taking a bus tour upon arrival in each one, all owned by the same company. I was mortified to see I’d missed seeing Pulp in Edinburgh by a day so I could stay in London an extra night to go to the Garage and see Fountains of Wayne, who I’d just seen twice. I saw Pulp were playing a festival in Ireland with Cornelius the next night and almost cut Scotland short to go there. I’m glad I didn’t or I would’ve missed beautiful green landscapes, olde buildings, quaint bed-and-breakfasts and ridiculously hard-to-decipher tour guides. I turned to some British tourists behind me for a translation at one point and they shrugged, as lost as me. I took loads of pretty pictures of forests and olde castles but you can see those anywhere. You’re probably here because I’m the kind of guy who takes a picture of Kelvin Hall in Glasgow because the Kinks recorded a live album there.
I hadn’t been able to see online friend Richie Merrett with his band Mercedes playing Reading the week before but our schedules synced up when I got back to London for one last night. He and his girlfriend Talia met up with me near Hyde Park and we spent HOURS talking pop culture of all kinds until we were all hoarse and peeing into the London fog at 3am. I still quote his disapproval of Episode One: The Phantom Menace: “Fart jokes in Star Wars? FAHT JOKES IN STAH WAHS?!” Unquestionably one of my favorite conversations of all-time and a great way to end the trip.
If I had a brain, I’d have never left. Stupid American.