In this exact moment, the biggest single regret of my life is not the stack of wasted life opportunities or the multiple god shit awful choices I’ve made, but the fact that I didn’t manage to dive off the main stage at the Reading Festival. This is a momentary thing, of course, and the reasons for this statement follow.
My tender teenage mind in the early nineties was forever turned by the human pyramids and balcony-diving at the long-dead Birmingham Hummingbird and the skinhead and biker moshpittery of the old Dudley JBs – and elsewhere. I heard hushed tales of the intensity of the Chaos UK and Stupids thrash shows that I just missed by a year or two, and would idly wonder if I would have survived. And so, to me “good” gigs were MEANT to be carnage. The point of being into “alternative” music was that it was your duty to be cynical and individualistic about everything – and gigs were a chance to express your existential disappointment and (cosily) riot with other consenting children to a noise you just fucking… loved. And Reading, by-the-river in Reading, the longest-running music festival in the world – was the biggest carnage-friendly event of them all (I know other smaller ones were friskier, as were some contemporary Euro ones – but we’re talking mass participation and the domestic market here).
And so, getting over the barrier at Reading past the security and up the speaker stacks high enough to leap clear of the gap and back into the crowd was my personal fucking gig Everest. I’d seen a couple of “older boys” dive off the speakers at the Civic Hall in Wolves (to Carter USM, of all people) so I knew it was possible. The fact that I bottled it and never went shit or bust and went for it despite being set up and prepped to do so to both Nirvana in 1992 and Rage Against The Machine in 1993 (both of whom my younger self considered corporate sell-outs by those respective points) – still rankles. From all you can see and read, it is near-impossible to imagine such – with hindsight,frankly ridiculous – thoughts even entering a single fifteen or sixteen year old brain at this year’s Reading (or Leeds) Festival. And this saddens me.
Just to be very clear at this point, though: I don’t live in the past. Because the past was often a bit shit, notwithstanding the issue I’m trying to nail in this [ahem] essay – and right here, right now is way better in so many ways. DIY is more exciting than it was in the “soap the stamps” days (and this will be the topic of my next missive) and there is so much to look forward to – and love – in this very moment.
But still. The arseification and spaying of the Reading Festival – and the fucking slew of similarly ghastly gatherings like the technicolour yurt horror of Glastonbury and whatever that organised twattery is down on the Isle Of Wight – epitomise everything that seems to have gone astray, gone wrong with the kids – with the youth – as an entity in our post-industrial age. “Live music” is in economic and mass consumption terms a bigger deal than ever – Reading and Leeds and many others sell out quicker than they ever did, despite the prices rising faster than inflation and way faster than wages – and the blanket media coverage from every possible angle including up Royal Blood’s fucking perineum show that there is self-evidently a big old audience sat at home – or gawping into their smartphones – for that sort of thing.
But it’s all so…uninspired. It’s not only that the commercially successful bands that get the big gigs are themselves dull, anodyne – and the least edgy and the least interesting that they have ever been. They are, yes, but this is a product of the post-music industry age. The margins in recorded music are so small for the professionals that the remaining “major” labels are now totally risk averse, and they have to play it safe to survive. I get that and personally do not have a problem with it. The most striking thing to me personally though is the crowd – who goes to Reading now and how they behave. From all sources, albeit these days they are at best second hand as I have not been in nine years – all you see are the flags, the face paints, the fucking Trilbys, the peacocking and the instragramming – and it’s all for show.
Festivals these days for the younger punter appear to be one mass act of staring in the mirror and asking yourself if you look hot. Or cool. Or some shit. Not to do anything interesting, not further any goal (no matter how ridiculous or misguided), not to improve their or anyone else’s lot, and worst of all not even to have a particularly wild or debauched time either. No. All the dressing up and the ritual appears to be done for no reason apart from someone else is doing it and it is assumed that it is cool – and that it would be socially unacceptable not to. It’s like some kind of cultural Ponzi scheme based on fuck all, with the 1% venture capitalists who keep social media afloat being the only beneficiaries. I know Festivals in the 90s got out of hand. I have musician friends who justifiably hated the way people like me behaved at the time. I didn’t go to the Phoenix Festival when it burned but my wife and best mate did – and that was by all accounts harsh on the innocent bystanders. And I had my own particular and substantive issues with the extreme end of the anarcho scene. But kids should be annoying. Know it all. Opinionated. Simplistic. Hyperactive and impatient. That is the whole point of being a kid with a brain. To question, act up and be challenging. Without this, ultimately, our whole culture begins to fade and die.
I guess that’s what really strikes me is that so few kids appear to think or act this way anymore. Some do. And it is a wonderful thing to see when you find it, and it’s to support them (and the scene) that I started writing this specific species of drivel again after many years out of the game. But interesting, brave and edgy kids like the ones in Grand Collapse and Petrol Girls – and others who shall maybe remain nameless – are a seemingly rare commodity.
The death of Reading is arguably a phenomenon of the last five or ten years, with its root cause in the ubiquity of the smart phone. But it shows so much about how youth culture – and what is still presented as the counter-culture, the “underground” – has changed in that short period.
I last went to Reading in 2005. The missus wanted to see the Pixies. I was kind of out of love with the hardcore scene at that point so didn’t check out the Lockup stage or anything. More fool me. But I went anyway. My enduring memory, and high point, was of seeing that rich kid with the gappy teeth out of Busted do his solo thing in one of the tents. Not for the music – it was lame, try-hard warmed over A mixed with easy listening post-hardcore pulp with little to recommend it to anyone – no. It was seeing the crowd. I stood at the back and watched as hordes of kids in their Blink 182 outfits streamed in with carrier bags full of smuggled in bottles and cans, some already sloshing with pee wee, ready for the big show. To my left a crew of four lads who shall always live on in my memory improvised a weapons-grade catapult with two metre-long bungees and two litre plastic coke bottles. One lad held each end of the bungee while the third pulled back the pad at the back. The fourth aimed it like he was firing a canon on a pirate ship or something. Before Fightstar – for yes, this was their name – came on, they played the Kaiser Chiefs track “I predict a riot”. And never have I heard the chorus chanted with more sincerity and intent. The stage lights went up and the lanky fella with the low slung skinny jeans loped on. I remember the visuals more than the sound of the boos and mass swears and comedy insults. Looking towards the stage it was like the scene in Gladiator – when Russell Crowe says “on my command, UNLEASH HELL”. The bottles and cans filled the air like the arrows at Agincourt. The artillery crew immediately to my left let go a salvo that smacked into the lighting rig above the stage and made it visibly shake on impact. It was an experience that made me almost weep with pride and hope for the human race. In all this Charlie Busted took a few direct hits to the face – but, to be fair, and this must be celebrated – he never went down. Unlike that little creature out of Panic! at the Disco a couple of years ago, who took a solitary bottle to his bonce and went down like a sack of spuds – and sulked off. Allegedly. By comparison, gangly Charlie played on and finished his set. You have to respect that. But Facebook (etc) didn’t even exist back then. And there were few permanent records of the event.
But I digress. My point is that this spirit of ferality and what Noisey / Vice mag in their first decent article in about five years (which inspired me to finally pen this) termed “savvy cynicism” that made Reading what it was – unique – vanished only in the past decade, maybe much less. And that this a sign of something deeper, more pervasive in youth culture.
“Things” generally are far worse now for “the kids” than they were twenty years ago. Fewer prospects for school leavers or graduates, fewer jobs (unless you are born into the right family or set), inequality is only going one way, plague, famine, climate change and war everywhere, extremism back on the rise, teenage gender politics collapsing rapidly back into the nineteenth century – so there should be more to get existentially disappointed and angry about than ever before.
But the response from the yout’ has been piecemeal and scattered. I think that the fact that kids are always on show, every minute of every day has had the effect of suffocating any genuine public emotional response, life-affirmingly stupid gesture or other subversive act – unless they are past the point of caring. And one small impact of this has been to choke the carnage and the joy out of the Reading festival.
Like the record companies, the kids have become more risk averse, more jaded, more hyper-realistic. Anything they do that stands out will be filmed, posted, commented on, trolled and / or used in actual evidence against them. And the result is that what may be passed off as or appear to be unconventional behaviour and individualism (the flags, the face paints, the fucking Trilbys) is anything but – it’s an attempt to blend in for fear of almost instant pillory. Knowing that they are always being watched, potentially by everyone they have ever known, and anyone that may want to employ them, means they can never genuinely let go in the way that we older cunts used to take for granted.
And so, in conclusion, I like to think that actually there were at least a few kids – lads or ladies – at Reading this year feeling the same moronic urges that I did, standing in my Para Boots in the mud in late August 1992, watching Everett True wheeling on Kurt Cobain and sizing up the weak link in the chain of bouncers. With a tiny bit of fear wee in my pants.
I’m writing this in September 2014. There may have been just as many kids in the crowd the other week that thought the Arctic fucking Monkeys were fucking shit and should be pelted with poo as there were that booed and bottled Cypress Hill on the main stage for their lame ass, totally sincere sexist comments in response to a female heckler back in ’94 or ’95 (?). But they are certain to have been scared to act because they know that if they do anything other than listen to and obey the instructions from the band, and carefully pose and jiggle, their face will end up all over twatter and facebook for the wrong reasons – and EVERYBODY will know “it was them”. Again: Like the remaining “major” record labels, the kids have to play it safe. The risk is not worth the reward.
The kids today are not stupid. Far from it. The rise of Snapchat – set up to be both unrecordable and unshareable beyond actual, real-life friends, and wholly alien to anyone over 25 – suggests that they know all this, and as a result there is great demand for sharing stuff that they don’t want the whole world to see. It may be that subversive thoughts and images are being shared by the kids all the time. It could just as likely be squalid little selfies and crushingly inane cartoons being shared. I haven’t a fucking clue.
It may alternatively be that the interesting, passionate and challenging kids just don’t go to festivals (or even gigs) anymore at all. Every town in the country without exception has its committed DIY promoter wrestling with the same frustration of putting on great shows – and often struggling with poor turnouts. The equivalents of myself and my peers of twenty years ago may well be the kids (male and female) sat on Xbox in their bedrooms every night, lacking other options to express themselves, and staying off the streets at night for whatever reason – fear, self-consciousness, who knows. And I suppose the reason for me writing this – and the actual mission for all of us supporting the DIY and hardcore scene these days – is to start to think of how to find these kids, and tell them that there is another way. Because there is.
More than fucking ever.
And this will be explored further. In Volume 2.