And so it begins: Reading Festival 2013, and my first in four years. Within minutes I’m left feeling profoundly out of my depth, a chorus of bottomless death grunts thundering over from a faraway Main Stage that has retained every inch of its impressively monolithic stature in my time away. What initially sounds a metallically plated secret set from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis eventually reveals itself to be Newport behemoths Skindred, a cursory programme consultation exposing the culprits of this initial ghastliness. Forget the past four years – as Benji Webbe & co. may as well have done themselves – for the trudge arena-wards could conceivably belong to any of the past fourteen, and it’s something of a miracle in itself to think that the genre benders are still going. They’re going strongly too by the sounds of the vociferous response with which they’re met, though that little bit more magical, even in these early days of a career sure to soon burgeon, and vastly preferable, are Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts. Unlike the misery evoked by their Main Stage adversaries, they’ve visibly embraced these only too ephemeral aestival months, the brothers Savage’s curls slowly unwinding like snapped strings from a machine head. The meagre turnout falls somewhere just short of the astonishment threshold, given the dearth of even half-decent stuff earlier on in the day, and whether down to the drab turnout or the importunate gusts of dry ice that envelop the Festival Republic stage, Light Up Gold highlight Master Of My Craft fails to really ignite as we’re only too aware it can.
Borrowed Time, another snatched from said record, fares rather better with those “drunk, bored and listless” currently imitating the time at which Andrew Savage felt his to be a “museless existence” lauding it at its every staccato pause and inevitable restart. You’ve got to wonder as to whether or not they’re paying too intimate an attention to it all, though given the stark absence of Matt Bellamy et al. at this year’s edition, the thought ought to assume added significance as far as the flailing mosh of mangled human gradually building may be concerned. Savage observes them intently, seemingly intrigued: “I sure do love watchin’ all you boys rub up on each other” he quips in his quintessentially lazy Texan drawl, referencing the oddly innocent homoeroticism long since renowned of the event. He’d surely struggle to see all that many facets of his former self reflected back at him from the reckless abandon below, though the band irrefutably win over their fair share of newcomers this afternoon. Could it be a success story accredited to a superbly wiry Yr No Stoner, during which Savage and abiding cohort Austin Brown pull off a series of brattish poses with their backs facing their slowly swelling audience? Or perhaps a whiplash-inducing, strobe-infused Light Up Gold that’s later reprised in typically highfalutin fashion? Maybe even a similarly incendiary You’ve Got Me Wonderin’ Now that’s only getting better with repeated exposure? Every one’s a potential felon, and indeed the feeling scorched into thought is that this one might well have gone down alongside those most illustrious of canonised Carling Stage performances, were there only a couple hundred more people crammed in here. For Parquet Courts are a smashing joy each and every time, and only rarely do untapped streams of consciousness akin to those spewed so unrelentingly by Savage sound quite so coherent. In Stoned and Starving they’ve a bespoke festival anthem in waiting, but they may have to wait a little while before it’s recognised thus, and subsequently fully realised as such.
As was with Skindred, New Found Glory again haul us back toward an unremarkable decade we’ve thankfully now passed with an unnecessarily exhaustive airing of their long-forgotten ’02 LP, Sticks and Stones, in full. Both the Los Angelino outfit and their Welsh contemporaries belong to the past, their bearing on the present grossly insignificant, and both are in a sense quite a lot like the paper cups we glug from all weekend long: once shiny, desirable and brimming with (albeit exorbitant) promise, they’re destined to find themselves crumpled underfoot as emptied of use, they’re to be trampled into the murky dust. Ashes to ashes and all that, and there’s unfortunately an unpleasantly gritty texture to most of the many pints knocked back among the bucolic confines of Little John’s Farm. As did Skindred before them, the Californians illicit a fairly rowdy response, onetime singles Head On Collision and My Friends Over You the album’s enduring calling cards by the sounds of it. Though ‘Pop Punk’s Not Dead’ reads their purposefully petulant backdrop and in dredging up this grossly, even self-evidently dated album in its entirety, they serve only to quite emphatically disprove their very own theory.
Truant skate-punks Cerebral Ballzy do their utmost to up the flagging ante, lead vocalist Honor Titus imploring we “break the fuckin’ place” as the oxymoronic moniker is laid to waste by a moronically involving music. Primarily drawing upon the previously unheard, much of it twitches erratically as the still-sizzling remnants of a microwaved Black Flag though largely neither bloody good nor gloriously bad, they leave a wilting gaggle visibly feeling a little indifferent. And increasingly, even they embrace that same attitude, Titus’ defeatist concession to being about to get kicked off anything but inspiriting. And so we kick and push on from Brooklyn skatepark to megabuck NYC recording studio, where the impeccable electropop nuggets MS MR excavate sound as though they’ve been newly polished.
Never mind first impressions, for Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow are only too happy to believe in every jot of the much-hyped furore currently whipping its frenzied way around the duo. Plapinger, aesthetically, resembles a head-to-toe tie-dye disaster and therefore fits in pretty succinctly with the fluorescence-favouring temporary residents of Richfield Avenue, her energy similarly unlimited. Although musically, the pair prove to be exceptional only in their chameleonic mimicking of contemporary trend: differentiating the likes of Think Of You and Fantasy from any one of CHVRCHES, MØ, Florence and the Machine and so on, seemingly ad infinitum, is pretty unthinkable a task. And with two of the three aforesaid playing this same stage today, there’s a distinctly dreary theme cutting through the reputedly bleeding-edge end of the arena. Touches of Sade and Rhye therefore permeate the day, though MS MR, more than a little bit half-baked live, lack the prerequisite emotivity to make much of a meaningful connection. Which, given MS’ almost instinctive feeding off a primal enthusiasm, seems paradoxical to say the least and in making tracks across such freshly trodden ground, she and MR Hershenow lack the necessary character to make all that great an impact. “Congratulations are in order, for having done all your tests!” Plapinger chirrups, demonstrating an awareness of her audience although even so, the jury remains out as to what grades the New Yorkers are currently getting.
Thus if the Festival Republic marquee remains the preserve of the electronically affected and outwardly effete, then the Main Stage billing lines up a relatively leaden load to reinstall its illustrious reputation as a hub of utter abrasion. Bring Me The Horizon, with their insurmountable walls of death and cantankerous dissonance that’s considerably more discombobulating still, make a racket alright though quite how it’s allowed them to erect unassailable walls of their own – their bricks Marshall amps, and their mortar this unfathomable distortion – I guess I’ll never now as to the untrained ear, they render the tenuous legacy of Enter Shikari comparable to that of Chino Moreno, Stephen Carpenter, Frank Delgado, Abe Cunningham and Sergio Vega. And thankfully, it’s they who’ll later reappear. Deftones have always seemed to resemble grizzly beasts of contradiction, their radical ability to flit between such becoming gents offstage and fleecy rock leviathans while on the thing is one of the genre’s great mysteries, although when it comes down to their estimable discographic onslaughts, they’re finely honed and feistily reproduced, and this afternoon is no exception to that golden rule. Moreno lacks a little of that effervescent vim from bygone times, and it’s of little wonder, what with the band having played the almost exact same slot in 2009 and 2011 alike. He is the bewhiskered gatekeeper of the Friday afternoon, and this year his solemnity knows no bounds: it marks the first time Deftones have taken up their biennial mantle since the tragic demise of onetime bassist Chi Cheng, and a supremely tender Change (In The House of Flies) is dedicated to his memory. “I watched you change into a fly/ I looked away, you were on fire” Moreno keens, his emotions scarcely kept in check and with times having so visibly changed for all involved, the potency of the perceivable Main Stage house band only seems to intensify year on year. Rocket Skates rolls on regardless, absorbing ever more acidic qualities as it does so, an irrepressible Moreno flinging himself about heedlessly throughout. He hurls his microphone toward the bleak firmament overhead, but it slips his grasp on the way down. Has he lost his touch? Maybe a little, yes, and it’s genuinely disconcerting to hear him bellow a tumultuous Poltergeist when embellished with a fluorescent pink lei. But musically, they perhaps sound as omnipotent as they’ve ever, a darkening Tempest also taken from last year’s Koi No Yokan taking on newfound insistence. Thus although the once-white pony adorning their backdrop has turned to a murky hue, rarely have Deftones seemed so resplendent.
Tidal surges then stream from the NME/BBC Radio 1 Stage – that which houses the day’s most disappointing rundown – as the hordes depart Dan Smith’s unapologetically poppy Bastille den. The tent is, as it was the first time I ever set foot on the farm, removed from the remainder of the festival with the 8-bit blitz of the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage separating it from Deftones’ jarring alt.metal assaults. The latter, epitomised only by bands presumably unheard of to anyone of legal drinking age, seems to exist in the hope only of antagonising the delirium already exuded by the overzealous teens that overrun the arena year after year. And they later reconvene in the nearby NME tent to whip up a bit more commotion, rabid cries of “whoop-whoop” greeting Major Lazer. Were ooh-ah-Malia not already calling Diplo’s latest incarnation, then it surely will soon enough, the Yank’s dodgy cut-and-paste-dub job a surefire hit on the strip: the Flux Pavilion-featuring Jah No Partial arouses resonances approaching brownish noise – far from advisable at Reading, of all places – while the gloopy squelch of Original Don sounds equivalently cruddy. Somehow even more obscene than this almost pantomimic dancehall pastiche, however, is the sheer multitude of teens ‘twerking’ sleazily, grinding against strangers’ nether regions, and generally indulging in inconceivable smut. They work themselves into a sweat, which is more than can be said of Diplo who, conversely, doesn’t appear to do an awful lot other than to dole out whistles from atop an apparently redundant DJ booth. For something so obviously engineered for the purpose of enjoyment, you could likely extract more entertainment from a long-haul flight to Jamaica, and the feeling incurred is thus one of absolute isolation.
It feels like an elaborate ploy – minimal exertion for maximised financial gain, Thomas Pentz setting his stall out as something of a transatlantic Calvin Harris. And in truth, such is the creative inertia that plays out onstage that it makes The Knife’s habitually abominable latest live portrayal out to be some sort of symphonic spectacular worthy of staging in the Royal Opera House. As was with that, a modest expenditure has visibly been pumped into the performance, the closest we come to a “special guest” being a bloke in an oversized costume of the caricature from the Free the Universe artwork – akin to an ill-fitting Wyclef Jean onesie – while Pentz at one point assumes the magical Wayne Coyne position. Unceremoniously dumping the blazer to his tapered suit, he hops inside an inflatable, life-size hamster ball in order that he might roll around atop his audience a while. And whereas Coyne makes it look as though his purpose in life is to pull off this intricate gimmick, Diplo instead looks like a disillusioned businessman who, having sponged off all sorts, is finally allowed to expunge himself of all of his most hedonistic desires – those that his bosses, whether contractual or parental, always prohibited. And in a way, it’s a bit depressing when seen as such, not least as he’s somehow been afforded an audience in front of whom he may perform these ludicrous manoeuvres. There’s incontestable lucre to be gained in a show this lacklustre, with nigh on nothing played live (its every contrivance inevitably distracts us from this) and, perhaps appositely, it therefore seems to play up to business-like stratagem. It would be an intriguing ploy, and one he might’ve got away with, had it not been executed to such desperately subpar effect. No amount of confetti, nor idiosyncratic crowd surfing can mask that fact.
There is no Amber Coffman nor Ezra Koenig; Timberlee nor ‘Ms. Dy-Na-Mi-Tee’, all of which further imbues the evening with the feel of effort being in drastically low supply, a prefabricated mix comprising tinny backing tracks run entirely from a computer instead rewound and subsequently replicated nightly. And so the show ultimately feels insulting. It’s one that, until tasered with a great deal more musical nous, I’d do almost anything to evade: there is no cohesion to it, nor is there any rhythm whatsoever with what sounds an entire Notting Hill Carnival pummelled punitively into its every second. Worst yet, however, is the point at which Pentz and his lethargic hype men implore we remove our shirts and hang them out to dry overhead. The tent becomes a kind of demonic shantytown for a few seconds, before thousands take part in a foolhardy musical exchanging of tops, the air filled with fetid tees. Diplo obliges, instantly looking like the king of the festival’s traditionally uninhabitable purple camp site, before another mob of topless wonders drip out the tent to the deplorably pithy strains of Get Free. Josh No Partial, I think it’s probably about fair to say.
With both trilbies and newly relocated beard trimmers at the ready, a rejuvenated System Of A Down couldn’t look more like they belonged in NW1 were the four reunited pariahs sporting Dr. Martens clodhoppers the size of most Camden bedsits. Yet whereas theirs was once a stylisation renowned for its extremist outlook and the extreme adulation it engendered, those are tropes now arguably more commonly associated with the current crop of hip hop hoodlums. For which see A$AP Rocky: his improvidently violent beats and vicious rhymes inspire many a mosh pit, long before he pleas to see “titties and middle fingers” during Wild For The Night. It’s all borderline unintelligible otherwise, as can so often be the case with rap at festivals, while he plays straight into the recurrently problematic conundrum of the sound of an altogether alien culture beamed in for an almost exclusively white, middle class audience. Rocky shares certain characteristics with the customarily rash attitudes of the Reading Festival, and evidently harbours a taste for the sybaritic proclivities of the whole shebang, with PMW (All I Really Need) a particularly despicable outburst. But for a first bout of ostensibly heavyweight hip hop to have been sprinkled a little sparingly throughout the weekend, Rocky still feels a little featherweight.
The fluffy jumpsuits are out again in force for this evening’s headliner, with a pastel bunny jiving to Blitzkrieg Bop over on the Main Stage. Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly heightens the anticipated sense of suspense further, before Green Day emerge. If the day has already experienced everything from il buono (namely Parquet Courts and Deftones) to il brutto (MS MR, Skindred, Cerebral Ballzy and so on) and even a smattering of il cattivo (Major Lazer, of course) then it finally hits its stride under the cover of darkness as triumphant before they’ve even struck a note, Billie Joe Armstrong & co. really strike a chord. Sure, were they really to inspire anywhere near “99 revolutions tonight” they could do with the likes of Know Your Enemy and Welcome to Paradise being a little more audible all the way to the back, as the sound is at times a little like that of a crackle-addled recording spluttered from a decrepit Cadillac tape deck. But nobody spits more inspirational puerility with a guitar slung from their neck than Armstrong, and the overlord of ADD-punk is on song this evening. He’s a compelling performer, dragging up stage-shy adolescents from the left, the right and indeed the centre with consummate assurance, although as is he himself, the show is not without its indwelling issues.
From its contrived “freak” against the odds recounts to the dangerous proximity of American Idiot material to punk-rock parody, or perhaps worse still a parody of their former selves, Armstrong has arguably had all too heavy a hand in pantomimic Broadway production techniques. Herein lies the answer as to how they’re capable of fleshing out well over two hours with so many songs that started out barely scratching at even two minutes: prolix hi jinx, and more superfluous whoa-whoa call and response than an entire Lulu tour. Though they’re more than capable of acute directness when they want for it, and Letterbomb positively explodes with urgency. We could do without it being bookended by more of Armstrong’s in-house anchorman patter (“We’ve got a shitload of great bands here today, and it’s three days long”) and his embarking upon unnecessary diatribes on famine, worldwide mundanity, and so on. But if we hear all too much of his pipsqueak speaking voice, then we could never get enough when sung, as his tone remains pristine as his permanently boyish features. It cuts right through to the fore on Holiday, a song to evoke a little more animation. Up until this point, it’s been long overdue and even if littered with yet more wishy-washy political rhetoric, it signals an upward turn in terms of the Friday night. Another prolix introduction preludes the Oasis-aping Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which is followed by a feigned expiration that’s again far too histrionic for even a less conservative British audience. “This is fucking England, baby!” Armstrong cries and though this may well be the case factually, thematically his is a tone that doesn’t wash all that well off of Shaftesbury Avenue. His dense soliloquies struggle against the unrelenting thump of Skrillex as well and from where I’m stood, the absolute lack of subtlety isn’t exactly helped by the fact that Tré Cool’s own rhythmic whack looks and sounds to be coming from two differing time zones.
It’s a distance that feels equivalent to that which separates the Reading and Glastonbury festivals in feel, and whereas Nepalese flags can frequently be seen flying high in the Somerset skies come June, here that hoisted most prominently depicts a key made out to look like a cock of the genital kind. As such, ¡Uno! single Let Yourself Go serves as a pretty apt missive to the miscreants here huddled hundreds of rows deep. And if they may deem this particular weekend a degenerate dream of sorts, then Wake Me Up When September Ends carries with it a similar pertinence: school, ultimately, beckons; this is the last hurrah of the now-receding British Summer Time. The song itself may evoke a melancholy kind of euphoria, harking back to a better, less depressive epoch in Green Day’s abiding existence, but its message rings out loud and clear across the festival. The immediate return to curricular tedium is always the worst and by October, with the numbing humdrum of reality having returned in earnest, the gloom can tend to lift a touch. “Summer has come and passed/ The innocent can never last” bemoans Billie Joe, warbling to a rabble of teen delinquents, though if their recent past has held ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and indeed ¡Tré! then the imminent future will be remembered for the trio’s return to Dookie.
2014 is to mark the 20th anniversary of their third studio full-length, and it’s tonight commemorated as it’s played “front to back.” Admittedly, Burnout immediately infinitely betters anything from the (albeit only infrequently revisited) trilogy aforementioned, their magnum opus magnificently recreated down to the sharpest particular. It’s out with the pubescent aquamarine Strat coated in a thick skin of sticker, and in with the syncopated grooves of a lolloping Longview; a brusquely unhinged Basket Case; When I Come Around that, even decades on, has more crunch to it than most of the MSG-infused foodstuffs on offer around the site. “Do you ever think back to another time?” he quizzes almost pruriently from beneath a Malcolm McDowell-like bowler hat during Having a Blast, and in reciting the recording in full, they quite evidently do. The times, they’ve a-changed since the album first came out, with those these days sitting around and watching the tube likely vicariously living the experience live from this, “the greatest festival in the world.” And whereas even earlier on in the afternoon fortified walls of death were appearing among us, it’s now a “wall of hugs” we’re instructed to construct.
And Green Day are at their most loveable once they’ve gone back to basics: when gone is the sequinned trilby worn a little earlier on, and there’s little interference from external forces – from keyboardists, saxophonists and so forth. Armstrong has himself become a master of the call and response tactic, no question, and has now added bravado to his booming arsenal of character. Though having himself felt “like a social tool without a use” and subsequently submitted himself to rehab in his quest to kick addictions to drink and prescription drugs, there is so too an auxiliary vulnerability to him these days. His skittish demeanour and insatiable thirst for continued attention and constant self-assurance play into this sensation, his jazz hands and incessant chants of “olé” making him out to act a little more like his shoe size than most. “Who wants a t-shirt?” he sniffles, firing loo roll from a bazooka-like dispenser. (He’ll later smash his guitar as it goes out of tune during a rollicking Waiting.) But for an album to be charted at the apex of brat-punk that has somehow since retained nigh on every globule of blood, droplet of sweat and tear to have been poured into its composition, it’s a fittingly impudent way in which to conclude its recital. And although the benefit of hindsight elucidates the fact that the album sags in places – as so many records and the retrospective shows thereof so often tend to do – Dookie still proves an explosive album worthy of prolonged attention.
Indeed in ditching the histrionics, the troop combine to make for a considerably more consummate performance. Though it’s on a strangely hootenanny Minority redux – one replete with accordions and Gaelic acoustics – that Armstrong exposes another change in society: for whereas the likes of Reading and Leeds were once causes for celebration among the minority, the festivals have since become altogether more mainstream concerns applicable even to “the moron majority.” Many a witless occurrence is witnessed throughout the weekend, and an inane American Idiot – uttered in drones by what seems the entirety of “Reading, England” – elicits the sort of response to suggest it really were some breakthrough oratory on the regression of society stateside, and not the impetuous barre chord bombast it really is. It’s something of a self-contained contradiction in terms, not least as Green Day have perpetuated a career by catering for those most staunch adherents to the attitudes of this soi-disant “age of paranoia.” Dookie may remain their biggest selling recording to date, though never have the band been more renowned nor more feverishly received than now, and they’ve profited from the angst and uncertainty of modern-day America, without question. It’s allowed them not only to write the likes of Jesus Of Suburbia – tonight’s comprehensive run-through would seemingly require the concentrative pep-me-up provided by the popping of a Ritalin, so exhausting is this doo-wop rendition – but to have it so rapturously entertained too, as approaching balls-out Springsteen anthemia, it’s a far cry from what was once renowned of them. And as we drift further into the future, frequently cited parallels between this and Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 make themselves increasingly manifest.
Stylistically, it’s relentlessly restless – much like Armstrong himself, and indeed Green Day collectively speaking. Though the feeling is that even in agreeing to headline Billie Joe’s beloved Reading Festival, they’ve lost contact a touch with their initial purpose. Yet long beyond an encore lies Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life): recited exclusively acoustically and alone, it just about feels the one and only time we’re seeing the real Armstrong – the introspective individual smothered in pomp and show, and shielded by walls of hugs, death and of course distortion. He may do well to emerge from his shell a little more often, for it’s when he’s doubtless at his most engaging.
Though engaging as the ’97 single may sound this evening, there’s only one necessary extended coda to day one, and it’s that of abstruse Bristolian duo Fuck Buttons. Breaking with convention, they in turn break up the typically disjointed flow of the Silent Disco to stupefy via headphones: initial crackle fogs an otherwise thunderous Brainfreeze, and for a track that can sometimes become a quite confrontational force live, the impression it leaves in its wispy wake is one of sober reservation. Elements inspire: that you can remove the wireless receiver, and hear Andrew Hung’s infantile squawks when stripped of echo and all manner of supplemental effect. Though in doing so, simultaneously exposed is a continual jeering from those expecting Bon Jovi and bloody Mr. Brightside stuck on an interminable loop all evening long. You fear for how audible it may well sound onstage, as the feeling of sabotage takes hold. The levels similarly, if initially iffy, may never be fully evened out and the pairing perhaps lack a little of their trademark abrasion as a result. Subsequently, as we’re swept brutally into a more cogent Surf Solar, the sound seems to clatter you from every angle, its awry pulsations hammering down with the disharmonious symphony of a tempestuous Celtic Sea. These self-evident teething problems with the wireless persist, with the connection at times choppy as several of this evening’s transitions, though the powerful live drums that propel Colours Move cut through with renewed bite. And indeed as and when the duo find themselves finely attuned not only to one another but so too to the imperceptible wavelengths darting about the tent, then you’re able to pick up on their every intricate detail with incisive clarity.
Of course when it comes to electronic music in the main, there’s a valid debate stirring as to whether its practitioners tend to provide enough live that’s external to what can be experienced when among home comforts, and with the pro of a professional speaker system tonight negated, the parley recurs pretty weightily. But as Fuck Buttons chop and change acidically between new and old, and needless to say reproduce nigh on every element live, there’s a sense that this is a show that needs to be both seen and heard to be believed. The funereally pacific swirl of their enormous disco ball feels at odds with the frequently belligerent euphoria they trigger from their equipment, and before an eventually authoritative Olympians overcomes technical difficulty, conflicting cris de cœur swarm the Alternative Stage. “Play a song!” some growl, a growing number retorting with calls for “Fuck Buttons! Fuck Buttons!” Visibly perturbed, there seems to be a point at which they wonder as to whether it’s worth them carrying on at all, with the waves rushing through sounding unrefined and at times even chaotic. But persevere with one of the weirdest live music experiences committed to recent memory they must, and in due course do, the gradual unravelling of Sentients darkly epiphanic as you could hope for it to be. It’s preceded by the insistent hiss of machinery, before we return to the deep end wherein resides the brutalist, off-kilt hip hop of The Red Wing. It’s during this that, when seen to be doing so much, you can’t help but wonder how and why the likes of Major Lazer have gotten to where they now have on such imperceptible live ability and imagination with regard to recreation.
And although this outré gig for one; a show inside the skull will likely be a one-off, in spite of its indwelling merits, if the shimmying inside the tent is kept to a minimum then never have I ever seen the Silent Disco phenomenon employed to better effect. As for Fuck Buttons, neither DJs nor exactly a band either, whatever they may be, few can produce stuff as consistently spellbinding as this.