This blog post is dedicated to anyone who has ever had an asthma attack at a festival.
I know that it’s easy to over exaggerate the importance of past events when writing blog posts about days gone by, but, bare with me, because I feel that what happened 20 years ago this August bank holiday weekend can easily be classed as a milestone event in my own personal musical history. And with that, justifies having a whole blog post dedicated to its memory. It seems weird to say, as if it can’t quite possibly be true, that this weekend marks exactly 20 years since I first attended the Reading Festival. Reading ’95 was the first time I had ever been to a ‘proper’ gig where big and famous bands were playing, so as of this weekend I can say that I’ve been going to see live bands for 20 years now. An incredible amount of mind-blowing things have happened in the decades since and it all started with that one life changing weekend.
I imagine that most people get misty eyed about the decade they lived their teenage years through and I’m no different. For me, the 90’s was amazing time. The last decade before the internet and mobile phones took over, a time when high streets were still packed with shops that were open, kids could play in the streets and you would watch TV shows when the TV scheduler’s dictated you should watch them. It was also a time when bands and music really mattered. For example, a whole week in the summer of 1995 the news focussed on whether it would be Oasis or Blur who would score the number 1 position in the singles chart that week. I couldn’t even tell you if there is a singles chart anymore let alone name the pop combo who sits on top of it at the moment.
In the July of 1995 I turned 15. At the time I had long greasy hair, played guitar in a band called Toothpaste and had a group of friends at school who everyone else there referred to as the ‘Grunge Club’. Music was all that really mattered to me at the time. I hated school, for the most part, but I had a cool group of like-minded friends there for whom music was everything. We wore Doc Marten’s, had band names scrawled across our school bags and spent our lunch times practicing Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Stiltskin covers.
That year had already been a turning point, our bands had started to try to play gigs in public and not just at school and we were allowed out in the evenings more and more. We would spend these at shows where slightly older teenagers would play slightly better covers than we could (my favourite local band, Flannel, could do a near perfect version of ‘mayonnaise’ that would blow my teenage socks off) or drinking sickening amounts of White Lightning cider at the beach. As part of our work experience fortnight our school had paid for us to spend a day at a recording studio to record songs we had written to form part of our Music GCSE coursework. That day cemented our obsession with playing music, we felt like rock stars to walk away with a cassette with our songs on it. We repaid this privilege that the school had bestowed on us by playing a cover of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the name’ at the end of year school music competition which ended with a group of us being suspended from school for the last couple of days of the summer term.
Despite the amount of trouble I had gotten in at home for this misdemeanour, and to my great surprise, my parents agreed to allow me to go with a small group of friends to the 1995 Reading Festival. I had been going on about going since my best friend at the time had been to the festival in 1994 and when I had seen the line up announcement in Kerrang a few months before it was due to take place I quadrupled my efforts. I repeatedly emphasised how this was a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to see all my favourite bands in one place and in the end they said yes and gave me the money and permission to go.
This will tell you how different things were back then. To obtain my ticket my parents had given me the cash, I caught the bus in to Canterbury and walked hurriedly to Richards Records believing everyone would know I was carrying more money than I ever had before. I entered the shop, asked for one weekend camping ticket for the Reading Festival and put my £65(!!!) on the counter, the man produced a book of tickets, tore one out and handed it over. I carefully put this in my wallet and headed straight to get the bus home. The thought of being able to go in to a record shop and buy a ticket over the counter a few weeks before the event seems so alien now.
There was a group of 5 of us that were lucky enough to go that year, all of us 15 and for me, at least, it was the first time I was allowed to travel away from home unaccompanied overnight. The sense of freedom was both liberating and maybe a bit overwhelming. I’d gotten the train to London plenty of times before that point, so everything seemed pretty normal until the point. When we boarded the 2nd train to take us to Reading I started to realise that pretty much everyone in the carriage was going to the same place. Then on exiting the train station at Reading and seeing the mass of people who were all heading in the same direction and for the same reason, it hit me that this was really happening. The first sight of the main stage in the distance as you head along the road to the festival site got me really excited, I think it’s safe to say that night I got a little carried away.
The Thursday night at the Reading Festival gives you no option but to go crazy. The bands don’t start until the next day, you’ve set up your tent, had a walk in to town for supplies and something to eat, played ‘Bollocks’ a fair amount, so then you’re there in a massive field with thousands of young people all wanting to party. So that’s what we did. My memory of that night is pretty vague, I remember sitting in my tent with one of my friends and starting off a 2 litre bottle of cider but from then on it gets hazy. I have a vague memory of being in some strangers tent laughing but apart from that the only thing I can really remember was stumbling into my own tent, throwing up on my sleeping bag, turning it over and then getting in it and going to sleep. It must’ve been quite an eventful night because in the morning I had a massive headache and as I sat outside my tent to eat some cereal I’d bought with me all these people, whom I have no idea who they were, kept saying hi to me and knew my name.
There wasn’t a lot of time to wallow in a hangover as there were bands to go and see. Being allowed in to the arena for the first time of the weekend is always a fun feeling. You’re finally allowed to see the stages up close with the promise of bands about to come out, plus there are cleaner toilets here at opening time than there are in the campsite and usually better food options. Although by the Saturday I was usually relying on the salvation army to supply the rest of my weekend’s sustenance, soup and a roll for a quid is all you need to survive. That Friday in 1995 I made my way straight to the front row centre to take up my place for the day. Being naïve I thought I’d stay here all day, not realising that pretty soon the weight of thousands of people pushing up against you is pretty hard to take. It worked out ok for a good while that afternoon though. And at one point, when I felt really sick after the first band had played, I seemed to be in the best place as the barrier provided a nice buffer between the vomit and the rest of the crowd and I. Plus a nice security guard was on hand to give me many cups of cold water to try to hydrate.
The main stage lineup on the Friday is something etched in my mind and will probably stay with me forever. Even though I was mainly there for the bands playing later in the day, I really enjoyed every band that played that day which is rare with festival lineups. China Drum isn’t a band I would ever go on to buy any albums of but they’ll always be the first proper band I ever saw live. They did a great job of kicking the festival off with their inflatable Newky brown bottles and Kate Bush covers. I pretty much fell in love with Juliana Hatfield from the time she took to the stage, back home I would go on to buy her records and ‘Only Everything’ still gets regular plays to this day and evoking memories of that summer every time. Deus were good fun, it’s always enjoyable when you’re watching a band you barely know at a festival and they play a song you both recognise and like too. ‘Suds and Soda’ was definite highlight and I can still picture them playing it in the sunshine that day.
I was a bit disappointed with Beck, not because he wasn’t good , he was the opposite in fact but because when I’d seen him perform ‘Loser’ on Top of the Pops a few months earlier his backing band had all been really old people. I thought they just must be his band and was a bit gutted when these young guys in backwards baseball caps walked onstage and started playing. Not that it put me off though, I really like Beck and he was great that afternoon playing all the hits from ‘Mellow Gold’.
It was during the next band, Teenage Fanclub, though that being in the front row had become unsustainable. The crowd had swelled in size and the pressure felt by being squashed against the barrier, coupled with being at the point where all the crowd surfers landed meant I could stay there no longer. I had desperately wanted to be in the front row for Hole but I couldn’t hack it and shouted for a security guard to pull me out of the crowd. I felt comforted by the fact that I must’ve got some pretty decent photo’s that day from my front row vantage point but even more frustratingly my camera jammed later on that day. I made the rookie error of opening the back which exposed the film and with it wiped every photo I had taken. There was no bringing them back, they were all lost and I feel annoyed to this day just thinking about it.
The next 3 days formed the main basis of why it was that I was so desperate to go that year. Just the mere thought of watching Hole, Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins all in the same evening sent me into hysterics. I was besotted with all 3 of those bands at the time, spending many hours in my bedroom at home playing my guitar along to their CDs whilst staring at their posters on my wall, fantasising that one day they would ask me to join them onstage.
By the time Hole had taken to the stage I was in the much more appropriate place in the crowd of towards the front but to the left. It is still my go to place to stand during shows and it worked out well then too. Not only did I have a great view of the band, I also narrowly missed a section of the crowd that seemed to just fall to the ground whilst pogo-ing to ‘Violet’. I was blown away by seeing Courtney Love in the flesh, I was used to seeing her all the time on MTV and in magazines but here she was screaming in to a microphone just a few feet away. My love for her at the time had been impacted partly by how much my Dad hated her. Not to sound too much like a stereotypical teenager but when Hole were on Top of the Pops to play ‘Doll Parts’, my Dad spent the entirety of the song spewing forth anti-Love vitriol based on how talentless he thought she was. For some reason this made him really angry and this hardened my pro-Love stance. To be fair, he may have had a point and my opinion of Courtney Love has certainly changed over time but back then I couldn’t disagree more and seeing Hole play live that day was one of the most exciting times I had as a teenager.
As a 15-year-old I think I was the perfect audience for Green Day’s set. Not only was it packed with all the hits from ‘Dookie’ but sandwiched in between this was loads of jokes, swearing and audience interaction. Being told by Billie Joe Armstrong to , as part of thousands of people watching, yell ‘Fuck off you Yankee cunts’ at the band felt like the coolest thing ever. The energy didn’t let up for the whole time they were onstage and they even treated us to a new song, ‘Geek stink breath’, which makes me feel really old to say now.
Talking of new songs, most bands headlining festivals would limit the amount of new material in their sets to appease the crowd. But then most bands aren’t Smashing Pumpkins. And considering those new songs happened to be some of the best songs on ‘Mellon Collie…’ you can understand why they wanted to play them. It was amazing to hear songs like ‘Zero’ and ‘Bullet with butterfly wings’ for the first time in this setting, especially as I would never see Smashing Pumpkins play again having gone off them by the time ‘Adore’ was released. Plus they played my favourite SP song, ‘Geek USA’, just after I’d bumped into my friends in the crowd, one of whom let me watch from upon his shoulders. That moment really topped off an incredible day, my hangover had gone, Billy Corgan had a full head of hair and all was good in the world.
The next day though, things went downhill. Having been asthmatic since I was 6 years old I had done the sensible thing by packing my inhaler. However, no one had warned me how dusty it would be at the festival site and what an adverse reaction I would have to this. In those days the emergency inhaler I carried around with me was really old-fashioned. It required a caplet to be inserted into the bottom of the inhaler, which you would then twist back and forth before breathing it all in. The case I took had the space to carry 8 caplets which you could take up to once every 4 hours as required. In a normal summer I’d probably use my inhaler 5 times tops, it’s always been mild asthma that I suffered from. By the Saturday morning that weekend, I was down to my last caplet. I sat in my tent about to take it when my friend Gee piped up with the classic line, ‘Al, are you sure you wanna use it now, we’ve got Skunk Anansie later!’. However much I wanted to join him in the mosh pit for ‘Selling Jesus’ and all the rest, I was struggling to breathe and needed the momentary relief the Ventolin would provide. Shortly after this I followed my friend’s advice and took myself off to the medical tent in the hope that they would prescribe me some more medicine. This started a long tradition of visiting the medical tent at the Reading Festival. In total I’ve been to the festival 6 times and only have only avoided requiring medical assistance on one of those times, and that’s only because 1996 was a rainy mud fest so it was nowhere near as dusty.
Luckily the medical team there saw what a bad way I was in and ordered me a new inhaler, it would take until the next day to arrive so they hooked me up to a nebulizer in the meantime. This got me through the rest of that day, a day that was nowhere near as jam-packed with bands that I wanted to see as the previous day had been.
I made it back in to the arena to watch Skunk Anansie, I didn’t risk getting stuck right into the middle but enjoyed them from my new favourite position to the left. They were a definite highlight of an afternoon that also included watching Tricky and the Boo Radleys out of sheer laziness of not wanting to move from where I had chosen to lay down near the sound booth at the main stage. After a second visit to the medical team later that evening, I headed over to the Melody Maker tent for the first and only time of the weekend, ignoring Paul Weller as I passed the main stage and found myself a decent position for the Foo Fighters.
The Foo Fighters performance at Reading that year is the stuff of legend. Having booked the band before the release of their self titled album, the organisers had taken a bit of a punt on putting them on the second stage. Little did they know that approx. 20,000 people would try to fit themselves in a tent that could barely hold a third of that. People were climbing the scaffolding holding the tent up and sitting on the fences at the side of the tent. Because of this Dave Grohl had to repeatedly tell people to get down otherwise the organisers were threatening to pull the plug on their set. If only everyone had known that all they needed to do was to get down early and patiently stand through Echobelly’s set to get a good space in the crowd. Maybe the thought of that was too much for some to bear, I never liked Echobelly and they seemed to drag on for an awfully long amount of time but the lure of the Foo Fighters to my 15-year-old self was worth it. And it paid off because when they took to the stage I had a great view of the band and enough space around me to not feel the pressure of the crowd. They tore straight in to ‘Winnebago’ and didn’t look back. Although the atmosphere in the tent that night was pretty electric, I really wasn’t well. By the time they launched in to ‘Weenie Beenie’, which was about halfway through their set, I needed to get a drink and sit down. It took me forever to reach the outside of the tent as the crowd seemed to go on forever but I could still hear them as I reached a refreshment stand, bought a coke and sat down. They sounded amazing and I regret not seeing it through to the end, at the time though all I wanted to do was go back to my tent and try to get some sleep. I made my way back, pausing for a couple of minutes to watch Bjork be great from afar on the main stage.
I still felt really rough on the Sunday morning, I don’t know whether this is the case for most festivals but Reading is really not the place to be if you suffer badly from a mix of hay fever and asthma. Luckily though there was some good news though when the arena opened that afternoon. My new inhaler had arrived at the medical tent, going to get it meant missing Pennywise and NOFX on the main stage but that was a small price to pay to be able to breathe again. My spirits were instantly lifted, even to the point where I was able to join in a water fight with a friend in the arena.
My friends and I planted ourselves in front of the main stage again that afternoon and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the day. Blind Melon did a good enough job of easing me back in watching bands play, ‘No Rain’ being both a pleasant soundtrack to lazing in the sunshine and an apt description of the dust fest Reading had turned in too. They were nothing, however, compared to what was to come next. I loved White Zombie at the time, ‘Astro Creep 2000…’ being an album I would listen to repeatedly and they didn’t disappoint. I even stood up and moved nearer to the stage for them, which considering the circumstances was a great honour. I still remember being confused though at one point when Rob Zombie was telling the assembled masses how great it had been to play Donington the day before and asked if anyone had been there, a huge roar went up in the crowd as if to say ‘YES!’. Bloody liars. I don’t know why that has stayed with me but it seemed to get under my skin.
Babes in Toyland and Buffalo Tom continued that afternoon’s great entertainment but both were blown away by Mudhoney who were truly awesome.
By the time they were done, my friends and I decided it was high time we got some dinner and go for a walk. Looking back this was an awful idea as it meant missing most of Pavement. If I had known what a massive fan of Pavement I would become then I would’ve stayed put. Luckily I would get to see them properly a few years later but that was still a dumb thing to do. I wanted to make sure to make sure I was refreshed and ready for the next band so at the time it made sense. For up next were Soundgarden.
In my eyes Soundgarden were legends and a huge reason for me to attend the festival that year. To this day their performance that glorious summer evening continues to be one of the most disappointing musical experiences of my life. They were dreadful. They sounded weak, they looked bored, there was zero energy and I was gutted. Being 15 and watching big bands for the first time I must’ve been someone who was easily impressed, I’d much rather be able to enjoy something and was nothing like as cynical as I can be now. So, they must’ve been pretty awful for me to feel that way then. They completely bored me and were the only band that I had wanted to see to do so that whole weekend.
I stuck around for the whole set though because I wanted a good spot in the crowd to see my absolute heroes. Up next were PEARL JAM!! Well, kind of. It was actually Neil Young, but this was ‘Mirrorball’ era Neil Young so it meant Pearl Jam, minus Eddie Vedder, were his backing band. It was a great thrill to see Neil Young, who I’d come to like by proxy of being a massive Pearl Jam fan, but an even greater thrill to see Jeff Ament, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard on that stage that night. I didn’t last, however. About an hour in there was nebulizer in the medical tent calling out my name and I needed its help to breathe once more. And that’s where I stayed until the bands had all finished.
The next morning I was glad to be going home. That Monday morning trudge to Reading train station is never fun, it is amusing to get back in to London to change trains and realise you are amongst normal people again though. You wear the festival stench with pride as you get back in to normality. I felt instantly well again once I was back home and just wanted to stuff my face and tell everyone I knew what an amazing weekend I had just had.
My friend Gee and I talked about Reading constantly for months after, there wasn’t a school day that went past without it being mentioned. we kept our Reading festival wristbands on until they eventually fell off at around Christmas time. Our stories of the weekend must have had an impact on our friends as come Reading 1996 there was a massive group of at least 20 of us that went. A few years later my friend Gee had Reading 1995 tattooed on his wrist where his wristband had once laid such was the impact that weekend had on our impressionable 15-year-old selves.
The festival seems so different now, I haven’t been since 2003 and even then it had started to lose that magic and charm it once had. Overbearing corporate sponsorship, strict security firms patrolling the camp site, the addition of Leeds and the main stage moving further and further away from the crowd have all taken the shine away. But then I guess that Reading isn’t meant for someone in their mid thirties who likes home comforts more and more. It has a youthful energy to it, a spirit that won’t stand being fobbed off and will bottle second-rate performers. I really hope teenagers that go this year for the first or second time get something like that same experience we had back in 1995. It was life changing, I’ll never forget it and still dream one day that, however unlikely, I’ll be able to be in a band that plays the festival. Obviously, as long as there is a nebulizer on stand by at the side of the stage.
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