With festival culture having survived the recession, Getintothis’ Banjo reckons it’s all down to Reading, Meat Loaf – and a particularly well aimed urine-filled plastic bottle.
Those of you who have recently experienced the frustration of Glastonbury tickets day, the early Sunday morning start, the constant screen refreshing and usually the disappointment that follows an agonising less-than-30 minutes later, may be surprised to hear that it was not always like this when buying festival tickets. Oh no, in the olden days, festivals often didn’t sell out at all, never mind within 29 minutes.
In fact, in the late 1980s, festivals were in crisis.
Back then, there were only a handful of festivals, with Glastonbury and Reading being the main two, and they were all struggling to sell enough tickets to fill their fields and make their money. It seems unlikely that two festivals could struggle to attract punters from such a limited pool of customers, a bit like thinking back to when there were only three TV channels to choose from, but this is how things were. As a side note, festivals were primitive affairs then too, far from the slick, multi-staged affairs we see now.
In 1980, when as a mere youth of some 17 summers, lean of limb and spotty of countenance, I went to my first Reading Festival, the main stage was the only stage on offer and was split in two, with one band’s gear being set up when another was playing. This meant that the crowd towards the front only had a good view of 50% of the bands and there was usually someone sound checking while they were playing. And no matter how much we complain about the toilets at festivals these days, they are undoubtedly several steps up from the plastic sheeting and ‘seats’ that were actually two rows of scaffolding, that greeted festival goers full of bitter and burgers in those desperate times.
While Glastonbury was seen as something of a hippy hangover, Reading in the 80s was old school ROCK, with a large contingent of bikers/Hells Angels making up their regular audience. Both were struggling to come to terms with the newer, alternative music that had exploded since the late 70s, and Reading’s early experiment with punk was quickly abandoned due to the violence that erupted between the two factions in the crowd, the old guard not taking kindly to the strange interlopers turning up at their festival!
Reading’s organisers, The Marquee, came up with a solution – use Friday as ‘alternative day’ and get all of these newer bands out of the way before the traditional Reading crowd descended fully. Friday even used to start a few hours later and there was an air of throwing the punks and goths a bone from the top table. The 1986 line up is a good example of this, with Killing Joke and The Mission on the Friday before Saxon and Hawkwind took over as Saturday and Sunday headliners.
Following a break, Reading seemed to be struggling to find an identity, not quite sure of which crowd to attract, and no year made this schizophrenia more evident than 1988. The ‘alternative’ crowd were reasonably well treated on the Friday, with Iggy, The Ramones, The Wonderstuff and Fields of the Nephilim on the bill. After that, things went seriously weird, with Bonnie Tyler, Meat Loaf and Starship taking the top three slots on the Saturday and Squeeze, Hothouse Flowers and Deacon Blue doing the same on the Sunday. Little did the organisers know, but the scene had been set for a showdown.
The bikers, angry that their festival was being taken away from them, reacted with an epic hail of beer cans and that old festival staple, plastic bottles full of urine all being sent stagewards when a band they particularly objected to took to the boards. Deacon Blue lasted one song before the sheer volume of projectiles sent them from the stage – there are reports of the sky being ‘black with bottles’.
Bonnie Tyler took the stage a day earlier to a similar barrage, but responded with a loud & long torrent of abuse directed at the crowd, turning the air blue with curses rather than black with bottles, and stood her ground, refusing to be driven from the stage. For this, she won the admiration of the crowd and actually finished her set to a roar of approval. In the break, DJ Liz Kershaw called the crowd ‘children’ and asked if they wanted bottle throwing or rock n roll. The predictable response followed and the sky was once again obscured by bottles.
It was in this atmosphere that Meat Loaf walked on stage. In a gig that has now assumed legendary status, Meat was driven off stage before even finishing his opening number due the level of bombardment, before returning to brave the crowd again a few minutes later. A few songs after this he retreated for a second time before coming up with a plan.
He would come back on stage and play Bat Out of Hell, which would surely win the crowd round. This he did and all seemed to be going well until a particularly well aimed bottle of urine sailed through the night air, its contents leaving a golden arc behind it as it travelled towards the stage, and hit Meat Loaf full in the face. The noise of contact was audible over the mic and Meat Loaf gave the crowd the finger and walked off, never to return.
It was clear that things had to change, as much because of poor sales as the level of violence on display; the Festival had sold approximately half their tickets that year. So out went the usual organisers The Marquee, to be replaced by The Mean Fiddler, led by Vince Power.
The new look 1989 Reading Festival was to be a very different beast indeed. Gone was the two stage arrangement and in its place came a new main stage where set ups were done on risers and wheeled on and off for change overs. The biggest change however was with the line up. Friday saw New Order headline, ably supported by Swans, Sugarcubes and Spacemen 3; Saturday saw The Pogues and New Model Army take the lead while the festival closed with Pop Will Eat Itself, Butthole Surfers and The Mission, many of whom would surely have been bottled off in previous years.
The following year would see an embarrassment of riches, with The Cramps, Nick Cave, Faith No More, Mudhoney and Jane’s Addiction on the Friday alone. Although Jane’s would pull out at the last minute, Reading had successfully reinvented itself. 1991 again delivered, with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Sisters of Mercy on the bill, and a certain Nirvana taking the stage around 3.00 in the afternoon (this was the gig where Kurt fractured his elbow jumping backwards over the drum kit). Another new feature was installed; a second stage where lesser known acts had a turn. The modern festival was taking shape.
The crowd had also changed. Comparing photos from pre and post 1989 this is quite striking. Gone are the ageing biker crowds and in is a much younger audience – indie kids in band t-shirts, punks, goths, a riot of colour and styles; as dramatic a shift in audience has probably never happened in British festivals, before or since. Reading had become hip again. And the upshot of this was a surge in the number of people who wanted to attend. Reading soon added a sister festival in Leeds, such was the demand for tickets, a far cry from the half full 1988 arena.
By 1993, Vince Power and the Reading organisers had fallen out, so Power responded by creating the Phoenix Festival. Taking place in July, the UK now had three major festivals taking up June, July and August. The fact that there was enough of an audience to fill an extra festival was testament to the facts that Power had the right idea and that Indie had now grown, in both size and stature, to have replaced Rock as the dominant form of music at festivals. Donnington’s Monsters of Rock sprang up to fill the gap, but as a one day affair, it seems that the tables had turned and the rockers were now the ones being thrown a bone. Dance music was later to add a further boost to both the numbers of people wanting to go to a festival and the number of festivals to choose from. The days of there being two or three to choose from were over.
So in these days of Festival overload, when countless festivals sell out in record time each summer, where going to Glastonbury or Reading/Leeds is seen as a natural thing to do for middle class Guardian readers, straight out of school teenagers, parents with their offspring or hordes of rugger buggers, it is strange to think that maybe, just maybe, we owe it all to a bottle of piss.