Nirvana: Reading Festival, Berkshire

The sights, sounds, smells: Andy Gill reviews Nirvana in the mud at the Reading Festival

TEEN SPIRIT? Smells more like burning polystyrene to me, vast acrid clouds of it, wafting gently across the field from the huge oil-drums serving — somewhat superfluously — as waste-bins, whose contents have been thoughtfully immolated by the small knots of freezing, mud-spattered festival-goers gathered around them. If there is a Purgatory, it is probably modelled on the Reading Festival.

The predominant aroma at pop festivals used to be marijuana, but by Sunday night, with the Festival three days old, there seem to be few with any stash left. The alternative, getting drunk, is apparently the prerogative of the wealthy at these events, the inappropriately-named Worker’s Beer Company selling beer at un-socialist prices — two quid a bottle — from marquees named after Great Socialist Disasters: The Tolpuddle Tent, The Sandinista Tent, etc.

You used to be able to sit down at these affairs, but only Mrs Persil’s bravest offspring dare tonight, the entire field having been turned into a quagmire after a weekend of intermittent showers capped by one particularly torrential downpour late on Sunday afternoon. So you stand there, choking, feet soaked and aching, well and truly softened up for the rumoured last-ever appearance of Nirvana, straining to see whether that tiny figure a quarter of a mile away is really Kurt Cobain or just another roadie. Eventually, it is Kurt Cobain, in a three-quarter-length white coat, and you wish it wasn’t.

Nirvana open their set with one of several songs that feature the refrain “I don’t care” — possibly ‘Breed’, though it is hard to tell, this most astoundingly popular of trios having notched up somewhere in the region of 15 million album sales with the least expansive of musical lexicons. They pride themselves on their punk roots, and in this respect they’re correct — though the Marshall stacks looming impassively across the back of the stage are like some 2001 monolith signifying the return of heavy metal to its natural home. (For several years, the festival took to featuring middling indie/”alternative” bands, as if the contents of the NME had been haphazardly tipped out on to a stage.)

The only thing that separates the grey riffing of Nirvana from the likes of Black Sabbath is their attitude, which appears to be that they can’t be “arsed”. A few songs into their set, Cobain and the bassist, Chris Novoselic, have a whimsical dispute about whether this is, in fact, their final gig, reaching the conclusion that they might tour again in November if, it seems, they can be “arsed”. A new song, ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, is introduced as being “for all you bootleggers out there”, the group failing to be “arsed” enough to put it out. The intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ seems to be composed of so many bum notes it almost sounds right, but maybe Cobain just couldn’t be “arsed” enough to do it properly.

Later, the guitarist introduces another new song, this one written for his new-born son, by telling us how his wife Courtney (who fronts the female rock band Hole) thinks that everybody hates her — which is a bit surprising, given her carefully-contrived, virulent image — and could we all shout out “We love you, Courtney” to cheer her up? Personally, I couldn’t be arsed, and judging by the response generally, neither could many of the crowd. When the song arrives, it has got a typically complex Nirvana chorus, something like “You’re my son/You’re my son/You’re my son/Barry”, which lightens the gloom a little. Barry! Apart from that glorious moment when the Comedy Tent blew away in the wind, this is the funniest thing in an otherwise humour-free day.

© Andy GillThe Independent, 3 September 1992

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