Reading ’91: Reading, Writhing And Riffmatic

FRIDAY: IT WAS obvious, really – he had to say it. Who better than His Supreme Iggyness Of Pop, the Godfather of (s)punk rock, to sum up Day One of Reading ’91, a day of quite magnificent interstellar services to righteous guitar grappling? None better. Say it, Jim…

“Can we do one more? C’mon, let us do one more! Let’s do ‘Louis f–in’ Louie’!”

Oh yes! After so many thrills over the previous eight hours, the assembled masses quivered at this moment of unbridled rock ‘n’ roll genius. Grown men were reduced to gibbering fools. A large, flat, slightly soggy field full of atheists were instantly converted to Popism… yep, rarely had Iggy been so, well, Iggy.

The Man was, however, the beneficiary of some considerable help. For sheer consistent top notch quality, Reading has surely never seen a better line-up, and by the time Iggy Pop was handed the blazing torch – the same one he’d first brandished over 20 years ago – his spiritual children had already dazzled the huge crowd into a state approaching blind delirium.

The crusade to rock Valhalla began with BABES IN TOYLAND. While their last two London shows had suggested that the Minneapolitan mamas’ resolve had been blunted by a seemingly endless Euro sojourn, this was a virulent rendering of a by now familiar set, rekindling the fond memories of two months ago when every stamp of Kat Bjelland’s immaculately shod feet sent a shiver down the spine. ‘Ripe’, ‘Catatonic’, ‘Laugh My Head Off… each one a lullaby snatched from a never-ending nightmare, and a welcome early blast for the already sizable throng.

“F–, it’s like speed being up here.” So enthused SILVERFISH’s Lesley, sporting her elegant summer wardrobe. Rest assured, the mighty ‘Fish proved themselves a tasty addition to the stadium set, as they revelled in a gig where there was no need to compete with the audience for stage space. Lesley treated the Reading boards to her finest bootgirl stomp routine, spitting out some cool fembo did-you-spill-my-Babycham treatises along the way, while Chris, Fuzz and Stu weighed in with their impeccably gnarled groove.

NIRVANA, after a two-date limber-up with Sonic Youth in Ireland, were primed for some serious gesture politics. Spicing the hardy perennial Bleach material with their stunning new pop nuggets, Nirvana crunched the mosh-pit into the danger zone for the first time that day. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Breed’ were each eagerly embraced by the thrilled crowd before things just got silly… Hell, a killer pop triad of ‘Silver’, ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Love Buzz’. During the latter, Kurdt leapt 15 feet down into the photo pit and then into the crowd. Here was anti-rock god posturing at its most thrilling.

All that remained was for Chris to hurl his bass at the startled drummer Dave Grohl – a sobering prospect, for sure – and then Kurdt clinched the issue by vaulting into the kit. Nirvana? This came pretty damn close.

Almost inevitably, a mid-afternoon lull set in as folks groped around for what was left of their senses. CHAPTERHOUSE flopped around in their well mannered way – one found it difficult to equate the anaemic guitar sound entirely with the temperamental PA. Still, they could bask happy in the announcement by compere John Peel that they are his son Thomas’ fave group of the moment.

It’s doubtful that Ravenscroft Jr reckoned much to DINOSAUR JR, though, and truth be told this was J Mascis & co at their most wilful.

A resolutely un-crowd-pleasing set combined with the PA vagaries to pitch the unique Mascis brand of fret beauty into a sorry mire. ‘Freak Scene’ was acclaimed with relief as much as any real enthusiasm, and J’s lethargic tones set a certain mood.

But woo, POP WILL EAT ITSELF would make things alright, no?! Well, sorta, as Mr Mascis would say. Like an illicit kebab at two in the morning, the Poppies were nourishing in a wholly bogus sense – enjoyable in a debauched kinda way at the time, but later only the foul after-taste remains. One has to admire their tenacity for plugging away – though quite where they can go from third top of the bill at Reading remains to be seen – and the blithely appalling attempts at humour display a perverse genius. Yup, definitely kebabcore.

In comparison, SONIC YOUTH are a new age banquet – undoubtedly the most rewarding all-round mindf– available right now. There’s an air of relaxed contentment about them now, as if they’ve nothing left to prove and can concentrate on wiping the floor with all the young pretenders. Two new songs, ‘Sugar Cane’ and ‘Chapel Hill’, demonstrated an as-yet undiminished skill for dissonant groove logic, while oldies suggested the Youth are no longer uneasy about their illustrious past. They offered two classic festival moments; first when Thurston halted the intro to ‘Mary Christ’, walked over to his new sampler and ushered forth the “wanna stay high to the day I die” refrain from Primal Scream’s new single, mouthing the words approvingly. Then, for a goodnight gross-out, he lowered his guitar into the crowd and trawled it along the front. Yes, children, you too could have been in Sonic Youth that night.

Leaving only THE IG, although this was by no means a vintage Iggy performance, packing rather less of a punch than his indoor shows at the beginning of the year and throwing away a couple of classics – notably a rushed ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. The spectre of cabaret occasionally lurks too. But anyone who can, A) start a set with a song called ‘My Baby Wants To Rock & Roll’, and B) claim to have “been put here to rock this shit”, is still worthy of anyone’s awed respect.

So Friday at Reading ’91… it was sunny (in the end), it was funny, it was… yeah, it was ‘Louie F–in’ Louie’.

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 7 September 1991

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