The triumphant grin plastered across Brendon Urie’s showbiz-plastic face as he recalls being knocked out with a bottle thirty seconds into his 2006 set here with Panic! At The Disco says it all. It says ‘sorry rock fuckers, the pop gonks won’. While the piss bottle was always the cruder rock neanderthal’s chosen method of appraisal, it acts as a telling indicator of the changing tastes of Reading & Leeds. Once, Reading could sniff out faux-alternative bullshit like P!@TD a mile off. In 2018, it laps it up.
That defenders of R&L’s shift popwards are citing Panic! – essentially Fall Out Boy Lite - as an example of how the 2018 edition still rocks only serves to emphasise how much it actually doesn’t. Whether succumbing to pressures for greater diversity or chasing the pop pound as guitar rock’s appeal gets more selective, R&L has taken a distinct step out of its niche for the first time this year, and its niche was always a vital hub of alternative culture. R&L was once a safe space from the pop opressors, a place where you went to avoid (or at least bottle senseless) acts like Panic!, self-styled rap boyband Brockhampton and Dua Lipa. Now they’re the heart and soul of the event.
Wake up, Berkshire, and smell Reading’s cheese. Only the most faithful Grimmers listener would have heard of most of the weekend’s Radio 1 Tent/second stage line-up, and the traditional metal day has given way to a pop-leaning Saturday during which N.E.R.D.’s ‘Lap Dance’ sounds as dangerous as ‘Firestarter’. Dua Lipa and her rump-rattling dancers make Reading feel like the poppiest depths of V with a set of Latino pop tosh and greeting card platitudes – “be your most honest you” she entreats the crowd, a dangerous sentiment at Reading, since it’s still on probation. Brockhampton ram the Radio 1 tent and , over in the Festival Republic Tent, where the majority of the weekend’s real talent goes largely overlooked, the biggest guitar draw of the day are Pale Waves, a goth Jane Wiedlin.
And then there’s Panic! At The Disco, Saturday’s co-headliners shedding their emo disguise to deliver boyband pomp pop as thin as a sacramental wafer and as meaty as Morrissey’s fridge. Urie’s the Vegas Robbie Williams, right down to the Sinatra crooning on ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ and the cabaret bad-boy wink-wink of references to “champagne, cocaine, gasoline” (we’ll pass on the gasoline, thanks) on the B-52s-sampling ‘Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time’. As if taking revenge on those piss-flingers who recognised a Buble in emo clothing back in 2006 and attempted to nip P!@TD in the bud, Urie ramps up the cheese to choking, going full Timberlake on ‘King Of The Clouds’, channelling ‘Mr Blue Sky’ through ‘Nine In The Afternoon’ (complete with a string section grooving on a neon cube) and indulging his inner Scissor Sister on ‘Dancing’s Not A Crime’ (although, officially, the jury’s still out). He even covers ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, such is his lack of imagination and focus on the easiest lowest-common-denominator targets. If Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway were a pretend rock band…
Dua and Panic! leave us battling terrible visions of a 2019 Reading festival bill topped by Bastille and Sam Smith; visions thankfully seen off by the arrival of Kendrick Lamar. Unlike pop, Reading has always had one toe in the rap world, but R&L 2018 has embraced grime and rap to a broader extent than ever before, with mixed results. J Hus leaping out of a giant fishing hat to bound through an hour of dancehall grime brightens a drenched Sunday; Post Malone drags Friday down with his warped narcotic R&B, like a loverman of the prison courtyard. Travis Scott fares well during a burst of Friday drizzle, thanks to a quick-cut set of avid semi-trap autotuned raps with a crepuscular feel that gradually creeps around to the bounce-along come ‘goosebumps’. But it’s Kendrick, recent Pulitzer in his back pocket, who carries with him the sort of pan-cultural credibility befitting a Reading & Leeds headliner.
What he doesn’t have, in keeping with most rappers who aren’t Jay-Z or OutKast, is much in the way of headline-set pizzazz. He roams the empty stage in inmate orange, a tender rap wanderer unravelling the opening triptych of ‘DAMN.’ tracks in order. Kung Fu Kenny remains resolutely trapped within the archaic Karate Kid-style interlude footage, engaged in computerised battles and admiring gleaming golden vaginas; Kendrick himself seems more like a lonely poet speed-reciting rhythmic personal issues. The show is as artily cold and distant as Frank Ocean or Kanye, designed to posit Lamar as a rap Radiohead, turning focus onto his beat-based innovation rather than doing anything as crude as pleasing a crowd. It takes his own cover of ‘goosebumps’ to get Reading engaged, and ‘Alright’ and ‘HUMBLE.’ to snatch crowd-frugging success from the jaws of ambivalence.
Defenders of R&L 2018’s all-encompassing attitude face an in-built dilemma. To champion the arrival of pop at Reading, one must also embrace the pop end of indie rock, until now the phenomenally successful mutant offspring kept locked up in Reading’s attic. On Friday The Wombats and The Kooks – unordained arena heroes of what’s best described as algorithm indie – are finally given the sort of main stage slots their streams and ticket sales demand, and both grab the opportunity by the throat. “We’re fucking having this one,” says a pink-clad Murph from The Wombats, the ultimate GCSE results band; their latest phase of exuberant synthpop, merging Blur and Supergrass melodies with hints of radio EDM, comes with hefty doses of insecurity, stress-based breakdowns and drug paranoia. Early hits like ‘Moving To New York’, the euphoric ‘Techno Fan’ and ‘Let’s Dance To Joy Division’ (complete with a team of wombat cheerleaders) sound like Reading’s old school heartbeat, while newer confessionals like ‘Lemon To A Knife Fight’ and ‘Turn’ represent its alt-pop future, minus the corporate cynicism of a Panic! or a Bastille.
The Kooks, meanwhile, resolutely get their funk on. To their trademark indie grooves, singer Luke Pritchard shimmies across the stage channelling his inner Jim Morrison in a shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel, only a medallion and an A-list actress on a motorbike away from peak Borrell. You can forgive them their confidence; although it’s undoubtedly jaunty classics like ‘She Moves In Her Own Way’, ‘Always Where I Need To Be’, ‘Shine On’ and Spotify chart mainstay ‘Naïve’ that waggle Reading’s flower tiaras the hardest, cuts from new album ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ like Mex-arcana drug comedown anthem ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and rinky-dink wonder ‘No Pressure’ reveal a band back at their most inventive best.
Fall Out Boy benefit heavily from Reading’s pop amnesty too, headlining Friday night with Pete Wentz wielding a flame-throwing bass and Patrick Stump fronting commercialist pop metal like the glorious ‘Sugar, We’re Goin Down’ that pretty much sounds like Extreme Noise Terror in present R&L company. At least until they do their theme from The Incredibles and you start to wonder just how Disney R&L plans to get.
Retreat! To the Radio 1 tent, where Wolf Alice are showing FOB how to do the seditious punk pop thing properly. Basically all of the best bands from the past 30-odd Readings rolled into one – Nirvana, Hole, Pixies, Pumpkins, Ride, Blur, PJ Harvey, The Cure, bits of ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ could even be the sodding Chili Peppers – they’re the only sure-fire future headliners onsite, and are out for larks. Ellie invites “a couple of lovebirds” onstage for a marriage proposal ahead of the space Blondie lament of ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, Joff flings and swings his guitar around like a magic axe, ‘Silk’ – a set stalwart since its appearance at the climax of Trainspotting 2 – is the euphoric rush of the weekend and this whole wonderful, rock-encompassing barrage of brilliance ends with Ellie standing on the crowd in a flurry of ticker-tape, winning R&L 2018. Sorry Kendrick.
Because the old, alternative Reading is out there somewhere, if you can find it. It mostly hides away in the Festival Republic Tent where Bad Sounds concoct a previously unthinkable amalgam of Beck, ‘Young Americans’-era Bowie and Len; Futureheadish indie geeks The Magic Gang get the entire moshpit onto somebody else’s shoulders for ‘Jasmine’; and HMLTD come on like an electroclash Mad Max. “Sex, suicide, Hollywood swimming pool!” yowls Henry Spychalski, magnificently, while most of Reading 2018 is off watching Brockhampton.
Aye, there’s the rub – as solid a metaphor for the wasting disease infecting popular culture as ever we’ve seen. As much of a relief as it is to see Shame invade the main stage on Sunday and The Vaccines and Kings Of Leon close the weekend out with compulsive sets of rock’n’roll thrills, the big take-away discussion from R&L 2018 is whether the concept of ‘alternative’ itself is over. If R&L is diluting its very raison d’etre because the public is primarily listening to pop music now (like the public didn’t always listen primarily to pop music?), is musical tribalism dead and the age of the catch-all festival experience upon us? Rather than buy an expensive ticket for a weekend full of acts largely fitting a style and genre we like – be it rock, grime, pop or whatever - are we now to pay through the nose for a smattering of what we like surrounded by dross we’re not that bothered about? And if so, why form any sort of bond or allegiance to R&L rather than V Festival or British Summer Time? There’s quite enough meatless mundanity in the British festival calendar already; pray that R&L doesn’t get entirely declawed.