Whilst the rest of the UK crawls out of the post-Olympic comedown for the nation’s indie kids and moshers the August bank holiday means one thing: the the Reading and Leeds festivals. Along with the V Festival these are the festivals that the smaller, cooler “boutique” festivals aggressively align themselves against. To the backers of the boutiques the festivals formerly known as the Carling Weekend is a corporate behemoth of overpaid bands playing on grim brown field sites to a captive audience forced to slurp over priced lager from Styrofoam cups before throwing their carbonated urine stagewards. Compare this to the idyll of Glastonbury and its twee spawn, the likes of Secret Garden Party, Bestival or End of the Road, weekends where music takes a back seat and the “experience” is everything. Then there’s (or possibly was if recent news is to be believed ) Bloc and All Tomorrow’s Parties where tasteful twenty somethings enjoy cutting edge curated sounds but sleep in the safety of chalets.
What critics of Reading and Leeds miss is the difference in demographic between it and the boutique fests. They also fail to recognize that in a strange way they are the equal of the smaller festivals in terms of commitment and most surprisingly creativity. I’ll admit now I’ve not been to either Reading or Leeds since 2004: it’s no festival for old men. The fact it falls on the week GCSE results are released makes it seems like an alternative prom party for Great Britain’s moshers and indie kids. Even at 21 it’s easy to feel like an old fart wandering round a festival site where people are rushing on the elation of getting 10 As rather than too many Es. The boutique fests on the other hand are generally attended by an older crowd, usually people taking a well-earned weekend out from vaguely creative jobs in Zones 1 to 2.
As Niki Seth-Smith pointed out in a recent essay for Open Democracy the buzz words of boutique festivals are the likes of: “intimacy, friendliness, fellow, sharing, building, history, tradition”. These festivals pride themselves on a sense of folky authenticity, of getting back to nature on the grounds of a stately home whilst dressed as a robot or a monkey. Boutique festivals offer a time out from the real world, stalls and activities to engage with, hedonism with a nice view. Reading and Leeds offers none of this. It may have changed since I last attended but all the teenage attendees are offered is music, burgers, booze and some soil to sleep on. This combination though is often enough for kids to create spontaneously magical moments the equal of the organised epiphanies of Bestival et al.
At Reading and Leeds you’re likely to be greeted with the offer of free-hugs as you enter the campsite, as brilliant – if deeply annoying – a display of anti-Capitalist altruism your likely to see this side of an Occupy site. My memories of Reading and Leeds are filled with beautifully bizarre images: I remember seeing strange games of football which evoked the medieval mob game – hundreds of boys chasing a single ball, an impromptu competition where lads took it in turns to chuck oil drums in each other’s face for the entertainment of a watching crowd, a drunk Scotsman throwing tents into a campfire screaming “John Leslie? Fucking rapist!”, bands disappearing behind clouds of thrown bottles. Most of all I remember the Sunday night of Leeds 2003, when I watched with a female companion from the safety of a tent as the night sky was painted yellow and orange by exploding camping stoves. The Carling Weekend: The Inbetweeners meets Apocalypse Now.
Ok, as a 28 year old with a vaguely creative job in Zone 2 this all sounds like a fairly terrible way to spend an August bank holiday but – and it might just be late 20s nostalgia talking – these memories are brighter, stranger and more brilliant than anything I’ve experienced at a festival since. If the combination of alcohol, hormones and music didn’t create chaos, emotional epiphanies and life changing moments we’d have cause to be worried. The kids are alright: they don’t need the trappings of folksy authenticity, they’ll always find ways to bend the bars of their corporate playpens into strange new shapes themselves.