It’s the end of the 2012 Reading Festival. Past midnight, after an epic 2-and-a-half hour show by the Foo Fighters that was one of the finest gigs I had ever seen. We (for the purposes of clarity, we are TLC, DocoDom, new chum Groovy Geoff and yr. humble author) are backstage, sipping cocktails and hanging with the band.
An old Talking Heads song passes unbidden through my head as Geoff jumps up to get a picture with Dave Grohl and Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs. I ask myself; well, how did I get here?
To say that I have a relationship with the Foo Fighters is to overstate the case by a factor of lots. It would be truer to say that I have a relationship with a relationship–a family connection that it’s neither polite nor politic to go into in detail. Let’s just say that every now and again, once every few years if I’m lucky, I get a chance to experience life on the other side of the stage door. The trick is to never take it for granted, expect the unexpected, and to make the most of the experience.
I was floored by what came over the desk at the guest checkin, then. The coveted Access All Areas passes, accompanied by a sticker that stated, in bald, bold-print letters:
At this point in proceedings, it didn’t quite sink in exactly what that last phrase meant. I’d get the idea soon enough.
A note on Access All Areas. Getting into the guest areas is pretty darn cool, no doubt about it. It’s peaceful (or at least, as peaceful as it can be when a two-storey high main stage pumping out however many kilowatts of pure rock power is just off to your left), with a nice seating area, a paid bar and a couple of food stalls. Get into the artist areas, and things go up a notch. There’s free food and drink to be had, if you ask nicely. The loos get progressively nicer as you go up the social scale. I mean, we’re still not talking fur-lined loo seats or anything like that. The best you can expect is a clean, quiet portaloo. It’s hardly the lap of luxury, but your expectations do drop a bit when the choice is that or a trough full of wee in the arena.
The main thing is, backstage offers a refuge, a place to retreat and get your head together when things get a little overwhelming. That’s important. The day started off as a head-spinner, and just went up like a rocket from there.
After piercing the multiple layers of security, each more intimidatingly polite than the last, we entered Foo Central, a compound of portakabins that housed production offices, management, security, and the all-important Rock Box–the bar. We snagged beers, and chatted amiably to a girl on the production team who found us somewhere to stash our bags. She assured us that the Foos would be on site at 5, arriving by helicopter. She was yanking our chains a little, but we were already starry-eyed enough to believe it. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon pointlessly watching the skies for Dave Grohl in a whirlybird.
Let’s talk a little more about those AAA passes. We’d dicked around, snagged some beers and scouted out the territory. It was time to catch a band or two, and as luck would have it The Gaslight Anthem, a favourite of mine who were on fire with their new album, were up on the main stage. Time to see just how much access we had.
We wandered up to the ramp the artists used to go on stage, just out of idle curiosity really, when a security guard asked politely if we were looking for the viewing platforms. Why yes, kind sir, that we are. He ushered us through, and pointed us to a set of steps by stage left.
When we got there, I started laughing, and couldn’t stop for five minutes. Because the view from the viewing platform looks like this.
It was absurd. It was too much. These were the platforms I’d seen while watching the Cure on my telly at home on Friday night. I thought they were for family members and the deep inner circle. I peered over the edge. I could see the mixing desk. I could see the set list. I started laughing again.
The Gaslight Anthem came on five minutes later, paying no attention to the cackling loon up on the viewing platform, and proceeded to play the gig of their lives. Their music is heartfelt, beefy Springsteenean rock, melodic, boozy, raw and bouncy. It’s the sort of thing you’d hear in a bar in a Boston-set cop drama. Celtic-tinged, Motown-flavoured, roar-along choruses, the sort of thing that grabs a smalltown boy and gives him the guts to dream. Brian, the lead singer and main songwriter for TGA grinned throughout the set, unable to quite believe where he’d ended up. He wasn’t the only one.
It was time to move on, and check out a couple of other tents. My wish list was small, but it had to include Mark Lanegan at the BBC Stage. We broke open the airlock, and strode out onto the arena floor.
The festival ground at Reading is wide and very long. It feels like you’re walking for ages to get anywhere. You can’t go too quickly, though. There are people everywhere, sitting in groups, laid flat out, chilling, chatting, arguing, snogging, laughing. Reading is traditionally the post-exam/pre-college festival, and the young-skewed crowd use it as their last opportunity to do something really stupid before they have to grow up a bit. You end up walking through a hundred little dramas, a thousand mayfly love affairs, flaring up and dying in the course of a weekend. I’ve never understood why there aren’t more films and stories about festivals. They house our young’uns at the cusp of a new life, and the emotions are dizzyingly raw.
If you want a soundtrack for that feeling, then you could do worse than plump for The Joy Formidable, who were making a glorious racket at the NME Stage. They’re a threepieceguitarbassdrumband, fronted by the tiny, fiery Ritzy Bryan who thrashes her Fender Jag with the chops and power of a true queen of rock. It’s one of those big, joyous blasts of noise, delirious and swooning in a swirling fog of amp feedback. The album’s called The Big Roar. You’re not kidding.
Dom tells this story:
“Geoff and I wanted to see how far we could push our passes, so we left Rob and TLC to enjoy the show out front, and went up to a security guard. He took one look at our passes… and waved us through. We ended up in the photographer’s pit, right at the front of the stage. The noise was just incredible, like surfing in sound.
I’d travelled for 16 hours from France the previous day, driving my girlfriend to her new home in England. Lack of sleep and over-excitement, coupled with the fantastic noise The Joy Formidable were making, hit me all at once and took my legs out from under me. I had to run backstage and find a quiet spot, and I just let it all go and cried my eyes out. It was a massive release, after a year that’s seen so many changes for me. It felt like coming home, and The Joy Formidable will always be a part of that for me.”
After Ritzy and the boys had left, and we’d all given Dom a hug, it was time for Mark Lanegan. We found the viewing platform backstage, which didn’t really work. The sound was going the wrong way, and we were behind the band. Dom and I ran out, and took up position in the film trench, a perfect spot to see the band, as long as we stayed out of the way of the video cameras. I instructed Dom to start taking snaps. That got us thrown out of the pit, and the guard who let us in gave Dom a telling-off. I didn’t see the problem, which I guess has something to do with copyright and exclusivity (photographers normally only get three songs to take the shots they need) but, aware that access is a privilege not a right, we didn’t push it.
Instead, Geoff and I went into the photographer’s pit, within spitting distance of the stage. Mark Lanegan growled and rumbled less than twenty feet away. At some point, I realised that Geoff had vanished. It was just me, and one of my heroes, and for a couple of songs I felt that he was performing just for my benefit. It was bliss. Like the man says, I don’t want to leave this heaven too soon.
Giggling, giddy, still a little tearful, we retreated back to Foo Central, where the band had just arrived. By car, of course. We chatted for a while. Dave Grohl swished past with a plate of food, rock god incarnate, hair, shades and high volume. It was a family atmosphere. Kids were underfoot, mums and nannies floating serenely around. It did not, to be honest, feel like a place where excess is the norm. It felt more like a big family barbecue.
Let us consider access once again. We decided to check out the Kaiser Chiefs, about half an hour into their main stage set. We were politely but firmly turned away from the viewing platforms. They were too full. I could wave my pass as much as I liked, but health and safety trumped my petty needs. Sod it. We flounced back out into the arena, and caught the tail end of Ricky and Co’s bouncy, cheery set. TLC finally had a beer. The sun was out, and life was pretty bloody nice.
Let’s talk a little about security. They get a lot of shit for doing a tough job with, for the most part, grace and politeness. They are not there to cause trouble. Just the opposite. They pull people in distress out of the crowd, make sure there’s water if you need it, and prevent chaos and tragedy. I have nothing but respect for security at big festivals. If you still think they’re thugs and bullies, then you’re still in the stone age, my friend. Be nice to your friendly neighbourhood security operative. Give ‘em a smile. For god’s sake, don’t argue the toss if they prevent access. There are always good reasons, and they’re under orders from higher-up anyway. They’ve got a lot more to worry about than your petty concerns and sense of entitlement. They’ve heard it all before, and it’s pointless arguing. Again, with added guitars: access is a privilege, not a right. If you get blocked, or worse, exiled, then chances are it’s your fault.
Rant over. We took up position bright and early for The Black Keys, after learning our lesson earlier. Front of the platform, stage right, a perfect view. A blonde bloke in a forage cap and a beard slots in next to me, and nudges me over slightly. I move. It’s fine. TLC elbows me.
“You do realise who’s next to you?”
I sneak a peek. Oh. Hello, Simon Pegg. Hope you enjoy the show. Get me, quite literally rubbing shoulders with celebrity.
He certainly seemed to have fun, which isn’t surprising as The Black Keys played a blinder. Soulful, bluesy, sunset music. The platform, and the crowd, bounced and sang along. It’s amazing what you can do with a heavily-amped guitar and a drumkit. Anyone that tags The Keys as White Stripes wannabes has missed the point. They’re slicker, sleeker, a party band that can lift a crowd with the crook of a finger. And they have the best-dressed guitar techs in town, too. We were solid gone, man.
You’re probably sick of me blabbing about how great it is backstage, so let’s talk about the downsides. You are off to the sides of a performance that’s being pushed out to a huge crowd, and a lot of the big moments are a bit diluted as a result. Same with the sound. It’s muddy, and it’s stupidly loud. There are earplug dispensers everywhere, and with very good reason. I managed without for The Gaslight Anthem, and my ears were ringing for an hour afterwards. We were sensible after that.
I like to make an idiot of myself at a gig, jumping about, singing, screaming. You just can’t do that on the platform. You’re surrounded by people that have been there and done this too many times to do anything more than nod along appreciatively. The Black Keys had us bouncing, but I missed the opportunity to cut loose and go nuts. Curse you, Simon Pegg and your supercool demeanour, intimidating me into behaving like a grown-up.
After The Black Keys, the mood of anticipation started to spiral up hard. The viewing platforms were cleared; no chance of hanging onto a prime spot. A queue began to form, and we found ourselves behind (I wasn’t stalking you, honest) Simon Pegg. Geoff, always first with an opportunity, snagged a photo and chatted for a while. The queue began to grow, and nervously we considered whether it was worth breaking ranks and hitting a good spot on the arena. We held our nerve, and it was worth it. We were ushered onto the ramp, and found ourselves on a spot on the stage, behind the band. Let me just say that again. We were on the stage. Slightly off to the side, but within twenty feet of the band. In front of us, 100,000 people boomed and roared like the sea.
And then the Foos came on, and the crowd took off. There’s no other way of describing it. With the first chords of White Limo, the whole Richfield Avenue ground lifted three inches and started jumping. The blast from the sound system was immense, chest-filling, a physical presence that buffeted us like leaves in a storm. We hung onto each other and enjoyed the ride.
The Foo Fighters have history at Reading, dating back to Dave’s time in Nirvana and their legendary first performance at the NME stage that filled it beyond capacity. Since then, The Foo Fighters have always brought their A-Game to the festival. It’s their spiritual home, a fact that Dave was at pains to point out through the set. His first joyous shout of “Honey, I’m home!” set the tone.
There was the feel of a family reunion on Sunday. Dave gave shoutouts to an old sound-recordist friend who was retiring at the end of the night, his daughter and his mum. The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” before rolling a chant of “MRS GROHL” around the site. The scale of warmth and love that was pouring off the crowd was palpable, a sweet taste in the air, and sometimes the band would simply stop and bask in it. At times they seemed close to tears. As was I. I’d never been witness to a blast of raw love on this scale. TLC recorded a short vid that illustrated what I mean more clearly than I can say.
All of which would have been wasted if they hadn’t played out of their skins. The set at Reading 2012 will go down in rock history as one of the greats. I’m not exaggerating. The word “epic” doesn’t begin to cover it. The word “legendary” is small and lacking. This was everything you could wish for in a rock show, with extra whipped cream and a pork pie on top. Sheer, delirious, unashamed excess. Over two and a half hours, they covered all the hits, some rarities, extended breakdowns of classic numbers and even a Pink Floyd cover. It’s a rare band that can pull that off and not look like idiots. The Foo Fighters are that band. They took an iconic track, the opening track, from The Wall, and made it their own. Talk about the warm thrill of confusion. talk about that space-cadet glow.
Which brings us right back to where we started. Backstage, Foo Central, past midnight. Everyone is dazed and grinning. Dom cruises the comestibles, and brings over a cocktail shaker, rum, shnapps and Pepsi. The improvised and deeply unpleasant cocktail that we dub The Backstage Foo is the result. We switch back to beer.
Ritzy of The Joy Formidable appears, and Geoff and I snag a photo and gush about how good they were. She’s happy to chat, digging the easy, cosy feel. Off to one side, The Gaslight Anthem are in a huddle. Patrick, the Black Key’s sturdy, bespectacled drummer bops past. Mark Lanegan’s guitarist, a Johnny Cash lookylikey down to the impeccable sky-high quiff, glowers in a corner. It’s very cool… in fact, bugger me, it’s freezing. Nice as it would be to stay, there’s a warm bed waiting for us back up the hill in Caversham, and the twelve hours on our feet are taking a toll. Slowly, regretfully, we quit the site.
Family is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the Foos, and a connection to that family, however arbitrary, is one to be cherished. we had an eye-opening, heart-filling day, bulging with new, strange and wonderful experiences. I don’t expect it to happen again, but it’s got me right back into the festival vibe. We had let the world-class gathering that we are blessed to have on our doorstep slide out of view a bit. That’s a lot less likely to happen now, even if we never get backstage again. See you by the main stage next year!