Let me be Frank – I was There!

The one thing that unites us is the belief that we all grew up in an era when music or comedy was the best.

You are all wrong – I was.

I have been extremely fortunate to see some truly amazing artists perform over the years and am lucky to be able to say “I was there!” at a few defining moments in our musical heritage.

I was there in a pub in Bedford when Oasis toured prior to the release of their first single in front of a crowd of just twenty.

I was there amongst the crowd of 80,000 to witness Kurt Cobain fall out of a wheelchair dressed in surgical scrubs when Nirvana headlined the Reading Festival in 1992.

But it was something else I bore witness to that August Bank Holiday weekend in 1992 that presented me with my favourite “I was there!” moment – although I didn’t realise its significance until 27 years later…

I’ll start from the very top.

I have always loved music – ever since getting the inaugural ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ for Christmas in 1983 and listening to it incessantly in dens made out of my Masters of the Universe duvet set. The rudimentary nature of cassette players back in the early 80s made you listen to an album in it’s entirety without skipping or repeating songs. The lack of a rewind function meant that you needed a degree in physics and the patience of a saint to work out how to get back accurately to the start of a specific track.

My love of music also survived the artistic wilderness of the late 1980s – an epoch synonymous with the wailing of soap-stars spewed out by Stock, Aitken and Waterman on an industrial scale. The reward for successfully navigating that void of musical substance was the revolutionary output coming from North West America at the turn of the decade – the complete polar opposite of anything the Minogue sisters had to offer. Grunge.

And as this alternative riposte started to infiltrate the musical zeitgeist of pubescent teens up and down the country, kids started to pick up instruments and form bands with anarchic sounding names – and my friends were no exception. They were called Bogus Sham.

Most of my Saturday nights as a 16 year old were following the less than melodic exploits of Bogus Sham in Youth Clubs, Working Men Clubs and anywhere else desperate enough to have them perform. They weren’t particularly talented but the legacy of this new musical direction meant that if they made enough noise it could be construed as making a sociopolitical statement. Their early discography consisted of a homage to those with red hair called “Ginger”, an instrumental interpretation of music that accompanies porn movies and a very scathing critique of those in society that wore army jackets and had poor hygiene routines lovingly entitled “Fuck Off You C*nt”.

Watching Bogus Sham was never going to satisfy my craving for decent music but I did now possess a love of the live music scene. The rawness of the sound, the throng of the crowd, the thrill of drinking Castlemaine lager out of a plastic glass whist still underage. I was hooked. But nothing I had experienced before had me prepared for my first festival with my friends in the Sham – Reading 1992.

By the time that August Bank Holiday came around one of the band had learnt to drive and had access to his parent’s car – automatically cementing his role as designated driver by default. For the majority of us, this trip was the first time we had been away from home and collectively we had very few life-skills. Most of us didn’t need to shave more than once a month and had never had any real experience with girls. In fact it became a cliched saying amongst us that we didn’t need to lose our virginity any time soon as we were “saving ourselves for Reading”. I spent that Summer stacking shelves for an extremely low wage daydreaming about the adventures we were going to share that weekend and when the day finally came to load up my friends parent’s Ford Sierra, the excitement was at a crescendo.

We arrived at the festival site excitedly early and pitched our tent – no mean feat when there wasn’t an ounce of common sense between us. We walked in to town and picked up all the sustenance we needed to get us through three full days of live music on tap perpetually . This largely consisted of Ginsters’ pasties, enough Walkers crisps to fill a bath and a couple of crates of Strongbow. Meat ✅, potatoes ✅, apples ✅ – we were pretty sure that covered all the major food groups. After dumping our provisions at base camp, we all put on a freshly laundered band t-shirt to create the appearance that we knew what we were talking about musically and went to explore our Rock and Roll playground for the weekend.

It was very quickly apparent that we this idealistic utopia we had been ‘saving ourselves’ for was nothing other than a pipe dream. The festivals of thirty years ago weren’t like you see streamed in to your living rooms these days – with everyone decked out in Top Shop, Ray Bans and smelling of Mint and Tee Tree shower gel. The doors of the festival had only been open a couple of hours and already there was a musty bouquet in the air. The revellers that had started to conjugate on site looked like they had been mothballed from the previous year, kept in stasis and then reanimated still smelling of stale alcohol and roll up tobacco. Lynx Africa was still three years from being invented in the laboratories at Axe products at this point. Despite the disappointment that our chances of meeting girls with a standard hygiene regime had dissipated, we still had three full days of the greatest music to look forward to – and Friday night’s line up was a corker.

By the time we walked in to the main arena to watch the Friday night headline acts, we had made a healthy dent in the first crate of Strongbow. Full of alcohol fuelled bravado, we pushed our way to the front of the stage as the first few bars of Ride’s shoe-gazing anthem ‘Leave Them All Behind’ reverberated in to the Berkshire sky. We had arrived. Our pilgrimage to our musical Mecca had truly started and we were going to savour every amplified note belted out with ferocious intent.

Ride had warmed up the crowd perfectly for the night’s proceedings. The band had cut an ethereal presence on stage – their hypnotic melodies and intense light show had the whole crowd nodding in unison. By the end of their set, everyone was in a harmonic trance with an appetite suitably whetted for the best live music of the day – and they didn’t get much better at that time than the next act on stage – The Charlatans.

As soon as Rob Collins effervescently played those first few psychedelic keyboard chords, any mesmeric order that Ride had instilled in the crowd had gone and bodies started to launch themselves in every conceivable direction. Within seconds I had become separated from my friends, caught in a human riptide as my teenage cadaver was being unceremoniously strewn from pillar to post. It was becoming increasing difficult to watch one of the UK’s seminal independent bands and concentrate on staying vertical simultaneously.

Then it happened.

I felt a shuddering blow to the side of the head, an intense ringing in my ears and the immediate need to fall to the floor that wasn’t related to my cider consumption that evening. A stray Doctor Marten from a crowd surfer had almost knocked me unconscious. Any disorientation I had felt prior to that blow was now amplified and my lifeless body was now being propped up solely by the throng of the crowd. Eventually, the human current generated by the collective managed to deposit me on the periphery of the writhing mosh and I slumped to my knees feeling extremely nauseous.

After a few moments on my haunches, I decided to take stock of my situation. I had become completely isolated from my friends, I couldn’t tell left from right and after looking down at the ground to try and regain some sort of orientation it appeared that I was also missing a shoe. Life Lesson learnt # 1 – always take more than one pair of shoes to a a festival. For what seemed like an age I found myself wandering aimlessly around the site – desperately looking for the exit so that I could get back to the tent and lie down somewhere safe. After eventually negotiating my way out of the main event arena, it suddenly dawned on me that looking for a specific tent in an ocean of several thousand tents wasn’t going to be straight forward – especially when I had a lump the size of a golf ball now pulsating from my temple. I needed help.

I made an informed decision to head back towards the main site. I desperately needed to locate my friends, a first aider or my right shoe. Any of those would make me feel a whole lot better right now. As I reentered the performance arena, a sense of curiosity suddenly overtook my overwhelming sense of wanting to throw up on the grass. At the very back of the site was a huge red tent and people appeared to be falling over themselves to get inside. Despite my obvious need for medical attention, I just had to see what was going on inside. I pulled back the heavy canvas and peered within. What I saw took my state of confusion to a whole new level.

Inside the tent were hundreds of people. Steam was rising off their backs and they all appeared to be chanting in the direction of a small stage at the front. My eyesight had been greatly impaired by the blow anyway, but as a desperately tried to work out who this crowd was shouting adulation at I started to make out that the object of their worship had an extremely large, misshapen head. Then a very nasal voice started to serenade the masses:

“Oh, guess who’s been on Match of the Day?”
“You have, in your big shorts” everyone replied in harmony.

At the very front of the stage, decked out in full football kit and paper mache head was Frank Sidebottom – a comedian who I had no prior knowledge of at that precise moment. For a while I stood there trying to rationalise if what I was experiencing was a sensory misrepresentation caused by a large whack to the noggin or I was indeed watching a man with an oversized head enchant a crowd with his anthemic nose ramblings and a Casio Tonebook keyboard. And then I just let go. I forgot about sense and reason, what was real and what just a shadow of existence and I no longer cared where my right shoe was. It didn’t matter anymore. What followed was the most surreal, delusional and yet amazing forty minutes of my life up to that point. Alone, concussed, devoid of a complete set of footwear in the middle of a field in Berkshire – yet still very much euphoric. I wonder if this is what taking acid must feel like?

It wasn’t until last year that I came to realise how seminal missing the vast majority of that Charlatans’ set due to an improptu head injury had been. I watched the amazing documentary “Being Frank” – which chronicles the life of the multi-talented artist Chris Sievey and his perpetual attempt to become famous. The dark irony is that he eventually does make it in to the public eye as comedian Frank Sidebottom, yet has to clandestinely conceal his identity to create the mystique behind his paper mache alter ego. Sievey unfortunately dies relatively young and doesn’t get to revel in the posthumous praise the industry has for his very obvious talent. And that Friday evening at the back of a field one summer’s evening in Reading appears to have been the zenith of his career.

But for a few fleeting minutes, heavily concussed and deeply questioning my perception of reality I can say that “I was there!” when Sievey had the rightful adulation of hundreds of fans hanging on his every word.

Or was I there?…

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