Reading Festival, review: The 1975 prove that rock music isn't dead
If guitar music is old hat and rock is dead, no one appears to have told the teenagers who flocked to the Reading festival. A small but aggressive section of the audience seemed determined to recreate the bad vibes of the very worst kind of rock festivals of yore, with around 50 people expelled on Sunday afternoon for hooligan behaviour in campsites that included torching tents. Yet for the most part the mood was resoundingly upbeat, with young fans keen to carry on post-GCSE celebrations in exuberant style. The bill across the long weekend included all kinds of contemporary popular music, from the moody rap of Dave to the shiny electro dance of Charli XCX. But there was also a fistful of the most dynamic British guitar bands of our times, with sets by Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, Bring Me The Horizon and Wolf Alice offering an intriguing gauge of the state of the rock nation.
The beguiling Wolf Alice offered another reminder that they have the potential to be an all-time great band, they just need that last little push. Their sound remains too multifarious for easy categorisation, spanning delicate folky madrigals to full on nu metal moshing, but frontwoman Ellie Rowsell is a superstar in waiting, as if Debbie Harry had strapped on a guitar to rock out with Nirvana.
Saturday night at Reading (and Sunday at sister festival Leeds) offered an intriguing contrast between main stage headliners, bands whose members went to the same Sheffield school (Stockbridge High) just one year apart. Guitars obviously still matter in South Yorkshire.
Bring Me The Horizon blend fierce heavy metal with chart friendly electronica and pop. They seemed determined to prove they deserved their headliner status as much as their more celebrated school mates, performing with shouty conviction in front of eye boggling wraparound high-definition screens. They also roped in a crowd-pleasing guest, with Ed Sheeran joining for a heavy rock romp through his 2021 dance pop hit Bad Habits. It was persuasively entertaining.
Then, at the other end of the field, Arctic Monkeys wandered on with no ceremony at all, struck up the slinky riff to 2013 single Do I Wanna Know, and the crowd went wild. Girls clambered onto the shoulders of boys, phones were waved in the air, everyone was singing along. The Monkeys are a band who just have that indefinable “it”, almost to their detriment. Their set was weirdly divided between crowd-pleasing hits and offcuts that sound like something from a David Lynch nightmare set in a cocktail lounge on the moon. Their video screens were defiantly lo-fi, projecting foggy images that looked like overused VHS from the Old Grey Whistle Test circa 1979, an impression compounded by leading light Alex Turner’s pinstripe jacket and blow-dried hair.
The dazzling complexity of Turner’s lyrics, the intricate interweaving of guitar and keyboard parts and tendency to shift tempo during songs all suggested the group might be more at home playing to goatee stroking musos in a dingy basement club, but they also have a bunch of generational anthems in their locker that inspired the biggest crowd of the festival to roar their lungs out in communal joy. Yet despite playing their disjointed art rock as if they don’t give a hoot what anyone makes of them, Arctic Monkeys have the swagger of a gang confident of their status as the greatest British band of their generation.
On Sunday, The 1975 did enough to suggest they are serious challengers for that crown. Stepping in as unlikely last-minute replacements for American heavy rock monsters Rage Against the Machine, the Manchester band won over the festival crowd with a set of streamlined hits delivered with joyful exuberance. The 1975 play indie that has merged so closely with digital pop as to be indistinguishable, yet their live sound proved tough and tight, while frontman Matt Healy was goofily cool and charismatic. It is barely rock as older music fans might recognise it, but judging by the happy young faces singing along with the 1975’s effervescent melodies, guitar music has life in it yet.