Nirvana, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys Cross the Pond for Reading Fest

Cobain and Nick Cave enchant, while the Beasties get lost in translation

The Beastie Boys at the Reading Festival on August 30th, 1992 in Reading, England.
Denis O'Regan/Getty
October 29, 1992

Reading Festival
Reading, England
August 28th-30th, 1992

FUCK WOODSTOCK, read one popular T-shirt here, although this twentieth annual jamboree also began with lots of wasted folks frolicking in the mud and ended with a counterculture icon playing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Forty-five thousand kids, nose rings protruding from scraggly curtains of hair, descended on this bland commuter town, draining oceans of beer and mind-rotting hard cider from morning till night. Mounds of garbage accumulated as pasty English faces reddened in the scant sunshine, and it was all too evident that the grounds were usually a cow pasture.

Reading first inspired Lollapalooza. But with much lower testosterone levels than its American cousin, this year's model was a truer survey of alternative music. Both gatherings did agree on one thing: Pop's pendulum has clearly swung to the western side of the Atlantic. At Reading, a galaxy of American bands, with Nirvana at its center, outshined its U.K. counterparts.

The American Invasion began on Friday and Saturday. Rollins Band raged with hardcore psychodrama; Smashing Pumpkins played turbulent but mesmerizing guitar rock; and the passionate and tuneful Buffalo Tom won new fans. Public Enemy closed Saturday with a mighty blast of agit-hop, Chuck D almost playfully exhorting the crowd "to forget about Fergie and think about homelessness, AIDS and racial injustice." Trendy U.K. fluff such as the Farm, the Charlatans and Ride suffered by comparison.

With seven of Sunday's ten bands from the States, the day was a Super Bowl of American alternative rock – make that mud bowl, as intermittent rain turned the already sloshy field into sludge.

Northwest grunge's godparents the Melvins opened with a bruising set of ultra-heavy punk metal, like Black Sabbath at 16 rpm. Screaming Trees followed with some Doorsy psychedelic grunge, as singer Mark Lanegan bellowed between the Scylla and Charybdis of the beefy Conner brothers. Cult favorite Pavement made for some definitive slacker rock. A product of the Abba revival currently gripping Britain, Bjorn Again – not the mega-selling Swedish quartet but a very droll simulation – followed. An initially dubious crowd was soon overwhelmed by Masterpieces of Western Art such as "Waterloo" and "SOS." "I feel something in the air," announced "Bjorn" wondrously, a stiff wind ruffling his vintage shag haircut. "It's the love," explained "Agnetha."

Alas, the love did not visit the Beastie Boys, who seemingly spent most of their set airborne. Despite powerful grooves, boundless energy and sure shots such as "Rhymin & Stealin" and "Shake Your Rump," the crowd was cool; the English have not yet taken to the Beasties, who cut their set short.

L7 got a much warmer reception, but guitarist Suzi Gardner made a fateful mistake by asking, "How's the mud?" The reply: a set-long barrage of Reading's manure-fortified mud balls. Sporting black-stripe body makeup, face paint and plenty of attitude, the L.A. quartet rocked out on "Shitlist" and "Pretend We're Dead," but the mortar attack had them clearly rattled. Singer Donita Sparks retaliated by flinging her used tampon into the crowd, which remained unimpressed. Teenage Fanclub enjoyed a cease-fire, playing its raffish guitar pop tighter and larger than ever, and even let its Glasgow homeboys in Eugenius play a number.

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