Friday, 11 July 2014

the reading festival 1978

photo © Paddy Mulvenna

This years Reading festival prepares itself for the August 22nd weekend with tickets for all 3 nights sold out.
From it's early 1960's years it's said Reading had declined from its true festival spirit and within a decade or so now had a reputation for it's hard rock and metal lineups performing before an audience with a somewhat less laid back and friendly atmosphere. As ever each new generation brings its own music and social reality of its times that in turn appears alien to the previous one.
Today with it's many stages plus BBC radio coverage from their own dedicated venues the lineups change once more and a broader audience of pop and rock appear throughout the weekend. As most festivals are inclined to be today, it's big business as usual. No one expects problems except with the parking.

Back in 1978 something very different was occurring. The Reading Festival introduced the first wave of punk bands into it's line up. Well somebody had to do it by 1978, and Reading was just about the first main festival to include the new age of Punk in any numbers to its billing. The year before 'Wayne County and The Electric Chairs' and 'Eddie and The Hot Rods' were the lone sign of change at Reading in what had turned by then into the home of a 70's long haired denim army.
The transition of 78 now saw an audience combining the Reading die hard hairy rockers and these new punk bands, who not only had their own audience but which was also inclined to have a roaming skinhead contingent mixed in with them. Unsurprisingly it was always going to be a tightrope walk as to who was going to actually complete a set with this lot mingling together.
What probably made matters worse were the bands being billed in a mixed order. Obviously some bright spark in the organisation thought peace and harmony would be best kept by giving everyone something they could get on with and not too long to wait between the two styles. One being the old school of rockers and the other the new wave of punk.
So there were the established rock bands of Foreigner, Status Quo, Ian Gillan, folk group Lindisfarne etc etc, even the 60's legends Spirit appearing on the Saturday, now mixed in with the likes of the new upstarts, Patti Smith, The Jam, Chelsea and Sham 69 etc, etc.

The 18th Jazz Blues Rock Festival, as Reading was titled, would turn out to be a lot less Blues and Jazz and a lot more Blood and Cans, with the two tribes pitching their own divisive views on the entertainment. On more than one occasion the skies darkened as a shadow of cans arced their way towards the stage.
Sham 69 were particularly aimed at and they quickly became disillusioned with the violence. Lead singer, Jimmy Pursey even made a brave attempt to bring the love to everyone by introducing long time hippy/prog guitarist Steve Hillage on to their set, predictably with little effect, until Sham's bass player was cleanly sconned with a can which more or less put an an end to their efforts, and leaving Jimmy in tears at the frustration of it all.
The Jam and the young Ultravox remained cool to the audience and the place. By now it was pretty evident punk was an urban experience best kept to the dripping walls of small clubs and not the idealistic musical visions of festival organisers. Festivals also needed a considerably more expansive noise to reach the hordes standing before them. The punk bands with their two or three miked up vox amps were likely not going to have the same presence shall we say, as a bank of Foreigner Marshall stacks turned up to 11.
See, this was 1978 and Punk was still in a transit van with Gaffa (Duct) tape holding the back door shut. The Clash did get it right a little later, but by then they had some money. And punk did appear more regularly at Reading in later festivals.

But out of this locking of rock horns at Reading 78 came The Pirates. A band that were there at the birth of 60's rock and roll in Britain. Namely as 'Johnny Kidd and the Pirates' and one of the pre Beatles era rock and roll groups. The original Pirates line up and the ones to back Johnny Kidd in the studio had been shaped from session men, as was the way back in the late 50's and early 60's, but by 1962 Mick Green was enrolled on guitar, Jonny Spence, bass, and Frank Farley on kit, becoming Johnny Kidd's chosen band for the road tours. That was until Kidd was killed in a car crash in 1966, although by this time Green had left to join Billy J. Kramer with The Dakotas in 1964.
So after Johnny Kidd's tragic death The Pirates just faded from sight.

Then in 1976 Mick Green reformed the group with his old mates and put The Pirates back on the road.
Over the next 2 years they began to gather a whole new audience not drawn from a 50's rocker audience but the new spirit of 76/77, the blank generation. The Pirates would appear on punk gigs as easily as they would in any other. It was the energy. The attack of the band. And some simple theatrics... they dressed like pirates! ha. Irresistible.

Mick Green's reputation was also being passed around by now too. Wilko Johnson had been touting his inspiration for a couple of years. It was that right hand machine gun like staccato rhythm that Green could effortlessly drop into his lead licks that Wilko was now driving the good Doctor Feelgood with.
By the time The Pirates were playing The London Roundhouse in 1977 (picture above) there was a line of kids standing on stage left all watching Mick Greens lightning fast guitar work ready to leave that night and form their own band.

So there on stage at the 1978 Reading Festival no one had to make any decision about whether The Pirates were on one side of the chosen rock fence or the other. Punks, skins, rockers all new the Pirates were simply the embodiment of rock and roll with very few bands anywhere in the business that could lay claim to a similar history. It had taken nearly 2 decades from the origins of the rock and roll days but The Pirates were once again shakin' all over, and an audience with them. Green, Spence and Farley had not only understood that times had changed but also recognised them from a previous generation that was as equally confrontational and socially charged as they had been in the late 1950's and early 60's.
In 1978 it was now clear to many rock and roll had come full circle. In future decades rock bands and songwriters would produce songs directly and indirectly influenced by any one of the countless styles that had evolved during those 2 seminal decades.

Here's the last number of The Pirates set at Reading with an audience now at one with the music.
It begins with a short interview with Mick Green at the time. The clip is from a full length film of the 78 Reading Festival originally released on VHS.