Nirvana's greatest moment is superb on YouTube but was underwhelming in the field, according to one Reading punter turned NME hack
On film, it looks like the gig of a lifetime. Kurt Cobain in his blonde fright wig and white smock, growling through ‘Breed’ and ‘Drain You’ like a feral animal that’s just run through a charity shop, Krist Novoselic jerking and tweaking around the stage like an twelve-foot electrified Twiglet of a man, Dave Grohl hammering his drumkit like it’s a big bag of GOT spoilers.
On film, it’s fantastic. On the ground, not so much.
Dig, if you will, the picture. It’s 1992 and you’re a recent graduate with a hastily grown Brett Anderson haircut and a near pathological obsession with Pixies. You’ve bought ‘Nevermind’, appreciated its more mainstream US rock assimilation of the Black Francis dynamic but, with the first shoots of Britpop peeking through and looking like the defining movement of the age, you can’t quite fathom what all the frothing music press Nirvana-mania is about. So, after a gloriously sunny debut at Glastonbury, you hit your first ever Reading to judge this new ‘grungo’ phenomenon first hand.
First impressions: Christ, this place ain’t no Worthy Farm. Where’s the whittling field? Why is everyone shouting ‘bollocks’? Is that someone pissing on your tent? Do they actually carry on with festivals if it pisses down this much? Still, you rage around the tiny site to cracking sets from PJ Harvey, Buffalo Tom, The Charlatans, the Manic Street Preachers and Suede, but come a comedown-ravaged Sunday you’re Berkshired out, the site is a waterlogged swamp and home seems like heaven.
Enter a virtually unrehearsed Nirvana.
As with Ride on Saturday, you can’t get close enough to hear it. There are no big screens yet, so Kurt’s ‘hilarious’ and ‘shocking’ entrance in a wheelchair as an ironic comment on speculation about his health is lost behind some bloke’s shit clown hat. Their already muddy sound is caked in even more filth by the sound desk and then blown halfway to Swindon by the high winds. Half the time it’s tricky to tell which song they’re playing even if you know it – the many unfamiliar tracks just sound like furious, formless, toneless groaning.
The main set is dotted with stone cold classics, sure, but come the encore they just seem to be taking the piss, and for fucking ages. They cover Shocking Blue, Fang and Wipers and play a jam around the riff from ‘Smoke On The Water’. Wild-ass rebellion never looked so drawn-out, sludgy and boring – it’s all very well upturning festival headline convention by playing zero hits in your encore, but when the only thing that piques the interest of the ardent Pixies fan halfway back is when Dave stacks the drums in a pile and chucks cymbals at it, you’ve missed a trick.
They finish with about five minutes of fucking up ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in the wreckage of their gear – a visceral display of punk rock insanity if you’re the bloke who’s been dancing around onstage with them all night, but for at least one kid in the crowd it’s five minutes of wondering when he can stop watching this shit, get stoned and shout ‘bollocks’ all night.
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In retrospect, Nirvana at Reading looks like indie rock’s wildest dream made flesh, a gig we sorely wish we could see again, a setlist of which generations were tragically robbed. Within a few short years its legendary standing was established based largely on its unrepeatability – and it sure looks fantastic in the videos. Like so many of us, I wish I could have been anywhere near that gig.