Everyone likes everything now. In the years since streaming began to dominate listening habits, this twisted mantra has taken over the music industry, driven more by the desire for some algorithmic utopia than reality. Because everyone has access to everything, the theory goes, they must automatically like it all. It’s a credo at the very core of the mindset of the new look, pop-leaning Reading & Leeds festival. And today, everyone-likes-everything-now (ELEN) comes up against its ultimate test.
When Rage Against The Machine pulled out of headlining Sunday’s line-up for health reasons, according to the ELEN Theory, all of the Rage fans must naturally welcome replacements The 1975 with open arms. “We heard you!” the announcement tweet read, as though the country’s politico punk metal fans had taken to the streets en masse to demand the immediate instigation of a millennial Go West in Rage’s place. Instead RATM’s fans, clearly not having received the Spotify staff memo, demanded refunds in their thousands and Sunday at Reading Festival is left with its sparsest crowds of the weekend and one of the most “roadshow” one-day line-ups any major festival in the world has dared to stage in 2022.
Main Stage West has drawn a particularly short straw. If stages could look ashamed of themselves, this one would hang its lighting rig in contrition. Bradford’s comedy lad rappers Bad Boy Chiller Crew are a no-show after a drunken punch up onstage in Leeds, replaced by drill pioneer Digga D. The DMA’s deliver some thoroughly pleasant indie rock but should be forced by the Trading Standards Authority to change their name to Noel Gallagher’s Low Hanging Fruit. And that the atrocious Bastille – the quintessential boyband in cagoules – are permitted to mash-up “Rhythm is a Dancer” and “Rhythm of the Night”, and play their Lion King pastiche “Pompeii”, on what Wolf Alice yesterday called “sacred ground” must, then, be pure sacrilege. Their very booking is like Reading roasting itself about how cool it used to be.
Over on Main Stage East, glam punk cosplayers Pale Waves are little better – the look is sci-fi Siouxsie, the sound, synthpop Alanis. Later Charli XCX will replace Eurovision rockers Måneskin following an emergency scheduling meeting presumably chaired by a magic eight ball. At least she’s jubilantly unpretentious with her pop thrills, writhing and leaping around a set akin to the steps of the Parthenon to “I Don’t Care” and “Boom Clap” dressed like an S&M gladiator.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much for Killer Mike to rightfully declare Reading “Run The Jewels’ house”. The acclaimed rap duo pinball firebrand raps between them, and a cover of DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak” attests to their imaginative approach to cool, cranky atmospheres: “A few words for the firing squad (radiation)”, for instance, is built around a panic attack of a bass-beat.
It’s definitely a day for taking regular time-outs in the Festival Republic tent though, where Sunday’s real magic is happening. Arctic Monkeys, Echo And The Bunnymen, and The Doors appear to have conspired to create Manchester’s The Blinders. Beabadoobee delights with her grunge pop of varying intensities, twisting the dial easily between Madder Rose and Hole. And Liverpool’s Courting are an autotuned Undertones who get stage-invaded by tennis players during their final song. Frankly, it’s nice to have a refuge from all the cynical salesmanship flooding the rest of the site.
Take Halsey: an arena pop act recently converted to industrial gore metal thanks to Nine Inch Nails producing her 2021 album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. She headlines Main Stage West like rock festivals are just the next lucrative market on the spreadsheet to break. Like Pink! left in the washing machine with a goth, she laces her bombastic pop hooks with an impressive tech metal bite, sings of vampiric bloodlusts, and fills the screens with torture porn images of bleeding lips and clamped eyeballs. “Are you ready for me?” she screams, promising to deliver two nights’ worth of energy to make up for a Leeds set hampered by food poisoning, and the likes of “Nightmare”, “Castle” and “The Lighthouse”, in which she goes skinny-dipping with Satan, seem like a righteous hard rock rebirth. But gradually the stadium synthpop of “Colors” and “Honey” peel away the conceit, and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” marks her out as something of a goth pop goal-hanger.
“We’re not Rage Against The Machine and we’re sorry about that,” says Matty Healy of The 1975 – bless – as they set out to placate a day that, according to reports, is starting to look a bit Woodstock ’99 out in the campsites. And to their credit, they make a fine fist of saving a seemingly unsavable day with what they insist is “officially The 1975 at their very best”.
Beyond impassioned runs through the punkoid “People” and “Sex” and Healy’s claim that they’ve “paid the fine” to play as loud as they like, there’s little sign of the pop subversives they promised to be around 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It. This “greatest hits” overview is so steeped in the spangly, sax-laden Eighties synthpop of Huey Lewis and Mr Mister that it feels like spending 80 minutes in a Top Gun bar scene. Previews of two new tracks suggest, if anything, that they’re going even more Kenny Loggins on forthcoming fifth album Being Funny in a Foreign Language. But turned out in a Reservoir Dogs suit, perfecting a waggle-legged guitar technique and having shots delivered by a roadie during synth solos, Healy has an easy onstage charisma and The 1975 have infectious choruses to spare. Plus, there is a sly charm to sing of taking “too much racket” on “Paris” while sounding like Wet Wet Wet. Hell, if Maverick’s back, why not mullet pop?