Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl bawled “Do you like rock’n’roll music, Reading?”, and for the first time in its history you didn’t know how Reading would respond.
For almost 50 years Reading Festival – and its Leeds counterpart – has acted as a hub of sonic rebellion, from the stoners and acid biker freaks zoning out to Wishbone Ash and Hawkwind in the early Seventies to the punks, goths, grungers, emos, ravers and Britpoppers who have inhabited alternative culture since.
By the time streaming suppressed musical tribalism, however, Reading & Leeds was too much of a behemoth to downsize. Chasing the money, it has embraced the new generation of faux renegades, acts that adopt classic outsider tropes – facial tattoos, hair dye, swearing, hard drugs – but are really performing within the confines of convention.
The fact that Reading & Leeds is now a mainstream pop festival was obvious. The crowd was dressed for an Ibiza foam party. Wander randomly into the Radio One tent in search of brave new sounds and you were likely to stumble across Mabel’s mediocre bump and grind, or YouTube celebrity Joji doing a neo-soul version of the Toy Story theme.
It’s become a Twitter tradition to post spartan Reading & Leeds posters featuring only the female-dominated acts. This year a poster including the acts that are genuinely alternative would be similarly sparse.
The festival’s new populist ethos was encapsulated by the appearance of pop insurrectionists The 1975. They threw the festival a sop and indicated more radical fourth album intentions by opening with their savage industrial punk new single People but, as yet, still filled their Friday headline slot with mildly deconstructed takes on Hall & Oates, INXS, the Friends theme and Michael Bolton.
Elsewhere, the skin-deep rebels took over. Post Malone – looking like a brutal prison overlord, sounding like a snarly Ed Sheeran – headlined Saturday, determined to prove his rock star credentials by smashing an acoustic guitar amid such an abundance of flames that it was less gig, more oil refinery.
No amount of rhymes about gang violence, prescription drugs and hard partying could distract from his anodyne soul-rap timbre though; sometimes marvellously melodic (Better Now, Congratulations), often shot bar bland. He shared top billing with Twenty One Pilots who set fire to a car, donned balaclavas and played on platforms held aloft by the crowd, but nonetheless resembled the moment Coldplay discovered electronic dance music, but with more of a reggae sound.
Of the pop interlopers only Billie Eilish, drawing a gargantuan crowd waving black balloons, felt attuned to Reading’s heritage. She was the current mental health discussion made flesh, singing cracked, crepuscular electro noir about medication and self-loathing, dressed for a skater punk sanitorium. Veering into brutalist jazz and industrial skat, she was living proof that pop gets more interesting when it’s depressed.
Rap fared well thanks to Dave’s honeyed raps and Slowthai’s ferocious gutter rants, and the outer stages boasted exuberant indie rockers Sports Team and Poppy, a bubblegum meme singer backed by white-faced metal gimps, virtually a satire on the whole festival.
But save for an hour of Royal Blood’s volcanic blues rock on Friday, rock redemption had to wait until Sunday. Here Yungblud tore across the mainstage in pink socks and lingerie like Keith Flint reborn and Foo Fighters delivered a 150-minute masterclass in rock righteousness.
Complete with covers of AC/DC and Queen’s Under Pressure and an appearance by Rick Astley for a Smells Like Teen Spirit reworking of Never Gonna Give You Up, the show was framed as a rock’n’roll fightback, but roar-alongs like My Hero and All My Life felt like rock-era Reading being shown its best bits.
During their set, The 1975 asserted that rock’n’roll is dead. This might be premature, but on Richfield Avenue it’s definitely in terminal decline.