Once a year in my adopted home city of Liége, Belgium, there’s a mini festival in a rough-and-ready part of town. One time a local character, sat smoking on his doorstep and looking like a cross between Al Pacino and Popeye, engaged me in conversation, energised by the influx of young revellers. He asked me if I was enjoying the festival, then casually mentioned that in his younger days he’d attended Woodstock.
I thought, “Imagine fate putting you at somewhere like that, just by chance, to witness something unforgettable and legendary”. And then not long after, I realised that fate had indeed done the same thing to me.
It was Reading Festival, 1986, and we’d gone there principally for Killing Joke and Hawkwind. The first band on, on Sunday morning was an unknown quantity and it was quite early, but we were young and full of beans, and at Reading (unlike Glastonbury), there was nob-all to do other than watch bands or skulk in your tent, so off we trooped to the main stage.
A cacophony of strange sounds and clanks spilled from the speakers as ‘Cardiacs’ crept onstage, bedecked in maroon cinema uniforms, all smudged facepaint and gormless expressions. What followed was extraordinary, and miraculously was recorded for posterity and eventual release.
The ‘Rude Bootleg’ performance opened with ‘Icing on the World’, a short fanfare of a piece, melodically rich and complex, and certainly intriguing, but intended just to herald the start of the gig. It was followed by ‘To Go Off and Things’, introduced in a wry and slightly creepy manner by singer Tim Smith, his delivery hesitant and bordering on autistic, but it was a tease and a trap, as the song was a muscular frantic stop-start monster, as tight and accomplished as Frank Zappa at the height of his powers. It was classic sucker-punch technique, their early slot and goofy appearance had lulled the crowd into zero expectations. No-one was expecting anything like this.
Still reeling from the impact, we were hit with ‘In a City Lining’, an immense ambitious epic widescreen number, the kind of thing most bands would close their set with, throwing every trick in the book, and several kitchen sinks at the audience, but Cardiacs were just warming up. It was followed by ‘Tarred and Feathered’, simultaneously raucous and clinically precise in its execution. The level of musicianship beggared belief, it was almost frightening.
The drama and tension continued to escalate with the massive emotional bombardment of ‘The Big Ship’, with its chord sequence bordering on biblical. Then the carnival circus acrobatics of ‘I’m Eating in Bed’. Should anyone think them a novelty act, they then took things into almost commercial terrain with ‘Is This the Life’, a rock song of majestic proportions to make The Cure weep with jealousy, with its immortal guitar solo.
The set closed with ‘The Whole World Window’, an indescribable treatise on life, death and mortality, both life-affirming and achingly melancholic, culminating in a confetti drenched crescendo, as gameshow hosts ran on with champagne and flowers, Tim Smith sobbing as he melted into dayglo dementia. And then it was all over, and no-one could quite believe what they’d just witnessed. I think most of the crowd spent the rest of the day in a state of shock, but not me. I was in a state of shock for the next thirty years.