August, 1979 was a pivotal year in my life. It was the year I’d taken my ‘A’ levels and managed to get an offer from Sussex University. I can’t remember whether I knew that I’d been offered a place at the time of going to Reading Festival, but to be honest, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was I was going to Reading Festival, especially since the headlining band on the Saturday night was Thin Lizzy. I’d cut the application form out of the back of Sounds magazine (which was more like a newspaper), filled in my details and sent it off with a postal order. This was in the days before home computers, kids.
Of course, I wasn’t on my own. Three of my school friends (who obviously by now were my former school friends) were sharing the adventure with me: Eggy Howe, Beany Green and Alan Burr. Eggy and I came from the council estate; Beany and Alan were from the private houses, so it just goes to prove that cultures can mix and the world really is a great big onion. Or summat.
The only problem was I’d started a holiday job as a cashier for Coral, the bookmaker, two weeks before. Bank holidays were a big thing for Coral, when there were lots of horse racing meets and the need for lots of cashiers. I decided to deal with this inconvenience in the only way I knew how to as an 18 year old.
“Thanks for letting me work here,” I said to the shop manager on my second day, “but I have tickets for Reading Festival over the bank holiday weekend. Sorry. Can I have a sub, please?”
Incredibly, the manager agreed to all of my demands, including the sub. I can still see all the other cashiers collecting their jaws off of the nicotine stained carpets.
However, it wasn’t all good news. A couple of days before the start of the festival, Thin Lizzy pulled out and were replaced by German heavy rockers The Scorpions, who weren’t quite so high up on my list of ‘to see’ bands. The line-up was still pretty impressive though, with The Police, a band called The Tourists with some very sexy blonde lead singer called Annie Lennox, Gillan, Cheap Trick, Peter Gabriel and Whitesnake, to name but a few.
We packed our tent (borrowed by Beany from the local scout group) and set off in Alan’s Vauxhall Victor, making the fairly short journey to Reading in good time. We set up camp in the designated area; or rather, Beany did, being the only one who knew how. I was still traumatised from my Cuffley Camp experiences from a few years back. It turned out he’d brought a huge 8 berth tent, which meant we could recline in luxury rather than sleep on top of each other. We had planned all our meals for the weekend, i.e. lined up the cans of beer and baked beans. Our neighbours were a friendly bunch from Holland who kept asking us if we had any grass, but at that age I can honest say that I only knew one person who had anything to do with drugs and he was a hairy man who lived at the bottom of our road with his mum and spent most of his day broadcasting Led Zeppelin albums out of his bedroom window at tremendous volume. He was, as my dad would say,’ a f***ing layabout.’
So no, we politely explained, we didn’t have any grass.
Friday afternoon, the performances started. Kenton, our friend who worked in HMV in Oxford Street and ‘sold’ us lots of albums for free (a long story), had told us to go and watch an up and coming band who were on early in the afternoon called The Cure.
It turned out that they were very good, with the lead singer, Robert Smith, being the focus of the group with his sticky up hair and thick eye-liner.
We then spent some time watching the maniacal Wilko Johnson thrash his way around the stage. We liked Wilko because of his associations with Ian Dury, one of our heroes.
Once Wilko finished, we wandered over to the other stage, deep in conversation. We all had a good supply of beer. I carried mine around in a carrier bag. Eggy stuffed his down his trousers(don’t ask) whilst Alan had a rather fetching little holdall. Beany went for the trendy beer carrying look, using the plastic loops that kept a four pack together, using one empty loop, connected to his belt to carry the remaining beers.
As we were talking, a rat faced little skinny man sidled up next to Beany and snatched a can from the plastic loop. Beany and the rat faced man, dressed in filthy jeans, a Motorhead T-shirt and leather waistcoat, stared at each other momentarily. Rat face leered and waved the can triumphantly in Beany’s face. At which point, Beany, quick as a flash, snatched it back.
Rat Face’s expression changed instantly, his eyes angry and his brown teeth showing a snarling grimace. He pushed Beany hard in the chest, causing Beany to take a step back.
Now, Beany was a clever boy. He was about to study medicine in London. But he was also a boy from Borehamwood. None of us took kindly to being pushed around and a couple of characters, despite their academic prowess, were regarded as what was known as ‘handy’. Beany fell into this category and reacted as most Borehamwood boys in the 1970s would have done.
He punched his adversary very hard in his rat face, causing the odious little man to sit down hard on his arse, trying his best to stop the flow of blood streaming from his nose. Game over, you might think, but no. What occurred next was one of those moments when your whole life flashes before your eyes.
As Rat Face did his best to realign his nasal passages, somebody sitting nearby stood up. He appeared to be wearing the same garb as the bleeding one, but was much bigger.
Then another stood, staring at us intently. And another. And another.
Slowly but surely, like passengers on a runaway train realising their fate, we realised exactly what Beany had put on its arse. A Hell’s Angel. Equally terrifyingly, the whole area where we stood slowly sprouted Hell’s Angels, getting to their feet like monstrous, ghoulish zombies rising from the grave.
Then, a hundred Hell’s Angels stood up.
Eggy managed to put our awkward situation into perspective.
“Oh.Shit.We.Are.Going.To.Die,” he whispered.
Rat Face scrambled to his feet, grinning. The Angels took a step towards us. I clenched my fists defiantly, but not as much as my sphincter muscle.
“Oi!” somebody shouted from the middle of the throng. All eyes turned towards the interjector. It was a rather grizzled Hell’s Angel wearing a cowboy hat. I think through the mists of time I’ve turned him into Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, but I can’t guarantee the authenticity of this particular memory.
Dennis Hopper pointed at Rat Face.
“That kid just punched you out! Ha ha ha ha!” he laughed.
The other Hell’s Angels turned their gaze back to Rat Face. The laughter slowly grew, until all the Hell’s Angels were laughing and pointing at the bloodied loser.
Meanwhile, we snatched our opportunity to scuttle away and hide between some amps until the coast was clear.
We decided that, all things considered, we had a lucky escape and would watch out for Hell’s Angels in the future.
The rest of the festival passed without incident. Well, nearly. Once it was all over, we packed the scout tent back into the Victor and piled in. We chatted excitedly about the bands and the topless girls. Alan turned to Eggy and I in the back of the car in order to describe one particularly beautiful girl he had seen the day before, not looking where he was going. In the distance, a Hell’s Angel ambled across the mud road, defying anybody to make him hurry.
Of course, Alan hadn’t seen him and continued at top speed. The Hell’s Angel determinedly continued his act of defiance, before suddenly realising this car wasn’t slowing or stopping. Alan turned back to face the front just in time to see a pop eyed Hell’s Angel do his best impression of a John Cleese style bounding walk to avoid our car, all traces of menace and coolness lost.
We stared behind us as more Hell’s Angels appeared on the road, shaking their fists in our wake.
Next year, we decided to give Hell’s Angels a wide berth and watch all the folk bands.