O2 Wireless Festival, Hyde Park, June 21
I've never really bought into the whole rock festival thing. It's not that I have any objection to roughing it for a few days; it's just that if I'm going to hunker down in a flimsy tent for the night, I'd prefer my nightmares to be of owls and sheep rather than acid-addled Mudhoney fans from Swindon who've suddenly discovered the delights of fire-eating. The answer is, of course, the current spate of one-day quasi-festivals, with all the bad toilets and worse beer of Glastonbury, but they finish early so that Giles can get into the City on time the following morning.
And so to Hyde Park on the longest, but far from warmest day of the year. By the time we work out how to get in (Signs? Maps? Stewards? Is this the Lost Vagueness thing that Glasto freaks talk about?) Dirty Pretty Things are half way through their set.
DPT, if you aren't aware, is the band that Carl Barat started after the Libertines disintegrated in a confusion of drugs, burglary, Blakean aspirations and supermodels. The joke (ha ha) is that, by comparison with his former co-worker Mr Doherty, Barat is relatively clean, and, let's be honest here, not nearly as pretty. Whether or not he is a thing is best left to the existential noodlers who might find the band's no-nonsense punk heroics a bit too oomphy. Sadly, inspiration seems to have deserted him, in rather the way that George Michael got dull when Andrew Ridgeley went surfing. The biggest cheer comes for the set closer, 'Bang Bang You're Dead', which is also, oddly, the most Libertines-esque number. Funny, that.
Another performer trying to emerge from the shadows of a much-hyped band is Jack White. The difference between the Libertines and the White Stripes, however, is that the Stripes deserved much of the media frenzy. Their punk/blues minimalism was like a refreshing spurt of Beconase on a hayfevery day; so it's a little depressing that with his new outlet, the Raconteurs, White seems to be obsessed with sludgy, Canned Heat-style fretwankery. A double bass drum is only an improvement on Meg White's primeval tubthumping if you believe that Carl Palmer (late of Emerson, Lake and...) is a better drummer than Ringo Starr. And if you do, you're just wrong. Less is more, as someone who called his second album De Stijl ought to know. White also appears to have porked out a bit, and the ladeez in the house (well, park) seem more entranced by his new chum, Brendan Benson, who has the doomed elegance of someone who might have been in Big Star once.
Throughout the Raconteurs' set, a young woman sits, her back defiantly to the stage, earnestly reading Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. Who could be on next, we wonder? As the folky strains of 'Stars of Track and Field' ring out against the encroaching wind, Small Boo asks the most telling question of the afternoon: "Why do all the women in Belle and Sebastian look like Emily Watson? And half the men as well?"
B&S are no longer the stage-frightened shamblers of old. Stuart Murdoch is a wry ringmaster, and the sheer strength of songs and musicianship can win over the most sceptical of audiences. But their whimsical instrumentation (Maracas! Melodicas! Vibraphones! Fuck, is that a Casiotone?) is no match for the surroundings, and lots of musical nuances get lost, even when they attempt to stare down the elements with 'Song For Sunshine'. But the songs from their latest, most successful album are strong enough to win over the agnostics in the scrum. Guitarist Stevie rings the changes in his Elvis Costello c. 1979 garb, and his wild Peter Crouch callisthenics are a highspot of the day.
A quick hop to the Xfm (are they still going?) Tent brings us the sad sight of Bob Mould doing a solo set for about three men, the dog having gone off to check whether this guy did indeed release the NME's album of the year in 1992. Super Furry Animals have more success but, as ever, their Beach-Boys-meets-Black-Sabbath soundscapes take a while to get into gear. When they up the tempo, they're scintillating, and you remember that 'God! Show Me Magic' is that rare thing, a rock anthem that's simply too damn short. I remember that I first saw these guys when they were sandwiched between Kenickie and Northern Uproar, and I feel old.
And then the headliners, the Strokes. They're Small Boo's pick of the bill, but not my cup of warm Carlsberg. I don't dislike them, but I can't get excited either. Julian and Co do manage to puncture the myth that all their songs sound the same; on the other hand, it's all their best songs, such as the searing 'Last Nite' that sound the same, and when they try to deviate from the formula, things get a bit limp.
So that was Wireless, the festival for people who don't like festivals. Sponsor presence wasn't a crassly overpowering as I'd been led to believe, although some of the phone-based services seemed a bit naff. Not only were you able to post your own portraits to the screens either side of the stage (waving behind Keith Chegwin for the 21st century); but you could also download the view from the stage onto your own handset. The image of people paying 40 quid for a ticket, and then paying extra to watch people jumping up and down on a little screen, says something a little sad about the poor old Zeitgeist.
Of course, none of the performers at Wireless managed anything so controversial as a political statement, which distances the whole thing even more from the Woodstock myth. However, Tom Stoppard's new play Rock 'n' Roll, at the Royal Court, suggests that, contrary to the received wisdom, it's not the politically committed bands that can make the walls shake, but the nihilists and the fun-seekers.
The action spans the years between the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and the death-throes of Communism in 1990, through the eyes of Cambridge Marxist academic Max (Brian Cox) and Czech unwilling dissident Jan (Rufus Sewell). There's a bit of rancorous dialogue about the October revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat; but Stoppard's key offstage presence is not Marx or Dubcek, but former Syd Barrett. The deposed Pink Floyd leader hovers at the beginning in the form of Pan; and remains entwined in the lives of Max's daughter and granddaughter as he cycles around Cambridge, bald, fat, but still oddly bewitching.
In parallel to Barrett is the influence of the Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band that kept the spirit of dissidence going, not through sloganeering, but through playing chaotic cover versions of Velvet Underground songs, thinly disguised as art lectures to throw the authorities off the scent. It's this spirit, suggests Stoppard, that is truly subversive (which incidentally makes the snide observation, that today's anti-war rockers are dominated by old guarders such as Neil Young, seem pretty irrelevant). Jan and his friend Ferdinand survive prison and the constant attentions of the security services; but it's when Jan returns to his flat and finds his beloved vinyl smashed on the floor that the biggest collective sob engulfs the audience. It's like High Fidelity, reworked by Ingmar Bergman.
Scene changes are punctuated with blasts of rock, from the relevant (Dylan, Velvets, Floyd) to the preposterous (Guns N' Roses). For the nerds among us, recording credits, even including studio details, are projected, white (light?) on black. At the end, Jan, Ferdinand and Max's daughter Esme leap around as the Rolling Stones rock the newly liberated Prague in 1990, and Esme (Sinead Cusack) bellows the final, crucial line: "I don't care!" A poster for the event appears; and at the top, you can just about make out that it's sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
Phew, rock 'n' roll, eh?