'I think it's gonna rain today...'
A Saturday afternoon and 25,000 of us stuck in a field in Buckinghamshire skating on water, cowering as skies spit and snarl and dump on us with neither ceremony or mercy. A sinister darkness suddenly envelopes us, slyly diverting attention while a stifling humidity creeps up and grips our throats - is the set of "Zombies 2" or what? Somebody up there definitely didn't get cornflakes for breakfast.
You can't blame Him, of course, but I wouldn't actually choose to greet the end of the world swallowing mud by the bucket in Milton Stinking Keynes.
I mean Milton Keynes forgodsake. It even looks silly on the map, alongside Newport Pagnell.
The birth of Milton Keynes Superbowl - a glittering, vast new all-purpose open-air amphitheatre - as a major rock'n'roll landmark, is evidently triumphantly continuing the glorious festival traditions of other exotic hubs of the universe like Buxton, Lincoln and Bath. It will seem a much brighter idea as the day progresses, but right now I have grave misgivings that Police, for once, have played a dodgy hand.
And so... in an atmosphere of doom, with the skies caving in all around us, and God decidedly not on our side, one Tom Robinson enters the arena. A seasoned gladiator this boy - through nobody seems very sure if he's lion or a Christian - he instantly makes it plain that, come typhoon or earthquake, he's not gonna be diverted.
Even in an industry renowned for the whimsy with which it dismembers its heroes, the elevation and subsequent disrobing of Tom Robinson was still astonishingly rapid. With heart forever on sleeve and overkill constantly rampant, he was always walking headlong into an ambush, which in this case was particularly bloody. Maybe now there'll be a backlash against the backlash - he's kept his head low while establishing his new band, Sector 27, and Milton Keynes is their first large-scale showcase.
Impeccable timing. They open up on the stroke of four, and depart exactly 45 minutes later. In between they tentatively fashion a minor triumph. Nothing dramatic, mind - no ROBBO ROUTS POLICE stuff - but a persuasively infectious set. Tom looks like an evil doctor out of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" in white coat and the lead guitarist seems to have strayed from Japan (the band not the country) but they've got a fair old understanding going. Tom still sounds like he's suffering from a bad case of influenza every time he sings, but gone is the raw sloganising, to be replaced by Gabrielesque changes of rhythm and sophisticated sound texture. They've got a long hard haul, but they're promising enough, and Robinson may yet stuff some of that hail of abuse back down a few throats.
Ah, but now we have some fun. New band up is from Chicago, and they're called Skafish. I tell you this now for posterity because you're unlikely to hear of them again. With luck.
They're a camp, posey six-piece, fronted by a lady called Barbie, who (nearly) wears a crimson evening dress full of slits and gaping flesh; and a gangling man with his face whitened, into mime, jerking around like a puppet. They offer cliché and contrived theatrics. Just what we need to go with our mudcakes and bouts of rain in a field in Milton Keynes.
The first pint of lager goes whizzing past Barbie's ear ten minutes into the set, and from this point you know it's just a matter of how long they'll stick it out. There's got to be a villain in every drama, and Skafish offer three very convincing reasons why they should be the human sacrifice in this one: they're unknown, they're American, and they're dreadful.
The cans, initially intermittent, rapidly escalate into a full-scale assault. Quite a number of the shots fall short of the stage, which is unfortunate for those of us near the front, and this itself, provokes interesting crossfire. A young local reporter next to me, clearly used to a diet of funerals and flower shows, is horrified. "I've never seen anything like this before," he cries, falling flat on his face in search of refuge, and re-emerging a soggy mess ten minutes later, his pockets full of tadpoles.
Skafish, obviously not a band to miss a subtle hint, leave the stage with immense haste. Backstage, the band's manager carries a frozen smile. "You do realise that's how they show their appreciation over here," a photographer tells him. "Oh it wasn't that bad." he responds. "A lot of them were shaking their firsts in time with the music." The exchanges may have got more interesting, but Sting wanders by, in green wellingtons, the shadow of a smile hovering on his mouth, and the photographers instantly forget Barbie's embarrassment and pursue him. Miles Copeland isn't far behind yelling "No photographs, no photographs, he doesn't want his picture taken." Miles is never far behind.
Out front things are chirping up. The rain stops, and the sport with Skafish has put the audience in good humour. The relief that sweeps round the place as Squeeze bounce on, all wideboy affableness and blazing confidence, is all-consuming.
"Ere we are then," shouts Chris Difford into the morass... "Bit of a party this afternoon... bit of slap and tickle." And they're away, consolidating the flying start with an assured performance of 'Another Nail In My Heart', for me their best single, though one of their more mildly successful.
A bunch of Hell's Angels on my left, however, are unimpressed and decide the place needs livening up and set about tearing the head off a guy who's tumbled into them. Squeeze cruise on...
'Cool For Cats', 'Pulling Mussels From The Shell', 'Up The Junction', 'Goodbye Girl'... great songs all of them, played faithfully... but somehow it just isn't enough.
They struggle to sustain the pitch of the start, and you feel that, with the whole place absolutely behind them after the last band's disaster, they lose their grip at some indeterminate period halfway through the set. They get a reasonable response, sufficient to pull them back for an encore, but... maybe the open air just isn't their forte. I wonder how Coe and Ovett are making out.
John Peel comes on and announces Ovett has beaten Coe. Roars of approval go around the arena. They're bound to support the baddie on a day like this.
UB40 are wonderful. Understated in surroundings of brashness. Subtle in an atmosphere of loudness. Classy but never technical, UB40 skank along with the minimum of fanfare and contrivance... they sidle up and seduce you with a lethal restraint, and within their first couple of numbers you're transformed from cold objectivity to full commitment, rocking back and forth, totally wrapped up in their rhythms.
But quite apart from the music they are just so damn engaging. I've rarely seen such as atmosphere of warmth emanate from a stage even while their lyrics may sting - 'Burden of Shame' is a prime example, effortlessly intoxicating to the point that you involuntarily find yourself grinning inanely and moving with the beat, yet in no way missing the questioning lyric about British complacency.
Their records do them scant justice. I always thought 'king' a dull single, but live it's a killer. But even that palls behind their astonishingly fresh restructure job on 'I Think It's Gonna Rain Today', one of Randy Newman's hoariest old chestnuts, destined to be their next single, and please God, a number one hit.
Extrovert bass player Earl Faulkner, a spray of dreadlocks twirling like a catherine wheel, presides over them with a beam on his face and a spring in his legs, flanked by the brothers Campbell, earnest and industrious, absolutely in harmony with one another. Few bands can possibly enjoy themselves so much on stage, and be able to transmit that joy to the audience. The cherry in the Tequila Sunrise, however, has to be sax player Brian Travers... bouncing around under a shock of red hair, supplying sparing solos that never intrude yet are absolutely essential to the piece as a whole.
UB40, frankly, make Saturday in Milton Keynes almost bearable. Even the plank of mud next to me is moved to announce that they're the best thing he has seen since Zappa.
I even feel well enough after their set to plough around the grounds and inspect the scene from afar. The rain's continuing to hold off, it's not so bad is it? Steep banking at the back and sides overlooking the stage, plenty of room to wander, security not too heavy, adequate facilities, food and booze available that doesn't rip you off (too much). A few Police souvenir stalls stand diffidently outside - I hope Miles doesn't catch up with them.
They were expecting more people, of course, but it is for charity. We'd all be lauding it were it not for the "adverse conditions" I keep talking about. Maybe, just maybe, Milton Keynes Superbowl might even fulfil Lord Melchett's vision of a permanent festival site.
Police keep us waiting over an hour amid frequent announcements of "just another couple of minutes"... the prerogative of the stars of the show. A flash of light, an eruption of noise, and they're there. They sure do make a formidable noise for three people, the place jumping just from sheer volume.
All eyes are on Sting, right out at the front of the stage having replaced gum-boots with immaculate white trousers, legs a quivering a la Elvis, playing a peculiar, lean bass that hangs from the roof on a lead. Police are impressive, and I can only gaze and admire their stagecraft and their mere presence, even while they leave me cold.
'Roxanne' was a classic single, one of the best, but they milk it till it's bleeding and raw; and don't their frequent meanderings off at a tangent become ever so slightly tedious when repeated and dragged out so often? I find it hard to stay with them during these extended improvisations, despite the display of power.
The place is going crazy as they gather momentum after a jumbled start, but they only get me bopping in brief spurts.
'I Can't Stand Losing', 'Message In A Bottle', and 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', a track from their next album which, despite the profundity of the title, will make one of the best singles of the year when it's unleashed. Mostly I fin Sting's penetrating voice increasingly hard to cope with and wish for UB40.
© Melody Maker by Colin Irwin (with thanks to Dietmar)