''It might,'' as people kept saying as they squelched through the mud, ''have been a great Festival.'' Indeed it might, with an impressive line-up of newish bands and a reasonable site for them to perform in. But Saturday's downpour made the first Milton Keynes festival look just about as ragged and gloomy as any outdoor concert on a grey day and it was no surprise that little more than 25,000 people turned up to sit in this man-made bowl, romantically situated next to a main road.
There's something about outdoor shows that encourages conservatism - no wonder that a far larger crowd should have gone to see The Beach Boys at Knebworth than the best-selling Police here - and that conservatism extended to this audience. There was only one band whose music was not already known to them, and they were treated to one of the most vicious attacks I've seen from a festival audience. It's one thing to bombard a band with abuse, but when the stage is pelted with literally hundreds of full beer cans, quite apart from empties, and when anyone within 30 yards is in danger of getting hurt, it's no great advertisement for a British pop audience.
The offending band, Skafish, are from Chicago and had a girl keyboard player and a singer dressed like a camp cabaret punk. They deserve awards for bravery or stupidity for continuing to play their quirky, not unpleasing songs in the face of the onslaught. After the singer had been badly cut on the face the road crew forced Skafish off stage for their own safety.
That incident coloured the rest of the proceedings, though there were lively following seats by bands better suited to concert halls or clubs. Squeeze, nattily dressed in white jackets, were not an ideal festival band because the subtlety of their clever, catchy pop songs tended to be lost on the wet hillside, though the wry story songs like 'Misadventure' or 'Up The Junction' were all slickly performed.
UB40, an eight piece part-black part-white reggae band from Birmingham who take their name from the dole form, were the surprise success of the festival. A distinctive vocal style and wailing saxophone have helped sound different from all the many rivals in this field and they mixed a joyful musical style with angry lyrics. They many Rock Against Thatcher songs like 'Madame Medusa', and 'Burden Of Shame' (''I'm a British subject and proud of it'') were mixed with a superbly atmospheric, gently reggae treatment of Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going To Rain Today'.
Finally, after dark, came The Police. The best selling trio are currently recording their third album and the few surprises in their confident if predictable set came from the inclusion of some of the new songs. They didn't quite justify Sting's claim in an interview here that he'd be taking a completely new direction, but they showed a move towards a more varied and mainstream approach, while retaining more than a hint of the white reggae style. 'When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Still Around' could be The Police anthem for the Eighties.
The set ended with old favourites from 'Message In A Bottle' to 'Roxanne' and 'So Lonely'. Sting played a new electric stand up bass and sang powerfully. It was an impressive enough performance, but somehow lacking the band's earlier passion. Perhaps that's too much to ask in the Milton Keynes mud.
(c) The Guardian by Robin Denselow
Rockatta De Bowl...
The Police these days aren't too dissimilar to the real item. You see them everywhere. Most of the time you accept them, most of the time you don't annoy them, sometimes you're glad they're there... and every so often somebody tells the newspapers just how wonderful they are.
All of which, naturally, isn't intended to knock the success of the first rock concert at the new Milton Keynes Bowl. Despite the first flood of the summer - which reduced most of the reclaimed rubbish tip into a quagmire - Police hauled in over 20,000 fans, the bill was well balanced and a fair proportion of the hard-earned pocket money give up.
But Police aren't yet able to match the acclaim their two albums have brought them. Being there seemed to be enough; not quite delivering an exciting rock show seemingly a matter of no concern.
Regatta De Bowl, this year's Knebworth for the young generation, opened with Tom Robinson's Sector 27 sounding as muddy as the arena itself.
They were followed by the unfortunate Skafish, who, by standing firm against a hail of (mostly full) beer cans were injured, a doubly inauspicious start.
But with Skafish the token bellyflop over the patch was clear for Squeeze who did their best to maintain their reputation as perky and intelligent pop craftsmen. Their image to me is one of always attempting to conceal more than they deliver - a packed set of 'thoughtful' candy floss and tight hooks. Their applause was nonetheless earned and appreciated.
UB40, still learning their way, were well worth their position. Commercially fortunate, and thus identifiable, their ambitions are rapidly expanding. With long and languorous jazz and dub passage fleshing out their sax-led reggae UB40 are easy to like and easy to be lulled too. Nor will they ever lose a threatening edge - a long improvisation of 'Summer Time' for instance, or the growing power of 'King' (better on stage than on record) left them with warm, deserved applause.
The yawning hour-long wait for Police would have been perfect had it only started to rain heavily. Instead the gap frayed tempers and caused outbreaks of slow handclapping. All Police needed to do was wave and they would have been cheered for ten minutes. Yet Police, for all their fame and fortune, can't really be expected to know that of course.
Sting stands stage left, clutching an upright bass (''It's my new toy. it's called Brian or something'' we're later to find out), occasionally remembering to make stage announcements in the same strained manner that he sings. ''Dat's right!'' he screeches to impossible acclaim.
Stewart Copeland is a very fine drummer, perhaps more than a third of the Police sound as know and love it. He looks ready for plenty more than the present stage dynamics are giving him, and I hope he gets it.
Andy Summers, another excellent musician, allowing himself only the smallest amount of theatrics (one scissor jump, two duck walks and three nervous glances into the crowd) makes up the trio.
It takes Police a while to find themselves; and even longer to find the audience that obviously loves them. 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' allows Sting enough time to begin to find his pitch. The ambition is finally realised on a nervously rushed and unexciting rendition of 'Fall Out'. But not before wavering examples of 'Walking On The Moon' and 'It's Alright For You' things were obviously going to be alright.
With Andy Summers delivering a series of effects, and perhaps just a hint of additional synthesisation fleshing out the sound (was there?) Police began to take a grip, expanding songs and filling up the minutes.
The introduction of new songs like 'Da Doo Doo Doo Da Daa Daa Daa' and 'When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Around' were the brown paper wrapping for the real presents of 'Message In A Bottle', 'Roxanne', 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' and 'I Can't Stand Losing You'.
With these anthems Police played at arm's length. The learned-by-heart verses delivered with more gusto through the night air and the mud than through the speakers. The snore was obvious and quick as 'So Lonely' put the seal on a pleasant show who's strength was entirely outweighed by its saleability.
Give them another year and just maybe they'll be playing live as well as their records lead you to believe they can.
This time for the Police, as much as for the Milton Keynes Bowl, this was merely a baptism without fire.
(c) Record Mirror by John Shearlaw
Why Police men have bigger bowls...
Things to do on a wet weekend in Milton Keynes... number one in a series on one.
This fabled Milton Keynes Bowl - more of a saucer really - turns out to be a wide, grassy crater that's been scooped out of the area's architect-planned lunar landscape. Tied to a long rope over the arena, floating in the breeze, is what looks like a gaily-coloured inflatable hydrogen bomb. After a day and a night of record breaking rainstorms, the whole place is a sludgy sea of knee-deep mud. Braving the sullen stares of the crushed, hungry, tired and wet Police fans on all sides, we take our privileged places in the little pig-pen press enclosure and wait for the first of our five acts. Who are...
''Sector 27, you pillock!'' as a peevish voice bawls out, gently correcting our MC John Peel (looking smart in figure-flattering Evertonian blue) after he'd hailed Tom Robinson's new band as 'Section' 27 when they'd finished. But to be entirely honest, they didn't make that deep an impression on me
While it's true Robinson is now gamely attending to his traditional problem of drab visuals, largely via an ambitious pair of silver trousers, it strikes me that his character, a rather uncharismatic kind of decency still doesn't fit a rock concert. However honest the commitment, however genuine the anger. he still can't sing a word like ''bastards'' and sound authentic. Wholesome in spite of himself, Tom's still the figure that you 'approve' of rather than actually get excited by.
Sector 27 - that's Robinson, Stevie B on guitar, Jo Burt on bass and Derek Quinton on drums - are really, despite some self-consciously modernist trappings, more in the line of the old TRB than I'd have liked. There's the same plodding beat and earnest message-bearing, carried by mundane power riffs whose bullying aggressiveness never sounds quite right. God knows we badly need people up there spelling out the things that Tom does spell out; I only wish I could find his style more attractive than I do. But at least 'Not Ready', which ended the set, generated something like the feeling which seemed to be missing before.
American act Skafish - the band and the man - who followed with their first UK appearance, succeeding in whipping up a definite response, even if it was probably the exact opposite of what they would have wished for. In short, they were mercilessly canned.
From the moment they took the stage - leader Jim Skafish with his exceptional nose and contrived all-round loser ugliness, his ultra-glamorous sidekick Miss Barbie Goodrich, and four anonymously competent musicians - with a succession of slightly-camp rock'n'roll songs all about high school persecutions, guilt and adolescent neurosis, Skafish couldn't do anything without rousing the crowd to ever-greater heights of contempt and impatience.
A beer-can flew, aimed for the Skafish profile, to be followed by another, and then another. Soon, as these things do, the whole thing fed on itself, and the hapless Yanks had to press valiantly on amidst a very scary hail of cans (most of them full, too, as if that's any way to treat 50p). And even if the band's rather ordinary brand of American theatrical rock-op didn't win over my sympathies, their dogged determination to fight unflinchingly on in the face of mindless hostility certainly did.
Poor old Peel could only suggest that it might be kinder, and safer, if people would vent their feelings by writing to the NME instead.
But Squeeze were to have no such problems. Running slickly through a clutch of their best known numbers (and in the short time available that meant plenty left out besides) they took Milton Keynes with them all the way. And I'm bound to say that it was a good deal of fun.
From 'Slap And Tickle' and 'Another Nail in My Heart' at the start, to 'Up The Junction' and 'Goodbye Girl' at the end, Tilbrook and Difford and Lavis and Bentley were purely irresistible entertainment. And Jools Holland, as well as supplying some superb boogie-woogie piano, duly upstaged the lot of them with his ludicrous line in compere's chat.
But perhaps the most significant compliment was that paid by one coach-party of oafs near the front: intelligently insisting on giving the ceremonial two-fingered salute throughout, even they kept finding themselves gesturing in time to the beat. Quite embarrassing, I'd imagine.
Then there were UB40. Already, a good proportion of their set is familiar: after 'Burden Of Shame', 'Food For Thought', 'My Way Of Thinking' and 'King' all made appearances to instant acclaim. Also in there were Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going To Rain Today', 'Signing Off' (title of the coming album) and, what toaster Astro described as ''one of our many Rock Against Thatcher numbers'', 'Madame Medusa'.
UB40's music would make the perfect summer afternoon's soundtrack - though even under a heavy grey sky they shaped up OK and went away delighted. It's a languid, loping sort of reggae; good humoured, virtually easy listening, though there's bit enough in the lyrics if you want it. Brain Travers' sax is especially crucial, as seductive as the melodies that drift across the beat.
Darkness, delays, and some squashed Sting fans being lifted out unconscious all marked the big build up to Police time. Barriers tumbled, the photo-pit and press-pen got swamped and then - before you could say Cincinnati, the causes of the commotion were there on stage.
With some sense of irony I found myself suffocating, gazing straight up Sting's nostrils and hearing a song called 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. But there was a happy mania in the air: screams and squeals and it's-really-him! In the flesh!
And yes, it was a triumph, and a lot of kids had an uncomfortable but ecstatic time. 'Walking On The Moon', 'Bring On The Night', 'Bed's Too Big Without You' all emerged in due course - Sting initially playing a suspended upright bass, Summers in super-flash suit, Copeland hammering away impressively.
They still leave me utterly cold, and yet I'm not unhappy to see The Police where they are - they're unique and sharp and original, and their frontman projects a humane, responsible kind of stardom. demonstrating his total control of the event with an admirable assurance. All the same, during those leisurely, strung-out and indulgent versions of 'Roxanne' and 'Can't Stand Losing You' I could feel my concentration wandering - to be shortly followed by my feet. It was no place for the undevoted.
Give or take a few casualties, the 'Rockatta De Bowl' was another Miles Copeland-style coup for free enterprise. How long, anyway, before Milton Keynes is re-christened Milton Friedman?
(c) New Musical Express by Paul Du Noyer
'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.
(c) Melody Maker by Colin Irwin
Rockatta de Bowl...
''The show by The Police in the hitherto rock and roll backwater of Milton Keynes, proved that there are still few greater thrills available anywhere than to witness a group playing at the absolute peak of its prowess and confidence... One is always astonished at any show The Police perform, by the remarkable power they manage to create with the basic line-up of bass, guitar and drums...'' - Evening Standard
''...they showed a move towards a more varied and mainstream approach, while retaining more than a hint of the white reggae style. 'When The World is Running Down' could be The Police anthem for the Eighties.'' - The Guardian
''They achieved a better overall sound with three musicians than anyone else did with eight... 'Bring On The Night' was the song that made it all worthwhile; with its enchanting chord sequence, it's the best example of their particular art. The white reggae beat was certainly conducive to the festival atmosphere, and the tribal chants brought out the football supporter in all of us.'' - Sounds magazine
''All eyes are on Sting, right out at the front of the stage, having replaced gum-boots with immaculate white trousers. Legs quivering ala 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... best of all, 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', a track from their album which despite the profundity of the title, will make one of the best singles of the year if and when it's unleashed.'' - Melody Maker
''And yes, it was a triumph, and a lot of kids had an uncomfortable but ecstatic time. 'Walking on the Moon', 'Bring on the Night,' 'Bed's Too Big Without You' all emerged in due course - Sting initially playing a suspended upright bass, Summers in super-flash suit, Copeland hammering away impressively... they're unique and sharp and original and their frontman projects a humane, responsible kind of stardom, demonstrating his total control of the event with an admirable assurance.'' - New Musical Express
(c) Various Sources