Muse headlining Reading might not seem like a big deal in 2012: we are all accustomed to watching the Devonshire trio’s intergalactic prog supershow bring the house down in front of jam-packed stadium crowds, but back in 2006, they weren’t so unassailable. In fact they were mercilessly second-guessed. Muse might have stunned Glastonbury in 2004 upstaging a shambolic Oasis performance, but at Reading their steady ascent to festival primacy hit a nagging road block.
The second the line up was announced the chattering started. “Arctic Monkeys should headline” became the familiar rallying cry. This was at the height of Monkeymania, Whatever People Say I Am That Is What I Am Not had become the UK’s fastest selling record of all time, and the band’s every tour date sold out in a matter of seconds. The worry wasn’t so much that Muse couldn’t headline, it was that no one would care. The masses would arrive for the Monkeys and then promptly leave. It might sound crazy, but their was already a precedent. The NME Awards Tour featuring The Mystery Jets, We Are Scientists, Arctic Monkeys and Maximo Park became famous for its post-Monkeys walkouts. Paul Smith and co. were left night after night with half full academies.
NME enjoyed whipping up the hype. In their preview they asked every artist who should headline and who the biggest band in Britain were, and more often than not, Arctic Monkeys was the reply. On the night, Alex Turner’s understated rabble drew one of the biggest crowds in the festival’s history, and Reading sang back every last syllable of the set – including mammoth singalong to “Bigger Boys & Stolen Sweathearts”, a festival favourite from 2005 that failed to make the band’s debut LP. The atmosphere was fervid and more than a little uncomfortable; breathing room was at a premium, and at the set’s close there was an exodus, but a minor one.
Chris, Matt and Dominic were more than up to the task. They attacked their set with an electric sense of freedom that is entirely absent from modern day Muse performances. The band are incredibly slick and technically dexterous today, they know how to construct a thrilling stadium set, but they can never quite recreate the fire of that make it or break it moment. The shrill off key screams during “Knights Of Cyndonia”, the frenzied scratchy solo during “Super Massive Blackholes” and the crushingly unkempt blues that poured routinely from Matt’s guitar were entirely desperate, and of the moment.
It wasn’t simply a hell to leather onslaught. There were instances of quiet reflection; the tonal shifts and the spacious moments Reading was never afforded during Arctic Monkeys live wire set. The space between “Forced In” and “Bliss” was beautiful, and the novelty pomp of “Invincible” was a joy. Self-parody had yet to enter the Muse cannon and their performance was so dynamic and wild eyed in its extremes that no one stopped to say: “this is friggin ridiculous” – we just went with.
If they started their performance with buoyant tub-thumping expression of self (“Knights Of Cyndonia”), unashamedly putting their most brazen foot first, they ended with stark intensity. The tight raging spirals of “Stockholm Syndrome” and the distinctly dark and joyless “Take A Bow”; the set concluded with burning fire – Muse had eviscerated their adversaries and conquered Reading, as the Monkeys played second fiddle to a set for the ages.