The Reading and Leeds Festivals are a pair of annual rock music festivals that take place in Reading and Leeds in England. The events take place simultaneously on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend, sharing the same bill. The Reading Festival is held at Little John's Farm on Richfield Avenue in central Reading, near the Caversham Bridge. The Leeds event is held in Bramham Park, near Wetherby, the grounds of a historic house. Campsites are available at both sites and weekend tickets include camping. Day tickets are also sold.
The Reading Festival, the original and senior of the two, is the world's oldest popular music festival still in existence and has hosted many of the UK's most famous acts over the years, including The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, The Who, Cream, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Genesis, Iron Maiden, The Jam, The Police, Status Quo, The Pogues, Blur, Pulp, Muse, The Cure, Radiohead, Biffy Clyro and Oasis plus top overseas names such as Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, AC/DC, Metallica, Guns n' Roses, Eminem, Nirvana, Hole, Foo Fighters, Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It has had various musical phases over the years, as detailed below. In the twin-site era, rock, alternative, indie, punk and metal have tended to dominate.
The festivals are run by Festival Republic, which was divested from Mean Fiddler Music Group. For promotional purposes during 1998–2007 they were known as the Carling Weekend: Reading and the Carling Weekend: Leeds. These titles were seldom used when not required, although NME were contractually obliged to do so as part of their involvement. In November 2007, the organisers welcomed "Reading Festival reclaiming its prestigious name" when the sponsored title was abolished after 9 years. In 2011, the capacity of the Reading site was 87,000 and the Leeds site was 75,000. This was an increase of several thousand on previous years.
The festival typically has the following stages:
The Reading Festival officially began life as the National Jazz Festival, which was conceived by Harold Pendleton (founder of the Marquee Club in London in 1958) and was first held at Richmond Athletic Ground in 1961. However, the festival's roots can be traced further back to the Beaulieu Jazz Festivals of the 1950s held on the estate of Lord Montague at Beaulieu in the New Forest, Hampshire. When alcochol-fuelled violence at the start of the 1960s led to the cancellation of the Beaulieu Jazz Festival its mantle was inherited by the new National Jazz Festival. Throughout the 1960s the festival moved between several London and Home Counties sites, being held at Windsor Racecourse, Kempton Park, Sunbury and Plumpton, before reaching its permanent home at Reading in 1971. Since 1964, when the Festival added a Friday evening session to the original Saturday and Sunday format, it has been staged over three days with the sole exception of 1970 when a fourth day was added, running from Thursday 6 to Sunday 9 August.
In the mid and late 1950s Beaulieu was the surprising location for one of Britain's first experiments in pop festival culture, with the annual Beaulieu Jazz Festival, which quickly expanded to become a significant event in the burgeoning jazz and youth pop music scene of the period.
Camping overnight, a rural invasion, eccentric dress, wild music and sometimes wilder behaviour — these now familiar features of pop festival happened at Beaulieu each summer, culminating in the so-called 'Battle of Beaulieu' at the 1960 festival, when rival gangs of modern and traditional jazz fans indulged in a spot of what sociologists went on to call 'subcultural contestation'.
The National Jazz Federation (NJF) Festival - as it was originally known - began at the height of the Trad Jazz boom as a successor to the Beaulieu Jazz Festival, initially as a two-day event held at Richmond Athletic Ground. The line-up for the first two years was made up exclusively of jazz performers, but in 1963 several rhythm & blues acts were added to the bill, including the Rolling Stones, Georgie Fame and Long John Baldry and by 1965 were in the majority, with jazz sessions reduced to Saturday and Sunday afternoons only. This format continued until 1967 when jazz was relegated to just the Saturday afternoon session and by 1969 had disappeared entirely.
1964 saw a Friday evening session added to the existing weekend format, then in 1966 the NJF Festival moved from its early home to the larger Windsor Racecourse. The following year a second stage (the Marquee Stage) was added, but this innovation was not to last and by the time the Festival was relocated to Sunbury in 1968 the single-stage format returned. Plumpton Racecourse then hosted the Festival for a two-year stint from 1969.
After the move to Reading the line-up settled into a pattern of progressive rock, blues and hard rock during the early and mid 1970s then became the first music festival to embrace punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, when The Jam, Sham 69 and The Stranglers were among the headline acts. The festival's attempts to cater for both traditional rock acts and punk and new wave bands occasionally led to clashes between the two sets of fans at the end of the 1970s', though the festival gradually became known for focusing on heavy metal and rock acts.
During this decade, the festival followed a similar format to that established in the late 1970s, with large crowds flocking to see the era's leading rock and heavy metal acts perform on the last two days, with a more varied line-up including punk and new wave bands on the opening day.
In 1984 and 1985, the Conservative Party-led local council effectively banned the festival by reclaiming the festival site for 'development' and refusing to grant licences for any alternative sites in the Reading area.
In 1984, many acts were already booked to appear, tickets were on sale with Marillion (2nd on the bill on Saturday night the previous year) due to be one of this year's headliners. The promoters tried in vain to find a new site but a proposed move to Lilford Hall in Northamptonshire failed (the proposed bill was published in Soundcheck free music paper issue 12 as: Friday 24 August – Hawkwind, Boomtown Rats, Snowy White, The Playn Jayn, Dumpy's Rusty Nuts, Wildfire, Chelsea Eloy, Tracy Lamb, New Torpedoes (sic); Saturday 25th – Jethro Tull, Hanoi Rocks, Steve Hackett, Club Karlsson, Nazareth, Twelfth Night, Thor, Silent Running, New Model Army, IQ, The Roaring Boys, She; Sunday 26th – Marillion, Grand Slam, The Bluebells, Helix, Clannad, The Opposition, The Enid, Young Blood, Scorched Earth, Terraplane).
A significant side-result of the Conservative Party's Reading Festival ban was filling of the resulting gap in the British festival calendar by the rise of Glastonbury Festival from its previously unheralded status as an infrequently-held CND fundraiser in the 1970s and early '80s to the massive corporate behemoth it has since become.
The following year saw a record attendance at what was considered by some to be the last of the "classic" rock years of the festival, with headlining acts such as The Mission, Alice Cooper and Status Quo.
1988 saw a disastrous attempt to take the festival in a mainstream commercial pop direction, dominated by the likes of Starship, Squeeze, Hothouse Flowers, Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf (the latter was "bottled" off stage), and the ensuing recriminations eventually saw the ousting of original festival promoter Harold Pendleton by the Mean Fiddler Music Group organisation.
Pendleton initially tried to continue at a new site near Newbury using the name "Redding Festival" but threats of legal action by the new promoters of the "official" festival coupled with a reluctance by Newbury District Council to grant the necessary licence for the proposed Newbury Showground venue eventually scuppered Pendleton's plans. Meanwhile, the official Reading Festival, now under Mean Fiddler guidance, continued at the Thames-side site in Reading, pursuing an almost completely goth and indie music policy that alienated much of the traditional fan base and saw attendances plummet.
Attendances continued to fall between 1989 and 1991 until the future of the festival looked to be in doubt. However, things began to improve from 1992 onward when new organisers moved in to replace the moribund Mean Fiddler group who broadened the Festival's musical policy and were rewarded with an increase in attendances.
In 1991, Nirvana made the first of their two appearances at Reading, midway down the bill. This is also the year the first Britpop bands such as Suede and Blur started to show themselves on the festival circuit.
Nirvana played what was to become their last UK concert, and one of their most famous. Their 1992 live performance was later released as a live album/DVD Live at Reading in November 2009. The band's frontman, Kurt Cobain took to the stage in a wheelchair pushed by music journalist Everett True, parodying speculations about his mental health. He was also wearing a medical gown. He then went on to join the rest of the band, playing an assortment of old and new material.
By the mid-1990s the festival had begun to regain its former status as the popularity of UK outdoor festivals increased. Britpop and indie began to dominate along with traditional rock and metal acts. Notably, rap acts such as Ice Cube began to appear regularly on the main stage to mixed receptions. Public Enemy headlined the second day of the 1992 Festival. Beastie Boys were about halfway down the bill for day three.
In 1999, the festival gained a second leg at Temple Newsam in Leeds, where the V Festival had been held in 1997 and 1998, when it was clear that the Reading site had become too small to deal with the increasing demand. The first year saw all bands play the Leeds site the following day to the day they played Reading, with the Reading leg running from Friday to Sunday and the Leeds leg running from Saturday to Monday. However in 2001 the current system where the line-up of Reading play Leeds the following day, with the bands from Leeds' opening day playing the final day in Reading, was introduced (with the exceptions of 2009 and 2010 when the bands playing Leeds would play Reading the following day, and the bands on the opening day of Reading would close Leeds).
After a successful first year in Leeds, a continued resurgence in the popularity of outdoor music festivals led to the Reading festival selling out more and more quickly every year. The Leeds leg, however, was plagued by riots and violence which led to problems in retaining its licence. The worst of these was in 2002, after which a decision was taken to move the festival to Bramham Park, near Bramham north-east of Leeds in 2003. Since then, security at both sites has increased and problems have been reduced. (Although the Bramham Park site presents more challenges to the stage builders, it is far better suited to the needs of festival goers).
The early 2000s saw a varied but predominantly rock line-up, though as the decade progressed the Main Stage and Radio 1 Stage line-up featured many Indie artists.
Despite being predominantly a rock festival certain hip-hop artists have played over the years, particularly when hip-hop was very popular in the early 2000s, including Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Beastie Boys, Eminem, Xzibit, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Dizzee Rascal and The Streets.
In 2005, the main stages at both Reading and Leeds were made larger, featuring unique cantilevered video screens.
In 2005, the Festival spawned the Reading Fringe Festival in the town. Much like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, this sees venues in the town hosting fringe acts hoping to draw crowds and industry figures from the larger festival. The Reading Fringe has run annually since then.
Flags were banned from both festival sites for the first time in 2009 on "health and safety" grounds. Flags and banners had been a traditional part of the Reading Festival scene since the early 1970s, originally used to enable motorcycle groups and others to identify themselves and find each other inside the main arena.
Reading Festival continued to expand through the early 2010s with a new record capacity of 90,000 recorded in 2016.
Bottling acts offstage (being forced off stage by a barrage of audience-thrown bottles and cans) is a long-standing tradition at the festival. While the mass-participation can and bottle fights of the 1970s and 1980s have long since ended, unpopular bands have continued to be bottled offstage throughout the festival's history since the first recorded large-scale "cannings" of 1973 and 1974. Examples include: