Reading Festival is a music festival held annually on the August Bank Holiday. As the name implies, the site is in Reading, Berkshire. While it is more obviously of a rock and metal bent than, say, Glastonbury, the array of tents and stages allows the festival to cover a fairly broad musical spectrum. To illustrate, the 2003 line up included System of a Down, the Polyphonic Spree, Squarepusher and Blackalicious to name but a few.
While the first festival actually at Reading took place in 1971, this event had spiritual predecessors dating back a decade. Inspired by jazz festivals in the United States, Britain’s National Jazz Federation decided to put on their own version. A joint effort with Marquee Club of London produced the National Jazz Festival at Richmond Athletic Grounds in August 1961. Headlining acts comprised such giants of the genre as Tony Russell, Tubby Hayes and the Clyde Valley Stompers. The local newssheet, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, wrote about “a number of beardies and weirdies, including a creature with bright ginger hair down to its shoulders”.
Adapting itself to changing musical fashions, in 1965 the festival was rechristened the National Jazz and Blues Festival to reflect the growing number of rhythm and blues acts performing, such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Muddy Waters. This coincided with the expansion of the event to the now well known and loved three day long weekend format.
The festival hit its stride in the late sixties to early seventies, moving to today’s Richfield Avenue site and booking such big hitters as Cream, the Who and Black Sabbath. Unfortunately, the organisers began to take the yet-again changed name of the Reading Rock Festival slightly too seriously and, while the rest of the country was getting all hot and bothered about a new style of music called punk, Reading continued to book cock rock dinosaurs like Status Quo and AC/DC on a yearly basis (and, bizarrely enough, Genesis for four years running). Audience numbers fell throughout the eighties, reaching a nadir in 1988 with what is generally regarded as the worst Reading ever. Headliners were (wait for it) Meatloaf, Bonnie Tyler and the Quireboys. Meat and Ms. Tyler made swift exits from the main stage after being pelted with plastic bottles full of piss, and Reading was handed over to new organisers Mean Fiddler.
This music and entertainment group already ran three venues (and one restaurant) in London, with a reputation for showcasing up and coming British talent. They put together a line up for Reading based on their approach to live music in their clubs. 1989’s line up showed a more relevant approach to acts, with New Order, the Sugarcubes, and Pop Will Eat Itself booked. Tellingly, the nation’s favourite musical grandfather, John Peel, returned to compère the event after hanging up his mic during the hard rock years. 1989 was the first Reading sell-out festival in years, doubling the audience number from 1988.
From then on, Reading’s future and success seemed assured, with a blistering succession of names playing in subsequent years – the Pixies, Faith No More, De La Soul, Primal Scream, (the) Smashing Pumpkins ...
Particularly memorable occasions at Reading include Black Sabbath showing up with a model of Stonehenge that turned out to be too big for the stage, necessitating last minute chainsaw alterations by the roadies, and inspiring many a cinematic take-off (1983); Nirvana playing their last ever UK gig (1992); Rage Against the Machine’s last ever gig ever (1996); and the Stone Roses spectacularly crashing and burning (also 1996).
1999 saw joy in’t north as MF expanded the whole shindig to a sister festival in Leeds. Now with corporate sponsorship from Carling, a lager company, the festivals were renamed yet again to the Carling Weekend: Reading, and the Carling Weekend: Leeds. The format of diversifying the big draws beyond alt.rock to take in numerous genres has enabled both to flourish.
Carling Weekend Official Programme, 2003