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Stereoboard Look At The History Of This Weekend's Reading And Leeds Festivals

Wednesday, 22 August 2012 Written by Heather McDaid
Stereoboard Look At The History Of This Weekend's Reading And Leeds Festivals

Year in and year out, Reading and Leeds Festival signals the end of what many music lovers spend months waiting for: summer's festival season. While there are some others doused throughout September onwards, the final weekend in August always brings out massive names to see summer off with a bang, and 2012 is no different. This year plays host to names including The Cure, Foo Fighters, Florence and the Machine and the Black Keys, but what about the history of the festival?

ImageMuch like Download Festival, held at Donington, and Sonisphere, held at Knebworth - Reading and Leeds have a long standing musical history.

I suppose thousands of festival-goers have the founder of London's Marquee Club, Harold Pendleton, to thank. (Thank you, Harold). The festival can be dated back to the early 1960's to the National Jazz and Blues Festival, which took inspiration from similar events occurring in America. For the next decade, the idea moved sites quite a number of times before settling in Reading.

Upon settling on it's site, the type of festival it was to become was the next factor to chop and change. Over the years it has played host to blues, heavy metal, punk rock and jazz, to name but a few, before settling on the harder side of music. Their toying with heavy metal and punk in the same year allegedly led to some tensions between the two fan-bases, which ultimately forced the decision to lean heavily towards one over the other.

The 60s and 70s played host to a very different festival than today. The 60s carnation was headlined by names including The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull... What's more from this decade is many of those who topped the bill returned a number of times, often on back-to-back years. The 70s continued to grow, with big hitters such as Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, The Jam, Patti Smith, Whitesnake and The Police taking pride of place on the line-ups.

The 80s saw some landmarks in the festival's history. For one, they found themselves banned by the local council (Don't Conservatives like heavy metal?) and weren't given permission to use another site. This led to 1984/1985 leaving the door open for others to try crack into the festival market. However, in 1986, following Labour's return to their local council, they granted permission for use of a Reading site. Impressively, those behind the festival managed to scrape a line-up together from nothing in just three months. Bravo.

Another reason the 80s is a landmark in the festival's history is that it signalled the end of their heavy metal/classic rock years. Those nowadays can confirm: This isn't a hard rock or metal festival. Reading and Leeds is more mainstream or indie music, with rock doused throughout. The 80s said farewell to their classic rock era with headliners including The Mission, Status Quo and shock rock veteran Alice Cooper.

But this cultural shift they'd opted for led to the festival's popularity diminishing. They headed for the mainstream, and fans responded negatively. Despite some massive names, few could buy into this classic rock festival going in this direction - Meat Loaf was even bottled during his set. This complete misfire saw Pendleton, founder of the legacy, fired. He tried to repeat his success under another name on another site, but ultimately failed.

Despite two years without a festival, they still managed to pack some massive headliners into the 80s. The Kinks, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, Killing Joke, Ramones, Saxon.

The 80s proved a rollercoaster, from controversy and disaster to a new chapter beginning, but the 90s is where it all began to pick up. Finding a balance between the mainstream and alternative realms, the festival's popularity through balance began to solidify. Courtesy of classic grunge force Nirvana being on the bill, the 90s played host to the festival's most iconic moments. Reading was the site of Nirvana's last ever UK performance. Furthermore, it was famed for being the performance that Kurt Cobain appeared in a wheelchair sporting a medical gown. This was later released on DVD.

The 90s was where Reading really honed in on the kind of festival it wanted to be. Where Donington has held a relatively straight history of rock and metal, Reading dabbled with a lot, changing things up until they were settled in their way. Some of the headliners from the late 80s and of this defining decade show this identity struggle: Pixies, The Pogues, James, Cypress Hill, Suede, Blur, Oasis, Bjork, Neil Young, The Prodigy. This is a decade of honing what the festival sought to promote and, it seems, they finally got there.

Most importantly, the 1990s hosted the biggest factor in the festival's history: It became Reading and Leeds.

By 1999, Reading could barely cope with the masses of people and sheer demand for tickets. It was a dominant festival and they needed some way to offer the same experience to more people. In a flash of genius, they added a second site. Now, Reading and Leeds is a staple for every summer.

Instantaneously, Reading's sister festival proved a success. It had its teething problems including riots and general violence, yet it has stood the test of time. Yearly, Reading and Leeds tickets sell like hotcakes. 2006 saw the entire festival sell out in under two hours, with further additional tickets selling out equally as fast. The headliners have continued the high calibre, the last ten years alone has seen the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Linkin Park, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Blink 182, The Killers and Radiohead appear. Those are just some of the names to top the bill in the noughties. What's clear is that they've continued to tread the ground set in the 90s - the balance of rock and mainstream. Despite the predominantly rock headliners, all sorts of acts still grace the stage, from rap and hip hop to metal to indie. It's all there.

And there you have it. This festival has a history older than many who attend, and it's surprising how little that side of it is promoted. Reading has faced a bit of an identity crisis but 50+ years on from its long lost roots, it has gone on to dominate summer alongside its sister site Leeds with a clear vision in mind: end summer with a quality line-up. What more could you ask for?

This yearís Reading and Leeds Festival is held on 24th to 26th August 2012 at Little Johnís Farm in Reading and Bramham Park in Leeds. The full line-up and further information can be found at www.readingfestival.com and www.leedsfestival.com.

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