The 10 most iconic headline sets in Reading & Leeds festival history

The story of Reading and Leeds festival is an intriguing one. It’s the longest-running popular music festival on the planet, appearing first in 1961 and weathering just about every trend music has thrown at it.

In the ’70s and ’80s, British rock and metal (Whitesnake, Yes) reigned supreme. In the ’90s, the US dominated as some of their biggest exports (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) found fame and fortune, and turned the festival into the mainstream monster it is now.

The indie-boom of the ’00s zipped along faster than a urine-filled projectile heading for the stage, and in the last decade, the refocus on hip-hop, grime and dance music have meant the summer’s last piss-up is still as essential as ever. But how did we get from Whitesnake to Kendrick Lamar? These iconic headline sets from Reading and Leeds will tell the story…

Public Enemy 

When: 1992

What happened: Politically charged stuff from the firebrand hip-hop squad. As the British press got caught up in Royal scandal involving Prince Andrew and wife Sarah Ferguson in August 1992, frontman Chuck D implored the crowd to forget that, and “think about homelessness, AIDS and racial injustice” during their bruising set.

How it changed the festival: They were the first hip-hop act to headline the festival. Despite a few bottlings towards rappers in the mid-’00s (50 Cent in 2004 got it bad), the biggest names in the game have since been made welcome at the dual-site festival, with Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and Travis Scott passing through in recent years.

Nirvana

When: 1992

What happened: Possibly Nirvana’s most iconic live gig, and certainly the most talked-about Reading headline set in its history. Cobain poked fun at rumours of his deteriorating health by entering on a wheelchair and in a hospital gown. A brief moment of panic from the punters turned into utter euphoria, with the group smashing through almost the entirety of breakthrough album ‘Nevermind’ and giving the Reading faithful a show for the ages. It’d be the last time the group performed on these shores.

How it changed the festival: The ferocious set the benchmark for every other headline set there after. Also, it established the unbreakable bond between Dave Grohl and the festival, which has resulted in four headline sets from the Foo Fighters, including one coming up in 2019.

Björk

When: 1995

What happened: A year after her headline set at Glastonbury, the Icelandic polymath became the first female solo headliner at Reading Festival in the midst of her ‘Post’-era, offering an ethereal and complex set to a crowd more familiar with blokes with guitars.

How it changed the festival: It proved that electronic and pop music, no matter how experimental or mainstream, could thrive there. She remains, however, one of only a handful of women to top the festival bill in its history, and the only female solo headliner.

Metallica

When: 1997

What happened: By their standards, a pretty stripped-back show. No pyrotechnics or gigantic video wall, just metal’s biggest thrashers absolutely hammering through their 1996 album ‘Load’ plus hits including ‘One’ and ‘Enter Sandman’. Watch the crowd go bananas for ‘Master of Puppets’ below. 

How it changed the festival: Plenty of British metal acts headlined the festival in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but Metallica were the first US imports to do it. They’ve headlined three times since (’03, ’08, ’15), and though heavy music has come in and out of fashion at the festival in those decades, Metallica remain a reliable booking.

Eminem

When: 2001

What went down: The memories are misty (hey, it was 17 years ago) so I may be an unreliable narrator. But I remember a special South Park cartoon in which a ski-mask-wearing Eminem decapitated Kenny. I remember Eminem coming on stage with a real chainsaw. I remember D-12 hopping on stage for ‘Purple Pills’ dressed as – yes – pills. I remember Eminem, in his imperial phase, playing the songs that gave hip hop a giant kick up the arse at the end of the ‘90s.

How it changed the festival: The fact that Reading’s first headlining solo rapper was a white dude speaks to the history of hip hop in the UK, where Vanilla Ice was welcomed with open arms, but it was symbolic nonetheless. Reading, for many years, was the rock festival. In 2001, a rapper came along and proved himself more dangerous than anyone wielding a guitar, arguably paving the way for Jay-Z at Glastonbury in 2008, Kendrick Lamar’s scene-stealing Reading show in 2018 and the genre-agnostic Reading and Leeds we have today. Eminem’s been back more than once since, but the modern-day Eminem is a cleaned-up, po-faced shadow of the impish guy who first set Reading alight. (DS)

The White Stripes

When: 2004

What happened: After a car crash scuppered plans to headline in 2003, Jack and Meg White returned a year later to storm the Bank Holiday piss-up. With their commercial breakthrough album ‘Elephant’ in tow, the band also dipped into their bag of trusty covers to perform songs by Dolly Parton, Burt Bacharach and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in their slot.

How it changed the festival: They were one of the first headliners to triumph from the early ‘00s indie explosion. Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, and, er, Razorlight would all benefit from this booking. You decide if it was a good thing or not.

Rage Against The Machine

When: 2008

What happened: After their initial reunion at 2007’s Coachella, the Angriest Men In America made their way to the UK for the first time in nearly a decade in the following August. Their Reading and Leeds double-header was furious return to Britain, and at the former, they played opening song ‘Bombtrack’ in the Guantanamo Bay prisoner-style clothes. Their rebellious nature and anthems proved a reminder of their values, and likely sowed the seeds for the anti-X Factor campaign that reared its head in Britain in 2009.

How it changed the festival: The reunion shows kept on coming after Rage’s reconciliation. Blink-182 (2010) and Pulp (2011) used the festivals as a springboard for their comebacks, and The Libertines chaotic return in 2010 could have only happened at Reading and Leeds. 

Pulp and The Strokes

When: 2011

What went down: Yeah, you read that right: a reunited Pulp, on the greatest form of their entire career, co-headlined the festival with The Strokes, 10 years after ‘Is This It’ and on the form they’ve consistently been in since about 2002 – sort of detached but unmissable. Really, the bands couldn’t be more different in their approach – Jarvis Cocker is the ultimate showman, Julian Casablancas performs like he couldn’t care less – but for fans of indie music this was Mecca: arguably the greatest indie band of the ‘90s with the greatest guitar band of the 2000s. Oh, and it got better: Jarvis came out and performed The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’ with The Strokes. A double header that delivered in every way.

How it changed the festival: Double headline slots have been a bit of a fixture since: Post Malone and Twenty-One Pilots share a day this year. Where Glastonbury gives festival-goers the 360-degree experience, Reading & Leeds have always been the festivals that deliver on a killer line-up. This booking, essentially, upped the ante for future years. (DS)

Paramore

When: 2014

What went down: The great thing about Reading and Leeds is they catch both fans and artists at that crucial time, the teenage years, when music means absolutely everything. Paramore had risen up the ranks at Reading along with those fans who’d grown with them from kohl-eyed, structurally-coiffed emos to something approaching a grown-up. Paramore had struggled with intra-band strife but had returned with an album, 2013’s ‘Paramore’, that seamlessly took them to a poppy, new-wave sound. At this festival, Hayley Williams not only proved her star power, but her grit too. The set at Reading was hit by a power failure, leaving the stage in silence for 15 minutes. Instead of disappearing, Williams and band stayed with the crowd, miming a joke tantrum, initiating a Mexican wave and performing an a capella ‘Only Exception’ as a mass crowd singalong through the one mic that was working.

How it changed the festival: At a time when the gender imbalance at festivals was finally getting the attention it deserved, Paramore’s headline set was a step in the right direction – even if they had to share top billing with Queens Of The Stone Age. There are certain bands – like Green Day, or Blink-182 – who feel like they were born for that stage. Paramore officially joined that select club that weekend in 2014. (DS)

Kendrick Lamar

When: 2018

What happened: Kung-Fu Kenny was on fighting form as his ‘DAMN.’ tour came to an end with these two British shows. Packing high-kicking moves and his expert crowd-control, one of the decade’s most dominant cultural voices had his say with a moshpit-inducing set.

How it changed the festival: Kendrick was the first new hip-hop artist to headline the festival in nearly 20 years, with Eminem topping the bill three times in that time. With Travis Scott obliterating the festival in 2018, and now Post Malone co-headlining in 2019, you sense that a dormant period like that won’t be repeated again. 

Words: Thomas Smith and Dan Stubbs