Reading and Leeds Festival is a rite of passage for British teenagers. Picking up your GCSE results and spending the weekend celebrating or commiserating away from interfering parents at your first festival, surviving off a diet of warm tinnies and soggy burgers – it’s a formative experience.
This year, the pandemic has put a stop to the summer’s live music calendar, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce on Reading and Leeds’ gone by. From Bloc Party headlining the NME stage in 2005 all the way up to Billie Eilish‘s triumphant mainstage show last year, here NME writers go deep on the songs that remind them of Reading and Leeds.
You know those pictures of live crowds that stretch on longer than a queue for a supermarket in a pandemic? Like Rolling Stones’ 2006 show on Copacabana Beach in Brazil, or Simon & Garfunkel in New York’s Central Park? Well, Billie Eilish had one of those moments last August Bank Holiday Weekend. Scarcely six months on from her game-changing debut album, and a summer down from Glasto’s breakthrough, albeit muted show, her Saturday afternoon set in 2019 provided not just a party in the scorching sun, but a true I Was There moment. Looking at that many people in a compact place might give you the heebie-jeebies now, but at the time, it was the centre of the universe.
Nine Inch Nails
Leeds Festival 2007: I was 18, and this was my wildly enjoyable if occasionally harrowing induction into the world of festivals. On the Friday I felt I’d seen God when in fact what I’d seen was a mid-afternoon set from (checks notes) Cold War Kids, and on the Sunday I passed out briefly while somehow still dancing to Panic! At The Disco. Yet for some reason it’s Nine Inch Nails’ rendition of ‘Hurt’ that stands out the most. It’s as though the universe was saying: “You will come to associate festivals with regret and shame. But hey! Klaxons are on next!”
My very first proper festival was Leeds 2005. My mates and I, all textbook Inbetweeners spotty indie kids, felt as if our entire lives so far had been leading up to this one, scorching, Carling-fuelled weekend. If any band was going to define it, it was gonna be Bloc Party. Back then, they felt like they were gonna be our generation’s answer to The Smiths. Being blissfully crushed for their NME tent headline set after LCD Soundsystem and The Futureheads was pure carnage, but it was pure. Especially in these gigless times, the energy and innocence of this one-off single really captures that: “I’ll go back, if you ask me”.
‘Out of Space’
Sweat, lost shoes, shrieking, a sardine-packed crowd, beer tossed in reverie. Those are my overriding memories of The Prodigy’s turbo-charged Saturday night set at Reading festival 2009 during my first weekend stay at the teenage mecca for madness. The Essex ravers’ set closer, ‘Out Of Space’ (their take on reggae legend Max Romeo’s ‘I Chase The Devil’), was the epitome of the festival’s no-frills policy – just good music and good fun. The memory of that song’s pulsing energy, coupled with the crowd camaraderie of: “I’m gon’ send him to outer space / To find another race”, will stay with me for a very long time.
Attending your first Reading & Leeds at the age of 16 is a rite of passage for many, but not all parents are super chuffed about letting you go alone. In 2009, my Mum and Dad finally bowed to my years of anguish, and agreed that if my need to see Arctic Monkeys was so desperate, they would come along for the ride too. Although their ‘Humbug’-heavy headline slot wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, that first time clinging to Reading’s Main Stage barrier in front of my favourites felt like unlocking one of life’s greatest achievements. If ever I think I’ve grown jaded about music, the crooning schmaltz of ‘Secret Door’ instantly transports me back – “like a butler pushing on a bookshelf/ I’m unveiling the unexpected…”
‘The Only Exception’
When Paramore played in 2014, their Reading set was hit by a nightmare of monumental proportions. Bang in the middle the power blew meaning the band had a murmuring field of fidgeting punters to entertain for a full twenty minutes. “My whole life should have prepared me for this, but I felt unprepared,” Hayley Williams later told NME. The vocalist grabbed the only working microphone – which belonged to a BBC announcer – and sang an unplanned rendition of ‘The Only Exception’ backed only by acoustic guitar. “Our security guy brought a big coat and put it around me – it was fucking freezing,” she recounted. “When the audience started singing, all of the nerves went away. It was like, ah fuck, this is better than the actual show we had planned.” I still think about that jaw-dropping moment of hush all the time.
‘If You Wanna’
Reading 2011 was the first time I experienced a festival in all its true glory. Me and my mates had finally secured our University places, and we were determined to finally see the bands who had reliably soundtracked the house parties we had somehow managed to sneak into for the last two years. At the very top of that list was The Vaccines, who were pretty much the most exciting band in the country at the time. Performing an early evening set on the NME stage to one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, they felt like world-beaters on an unstoppable trajectory. Their entire performance remains one of the best festival shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s the bruises I endured when they played ‘If You Wanna’ that truly lived long in the memory. Surrounded by my mates for 45 minutes of sheer chaos, it’s a moment that still stands out as one of the final times that all my friends were truly together before uni sent us on our separate paths. I’ll never forget it.
Watching Arcade Fire at Reading Festival in 2010 blew my pop-punk loving brain. After spending my early teens listening to Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, their headline set was my indie awakening. Sitting at the back as a pal forced me to eat pizza (a diet of no food and warm beer had gotten the best of me by Saturday), the band’s gorgeous performance was a triumph, and by the time they got to the encore of ‘Month of May’ into ‘Wake Up’, I was well and truly won over.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
At approximately 9.25pm on Saturday August 27, 2016, I was not in a good mood. Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band I had desperately wanted to see live during my teenage years, were due on stage at Reading in five minutes. But directly in front of me was a bucket hat-wearing muppet sat on his mate’s shoulders. This boozy plonker, who had the words “Flea is God” scrawled across his bare chest, had also just dropped a full pint on my head. I was furious – and an argument was brewing. However, just seconds later, said plonker and I were moshing arm in arm, everything forgotten, as Josh Klinghoffer let rip the opening riff to this jagged indie-rock anthem. Turns out, I couldn’t have picked a better spot.
‘Two Steps, Twice’
One of the most satisfying things about returning to a festival over and over is seeing a band or artist travel from young hopefuls in the smallest tent, through every stage the festival has to offer, before claiming their throne as headliners. Since I started going to Reading in 2009, this band has been Foals. Starting out in the new bands tent, before graduating to the NME stage in 2010, over to the Main Stage at dusk in 2013 before finally headlining in 2016, it’s been a privilege to watch that journey. And the ten-minute behemoth closing each and every one of those sets? ‘Two Steps, Twice’.