I’ve spent 10 of the last 11 August bank holiday weekends at Reading Festival. I often claim to be unsure why I’ve carried on this tradition, but the reality is pretty simple: Camping with my friends and seeing bands is a good way to spend four days. That’s it.
In the *gulp* decade since I first went, Reading has changed considerably, and when the 2018 lineup was announced in February, it included numerous acts that wouldn’t have made the cut in years gone by.
Reading (and its northern counterpart in Leeds) always had pretty strict rules when it came to the type of bands who performed, and the genre of music performed on each stage. The main stage hosted rock band after rock band, with some heavy metal thrown in for good measure (with the obvious exception of Dizzee Rascal, a controversial booking that paid off when a huge crowd went to see him in 2008).
In my inaugural year of 2008, the best headliner of the three was Rage Against The Machine, who left me, an impressionable 16-year-old, stunned with their Guantanamo Bay jumpsuits and political rants between the tracks I had blasted on my iPod after every teenage tantrum (nothing says “I’m not talking to anyone” quite like Killing In The Name and Bombtrack). A grand total of three women set foot on the main stage that weekend; two from Mindless Self Indulgence and Charlotte Cooper of The Subways.
The NME/Radio 1 Stage - now just called the Radio 1 Stage following the magazine’s demise - was for the indie darlings; it’s where Florence Welch scaled the scaffolding at the side of the stage, where Hadouken! threw giant foam hands into the mosh pits one afternoon, and the place I first saw The Vaccines, where the crush of people became so intense that hundreds crashed to the floor.
Festival Republic was for new music - and Jamie T’s glorious secret set in 2014 - while the Radio 1 Dance Stage (which shared a tent with The Lock-Up) was where lots of people’s eyes became incredibly saucer-like as they sweated. A lot.
The biggest expansion of the past 11 years took place in 2013, when the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage became a three-day long fixture, and the Radio 1Xtra stage made its debut, diversifying the line-up considerably.
This year’s line-up was announced long after many festival-goers had bought their tickets and sneering soon ensued, as people compared it to the more commercial V Festival and Wireless. Even the Daily Mail got involved, writing about “furious rock fans rushing to sell their tickets”.
But fast forward to last Thursday and 90,000 fans were on their way to the sold-out event.
When the music got underway on Friday, many of the “controversial” bookings soon proved to be the weekend’s highlights. Bosses had been criticised for giving chart-topper Dua Lipa a prime position on the mainstage, but their bold move paid off as thousands of festival-goers turned out to sing along to hits including One Kiss, New Rules and IDGAF.
When it came to the headliners, Fall Out Boy’s classics made for a fun Friday night, but it was US rapper Kendrick Lamar who was by far the most exciting, reminding everyone of his accomplishments by accompanying his DAMN. tour performance with a “Pulitzer Kenny” backdrop.
Elsewhere, spoken word artist and rapper Akala tested a new conceptual performance style on the Alternative stage and A-Trak - mixing his Heads Will Roll remix with Rihanna’s Work - attracted plenty of attention.
Looking around at the admittedly young crowd (at 26, I did feel as though I was bringing the average age up), it was clear that much of the criticism levelled at Reading doesn’t come from its attendees.
What armchair critics seem to forget is that it’s perfectly possible to enjoy more than one genre of music. Just as someone can care about the latest Brexit developments and Cardi B’s tweets, it’s possible to enjoy the self-styled “best boyband in the motherfucking world” BROCKHAMPTON, before catching the end of Sum 41 and later returning to the Radio 1 Stage for Pendulum.
Thanks to Reading and Leeds’ steady expansion, pop stars and rappers haven’t replaced the rock acts of old either, they play alongside them. Don’t like N*E*R*D? It’s not a problem - you have seven other stages to choose from.
Reading has, obviously, changed over the years, but it’s all the better for it. Its evolution reflects the changing crowd and for every old-timer who isn’t happy, there’s at least one 18-year-old willing to stump up the cash to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s not just Reading and Leeds that has transformed either, as the festival landscape is virtually unrecognisable. Glastonbury is still going strong - having also branched out, booking headliners including Kanye West and last-minute triumph Florence and the Machine - but V Festival no longer exists, having been replaced by the new-look “RIZE”, which takes place at one location instead of V’s two.
Secret Garden Party closed its gates for the final time in 2017, and Bestival now caters to 20,000 attendees, instead of the 80,000 who attended in its Isle Of Wight heyday. Day events including All Points East and Community make things easier for older music fans who no longer fancy sleeping on the ground and not being able to take a proper shower for four days.
Evolving hasn’t just been good for Reading, it’s been completely necessary.