Does Rock Music Really Need Reading & Leeds Festival?

…Does Reading & Leeds Festival really need rock music?

Before there was Download, before there was Slam Dunk, before 2000Trees or ArcTangent, there was Reading Festival. Like a lot of people of a certain age, that was my introduction to rock music in a festival setting, and my first time there was in the year 2000. On the bill that weekend were the likes of Rage Against The Machine, blink-182, Limp Bizkit, Foo Fighters and Deftones, none of whom were even headlining – a sign of the times or what. As helicopters hovered in the skies above on the rock day’ that Sunday, Slipknot performing at sunset felt genuinely dangerous. Someone pushed one of those giant metal bins-on-wheels into the pit and people climbed on top to dive off onto the crowd below. Earlier that day, pop duo Daphne And Celeste were (predictably and depressingly) bottled off stage by a bunch of goons. The specific moment and memory that always stands out from that weekend, however, is my then-quite-spindly (RIP my metabolism) body being batted between people like a pinball, as Queens Of The Stone Age tore apart what used to be called The Premier Stage – a showcase spot for bands on the rise, 14 years before they would top the bill on the main stage. There was a lot of sweat, noise, and euphoria that night. Oh, and a grown man dressed as a gimp – mask’n’all – drunkenly thrashing around in the mosh. But that’s besides the point. 

READ THIS: The stage times for this weekend are…

Back to it, then: Queens Of The Stone Age were on fire, fresh from releasing their towering second album Rated R, and despite a line-up boasting a whole load of indie’ rubbish as well, Reading still felt like a festival firmly rooted in rock music. 

Looking through the bill this weekend, in the main that’s not really the case anymore (yes, there are exceptions, but you know what we mean…). Old man yells at cloud, right? Nah, not really – hear us out. The whole thing started out as a jazz festival in the 50s, apparently, so evolution like this is hardly a new phenomenon. Times change, as do tastes, and the cultural dial has obviously and understandably shifted elsewhere. 

Whether we like it or not, the fact is that rock music isn’t really a mainstream concern right now, even if there are occasional moments of glory to celebrate. Slipknot topping charts with their sixth album, We Are Not Your Kind, for example. This is no diss on Reading, either. The lineup makes a world of sense as a reflection of what’s hot and popular in any given year – there’s a reason it always sells out, after all. And no matter where rock music is at or it’s not, there will always be teenagers going to Reading for their first festival experience, for one final summer blowout. Whatever the soundtrack is, that’s going to be a rite of passage experience that lasts a lifetime regardless. 

READ THIS: The weather forecast for this weekend is…

All of that accepted, it’s hard not to feel that rock music is of marginal concern to the festival these days, even if there is still a dedicated stage devoted to harder-edged sounds – like a segregated island of noise in the midst of a world still spinning unawares all around it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Reading isn’t so rock-focused either. At worst, it’s possibly just a little sad if you’ve lived through a time when it used to be. When you look at how healthy the rock scene is nowadays though, there is an inescapable feeling of our’ bands being somewhat slighted, snubbed or outright ignored. There’s inarguably something special about Reading (Leeds, too, if you’re of a Northern persuasion). You can put a load of bands and people in a field anywhere and give it a name, but the history, heritage and sense of import you get on the grounds of Reading feels different. It’s rarefied terrain. Need proof? Hiya… 

As mentioned at the start, fans of riffs, breakdowns and alternative music of all stripes are very well catered for on the festival circuit in the UK. Arguably better than ever, in fact. In the age of streaming services and people’s music tastes becoming ever-more varied and open, it makes sense that genre-specific ensemble bills are the way to victory. Slam Dunk and ArcTangent have this on lock, year-on-year. Download Festival’s dedication to providing a stage for the loudest bands on the planet every year is second to none. Maybe Reading will come back around to rock one day – these things tend to go in cycles, after all – but for now, the genre is doing okay on its own, bolstered by the support of these other events that have sprung up and been successful in its wake. And the reverse seems to be true of Reading & Leeds. So perhaps it’s best we just accept that. Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Does rock music really need Reading & Leeds Festival? Probably not. Does Reading & Leeds Festival really need rock music? Likewise. It seems perfectly clear that each can continue to exist in rude health independent of each other. And if recent times have taught us anything, diversity is the way forward in music, as it is in life and society. Embrace it, and love what you love, wherever you find it.

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