The Reading Festival was originally known as the National Jazz Festival, which was conceived by Harold Pendleton (founder of the Marquee Club in London in 1958) and first held at Richmond Athletic Ground in 1961. Throughout the 1960s the festival moved between several London and Home Counties sites, being held at Windsor Racecourse, Kempton Park, Sunbury and Plumpton, before reaching its permanent home at Reading in 1971. Since 1964, when the festival added a Friday evening session to the original Saturday and Sunday format, it has been staged over three days, with the sole exception of 1970 when a fourth day was added, running from Thursday 6 to Sunday 9 August.
The National Jazz Federation (NJF) Festival was established at the height of the Trad Jazz boom, as a successor to the Beaulieu Jazz Festival, initially as a two-day event held at Richmond Athletic Ground. The line-up for the first two years was made up exclusively of jazz performers, but in 1963 several rhythm & blues acts were added to the bill, including the Rolling Stones, Georgie Fame and Long John Baldry, and by 1965 such acts were in the majority, with jazz sessions reduced to Saturday and Sunday afternoons only. This format continued until 1967 when jazz was limited to just the Saturday afternoon session. By 1969 jazz had disappeared entirely from the line-up.
In 1964 a Friday evening session was added to the existing weekend format. In 1966 the NJF Festival moved to the larger Windsor Racecourse. The following year a second stage (the Marquee Stage) was added, but when the festival was moved to Sunbury in 1968 it reverted to a single-stage format. The festival was held at Plumpton Racecourse in 1969 and 1970.
After moving to Reading the festival's line-up became primarily composed of progressive rock, blues and hard rock during the early and mid 1970s, and then became the first music festival to incorporate punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, when The Jam, Sham 69 and The Stranglers were among the headline acts. The festival's attempts to cater for both traditional rock acts and punk and new wave bands occasionally led to clashes between the two sets of fans at the end of the 1970s, though the festival gradually became known for focusing on heavy metal and rock acts.
During the 1980s, the festival followed a similar format to that established in the late 1970s, with leading rock and heavy metal acts performing on the last two days, and a more varied line-up including punk and new wave bands on the opening day.
In 1984 and 1985, the Conservative-run local council effectively banned the festival by designating the festival site for development and refusing to grant licences for any alternative sites in the Reading area.
In 1984, many acts were already booked and tickets were on sale, with Marillion due to headline. The promoters tried in vain to find a new site but a proposed move to Lilford Hall in Northamptonshire failed. The proposed line-up was published in Soundcheck free music paper issue 12 as: Friday 24 August – Hawkwind, Boomtown Rats, Snowy White, The Playn Jayn, Dumpy's Rusty Nuts, Wildfire, Chelsea Eloy, Tracy Lamb, New Torpedoes; Saturday 25th – Jethro Tull, Hanoi Rocks, Steve Hackett, Club Karlsson, Nazareth, Twelfth Night, Thor, Silent Running, New Model Army, IQ, The Roaring Boys, She; Sunday 26th – Marillion, Grand Slam, The Bluebells, Helix, Clannad, The Opposition, The Enid, Young Blood, Scorched Earth, Terraplane).
After Labour regained control of the council in 1986, permission was given for fields adjacent to the original festival site to be used, and a line-up was put together at three months' notice.
The following year saw a record attendance, headlined by The Mission, Alice Cooper and Status Quo.
Late 80s / early 90s slump
1988 saw an attempt to take the festival in a mainstream commercial pop direction, featuring acts including Starship, Squeeze, Hothouse Flowers, Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf (who was bottled off stage), and the subsequent disputes led to the ousting of original festival promoter Harold Pendleton by the Mean Fiddler Music Group organisation.
Pendleton attempted to relocate the festival to a new site near Newbury using the name "Redding Festival", but threats of legal action by the new promoters of the original festival, as well as a reluctance by Newbury District Council to issue a licence for the proposed Newbury Showground venue blocked Pendleton's plans. Meanwhile, the official Reading Festival, now managed by Mean Fiddler, continued at the Thames-side site in Reading, with a predominantly goth and indie music policy that alienated much of the traditional fan base and saw attendances plummet.
Attendances continued to fall between 1989 and 1991, but began to recover from 1992, when new organisers took over from the Mean Fiddler group, broadening the festival's musical policy.
In 1991, Nirvana made the first of their two appearances at Reading, midway down the bill. The following year they played what would be their last UK concert, which was released as a live album/DVD Live at Reading in November 2009. The band's singer Kurt Cobain came onstage in a wheelchair pushed by music journalist Everett True and wearing a medical gown, parodying speculations about his mental health.
By the mid-1990s the festival had begun to regain its former status as the popularity of UK outdoor festivals increased. Britpop and indie began to appear on the bill alongside the traditional rock and metal acts, and rap acts such as Ice Cube began to appear regularly on the main stage, to mixed receptions. Public Enemy headlined the second day of the 1992 festival. Beastie Boys were about halfway down the bill for day three.
In 1996, the remnants of The Stone Roses played their disastrous final gig at the festival.
In 1998, the Reading Festival absorbed the failed Phoenix Festival, resulting in an on-stage dispute between Beastie Boys and The Prodigy over the song "Smack My Bitch Up".
In 1999 the festival added a second venue at Temple Newsam in Leeds, the site of V Festival in 1997 and 1998, due to increasing demand. In the first year all bands performed at the Leeds site the day after they played Reading, with the Reading Festival running from Friday to Sunday and the Leeds Festival running from Saturday to Monday. However, in 2001 the festival moved to the current format, wherein the Reading line-up plays at Leeds the following day, with the opening day line-up from Leeds playing the final day in Reading (with the exceptions of 2009 and 2010 when the bands playing Leeds played Reading the following day, and the bands on the opening day of Reading closed Leeds).
The main stage of the 2000 Reading Festival
After a successful first year in Leeds, the increasing popularity of outdoor music festivals led to the Reading Festival selling out quicker every year. However, the Leeds Festival was plagued by riots and violence, which led to problems in retaining its licence. The worst incidents occurred in 2002, following which the festival was moved to Bramham Park north-east of Leeds. Since then, security at both sites has increased and problems have been reduced.
The early 2000s saw a varied but predominantly rock line-up, though as the decade progressed the Main Stage and Radio 1 Stage featured many indie bands.
Despite being predominantly a rock festival, several hip-hop artists have appeared at the festival over the years, including Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Beastie Boys, Eminem, Xzibit, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Dizzee Rascal and The Streets.
In 2005, the main stages at both Reading and Leeds were made larger, featuring cantilevered video screens.The same year the Reading Fringe Festival was established in Reading, with venues in the town hosting acts hoping to draw crowds and industry figures from the larger festival. The Reading Fringe has run annually since then.
Flags were banned from both festival sites in 2009, with the organisers citing health and safety concerns. Flags and banners had been a traditional part of the Reading Festival since the early 1970s, originally used to enable motorcycle groups and others to identify themselves and find each other inside the main arena.
Reading Festival continued to expand through the early 2010s, with a new record capacity of 105,000 recorded in 2019.