Eight Unforgettable Reading Festival Performances

Set to take place from August 22 to 24, Reading festival is one of the great events in the rock calendar. In anticipation of another memorable Berkshire weekend, here's a reminder of some unforgettable performances from days gone by.

MEAT LOAF - 1988

Throughout the 1980s, the Reading Rocks festival was an institution for heavy metal fans, an opportunity to see the likes of Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Motorhead and Iron Maiden headline in front of huge crowds. By the end of the decade however, the event was struggling, over-taken in popularity by the Monsters Of Rock event at Donington, and assembling bills which confused and irritated the denim and leather-clad faithful. The 1988 event, headlined by Iggy Pop, Starship (?) and Squeeze (??) represented a nadir for the festival, with crowds venting their dissatisfaction with the bill by hurling bottles of piss at the artists onstage. Meat Load fared worst of all. Three songs into his Saturday night set the singer was forced offstage by a merciless hail of bottles, leading organisers to appeal for calm. After much persuasion, the ‘Loaf was cajoled into resuming his set. “Do you want to throw stuff, or do you want to hear some rock n’ roll?” the big man asked…at which point a bottle caught him square in the face and broke his nose. Exit one very disgruntled singer.

NIRVANA - 1992

In the run-up to the event, no-one - least of all his bandmates - was entirely sure whether Kurt Cobain would actually take the stage as planned on the night of August 30: less than two weeks previously, following the birth of his daughter Frances Bean, Cobain had smuggled a gun into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and debated the pros and cons of a suicide pact with his wife Courtney Love. In the end, playing atop a hand-picked bill which included Seattle peers Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, plus Abba tribute band Bjorn Again, the trio turned in one of their most incendiary performances. Much bootlegged, the set finally emerged as the Live At Reading DVD in 2009.


Given the huge surge of goodwill which accompanied Dave Grohl’s emergence from the turbulence and tragedy of Nirvana’s final days, it might perhaps have been prudent for the Reading organisers not to schedule the Foo Fighters first UK festival appearance in a 5,000 capacity tent. As it was, tens of thousands flocked to the Melody Maker stage in a bid to catch a glimpse of the fast-rising alt. rock quartet. Chaos ensued in the vastly over-crowded tent, and at one point the promoters threatened to pull the plug on the set if some semblance of order could not be restored. Frankly, they were damned lucky that no-one was killed in the crush.

Daphne and Celeste - 2000

If putting the Foo Fighters in a tent in 1995 was asking for trouble then scheduling pop poppets Daphne and Celeste on a bill alongside Slipknot and Rage Against The Machine on the ‘Rock Day’ of the 2000 festival was taking the piss. To the surprise of absolutely no-one the duo were subjected to a barrage of objects from the moment they stepped onstage, and it’s fortunate that neither singer was injured in the ensuing stramash. It was hard to think who came out of this debacle looking worse - the morons pelting teenage girls with bottles or the smart-arse booker who decided to expose them to such danger for a laugh.

Iron Maiden - 2005

In the eyes of metal fans, Iron Maiden may forever be associated with the hallowed turf of Donington, but Reading festival has a pivotal role in the band’s history, for it was at the 1981 event that Maiden’s manager Rod Smallwood sweet-talked Bruce Dickinson, then the vocalist with the NWOBHM also-rans Samson, into trying out for the band. “The first words out of my mouth were ‘Well when I get the job, which I will, don’t expect that it’ll be the same as with the guy you’ve got at the moment’,” Dickinson later recalled. The following year, with Dickinson duly installed and with their first UK number one album under their studded belts, Maiden headlined the event. 2005, then, was a homecoming of sorts for the British metal legends. And they absolutely killed it, with Dickinson recalling that first fateful meeting as the band powered through a set based solely on their first four albums. Glorious.

My Chemical Romance - 2006

Riding high on the success of their Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge album, emo figureheads My Chemical Romance were booked to play the Reading festival in 2006, beneath headliners Pearl Jam and Placebo, but above thrash metal legends Slayer. Fans of the LA veterans did not take kindly to this perceived slight, and began to throw plastic bottles at the New Jersey band. Unwisely, frontman Gerard Way responded to this abuse by demanding more: it was, he later conceded, “a very large mistake” as a deluge of golf balls, mud, fruit and piss-filled bottles duly rained down upon the quintet. “At its peak,” Way laughed “there were even people in My Chem shirts throwing stuff at us.” The New Jersey band would have the last laugh however, returning to headline the festival in 2011.

Guns N’ Roses - 2010

Christ, this was embarrassing. Some 22 years after a feral quintet from Los Angeles made their UK festival debut at the 1988 Monsters of Rock event, Axl Rose and some other people wheezed and fumbled their way through a performance that, even by the shocking standards of post-Chinese Democracy Gn’R sets, was painful to watch. The band took to the stage an hour late, and were permitted to run fully 30 minutes beyond the 11:30 curfew before organisers cut the power. Undeterred, Axl Rose led his band back onstage and attempted to perform Paradise City with only drums and a megaphone, an excruciating spectacle that lasted a full 5 minutes. “U deserved better,” the Keith Lemon-lookalike later tweeted to fans. No shit Sherlock.

Biffy Clyro - 2013

Let’s leave this trawl down memory lane on a high note. In the run-up to Reading 2013, some questioned the wisdom of Biffy Clyro headlining above established festival vets Nine Inch Nails. These rumblings of discontent clearly travelled as far as the NIN camp, and when the two bands shared a stage for the first time at Leeds festival, two days before Reading, Trent Reznor - at the time a 49 year old Oscar winner, let’s not forget - took to Twitter to lambast the headliners (“whoever the fuck they are”) and promoters for allegedly stiffing his band on production. Biffy chose to maintain a dignified silence, but got their revenge in the most public fashion by firstly pulling a crowd five times the size that NIN managed at Reading, and then delivering one of the great headline sets in the festival’s history. Their victory could hardly have been more complete had they put ‘Trent Who?’ T-shirts on sale at the merch stands.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.