Glastonbury Festival is probably the greatest music festival on Earth. Famous the world round for bringing the elite in music to a farm somewhere in the West country of England, Glastonbury is as known for its music as it is for the sloppy mudslides! Every year, anticipation gets feverish with the announcement of who is going to headline the Pyramid Stage. Is it going to be Zeppelin this time? What about Fleetwood Mac? Or will it be Coldplay again…? Probably the latter!
Regardless of who it is, the headline acts that descend on Worthy Farm every year are prone to some sort of scrutiny by the press or music lovers for not being “suitable.” Remember Kanye-gate? Remember Jay-Z-gate? Remember the gate? Well, fence. People even groaned at the thought of Adele headlining this year because she was thought to be too boring! Love or loath Glastonbury, there will always be controversies with every year that passes, no matter how big or small the act may be. Whatever your music taste, there is always something to tickle your fancy. And if you don’t like music? Well, you can lie down in the mud!
Who’d have thought that a west country farmer could turn his hand to the biggest festival in the world? That is one skilled farmer! But going back over the forty-odd years of music at the festival, there have been some good headliners, great headliners, and some downright amazing ones! So which ones are worthy of Worthy Farm gold status?
Glasto has a habit of turning a little known indie band into the next big thing. Jarvis Cocker’s smartpop outfit were a last-minute replacement for The Stone Roses who pulled out due to injury. This was the first example of Glastonbury turning an indie band to a fully blown pop mega-act. Way before Jarv wiggled his posterior in front of Michael Jackson at the now legendary 1996 Brit Awards, Pulp were treating the crowd to a headline set that demanded as much attention as any bottom-wiggler would! Future classics Disco 2000 and Sorted For E’s and Whizz were making their live debut four months before Mercury Prize winning album Different Class destroyed any assumptions about them being just another “Britpop” act. Finishing off their set with a frenzied Common People, Pulp had slyly brought social commentary to the main stage. They headlined the main stage a few years after, but this was the gig where you could begin to chart their trajectory!
This was a controversial headliner in 2014, not just because METAL* (*throw the horns) had never been to the festival before, but also vocalist James Hetfield’s pro hunting agendas cast a shadow over their set. This was seen to be going against the peace and harmony** (**throw the peace symbol) ethos of the festival. The stage was set, and while Metallica must have felt that they were facing an uphill struggle (they even had a huge collection of their fans sat across the back of the stage for what looked like protection), the crowd definitely warmed to them. While metal has always been a divisive genre, Metallica made sure they put on the most inclusive show they could for the naysayers. They even included their cover of Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey In The Jar for the uninitiated. Will we see them at Glasto again? Hmm… The jury’s out on that one.
13 Manic Street Preachers
Despite bassist Nicky Wire’s comments some years earlier that “someone should build a bypass over this ****hole” and effortlessly annoying the hell out of every other band by bringing their own private portaloo, the Manics’ set established them as a class act for the end of the 90’s, flying the flag for their native Wales. The Manics were always a side-line act prior to the unsolved disappearance of their guitarist Richey Edwards. After re-grouping after much soul-searching, the post-Richey Manics were award winning, anthem-toting chart toppers. While this was the first, and only time they headlined Glastonbury, they have been firm festival favourites since. With intelligent anthems (and the longest number 1 title ever) If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and their best known anthem for the working classes, Design For Life, closing the proceedings, their appeal for “mass communication” on a large scale has not been bettered since.
The highlight of the recently reformed Blur’s mini tour in 2009 was a triumphant Sunday night slot on the Pyramid Stage. With no new material to perform, it was a swift greatest hits set with no filler and all killer! Frontman Damon Albarn’s musical forays from the early 21st century included the cartoon band Gorillaz and a musical based on the 70’s show “Monkey” (yes, seriously). So, when it was announced that Blur were going to get back together, a collective rejoicing was heard as, maybe it was thought that Damon was going back to what we loved the most. From their most famous tune, Parklife, to their wonderfully emotional ballad Tender, it was clearly a special moment for Albarn, who had tears in his eyes as the night drew to a close. After a few years indulging his experimental sweet tooth, it was the classics belted out that night that made us warm to him in the first place, and they were received with open arms. Their reunion was short-lived, but this still remains one of the highlights of the post-breakup Blur.
Their first headlining set for the festival, and fourteen months before their mega Knebworth gigs cemented them as the band of the era, Liam, Noel et al got everyone “mad fer it.” With Live Forever, Slide Away and even brilliant B-Sides like Acquiesce already in their pocket, from this point on they could do no wrong (well, until their bloated third album Be Here Now came out, but that’s another article). The draw with Oasis had always been the Liam-Noel dynamic, and this performance was generally incident free in those terms. But this was the Glasto where Robbie Williams, having just left Take That, was hanging off their coattails and trying to market himself as the next Gallagher. It only proved to be the starting point of a feud between the two for years down the line and ended up with the now famous “fat dancer” comment from Noel! Oasis created anthems purpose-built for mass sing-alongs, and with an arena like Glastonbury, it was a perfect fit for them. After that, we all wanted to be from Manchester.
Bringing a personal touch to the Pyramid Stage in 2016. Adele cackled, selfied and chatted her way through a set of songs that soundtracked the lovelorn and lovelost that night, although those people were probably in the silent disco on their own at that point! Hot off the tail from her much anticipated album 25, her debut performance as a headliner tugged on the heartstrings of everyone in the area. Even though based on her between-song banter, you might be forgiven for thinking that it sounded like someone’s aunty had one too many G&T’s! In-between regaling the crowd with what she had for tea ("Oh my God, I just burped! I had a dirty burger before I came on, that's why”) and telling the crowd how “f***ing” amazing it was for her, her heartfelt and soulful vocals showed everyone why she is one of the best singers out there, period.
After their album Absolution firmly cemented them as the band to go to for bonkers semi-prog space anthems, this gig should have been the one for them to look back and see where they officially were space bound. However, shortly after this triumphant gig, drummer Dominic Howard’s father died of a heart attack. What may have been a bittersweet moment for the band was a stellar ending to Glasto 2004. Muse have been seen as the heir to Queen’s bombastic throne, and with a blistering set like this, they firmly started to take that mantle as the defining rock band of the 00’s. By this point they already had the mass sing-alongs with Plug In Baby and Time Is Running Out, and Muse treated the crowd to a rollicking and rocking, space-rock frenzy! By the time they finished off with an immense Stockholm Syndrome, the crowd were converted. Bloated space-rock has never sounded so thrilling!
8 Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band
The debut show by The Boss and his crew of entertainers brought the party atmosphere down to the Farm. Treating the crowd to fan favourites, crowd favourites (of course, Born To Run) and even rare favourites, he won over new fans that night who were probably waiting for the all-night rave to start! Bruce’s shows have been notoriously long in running length and this one was no exception. He even ran over the allotted time, incurring a fine for Mr Eavis, which he reportedly was more than happy to pay! You would think that The Boss bringing his working-class preacher man shtick to a field of wet British people would have a detrimental effect, but the crowd were hanging on his every word! A consummate performer as always, Mr Springsteen finished off his set with Dancing In The Dark, and judging by the atmosphere, mesmerized fans seemed to dance their way into the dark that night.
7 Jay Z
By the time Jay-Z got to Glastonbury in 2008, the festival was unofficially the biggest rock and pop festival in the world. So, why is a RAPPER headlining it? People scratched their heads in disbelief at the thought. It was even bemoaned more vocally, by one Noel Gallagher. Never a man to mince his words of course. He said that Jay Z, and hip-hop in general, was “wrong” for Glastonbury, Mr Z opened his Saturday night set with one Wonderwall-shaped middle finger. And from that point on, the night was his for the taking. Attacking the stage with his trademark swagger, pomp and effortless showmanship, busting out hits such as 99 Problems, Big Pimpin’ and Hard Knock Life, Jay Z proved that hip-hop was here to stay at Glastonbury. The festival was built for diversity and variety, and in those 90 minutes, Jay-Z had officially heralded in Glastonbury for a new generation. Bravo, good sir!
Bringing a touch of class to Glasto, Beyoncé’s sparkly stilettos made a change to the muddy knee high boots of years gone by. All The Single Ladies put their hands up with all of the other thousands of people that flocked to see her high-octane, tightly choreographed set. While the rain poured, she poured her heart and every body part into a tight and energetic stage show. And “show” being the right word, never had Glasto seen such a glitzy affair as this! With bands that shrug their way around the stage, guitars draped around their fronts, Beyoncé showed them a thing or two! Densely structured and showing the world she was every inch the entertainer as her husband Jay-Z a few years prior. By the time she bid the crowd goodbye after a beautiful performance of her understated anthem Halo, they were hanging on her every flick of the wrist.
5 Arctic Monkeys
After an underwhelming 2007 headline debut, by the time they returned in 2013 they had ascended from mouthy Dancefloor fillers to a slick Brianstorm of a live act. Alex Turner’s bizarre Elvis impression aside, these guys had blossomed from awkward teenagers to fully-blown suit-wearing entertainers. From their glam suits and 1950’s-style quiffs to the glowing “AM” logo hanging behind them, this was a show where they officially “brought it” to Glastonbury. Even bringing out a string quartet for an emotional rendition of Mardy Bum, they pulled out all the stops for their second headline slot. New songs (at the time) mixed with classics they had more than bid goodbye to a few years before, RU Mine received as much a raucous reaction as their first classic I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. At a time when guitar music was supposedly “dead” the Arctics made sure that wasn’t the case!
When Coldplay first played Glastonbury in 2000, you wouldn’t have them pegged as the next in line to U2’s throne. When they came back in 2002, it was to everyone’s surprise that they started to craft stadium anthems onto their already singable tunes. An already firm festival favourite, Yellow and its acoustics mingled alongside the “yeeeeahs” of newer tracks In My Place and with their set opener Politik, it showed Coldplay weren’t another Travis! Having been compared to Travis in their early days with their easy-going, acoustic leanings, they had a lot to prove with this performance. Everyone went away surprised that Coldplay had even pulled it off! That 2002 headline performance started them on a trajectory that hasn’t shown signs of stopping. Headlining a record four times at the festival, they’ve always been indebted to Worthy Farm, and there’s no doubt that this was the performance that set them off.
3 The Rolling Stones
A major coup for Glasto. Getting (Sir) Mick, Keef and co to headline Worthy Farm before they are old(er) brought fans young and old together to revel in a killer set. While the combined age of the whole band is probably about the same amount as the people at Glastonbury (give or take a few thousand), they sure showed the younger upstarts how to put on a great show. You Got Me Rocking, Sympathy For The Devil and a rousing You Can’t Always Get What You Want (complete with choir) were highlights of the setlist designed to get the crowd rocking. And that they did.
“After all these years they finally got round to asking us,” said a deadpan Mick Jagger, working the crowd with an energy of someone half his age. It’s unlikely we’ll see them take that slot again, but with a set that good, you can’t always get what you want.
2 David Bowie
Do you remember where you were when you heard the news? News of his death sent shockwaves around the world. One of music’s greatest visionaries had gone to the music festival in the sky. When news was reported of his death, one of the most played clips was his Glastonbury encore of Heroes. It’s not like we even needed to see thousands of people in a field to recognize him as the second coming! His diverse setlist, from the poppier hits of Let’s Dance and China Girl to more experimental leanings, like 1996 jungle-tinged effort Little Wonder and even closing with his Nine Inch Nails collaboration, I’m Afraid Of Americans, Bowie proved that the leper became the messiah. David Bowie was one of the all-time greatest musicians, and this set has gone down as one of the great Glastonbury performances. And with an act as amazing as him, could it really have been anything less?
A gig that has often gone down in Glastonbury folklore, their 1997 performance was fraught with technical troubles. Singer Thom Yorke had problems hearing his vocals, and after the overwhelming acclaim that met their recently released classic OK Computer, the stress of the performance took them two months to recover from. Yet it is hailed as not just one of the greatest Glastonbury performances, it’s one of the greatest performances of all time, by any band. At this point, while Oasis were a bloated rock star corpse in the corner of the musical landscape, Radiohead were in the centre, becoming one of the greatest bands of all time. Radiohead are often cited as an easy target, either for being “too miserable”, or being “that band with that song” (I do believe they are referring to Creep), but with this time period for the band, and this set list, it created a seismic shift in the musical landscape. If it wasn’t for Radiohead, you wouldn’t have had bands like Coldplay following the emotionally-tinged anthem route. And Coldplay have headlined Glastonbury four times! With rumours that Radiohead are headlining Glastonbury 2017, a twentieth anniversary of the greatest Glasto gig will be a wonderful thing to behold.