Glastonbury’s Most Historic Headliners and Provocative Performances

Andy Richardson 

Always different, each year bigger, never without controversy, here are some of the best/weirdest Glastonbury performances, historic headliners and controversial line-up choices from over the years.

“A success musically, it was super; a lovely day but a loss financially”
– Michael Eavis in the wake of the first Glastonbury

Glastonbury has always had to compete with public opinion, from its beginnings as the faux-medieval, free love/free drugs ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ to the cultural and commercial behemoth it is today. It has had to evolve with the times and it most certainly that fact that has made it so popular.

Disclaimer: Some of the vids below contain swears and general bad ass rock and roll behaviour. 


T-Rex (1970)

It has long been debated that if you squint hard enough, you can see all the way back to this hot summer’s day on the 19th September, 1970 – a weekend retreat created by Michael Eavis to encourage people to escape the harsh realities of urban life just for a couple of days. The festival wasn’t the size it is today mind you. Tickets were £1 and came with free milk on arrival (which is funny because in 45 years ticket prices have risen by 200%, milking the public’s purse strings as it were). The crowd was a mere 1500 strong and the only concern was who had the tea and acid. So unknown was it in fact, that even the headline band failed to show up; a little known London act called, The Kinks. However, so as to set a precedent for future Glastonbury festivals, Eavis was tasked to find a last minute replacement. Enter T-Rex (then, Tyrannosaurus Rex). No doubt they thanked The Kinks all day and all of the night for their tardiness, as it was this show that arguably catapulted T-Rex to stardom and still remains one of the festival’s most celebrated performances. Note: No fans were angered in the alteration of this line-up.



David Bowie (1971/2000)

Bowie’s first time was recorded on to vinyl, which would become the holy-grail of Glastonbury artifacts: Revelations: A Musical Anthology For Glastonbury Fayre – a triple album replete with pop-up pyramid that still emits marijuana smoke if played at the right speed. His second appearance nearly 30 years later was recorded as “The best Glastonbury ever” by Michael Eavis. A crowd pleasing, hit-laden set from the Thin White Duke.



The Smiths (1984)

Fans of the festival were outraged that such a “heavy band” was set to play such a “mellow festival”. Something tells me they must have been cave people because Glastonbury has booked the likes of Terry Reid, Pink Fairies, David Bowie, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Gong. Despite the controversy of Eavis’s addition to that year’s lineup, Morrisey and co. went on to shake things up in front of an audience who had largely never heard them play before encouraging a stage invasion (in the days before barriers) and arguably stole the hearts of thousands. However, Johnny Marr has later been quoted as saying they were “out of their depth”.



Pulp (1995)

In 1995, Pulp took pole position and played a career defining headline performance in place of the Stone Roses who had to cancel when guitarist, John Squire broke his collarbone. Jarvis Cocker, like a living Lowry, slinked on to the stage in a plume of smoke pausing for a moment to take pictures of the crowd as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes before going into the aptly titled ‘Do You Remember the First Time’. This was a defining moment in Brit-Pop too – arguably its pinnacle. In what was a very memorable performance Cocker gave an uplifting speech to finish, stating that “if you want something to happen enough then it actually will happen […], that’s why we’re stood on this stage today”, before playing out the festival with the crowd pleasing anthem, ‘Common People’, uniting the band and the audience with that common feeling of festival euphoria.  



Jeff Buckley (1995)

On a hot summer’s day in 1995 came a real hair standing moment. Two years before his untimely passing, Jeff Buckley played the festival. En route to becoming a god-like maestro with a voice that could reduce grown men to tears, Buckley’s performance left the audience speechless. Jimmy Page once said that he was deeply affected by Buckley's music, that it “somehow touched every emotion […] and was in a total class of his own”. This was evidenced that afternoon for sure; as if channeling the energy from the neighboring Stonehenge, Buckley gave a celestial performance that is still talked about today raising just as many questions about the man’s voice as there are about the mysteries of Stonehenge itself.



Iggy and The Stooges (2007)

Aside from the obvious performances from ghosts of Glastonbury past, this is one of those performances you really wish you were in attendance for. To set the scene, Iggy, in his leathery 60-year-old skin and trademark spray-on blue jeans came bounding onto the stage like a punk rock action figure complete with flailing arms and legs and all guns blazing. Channeling the 60s in age, performance, and in true punk fashion: it’s grotesque, all over the place but brilliant.

Iggy’s Stooges are stoic in their performance while the prince of punk runs amok like a six-year-old on a sugar rush. Swearing incessantly, jumping into the crowd, and mimicking loving relations with amplifiers, the audience was eating out of the palm of his hand. Iggy demanded that he “needs love” and that he “can’t stand this bull**** anymore” inviting everyone up on stage (like Morrissey did 23 years earlier only this time with barriers) while belting out the song ‘We Will Have A Real Good Time Tonight’, which I’m sure they all did. What follows is the stuff of legend. Absolute chaos. Hundreds of adoring, fans invade the stage caked in mud. Ironically, the next song was ‘No Fun’, summing up the next ten minutes spent trying to encourage 200 inebriated fans to voluntarily leave the stage.

Sadly, since this performance the Asheton brothers, Ronn and Scott (guitar and drums respectively) have passed away so cherish this performance as one of the last true punk rock shows on such an unprecedented scale.



Jay-Z (2008)

Criticisms about rap ‘belonging’ at festivals were halted by one of the most talked about and show-stopping performances in years, giving credence to Glastonbury’s rep as an ever-evolving cultural nexus of the music world. Jay-Z was the first major hip-hop artist to headline the festival making it a landmark performance in its own right. Despite earlier jibes from Oasis’s Noel Gallagher about Eavis’s selection, Jay-Z fought fire with fire and opened his set with a cover of ‘Wonderwall’.



Radiohead (1997, 2003, 2011)

Each one of Radiohead’s festival performances have been special in different ways making them true Glastonbury heroes. Their first performance came in the wake of the band’s epochal release, Ok Computer. Dystopian themed content about corrupt politics, psychopaths, and airline disasters couple with alternative noises and woozy gadgetry; catching them live in 1997 must have felt like looking into the distant futures of an alien year.

In 2003, Radiohead surprisingly gave one of their more lighthearted performances; destined to go down well considering the festival’s notorious good humour and love of novelty acts (Electric Six played that year too). And despite the music being undercut with melancholy, the sun was out and people joined in for a good ol’ sing song.

In 2011, they weren’t on the bill but played a secret performance on the Park Stage before packing up and playing another set elsewhere consisting of post dub-step, drum and bass and techno.  



Metallica (2014)

In a similar fashion to the outrage felt towards those 'heavy' Mancunians, The Smiths, three decades later there was some distress at the prospect of heavy metal veterans Metallica headlining 2014’s closing night.

It was a success insofar as your regular festival goer was probably surprised at how many Metallica songs they actually recognised and could sing along to. Despite it being a little trite and contrived, I think that’s the general consensus of Metallica shows. Somehow it worked for them. Injecting a little bit of fun and excitement into proceedings, giving further evidence that Glastonbury can withstand any act despite controversy and the audience will probably have a good time (whether in jest or not).