Glastonbury’s most historic headliners and provocative performances

BY Andy Richardson

1st Jan 2015 Music

Glastonbury’s most historic headliners and provocative performances

With the annual Glastonbury festival looming on the horizon, Andy Richardson takes a deep dive into Glastonbury's most historical headliners and provocative performances since it first began in 1970

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

Despite it's world-renowned popularity, Glastonbury festival, originally called the Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festival, has always had to compete with public opinion. From its beginnings as the faux-medieval, free love ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ in 1970, to the cultural and commercial behemoth it is today, no doubt the annual summer spectacular has had to evolve with the times. 

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 September 19, 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.

Originally, the festival was nowwhere near the size it is today. Tickets were £1 and came with free milk on arrival— Eavis is a dairy farmer. Since then, ticket prices have risen by 335% (plus a £5 booking fee), milking the public's purse strings as it were. 

"Tickets were £1 and came with free milk on arrival"

Back in 1970, the crowd was a mere 1500 strong and the major concern for festival attendees was who had the tea and acid tabs. So unknown was this festival on a farm in the south of England in fact, that even the headline band, a little known London act called, The Kinks, failed to show up. 

However, setting 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. 

David Bowie (1971, 2000)

Credit: GlastonburyOfficial 

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 produced in 1972. As well as Bowie's 5:30am set, it features artists like The Grateful Dead, Pete Townshend and The Pink Faeries. 

Replete with a pop-up pyramid, rumour has it that Revelations still emits marijuana smoke if played at the right speed. 

Bowie's 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)

The Smiths Credit: Paul Cox. Distributed by Sire Records

When the Manchester born, anti-monarchical group of lads were first introduced to the line up, they defintely weren't seen as an obvious choice for the then "mellow" and "low-key" festival. 

Fans of the festival were outraged that such a heavy band was set to play such a mellow festival, and guitarist Johnny Marr told The Guardian that it was their first time playing to a crowd "who largely hadn't seen us before". 

The Smiths certainly left their mark though, instigating Glastonbury's first "stage invasion" (in the days before barriers) and changing the tone of the festival for ever more. Since then, Glastonbury has booked the likes of Terry Reid, Pink Fairies, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Gong, and more.

Despite the controversy of Eavis’s addition to that year’s lineup, Morrisey and co. transformed an audience of strangers into enthusiastic Smiths fans and stole the hearts of thousands. 

Pulp (1995)

Credit: BBC Music 

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, he took photos 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 British Pop-Rock. In a 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”.

Cocker and his band then played out their festival set with the crowd pleasing anthem, Common People, uniting the band and the audience with the common feeling of festival euphoria.  

Jeff Buckley (1995)

Credit: Scottish TeeVee

On a hot summer’s day in 1995 came a real hair standing moment. Two years before his untimely passing, Jeff Buckley played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. 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.

"A god-like maestro with a voice that could reduce grown men to tears, Buckley’s performance left the audience speechless"

Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin, 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”.

Buckley's effect on Page was amplified to the Glastonbury audience on the day of his performance. As if channeling the energy from the neighboring Stonehenge, Buckley gave a celestial performance that is still talked about today, raising as many questions about the man’s voice as there are about the mysteries of Stonehenge itself.

Iggy and The Stooges (2007)

Credit: BBC Radio 6 Music 

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 and performance, and in true punk fashion: it’s grotesque, absolutely all over the place, but also absolutely 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 positively 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 A Real Cool Time

What followed is the stuff of legends: absolute chaos. Hundreds of adoring fans caked in mud invaded the stage. 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 (guitar) and Scott (drums respectively) have passed away. The Stooges' performance at Glastonbury is regarded as one of the last true punk rock shows on such an unprecedented scale.

Jay-Z (2008)

Credit: BBC Music 

Criticisms about rap music "belonging" at festivals were halted by one of the most talked about and show-stopping performances in years, giving credence to Glastonbury’s reputation as an ever-evolving cultural nexus of the music world.

"Jay-Z was the first major hip-hop artist to headline the festival"

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)

Radiohead the band Credit: wonker 

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).

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)

Credit: BBC Music 

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. Either way, somehow it worked for them.

Injecting a little bit of fun and excitement into proceedings, Metallica further proved that Glastonbury can withstand any act despite a history of festival controversy, and the audience will probably have a good time (whether in jest or not). 

Banner credit: David Clements

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