After a three-year absence, Glastonbury Festival returns this weekend.
The pioneering Piltdown weekender remains the biggest and most historic music festival of them all, and with a 2022 lineup that includes headliners Billie Eilish, Paul McCartney and Kendrick Lemar playing alongside a diverse, star-studded assembly of musical delights imaginable it’s easy to see why.
Cynics may grumble about the so called “commercialisation” of the festival these days, but Worthy Farm remains a uniquely special place where careers can be made, legends can be born and some of the most iconic live performances in history have taken place.
Head honcho Michael Eavis may believe that the festival peaked in its first year, citing the 1970 headline set by Tyrannosaurus Rex (later T. Rex) as his favourite, but, respectfully, there have been many more artists who have delivered career-defining performances to cement Glastonbury’s status as the world's most magical festival.
Here, then, are the 11 greatest Glastonbury performances ever.
The Smiths (1984)
More than a decade had passed since the birth of Glastonbury Festival, and the music scene that it represented in the early '70’s had moved on some way as we reached the mid-point of the 1980’s.
Not that these changes were particularly reflected in the line-up of the festival, with the 1984 bill featuring jazz legends Fela Kuti and Dr. John and new wave hero Elvis Costello headlining. But, halfway down the bill on the Saturday, Michael Eavis had booked a band that would give the festival the lightbulb moment it needed, leading to its refusal to stagnate ever again.
The Smiths only had one album at this point, their self-titled debut, released in February of that year, but already they were becoming cult-like, a magnet for frustrated and disaffected youth. No one quite knew what was going to happen when Morrissey and Johnny Marr led the Manchester quartet out that day, but their ten-song set seemed to be a siren for young people to appear from nowhere and turn the Pyramid Stage from a docile field of hippies into an pogoing indie disco.
By the time a triumphant Hand in Glove closed the show, a full-blown stage invasion was happening. The festival would never ignore the zeitgeist again.
Glastonbury’s relationship with dance music wasn’t an immediately happy one. Michael Eavis has openly admitted he didn’t care for the style, and when a series of free parties started springing up on site around the time that the UK rave scene was being vilified as public enemy number one in the media, a sense of lawlessness that was the antithesis of Glastonbury’s purpose caused all manner of headaches.
But when the Criminal Justice Act bill of 1994 scandalously targeted and criminalised fans of acid house, the festival, rather than shun the genre, showed solidarity and embraced it.
Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, aka Orbital, were installed as NME Stage headliners that year and proceeded to perform a set that has gone down as a kind of EDM big bang for festivals the world over.
Not only was the duo's hypnotic set of euphoric beats rapturously received, it showed that dance artists could compete with the traditional guitar band set up, opening the door for The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Moby, Fatboy Slim and more to become an integral part of the festival's fabric.
Perhaps even more importantly though, the booking was a statement of political intent, one that defied the government's heavy-handed and discriminatory stance. It offered solid proof that the anti-establishment principles which gave birth to the festival were still alive and well.
When The Stone Roses pulled out of their 1995 headline slot at the last-minute, after guitarist John Squire broke his collarbone and a shoulder blade falling off a mountain bike, Glastonbury was in urgent need of a replacement to close the Pyramid Stage on the festival's Saturday night.
On the face of it, Pulp, indie journeymen who had been plugging away for the past 15 years, and had only just begun to experience crossover success with their 1994 album His ‘n’ Hers, may have seemed like an underwhelming alternative to the mercurial Mancunians.
But the Sheffield band had a pretty huge ace up their sleeve, having just released what would become their definitive anthem; the arch pop of Common People. So big a hit was the song, that Glastonbury took a punt on the band as headliners, and Pulp repaid them with the performance of their career.
Suave, self-depreciating, charmingly geeky and yet blessed with the kind of charisma that you couldn’t take your eyes off, frontman Jarvis Cocker wonderfully conducted the crowd through his band's brilliantly odd, distinctly British, working class, guitar pop anthems. The reaction when the first notes of Common People’s disco throb begin, just after Cocker has read out his weekly shopping list by way of farewell, is spine-tingling stuff.
It elevated Pulp from cult favourites into one of the biggest bands in the country and turned Jarvis into a national treasure. One of the all-time great feel-good stories of the festival's history.
By 1997, BritPop had been a national obsession for a few years, and that summer's Glastonbury line-up reflected that. But, although no one knew it at the time, the rug was very much about to be pulled out from underneath the movement.
Two weeks before the festival took place, Radiohead released their third album Ok Computer. Installed as Pyramid Stage headliners on the festival's Saturday night, the Oxfordshire band put on a performance that was so good it arguably contributed to changing the entire landscape of popular music in Britain.
Rather than coming out with a bang in an attempt to immediately grab attention, Radiohead teased out the opening of their set with the slow, delicate Lucky. It seemed a risk to start a first ever festival headlining set with a song placed as track 11 on an album that came out just 12 days earlier, but it immediately marked Radiohead out as the antithesis of the zeitgeist.
From there the Glastonbury audience was held rapt, becoming hypnotised by the band ran through a set of songs that sounded completely unique, utterly advanced and totally alien. Take a look at Thom Yorke wailing along, his body flinching and juddering, trying to keep in rhythm with his band as Johnny Greenwood’s iconic solo during Paranoid Android rips out of the Pyramid Stage PA, it’s a truly transcendent moment.
Unquestionably one of the greatest sets in the history of live music, raising the bar to near impossible standards.
David Bowie (2000)
Michael Eavis once described David Bowie as one of the three greatest singers of all time, alongside Elvis and Frank Sinatra, and Bowie hadn’t rocked up at Worthy Farm since its second iteration back in 1971, so this one was always going to be a bit special.
Let's be honest, there is a more than a touch of revisionism when discussing Bowie these days; during the late '80’s and into the '90’s he wasn’t being lauded as a forward-thinking visionary in quite the same way as he is now, with albums from that period like Earthling and Black Tie, White Noise getting a lukewarm reaction upon their release. This performance, though, did as much as anything to re-cement Bowie’s place at the very pinnacle of popular culture, as he ran through a greatest hits set that reminded the entire world of his undoubted genius. Also, the warmth with which the veteran performer later spoke about his experiences at the festival was evidence of just how hallowed even the biggest artists considered this site to be.
Watching the set back today, the mass sing-along during Heroes, Life on Mars or Under Pressure are positively life affirming, but don’t ignore Bowie ending his set on a fantastic version of I’m Afraid of Americans, a nod to his thirst to remain relevant and never sink into the nostalgia quagmire.
Amy Winehouse (2007)
Everyone in the music industry knew that Amy Winehouse was a talent, long before this performance blew her stratospheric. But Glastonbury 2007 is the moment where everyone could see that Winehouse was more than just a gifted, enigmatic vocalist; she was a true one off, destined to be one of the finest artists that Britain has ever produced.
Less than a year earlier, her second album Back to Black had received plaudits from pretty much every corner of the music world, but as she stepped onto the Pyramid Stage for her early afternoon slot on the festival's Friday, it felt like everything that made her so special became amplified for the entire world to see.
There’s just something so brilliantly unique about Winehouse here; slim, petite but lacking the airs and graces of a typical diva singer, she wipes the mud from her shoes on her backing curtain, before shuffling on and effortlessly belting out opening track Addicted. From there on in, it’s a greatest hits set with a few covers - Sam Cooke’s Cupid, The Specials Hey Little Rich Girl and Toots & The Maytals Monkey Man - thrown in for good measure. Great as they are, though, nothing really can compete with the awe-inspiring performances of You Know I’m No Good and Rehab, the pure soul and pain that glides so effortlessly from her mouth showing an artist at the peak of her powers.
As enigmatic as any artist on this list, Winehouse only ever performed at Glastonbury once. At this point she’d doubtless have been a headliner, making her 2007 peak even more of a bittersweet pill to swallow.
When Oasis’ Noel Gallagher scoffed that “Glastonbury has the tradition of guitar music... I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury, it's wrong.” after it was announced that Jay-Z was to headline the Pyramid Stage in 2008, he might have been speaking as an out-of-touch, grumpy, old curmudgeon, but he wasn’t alone in his thinking.
Even back in 2008 the internet loved a pile on, and the purist's ire was keenly felt, with many traditionalists happily jumping onboard the outrage train. How dare Jay-Z take a place on the bill usually reserved for legendary artists such as... er... Travis and Stereophonics...?
Seems silly now doesn’t it? Because those words could not have been more emphatically rammed down the throats of the detractors, as the New York rapper provided one of the all-time iconic Glastonbury moments by walking out to one of the biggest crowds seen in years, guitar in tow, and began to giggle his way through a sarcasm laced cover of Wonderwall, before launching into an awe-inspiring mash up of 99 Problems and AC/DC’s Back In Black. As intros go, it might just be the best ever.
From there on in Jay couldn’t fail, drawing on one of the most bullet-proof, hit-filled catalogues in modern music, and chucking in snippets of The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up and Amy Winehouse’s Rehab just hammered home the win.
This killer set opened the door for Kanye West, Beyonce, Stormzy, Dave and others to storm the festival in later years, and make anyone who ever questioned hip-hop's place at Glastonbury again look exceedingly daft, at best.
Save for the odd booking of alt-metal here and there over the years, Glastonbury had never truly embraced heavy metal. Which, considering the festival's reputation as the most musically eclectic on the planet, was quite the source of frustration for some metal fans. It was a huge shock then to see Michael and Emily Eavis go from 0 to 100 and book the biggest metal band of all time to close the Pyramid Stage in 2014.
Confusingly, this prospect caused almost as much of a stir as Jay-Z's six years prior, with endless indie no marks and the same exhausting online commentators lining up to question the booking: as if that were not enough, an anti-hunting group of festival goers created a petition to have them removed due to James Hetfield’s extra-curricular activities.
Metallica, as usual, won the day though, mocking the controversy in their set-opening video and playing a set of hard rock and thrash metal that won over even the most skeptical attendee.
In the aftermath Glastonbury would invite Motohead to perform, and give Earache Records a stage to curate, which saw the likes of Gojira, Napalm Death, Entombed, Venom Prison and Employed To Serve added to the bill. Hard to imagine that would have happened without Metallica kicking the door down.
Dolly Parton (2014)
The day after Metallica laid waste to the Pyramid Stage a very different, but no less exciting, event took place.
The long-established Sunday afternoon legends slot on the Pyramid Stage had boasted some great sets by some huge artists, with Tom Jones, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Dame Shirley Bassey and more over-seeing mass sing-alongs over the years. But few, if any, pulled such a crowd, or put on such a heartwarming, good time, fun filled set, as country legend Dolly Parton did in 2014.
The consummate entertainer, Dolly knew exactly what was required to make the slot work, and, with the gargantuan crowd eating from the palm of her hand, she turned a muddy field in Somerset into a Nashville hoedown in the most effortless way. The fact that she can just casually chuck Joelene out as the third song of the set says it all.
Some artists truly do transcend genre, and Parton is one of music's all-time great characters and songwriters. In terms of matching the energy, and reciprocal devotion, garnered by that set, only Kylie Minogue’s emotional and long-awaited performance in 2019 could match an hour of Dolly at her best. It was impossible not to raise a smile.
Florence and the Machine (2015)
In 2015, Foo Fighters were due to return to Glastonbury for the first time since 1997, to headline the Pyramid Stage. Then just weeks before the show, Dave Grohl broke his leg falling onstage at a stadium show in Sweden and their entire summer tour was cancelled. Just like 20 years earlier, Glastonbury suddenly needed a new headliner, and just like 20 years previously, the band that stepped in gave the performance of their career.
Florence and the Machine were already a sizeable outfit, having picked up a BRIT award for their 2009 debut album Lungs, but the jump from well-known, indie rock band to Glastonbury headliner is a chasm. And Florence... made the jump with impressive ease, drawing from the best of all three of their albums, and throwing in a beautifully poignant cover of The Foos Times Like These as a nod to their fallen peers, with Dave Grohl later describing their version as being “better than Foo Fighters had ever played it.”
By the time the victory lap of You’ve Got the Love and Dog Days are Over came around, they had established themselves as an all-time festival headlining band.
When Stormzy stepped out onto the Pyramid Stage to headline the Friday night of the 2019 festival he was 25-years-old, had one album to his name and was the first grime artist to do so. These events alone have to make his set one of the most astonishing achievements of Glastonbury’s history, but the fact that he made it such a spectacle, such a wonderful celebration of the best of black and alternative British culture and such an emotionally moving experience cements its place amongst the all-time greats.
Beginning with a video of Jay-Z giving him advice about what to expect from the festival, which was a lovely little call-back, Stormzy walked out in a Banksy-designed, Union Jack stab vest, railed against the Tory government, then brought out members of the Black Ballet company, a full gospel choir, fellow UK grime artists Dave and Fredo and... er... Coldplay’s Chris Martin. In the process, he crowned grime as the definitive British youth culture movement of the modern era.
From an underground musical style from the streets of South London to closing the biggest music festival on Earth, Stormzy’s place at the top of the bill at Glastonbury should give hope to every young musician that the summit can be reached, no matter how stacked the odds are against you.