2020 marks Glastonbury Festival’s fiftieth anniversary. Since its doors must remain shut, we look back on some outstanding performances over its half century.

Who would have thought, back in 1970, when a dairy farmer by the name of Michael Eavis opened the doors to what was then known as Worthy Farm Pop Festival at the cost of a pound a ticket, that it would morph into the world’s largest and most iconic greenfield festival? Now it attracts music fans in their thousands, is televised to millions and bags the biggest global names in music. That first year, by contrast, it was attended by 1500 people, who came to see The Kinks. But when the headline act pulled out, somehow Eavis managed to get a last-minute replacement in the glam-rock form of T-Rex. And whilst, as Glastonbury’s founder remembers, frontman Marc Bolan seemed out of sorts when he arrived, the band nonetheless played an electrifyingly brilliant set. It was history in the making. Eavis, who had really only launched the festival in an attempt to clear his debts, suddenly saw that he might be onto something. Fifty years later, it transpires he was right. And in that time, it has changed from a wild, anarchic affair to a well-oiled machine – a fact enjoyed by some and lamented by others. Anyone wanting to get a taste of its founding spirit should tune into this BBC archives’ footage of scenes from that first year.



Whilst Eavis and Glastonbury’s devoted revellers sadly won’t be able to gather to mark half a century dedicated to the pursuit of bringing together the best live music in a sunny – and often famously muddy – field in Somerset, they will be back with serious intent to party next year. Until then, we look back on some of unforgettable performances from years gone by.



There are, of course, many brilliant earlier sets, including the pivotal T-Rex one, of which documentary evidence does not exist. But of those that were recorded, here are a few of our favourites.

The Verve, 1993



To those of us of a certain vintage, it is strange to think on the 1990s as a far-away, long-ago land (there is a meme that sometimes does the rounds which says, ‘when l think 30 years ago I think of 1970’, a sentiment we relate strongly to). And yet, when you look back at Glastonbury footage, it does somehow seem impossibly distant. This was not only the Verve’s first Glasto set, but singer Richard Ashcroft’s first ever time at a festival. It predates their anthemic Bittersweet Symphony or the haunting melancholy of The Drugs Don’t Work, both of which came in 1997, but it shows what stage presence the band had. It also represents a transitional time, when the festival, though huge, was still a less commercial operation (there were no cash machines then, for example). In fact, so makeshift was it that the band hadn’t even got a pitch inside the grounds and were camping outside. This set is interesting as it foreshadows the staggering success The Verve would go on to, but also is so evocative of a time. Watch and re-live happy days.

Dolly Parton, 2014



Has there ever been a more charming or game person than Dolly Parton? We love her beyond compare. How could you not, when she asks the audience in her sweet southern belle tones, ‘Now how many of you go so far back that you’d remember a song called Jolene?’ The roar of the crowd confirms that, indeed, every last person is on familiar terms with, perhaps, Dolly’s most famous song. She performed for an hour, and bust out all the classics, from ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ and ‘Islands In The Stream’ to the always-excellent ‘9 To 5’, proving that the reign of this country queen will go on and on. This kind of sing-along is exactly what the main stage at Glastonbury is made for.

Pulp, 1995



Are we alone in thinking that Pulp doesn’t get enough credit for being the best band of the 1990s? If you don’t agree, we implore you to watch their performance at Glastonbury in 1995 when their star was very much in the ascendant. As so often seems to be the case when it comes to really legendary performances, this one wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Pulp were booked at the last minute when The Stone Roses dropped out. The set is spellbinding and completely heroic. And with it, Jarvis, with his angular moves and razor-sharp wit, claimed his rightful place as surely one of the most charismatic front men in music history. Is it any coincidence that Different Class topped the charts and scooped the Mercury Music Prize shortly after this? We think not.

Beyoncé’, 2011



Who knows how to put on a show like Beyoncé? No one, that’s who. In what she later said was the highlight of her career thus far, she performed a completely showstopping, perfectly crafted and paced 90-minute set, proving that when you’re as astonishing as Queen B, pop can work just as stunningly on a traditionally rock-focused stage, despite some inevitable naysayers. We especially love her rendition of Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire. Have the words ‘class’ and ‘act’ ever been as apt as they are for this peerless legend?


David Bowie, 2000



David Bowie first played Glastonbury in 1971, its second-ever airing. He didn’t return until 29 years later in 2000. The nineties were, arguably, slightly wilderness years for the man who had been Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane. On that stage in that summer, his return roundly proved to everyone who’d ever doubted his enduring genius, that, frankly, no one can do it like Bowie. We are dripping with jealousy of anyone who got to see the great man give his finest rendition of Heroes et al that extraordinary night.


Paul Simon, 2011



Anyone who closes an already brilliant performance with a joyful rendition of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ wholeheartedly deserves to make any list of best-ever Glastonbury performances. And that’s exactly what American icon Paul Simon did in 2011. We will never forget it. We always question why Simon isn’t routinely mentioned in the same breath as Springsteen and Dylan for his giant contribution to American music or his clever, often poetic lyrics. And never is that oversight starker than when re-watching this towering performance.

Johnny Cash, 1994



Was Johnny Cash the coolest musician in history? Well, he may have to fight that accolade out with the likes of Elvis, Hendrix and Bowie among others. But if we take as an example of such his wandering onto the Glastonbury stage with the simple, casual words, ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Cash’, then we say he’s in with a very good shot. This was long before the movie Walk The Line re-trained the spotlight on his story. And yet, here he was, a towering American icon, coolly picking up a whole new audience. We could watch and re-watch this on a loop.



Radiohead, 1997



Radiohead have graced the Glastonbury stage a handful of times. But it was their show in 1997 that led Michael Eavis to dub it the best set in the festival’s history. Ok, Computer had just hit the record stands, and this performance clinched the deal for them: this was the performance that made them mega stars. We say: rightly so.


Florence + The Machine, 2015



In 2015, Foo Fighters dropped out of Glastonbury. Luckily for Eavis and co, Florence and The Machine were waiting in the wings, all set to deliver one of the most memorable, hair-standing-on-end sets in recent memory. Florence Welch was palpably loving every minute of it, while every perfect note is a reminder of her unparalleled voice.

Jay Z, 2008



‘I’m not having hip hop at Glastonbury, it’s wrong.’ Noel Gallagher’s words to Jay Z well and truly threw down the gauntlet. It was a challenge Jay Z was more than equal to, opening his set with a mockingly drony rendition of ‘Wonderwall’ (which has the dubious accolade of being probably Oasis’ most whingey song). He swiftly picks up the pace, busting out a banging ‘99 Problems’. Hip hop, in our books, undoubtedly has its place on the Glastonbury stage, especially when it’s this good.


The Killers, 2017



The Killers were a band that defined much of the noughties for us. Three years ago they returned to the stage as unexpected guests to remind us why they remain such superstars. Brandon Flowers is one of life’s natural front men and, simply, we just want to dance when the euphoric sounds of Human and Mr Brightside come on. Simple. Perfect.

Bruce Springsteen, 2009



No one does it quite like The Boss. And in 2009, he took to the Glastonbury show to prove it. With the E Street Band, he delivered all the classics and some extras. Call us walking clichés, but the highlight must be Born To Run, a song so anthemic and exhilarating it surely is one of the best stadium songs of all time.

The Rolling Stones, 2013



Remarkably, 2013 was the first time the Stones ever headlined Glastonbury. The electrifying set they delivered – some fifty years after forming as a group – must have left everyone wondering why it took so long. They were worth the wait. If we have an ounce of their energy when we’re approaching 70 as they were then, we’ll be amazed. They open with a lively ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ and it just builds and builds and gets bigger and better through the set. Once again, Mick, Keith et al show all the young things just how it’s done.


Adele



It wasn’t her first Glastonbury performance (that came in 2007) but Adele’s 2016 show on the main stage was accomplished, self-assured and suitably big. We love her mix of huge ballads, which put her up there with music history’s most legendary singers, and her utterly pretension-free self-deprecation as she talks to the audience like old mates. Glorious. Especially the’ Someone Like You’ sing-along at the end.

Portishead, 1995



Glastonbury in 1995 might just have been one the most nineties things ever: Pulp singing Common People; an ex-Take That Robbie Williams hanging out with Oasis and the Prodigy backstage; and, unforgettably, Portishead. Their seminal album, Dummy, had come out their previous year, and although the Bristolian trip hop band has never been one for banging anthemic rock numbers, their sound was hypnotic and mesmeric. Shy frontwoman Beth Gibbons bewitched everyone lucky enough to have come together in the small acoustic tent they played in. It remains one of the festival’s most legendary performances – and one we can, alas, find no footage of. We leave you instead with the band’s also brilliant 1998 set.

By Nancy Alsop
June 2020

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