The 22 greatest Glastonbury performances ever, from Beyoncé to The Cure

·13 min read
Leading from the front: (clockwise, from top left) Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, Damon Albarn of Blur, and Stormzy, during their headline performances on the Pyramid Stage (Rex)
Leading from the front: (clockwise, from top left) Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, Damon Albarn of Blur, and Stormzy, during their headline performances on the Pyramid Stage (Rex)

A 40-minute blast of pure, undiluted zeitgeist. A gigantic crowd stretching away over hill and vale. A generation’s prejudices and expectations overturned like a flick of dust off the shoulder. A setlist chiselled into quicksilver by Zeus and carried to the stage by a choir of winged roadies. Or maybe just the Dalai Lama, blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.

These are just a few of the reasons why a gig playing out on the hallowed grounds of Worthy Farm might go down in Glastonbury folklore – one of those iconic moments that don’t just make the weekend, but mark out the evolution of pop culture. Glastonbury is where musical history is made and cultural colossi are crowned on a near-annual basis.

Ahead of the glorious return of the world’s greatest festival, headlined this year by Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar, here’s a look back at the best ever Glastonbury performances.

22. The Levellers – Pyramid Stage, 1994

Sometimes quantity really does matter as much as quality. Without a steel fence to keep the gatecrashers away, Glasto was officially free and The Levellers played to what is reported to have been the festival’s largest-ever crowd to date, estimated at 300,000. Imagine how many dogs were tied up at the gate.

21. Kanye West – Pyramid Stage, 2015

Lee Nelson invades the stage as Kanye West performs (Rex)
Lee Nelson invades the stage as Kanye West performs (Rex)

As far as classic Glastonbury talking points go, nothing since Michael Jackson died has come close to Kanye’s 2015 slot. For all his claims to be “the biggest rock star on the planet”, nerves got the better of what was arguably Kanye’s highest-profile show ever. His attempt to echo Jay-Z’s rock-embracing “Wonderwall” from 2008 fell flat when he forgot the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and he had to restart “Black Skinhead”’ after comedian Lee Nelson invaded the stage pretending to be a surprise guest rapper. Nonetheless (look away now, Noel), some class this as another key victory in hip-hop’s Glastonbury takeover.

20. Primal Scream – NME Stage, 1992

The volume, according to some onlookers, was like listening to a car stereo playing ”Movin’ On Up” underwater three miles away. Yet Primal Scream bringing Screamadelica to the NME Stage in 1992 was more of a collective celebration of music’s most double-visioned zeitgeist. Generation “Loaded” came together as one, and rock and dance cultures mated furiously in the bushes at this peak of the ecstasy rave explosion.

19. T Rex – Main Stage, 1970

“Don’t touch my car!” Marc Bolan barked at Michael Eavis when the burgeoning festival don – en route to Minehead Butlin’s to replace The Kinks at what was then essentially a farmer’s party taking place on a stage held together with string – tried brushing leaves off his Cadillac. Yet Bolan’s T Rex stormed the inaugural Glastonbury (or the Pilton Pop, Folk & Blues Festival as it was known – £1 per ticket and all the milk you could drink). “Bolan played on and on and on as the sun was going down,” Eavis recalled, “all the hits, the full works, and it sounded fantastic.”

18. Kylie Minogue – Pyramid Stage, 2019

In 2005, Kylie was forced to pull out of her Pyramid Stage headline slot due to her cancer diagnosis, a wrench for fans and artist alike despite Coldplay’s spectacular replacement set. The Eavises, however, couldn’t get her out of their heads. When she finally honoured the booking 14 years later, for 2019’s Legends slot, she pulled out all the stops, putting on a headline-worthy show rammed with her biggest hits. There were celebrity guests, too, including Chris Martin on “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and Nick Cave for “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. Dolly-beating stuff.

17. Portishead – Acoustic Tent, 1995

As many a troubadour will attest, it’s rare to find a crush of 15,000 people stuck outside the Acoustic Tent. But the arrival of local (ish) heroes Portishead bearing the sumptuous jazz lounge trip-hop of their hugely acclaimed debut album Dummy prompted just such polite chaos. The lucky few inside reported a bewitching set of very modern heartache – “Glory Box” and “Sour Times” capping a show of immense grace and emotion. As many tears inside as out.

16. The Killers – New Tent, 2004

The Killers headlining Glastonbury in 2019 – 15 years after they played the New Tent (REUTERS)
The Killers headlining Glastonbury in 2019 – 15 years after they played the New Tent (REUTERS)

The best sign of encroaching superstardom, they say, is when your John Peel Stage debut is as rammed and rambunctious as Theresa May’s leaving drinks. Arguably the first and finest example was the tsunami of fans descending on the New Tent early on the Saturday evening in 2004, to toast the arrival of Las Vegas indie pop showmen The Killers. The crowds stretched far outside the tent but even the ones on the outskirts bawled along to “Mr Brightside” and “All These Things That I’ve Done”. It was such a “moment” that the band returned to the stage (now the John Peel Stage) for a secret encore in 2017.

15. Orbital – NME Stage, 1994

Dance music had long since conquered clubland, but its clout as a force to unify a vast festival crowd was unrecognised until Orbital took Glasto ’94 by synthetic storm. Drawing 40,000 ravers to the NME Stage for their headline set with little more than compulsive beats and headlights on their faces, the Hartnoll brothers dazzled not just the millions watching Glastonbury’s first televised broadcasts on Channel 4, but Eavis himself. So much so, in fact, that he was inspired to open a dedicated Dance Tent the following year. It’s since grown into its own festival-within-a-festival in the Silver Hayes dance village.

14. New Order – Pyramid Stage, 1981

By 1981, Glastonbury had grown from its Pilton Pop, Folk & Blues roots, but not far. It was a CND charity gathering of around 3,000 bikers burning up the site as they waited for Hawkwind to come on. “It was our version of Altamont but without any trouble,” said New Order’s Peter Hook of their “spirited” support slot, but it was also the moment the band emerged from beneath the lingering clouds of Joy Division and proved themselves the silvery scouts of the new electronic age.

13. Beyoncé – Pyramid Stage, 2011

If Jay could do it, so could Bey. Following her husband’s celebrated 2008 headline slot (and pregnant with their first child at the time), Beyoncé delivered Glastonbury’s ultimate pop experience to date. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, “Crazy in Love”, glitzy covers of both “Love to Love You Baby” and “Sex On Fire’, billowing ballads sung while kneeling on white grand pianos… even the bells had whistles on them. All of this was wrapped up with the most bootylicious of Destiny’s Child medleys.

12. Stormzy – Pyramid Stage, 2019

Boasting what was rumoured to be the most expensive Glastonbury set ever staged – a Banksy stab-vest! Ballet dancers! Chris Martin! – Stormzy had only released one album, his hit debut Gang Signs & Prayer, when he became the first black British solo artist to ascend to the revered Glastonbury headline slot in 2019. He used it as a battering ram to break the new grime uprising onto the most respected stage in the world. Historic.

11. Happy Mondays – Pyramid Stage, 1990

By its very nature as a gigantic concave mirror on alternative culture, Glastonbury reflects and exaggerates music’s pivotal moments. Case in point: Happy Mondays roll onto the Pyramid Stage in 1990 – just as ecstasy is reshaping youth culture into very bendy shapes indeed – and twist the melon of an entire generation with “Step On”, “Wrote For Luck” and “Hallelujah”. Where the Second Summer of Love (1988-1989) was an in-the-know affair, this set made it universally hip to be hairy, lairy, baggy and boggle-eyed.

10. Jay-Z – Pyramid Stage, 2008

Noel Gallagher wasn’t having it, but Glastonbury 2008 certainly was. Gently mocking Noel’s disgust as rap infiltrated rock’s most revered stage, Jay-Z entered with a ramshackle solo rendition of “Wonderwall”, then all but smashed his acoustic guitar as he burst into “99 Problems”. There followed a veritable firestorm of hip-hop classics – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “Girls, Girls, Girls”, “Big Pimpin’”, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” – almost as though Jigga was beating the spirit of Glastonbury into submission before forcing it to wear a Brooklyn Nets shirt. The festival’s mind was opened forever, that night.

9. Patti Smith – Pyramid Stage, 2015

Most so-called “heritage” acts go through the motions at Glastonbury – a stout chunk of their folky new record and, begrudgingly, a smatter of their old hits. Not Patti Smith. She attacked the Pyramid Stage in 2015 like a white-haired tornado. Ripping strings from her guitar by the fistful and hailing “Freedom!” at the top of her voice, she tore through “Land”, “Gloria” and The Who’s “My Generation” like the age-defying punk pioneer she is. She even found time to present the actual Dalai Lama with a birthday cake on stage and fall on her face, “because I’m a f***ing animal!” Amen.

8. Oasis – NME Stage, 1994

Scenes become seismic events when they prove they can dominate an entire Glastonbury festival. Take Sunday 26 June 1994, when a young, cocksure Liam Gallagher strode onto the NME Stage in a black jumper and shades and demanded of a distinctly mad-ferrit crowd: “Are you lot gonna wake up for some proper songs?” Songs rarely came so “proper” as “Cigarettes and Alcohol”, “Live Forever” and “Fade Away”, which joined “Shakermaker” and “Supersonic” in the wider public domain that day – bombardments from Britpop’s northern armies. The Nineties suddenly had some real fight in them.

7. The Cure – Pyramid Stage, 2019

Robert Smith pulled a Bowie in 2019, returning to Glastonbury after a decades-long break – 24 years to be precise – and levelling the Tor with the hits. As one of Britain’s greatest singles bands cunningly disguised as one of its greatest album bands, The Cure unleashed their formidable melodic side of their canon, from gothic classics (“The Walk”, “A Forest”) to formative alt-pop greats (“Close to Me”, “In Between Days”, “Boys Don’t Cry”) and indie dancefloor mainstays (“Friday I’m in Love”, “Why Can’t I Be You?”, “Just Like Heaven”). There was space, too, for more chest-bursting moments such as “Pictures of You”, “Plainsong” and “Disintegration” in one of the most brilliantly balanced Glastonbury headline sets of all time.

6. Blur – NME Stage, 1994

By the time Pulp and Radiohead had played that same stage, that same day, in a line-up that Johnny Greenwood would describe as ”like the Champions League”, Britpop had officially arrived. To herald this cultural breakout, Blur rolled up in their Parklife charabanc at sundown for a coming-of-age party that saw “Girls & Boys”, “End of a Century” and the era-defining title track taken on as generational anthems, at a show as celebratory and momentous as any headline set. It took a year before the News at Ten caught on, but everyone at the NME Stage that day knew that Britpop already owned the decade.

5. Radiohead – Pyramid Stage, 1997

Thom Yorke of Radiohead during the band's legendary Glastonbury performance in 1997 (Rex)
Thom Yorke of Radiohead during the band's legendary Glastonbury performance in 1997 (Rex)

Radiohead’s 1997 headline slot is often cast as a battle – against the elements, malfunctioning stage equipment and their own despondency. “Everything broke onstage,” said Ed O’Brien. “It turned into the worst night of our lives. I don’t think we ever wanted to play a concert again.” But it’s better remembered as a battle against the formulaic post-Oasis rock landscape of Ocean Colour Scenes and Stereophonics, into which OK Computer landed like a laser-precision drone attack. “Lucky” rang out like an epic air-raid siren for the end of the century, and Radiohead’s fresh brand of ultramodern melancholia – “No Surprises”, “Karma Police”, “Airbag” – made it feel as though the future had chosen Worthy Farm for its grand unveiling.

4. The Smiths – Pyramid Stage, 1984

“I don’t want to sound revolutionary, or wild or dangerous, but hippydom… what does it mean?” So said Morrissey, hearing aid firmly in lughole, backstage at Glastonbury 1984 – shortly before The Smiths were resoundingly booed and bottled by a field full of Santana fans. Hippydom certainly wasn’t a bunch of effete Mancunians flapping around singing wiry pop songs full of wry, poetic teenage ennui such as “Hand in Glove”, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “This Charming Man”. The performance inspired Glastonbury’s first stage invasion, but never would Glasto be defined as a purely “hippy festival” again. With The Smiths came a new subculture and a contemporary inclusiveness that reinvented the festival as a youth culture gathering that was indeed revolutionary, wild and a little bit dangerous.

3. Paul McCartney – Pyramid Stage, 2004

Sometimes all it takes to slip seamlessly into Glastonbury legend is the greatest songbook known to mankind. Sir Paul’s first-ever UK festival show – no, really – was the singalong to end them all: “Eleanor Rigby” into “Drive My Car”, “Penny Lane”, “Get Back”, “Band On the Run”, “Back In the USSR”, “Live and Let Die”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Lady Madonna” and a “Hey Jude” you could hear from Dunfermline. That was before the encore. McCartney is returning for Glastonbury 2022 – if he’s even half as good, it’ll be a set to remember.

2. David Bowie – Pyramid Stage, 2000

Bowie at Glastonbury in 2000 (PA Archive)
Bowie at Glastonbury in 2000 (PA Archive)

Bowie’s reputation as an uncompromising art iconoclast preceded him for Glastonbury 2000. We’d seen him headline festivals before, playing hit-free drum’n’bass sets or onslaughts of screeching future metal that sounded like vaguely tuneful slow-motion car crashes. Needless to say, we weren’t exactly expecting “Changes”. Then he came on in a kind of Moroccan bathrobe affair and sang “Changes”. And “Life On Mars?” And “Ashes to Ashes” and “Rebel Rebel” and “Under Pressure” and “Starman” and “All the Young Dudes” and everything else you could possibly want David Bowie to play. You could’ve seen David Bowie live a thousand times, and this would be the set you remembered.

1. Pulp – Pyramid Stage, 1995

When The Stone Roses pulled out of their hotly anticipated Glastonbury headline set in 1995, few in the crowd had any idea who was replacing them until Pulp walked onstage. To say they stepped up is a vast understatement – they went down in history. Jarvis Cocker seemed born to prowl the world’s largest stage, chatting to the biggest crowd of his life like it was a mate down his local Voyeurs Anonymous meeting. The likes of “Babies”, “Disco 2000” and “Common People” crystallised Britpop’s ascendance in 60 or so scintillating minutes. They even unveiled a new song seemingly penned for the occasion – “Sorted For E’s & Wizz” – and encapsulated the bewildering, otherworldly spirit of Glastonbury in 20 words: ”Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?/ Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?” And to think, they asked Rod Stewart to fill in first.

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