f you choose to spend the entirety of your Glastonbury festival weekend just watching the artists then it’s important to remember that you’re probably going to miss quite a lot of other stuff. The inevitable ‘profound conversation’ with a complete stranger in the Stone Circle at 4am. The chance to get lost somewhere around ‘Frodo and Drego’s Hemp Stand’ in the outer depths of the festival while wearing nothing but flip flops as a storm blows in over the Somerset fields.
These highlights aside, the main Pyramid Stage, and the growing plethora of other tents and stages beyond, remain Glasto’s musical fulcrum and have played host to some of the greatest performances this dairy farm has ever seen. Here are some of our favourites from the last five decades…
Marc Bolan and T-Rex, 1970
Things were a little different back at the very first Glastonbury ‘Fayre’ as it was called 52 years ago. Tickets were a quid, only around 1,000 people turned up and every festival goer received a free pint of milk from dairy farmer turned budding festival organiser Michael Eavis. Proposed headliners The Kinks pulled out but Marc Bolan, arriving in a psychedelic coloured Rolls Royce which got stuck in the mud, gave what the few eye witnesses recall as being a scintillating performance with T-Rex on the minuscule main stage. Bolan would go on, over the course of the following decade, to become one of the greatest front men of any era. The festival he headlined was destined for, if anything, even greater success.
The Smiths, 1984
The one and only Glasto performance by Morrissey and co was marred (excuse the pun) by an atrocious screw-up by the sound engineers which rendered most of the first half of the gig all but unlistenable, due mainly to Johnny Marr’s guitar coming out of the bass amp. But this was one of the vital Glastonbury performances, chiefly for the fact that it was one of the first occasions where the vitality of the group managed to turn what was then still an untelevised, not hugely well-attended festival into less of an ailing hippie 1970’s throwback and into something absolutely compelling and relevant for the current music scene. By the end of the gig, something approaching Smiths-mania had taken hold in the audience; helped in part by Morrissey’s decision to wear an extremely fetching pin striped shirt that would have looked more at home at the Oxbridge boat race.
This was the moment that Glastonbury finally threw off its reputation for being a purely guitar band-based festival and began to be taken seriously by the dance music fraternity. Paul and Phil Hartnoll managed to get close to 40,000 people to the NME stage, where their throbbing blend of drum and base, techno and electronica, peaking with a laser drenched rendition of Shine, was even more thrilling for the fact that the brothers did almost nothing at all, refusing to emerge from their DJ deck control tower. From now on, Glastonbury’s guitar-heavy meat and potatoes diet was going to be expanded to include some seriously danceable desserts.
Jarvis Cocker was facing potentially the most hostile crowd of his career in the baking heat of Glastonbury 1995. Pulp wasn’t supposed to be headlining on the Saturday night – that honour had been given to The Stone Roses, who pulled out after guitarist John Squire broke his collarbone. The smattering of snarling, heckling Roses fans in the audience, however, were soon quelled by the mass love-in for a band then at the absolute peak of its powers. As Common People, Disco 2000 and Babies captivated the immense crowd, it seemed for a moment that Britpop would last forever and our futures would be a joyous one filled with NHS glasses, charity shop cardigans and arch references to provincial greengrocers and teen snogging.
David Bowie, 2000
The Thin White Duke had played Glastonbury before, way back in 1970. But absolutely nobody can remember that gig. So this Sunday night performance, thankfully recorded for posterity, remains the definitive Bowie Glasto document. Unlike so many major stars (hello Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen) who didn’t bother with the mantra of ‘this is a massive gig so play the hits’, Bowie, as ever, knew what he was doing and rolled out the tunes we wanted to hear after two decades of waning popularity and declining sales. Wearing a quite revolting suit and with aging radio DJ hair, he played Ashes to Ashes, Changes, Life On Mars, Heroes and all the heart-rending classics you’d want to hear after spending three days in the sweltering heat doing battle with overflowing portaloos. Bowie’s reputation was re-born and the nationwide ardour for the boy from Brixton continues to this day.
Amy Winehouse, 2008
She looked worse the for wear from drink (and goodness knows what else) and she slapped a few members of the audience. The gig was no more than 40 minutes in length. But this was a gig that captured the pint-sized genius of Amy Winehouse’s raw, soaring talent at its absolute apex. At this point Rehab and Tears Dry On Their Own were already two years old, but, rather than feeling tired, the gig showed us how quickly these songs had become part of the British national soundtrack. Chaotic as it was, this is a gig that captured the essence of everything good and bad about Winehouse in one, unforgettable early Saturday evening.
This was far from the first time Blur had played Glastonbury (YouTube still retains evidence of their absolutely appalling first outing in 1992) but this was the moment the band transitioned from credible, surviving Brit Pop heartthrobs to permanent national treasures. The mass sing-a-long of Tender with the audience was one of the most spine-tingling moments the festival has ever witnessed. Damon Albarn even sat on the stage and wept after the blistering rendition of the eternally beautiful To The End.
It took an obscenely long time for Glastonbury to start taking urban genres of music seriously. It wasn’t until 2008 that a black star – Jay-Z – headlined the main stage, marred in advance by Noel Gallagher’s comments that foregrounding the rapper was the ‘wrong’ choice. Jay-Z, quite rightly, didn’t care and brought the house down with his performance. The tide had turned and no gig encapsulates the diversity of modern Glastonbury better than Stormzy’s epic performance in 2019 – the last Glastonbury for three years. Amid blasts of flame and fireworks, the South London grime star came on stage alone for the first few numbers, followed by ballet dancers and a small army of backing singers for blistering renditions of Cigarettes and Cash and the torch song highlight, Blinded By Your Grace. As the first black solo artist to headline the Pyramid stage bellowed with conviction: “Glasto it’s only the beginning!”