The most legendary music festivals of all time

Rob Crossan

6 July 2021

From Nirvana's performance at Reading 1992 to the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017, these are the greatest, most controversial and outright awesome music festivals the world has ever seen

"Mocking rumours of his heroin addiction, Kurt Cobain was wheeled onstage in a wheelchair, wearing a surgeon’s smock and pretended to collapse on the floor before the first song had even begun"

6 July 2021 | Rob Crossan

S

o you couldn’t find your tent, huh? Got poisoned by a ‘vegan’ tortilla served to you by a man with a nose ring and a Metallica tattoo? Spent eight hours looking for your car and submitted yourself to a hygiene regime that would make a skunk with halitosis feel well-groomed?

You, my friend, have just been to a festival. And as awesome as they can be, despite the situations described above, the chances of you having witnessed the very greatest festivals of all time are slim; mainly because in order to have done so you would have to be a festival attendee who'd been crossing the planet for more than half a century. No sleeping bag can withstand that kind of abuse.

So here are the most legendary, controversial and outright awesome music festivals the world has ever seen. Be warned; the bar is high and reading the following may make you feel differently about the prospect of watching Paolo Nutini in a field in Hampshire with a glass of watery cider…

Monterey Pop Festival 1967

Jimi Hendrix with Brian Jones, the original frontman of The Rolling Stones, at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

Way before Woodstock, way before Glastonbury and way before, er, The Big Chill, this California freak out was one of the very, very first music festivals which laid the template for the multi-day chaos that we embrace today. Held in a ramshackle old county fairground, it’s best remembered (though, frankly, it’s a wonder anyone remembers anything at all) for the first major concert performance by Jimi Hendrix. Go to YouTube to check out the footage of him committing the greatest act of rock ‘n’ roll abandon of all time, namely setting fire to his guitar at the end of the gig after playing Wild Thing. Even The Who, on stage after Jimi, couldn’t top that. This was, more than Woodstock two years later, the absolute high point of the 1960s hippie dream. Even the song specially written for the festival, If you’re going to San Francisco, wear flowers in your hair, by Scott McKenzie, is a beautiful thing.

Toronto Rock and Roll Festival 1969

John Lennon recording Give Peace a Chance with Yoko Ono in 1969, the same year he'd perform the song at the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival

The two coolest Beatles (letters of disagreement on this topic should be sent to the usual address) almost never toured once the Fab Four broke up. George never really fancied it and Lennon was too busy with US visa issues and his erotic art career to ever get around to it properly. Which makes a solo live festival appearance from John a rare thing indeed. All the above makes this, one of his very first performances and one made while The Beatles were technically still together, an all but unstoppable all-time festival highlight.

Snatching a few hours of rehearsal on the flight over from London and, apparently, being violently ill just moments before he went on stage, the resulting gig (performed with Yoko and Eric Clapton) is a raw, howling slab of primitive rock, with most of the songs cherry-picked from Lennon’s childhood. His versions of Blue Suede Shoes and Dizzy Miss Lizzy show Lennogn in full 50s rebel mode and there’s a genuinely beautiful communal feel to the only-just-released Give Peace A Chance. There’s also a good 20 minutes of Yoko’s avant-garde howling at the end of the gig – well, we can’t have everything can we?

Glastonbury 1970

The poster for Michael Eavis' first ever festival

Of course, Glastonbury wasn’t the first big festival in the UK. The Isle of Wight festival in 1969 was an immense affair (headlined by Bob Dylan) but it was on Worthy Farm, Somerset, the following year that the ground was laid for the most beloved festival on British soil. It was all rather quiet in the beginning though. Dairy farmer Michael Eavis offered a free pint of milk and an ox-roast to the thousand or so people who turned up the very first year. The Kinks pulled out, apparently displeased at the thought of playing to such a small crowd, but Marc Bolan and T-Rex made it, with Bolan driving his Rolls-Royce into a muddy field and headlining at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Woodstock 1969

Woodstock, before it was declared a 'disaster area' by New York State

Oh the humanity! The festival that was declared a ‘disaster area’ by New York State, was, for many, the end of the 1960s counter-cultural dream. With the Vietnam War raging, more than 400,000 people turned up to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethal, two-hours north of Manhattan. A lack of food and drinking water plus the effects of many festival goers taking some extremely bad acid turned the site into ruin within hours. But the music was incredible with a line-up that featured The Who, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker. Only the truly hard-core (or the genuinely lost) made it through until Jimi Hendrix’s closing performance which, due to torrential rain, took place at the not particularly hedonistic time of 8:30am on the Monday morning.

Reading 1992

Kurt Cobain, who was wheeld on stage in a wheelchair

The Reading Festival is a rite-of-passage for British guitar loving teenagers; a three-day excuse to drink cider, throw up in your sleeping bag and listen to the loudest bands on the planet in a field in Berkshire. The 1992 edition was special for marking the very last UK performance by Nirvana. And, as the resulting DVD footage shows, it was also one of the most vital and incendiary performances they ever gave as a band.

Mocking rumours of his heroin addiction, Kurt Cobain was wheeled on stage in a wheelchair, wearing a surgeon’s smock and pretended to collapse on the floor before the first song had even begun. "With the support of his friends and family, he's gonna make it,” said Nirvana's bassist Krist Novoselic. Cobain then got to his feet to play the greatest ever versions of Lithium, Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come As You Are. Barely 18 months after this concert, Cobain would be dead at the age of just 27.

Glastonbury 1998

A festival goer takes to the mud as steam rises from the crowd at the Pyramid stage

We all must accept that the weather might not be ideal at a festival but Glastonbury 1998 took it to levels which still traumatise those who were there (including this writer) to this day. Basically, this was the muddiest festival of all time. With the previous year’s festival having also been a rain-sodden one, the fields at Worthy Farm simply didn’t have enough time to recover, resulting in conditions which, without exaggeration, made the entire site look like the Battle of the Somme with more hot dogs. Stages sank and were abandoned, outbreaks of trench foot were widely reported and games of human mud-surfing were everywhere. The only person who stayed clean was Tony Bennett who, somehow, managed to perform in a gleaming white suit and tie.

Fyre Festival 2017

Organiser Billy MacFarland with festival promoter Ja Rule in 2016 

The worst festival of all time? Well there are two full-length documentary series to prove that you’d really have to go some to beat this bummer in the Bahamas from 2017. With tickets costing up to £75,000 (yes, really) and endorsements from Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin, the reality was an apocalypse; the promise of ‘the best in food, art, music and adventure’ in the Bahamas translating to bare mattresses, meals of cheese slices on bread and guests’ luggage thrown into an unlit car park. Organiser Billy McFarland spent six months in prison as a result on a fraud conviction.

Donauinselfest 2015

Donauinselfest 2019 in Wien, Austria. Held each June, the festival is Europe's largest open air concert.

Behold the record breaker. And there’s a strong chance you’ve never even heard of it. Held each summer on a 4.5km stretch of island in the Austrian capital, Donauinselfest, or the Danube Island Festival, regularly attracts more than two million festival goers. In 2015, that crowd rose to 3.3 million across three days – the ‘largest attendance at a music festival’, according to Guinness World Records. Most incredibly of all, the festival continues to be completely free. One can’t help but wonder how many people would have turned up in that record-breaking year if the line-up was a little stronger. It consisted of Andreas Bourani, The Common Linnets, Anastacia and Robin Schulz.

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