The 50 best Glastonbury Festival performances

Mick Jagger, Beyoncé and Paul McCartney performing at Glastonbury
Mick Jagger, Beyoncé and Paul McCartney performing at Glastonbury Credit: Julian Simmonds/Brian Rasic/Tim Rooke/REX

Since 1970, Glastonbury Festival has seen some truly astonishing sets. So, from Dolly Parton to Jay-Z, listed by band, stage/tent and year, we’re counting down the 50 greatest performances in Glastonbury history… 

50. The Levellers, Pyramid, 1994

Festival-goers were always the core fanbase for raggle-taggle Brighton folk-punks The Levellers, so it was apt that in 1994, at the peak of their powers, the band’s utopian hoedown drew the biggest crowd the Pyramid had ever seen.

49. Dolly Parton, Pyramid, 2014

Before a giant crowd wearing more wigs than a hen party, the country queen played guitar, banjo and dulcimer, sang a newly composed Glastonbury song called Mud, and even honked out the Benny Hill Theme on her saxophone.

Dolly Parton performs at Glastonbury 2014 Credit:  Geoff Pugh
48. The Beat, Lost Vagueness, 2004

Even heritage acts can suddenly find an unexpected tailwind in Glastonbury’s wilds. When Eighties ska band The Beat played to 30,000 revellers amid the Wild West burlesque of Lost Vagueness, the dynamic gelled, then exploded.

47. The Chemical Brothers, Other, 2011

By 2011, The Chemical Brothers’ show had entered Pink Floyd-like levels of visual extravagance, capable of dragging any passer-by away on a retina-frazzling trip of clowns, cops and crunching techno.

46. Muse, Pyramid, 2004

The backstage death of Dominic Howard’s father, after their festival-closing set, tainted its success for the band. Nevertheless, this was where two generations of stadium-rock fans deliriously found common cause.

45. Galliano, Pyramid, 1994

In the annals of pop, Galliano are a footnote, an acid-jazz quirk in matching ponchos. But for early Nineties Glasto-goers, they were a force to reckon with, and they sent the crowd bananas with their stoned funk grooves.

Galliano Credit: PYCMA/REX
44. Jonathan Richman, Second Stage, 1985

A perfect match for Glastonbury, Richman’s wide-eyed naïf persona was at a peak in 1985 and, as rain clouds parted on Friday afternoon, he strummed gems such as Ice Cream Man and I’m A Little Dinosaur as though his life depended on it.

43. Underworld, Pyramid, 1999

Underworld originally came to Glastonbury as part of an unofficial rave sound system in 1990. Nine years later they had thousands jumping around the grass before them, most especially to their iconic breakout hit Born Slippy (Nuxx).

42. Al Green, Pyramid, 1999

The Reverend Al Green played, appropriately, on a Sunday afternoon. He not only brought the first sunshine the festival had seen in four years, but a glaring white suit and a set of searing, raw gospel-soul.

41. Terry Reid, Pyramid, 1971

Clad in a striking sheepskin hat, Led Zeppelin’s original first-choice vocalist turned the opening morning of the second Glastonbury Fayre into a sizzling blues-funk ball, ably assisted by British soul perennial Linda Lewis.

Terry Reid got the Fayre going in 1971 Credit: Alan Messer/REX
40. Pet Shop Boys, Pyramid Stage, 2000

For their first Glastonbury, the Pet Shop Boys, squeezed between Ocean Colour Scene and Travis, feared the worst; but by the time they reached the bombastically triumphant finale of Go West, the place was eating out of their hands.

39. New Order, Pyramid, 1981

Despite singer Bernard Sumner falling over blind drunk and playing guitar from the floor, this was a punchy, post-punk invasion of the then-hippy mecca. (That said, over-running into Hawkwind’s scheduled time caused a mini-riot later.)

38. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pyramid, 2009

Cave, fronting a gang of pinstriped heavies, attacked his back catalogue with an astounding, ragged, swamp-rock viciousness. This set also featured an unplanned interlude where a paraglider swooped over the stage.

37. Bastille, John Peel, 2013

Last year Bastille drew the biggest crowd that the John Peel tent had ever seen, so large that security nearly had to stop the gig, and so loud that the chorus of Pompeii could be heard many fields away.

Bastille at Glastonbury in 2013 Credit: Daniel Mackie
36. English National Opera, Pyramid, 2004

Ninety-one musicians and 11 soloists woke late-sleepers on Sunday lunchtime, beneath gathering storm-clouds, by tearing into Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, encouraged by a muddy mass using rolled-up newspapers as horns.

35. LCD Soundsystem, Other, 2016

The Brexit vote came through at this festival, and these reformed New York electro-rockers proved just the tonic. The crowd were howling along with the opening chorus, “It’s us versus them, over and over again”. It kick-started a dynamic, urgent, danceable set.

34. The Smiths, Pyramid, 1984

Glasto 1984 was still mostly about spliff-friendly acts such as Weather Report and John Martyn, so The Smiths’ arrival came as a shock. An enthused set-ending stage invasion during Hand in Glove sealed their place in festival lore.

33. The Who, Pyramid, 2007

It sounds odd now, but to follow Kaiser Chiefs, who had pulled an immense crowd, looked tricky for these rock veterans. Despite being lashed by the rain, they did it with aplomb, wrenching the guts from songs such as Won’t Get Fooled Again.

The Who perform in 2007 Credit: Carl de Souza/Getty
32. Dizzee Rascal, Pyramid, 2009

This was, of course, always going to be about Bonkers, the deathless hit of summer 2009 that sent the sun-burnt hordes doolally. But it also proved to any doubters that Dizzee was a bona-fide British pop-rap superstar.

31. Peter Gabriel, Pyramid, 1979

Gabriel played for no fee in a jam band with Tom Robinson, Nona Hendryx and Alex Harvey, with Phil Collins on drums, performing each other’s hits alongside a scorching 20-minute version of the Stones’ It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll.

30. Scissor Sisters, Pyramid, 2004

Some may prefer Scissor Sisters’ 2010 turn, with its Kylie cameo, but we’ve plumbed for the original glam spectacle that pushed their debut album to No. 1 and established them as Britain’s favourite underground New York disco queens.

29. Jay-Z, Pyramid, 2008

The most written-about Glastonbury show of all time. Following a public spat wherein Noel Gallagher said he was an unsuitable headliner, Jay-Z headed up an irresistibly glitzy hip-hop extravaganza – which started with a strummed version of Wonderwall.

Jay-Z on the Pyramid Stage in 2008 Credit: Clara Molden
28. Portishead, Acoustic, 1995

After Evan Dando was booed off trying to sneak in an extra set due to missing his own slot, the jammed, steaming-hot tent soaked up the sultry, sexy sound of Dummy-era Portishead like a long, chilled cocktail.

27. Neil Young, Pyramid, 2009

While overkeen on squalling guitar solos, Young’s set was also big on his best songs, from acoustic folk to raging rockers, and concluded (bar a Beatles-themed encore) with a gigantic take on Rockin’ in the Free World.

26. Plastikman, Dance, 1995

On the new Dance Stage, a partisan audience, many with tattoos of Plastikman’s lysergic dervish logo, danced into an afternoon frenzy to DJ-producer Richie Hawtin’s relentless analogue drum tattoos.

25. Echo and the Bunnymen, Pyramid, 1985

At the end of a waterlogged weekend, Liverpudlian indie-psyche-pop outfit Echo and the Bunnymen tore into their songs with lean, stripped intent. They were at their very best, and threw in Doors and Stones covers, just for kicks.

Echo and the Bunnymen were a highlight in 1985 Credit: Martyn Goddard/REX
24. Tony Bennett, Pyramid, 1998

Immaculately suited and emanating smiling charm, Bennett lifted a crowd who’d been battered by the elements all weekend, somehow taking them to a place where smooth big-band jazz made perfect sense.

23. Faithless, Pyramid, 2002

This was a classic Glastonbury turning-the-crowd-around moment. Following Irish punkers Ash, few were expecting much from pop-trance outfit Faithless, but soon 90,000 packed the Pyramid field, leaping as one to Insomnia.

22. Adele, Pyramid, 2016

While admitting “I don’t have a lot of upbeat, happy songs,” this huge-selling artist used her astounding voice and chatty stage persona to carry tens of thousands away. Mass bellowing of Skyfall, Rolling in the Deep et al. ensued.

21. Curtis Mayfield, Pyramid, 1983

The 1983 Festival had a lacklustre line-up, but the fact it received a license at all under the new Local Government Act brought relief, and blazing sun, along with soul prince Curtis Mayfield on his funkiest form, saved the day.

Curtis Mayfield brought life to proceedings in 1983 Credit: Pete Cronin/Redferns
20. David Bowie, Pyramid, 2000

Julien Temple uses Bowie’s Heroes to potent emotive effect at the end of his Glastonbury film. Bowie, looking like a fop-haired dandy and playing there almost 30 years after his first appearance, sounded just grand.

19. 808 State, NME, 1992

Following Blur and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, the Festival’s second stage became an ecstatic party on Sunday night, fuelled by the Mancunian electronic innovators’ driving synths (plus fireworks), the highlight being a merciless Cubik.

18. Paul McCartney, Pyramid, 2004

There were naysayers, but the truth is that people were singing Hey Jude’s “nah nah nah na-na-na nah” refrain four years later, to commemorate the night Macca bought his Beatles sing-along to Worthy Farm.

17. Coldplay, Pyramid, 2005

“Give me mud up to my knees / The best festival in history,” sang Chris Martin, adapting the lyrics of Politik, and the bedraggled crowd were his. If their 2002 Glastonbury set made them, 2005 proved that Coldplay could deliver every time.

Chris Martin at Glastonbury in 2005 Credit: Geoff Pugh
16. Fatboy Slim, Lost Vagueness, 2007

Sets by Norman Cook’s larger-than-life DJ persona are a Glastonbury institution, but his most memorable outing was when he gradually dressed as a bumblebee ballerina while keeping a packed house jumping.

15. Lionel Richie, Pyramid, 2015

No-one was expecting the extraordinary response to this Eighties soul star, least of all Richie, who seemed utterly stunned by the terrace-chant affection that greeted his greatest hits. It was possibly the wildest reception ever seen at the Sunday afternoon “legend” slot.

14. Blur, Pyramid, 2009

Damon Albarn was overwhelmed during this peak in the career of the reformed Blur, becoming teary during the encore of The Universal. Then again, earlier he’d had the crowd hugging each other and blubbing en masse at Tender.

13. Pixies, Pyramid, 1989

The John the Baptists of grunge had just released arguably their greatest album, Doolittle, and elected to play a pummelling, visceral set in alphabetical order, from Bone Machine to Where Is My Mind.

Pixies on stage in 1989 Credit: Brian Rasic/REX
12. Johnny Cash, Pyramid, 1994

Johnny Cash’s reappraisal, following his American recordings with Rick Rubin, had hardly begun in 1994 – yet he received a hero’s welcome, which choked him up, before he ripped into a set packed with 24-carat classics.

11. Pulp, Pyramid, 1995

Standing in as last-minute replacements for the Stone Roses, Pulp had to camp onsite. Their set was a triumph of wit, style and pop suss, with Common People blooming from a smart song into a genuine anthem.

10. Baaba Maal, Jazz World, 1993

Late on Sunday night, Senegalese star Baaba Maal closed the Jazz World Stage, giving a compulsive exercise in rhythms ancient and modern, a polyrhythmic paradise that had clubbers and world-music lovers hypnotised.

9. The Prodigy, NME, 1995

Before they metamorphosised into the electro-rockers of Firestarter, they were simply snarling rave-punks, and this was a deranged, energised pinnacle, not least Keith Flint’s rolling stage-entrance via a giant hamster ball.

The Prodigy's Maxim and the late Keith Flint were frantic highlights in 1995 Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns
8. The Cure, Pyramid, 1986

Headlining Saturday night, The Cure played a blinder, featuring three encores, and a spectacular thunderstorm which exploded early in the set so that their green laser show played among the raindrops.

7. Beyoncé, Pyramid, 2011

Rising through the stage, three months pregnant, and blasting straight into Crazy in Love and Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) amid enough fireworks to start a war, La Knowles couldn’t fail.

6. The Lost Tee-Shirts of Atlantis, random marquee, 1990

They did a fine hillbilly-punk version of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine, but they’re here representing the multitude of splendid Festival turns lost to history but caught by brilliant accident in a far-flung field.

5. The Stooges, Other, 2007

Apart from Iggy Pop, the original Stooges are all now dead. Eleven years ago, however, they turned a mud-sodden, rainswept Somerset field into a howling blues-punk apocalypse, replete with a rip-roaring stage invasion.

Iggy Pop and the Stooges perform in 2007 Credit: BBC
4. Rolling Stones, Pyramid, 2013

The Stones + Glastonbury = rock ’n’ roll myth. And so it proved. Mick stole the day, emanating svelte vitality, with blitzing guitar work from Ronnie Wood and ex-Stone Mick Taylor, while Keith looked on like a gnarled Cheshire Cat.

3. Radiohead, Pyramid, 1997

Amid a sea of sleet-swept mulch, Radiohead, who had just released their epochal album OK Computer, headlined Saturday night in a career high that combined emotional nuance and ambitious, widescreen rock.

2. Orbital, NME, 1994

Aided by Glastonbury’s television debut on Channel 4, the electronic dance duo from Kent proved to rock fans and the wider public that dance music not only could be truly gorgeous, but was here to stay too.

1. Leonard Cohen, Pyramid, 2008

The gravel-voiced 73-year-old songsmith’s greatest-hits set, performed with wonderful grace under a balmy Sunday-evening sun – and including Hallelujah with crowd-sung choruses – was sheer, unadulterated bliss.

Leonard Cohen performing on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2008 Credit: Clara Molden

What has been your favourite Glastonbury act from over the years? Tell us in the comments below.

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