Of all the missed gatherings of 2020, the 50th anniversary of the Glastonbury Festival might be the one that stings the most. That would have been some party, with Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, Kendrick Lamar and Diana Ross all set to perform at what looks like it would have been a gloriously dry one. As it turned out, it was one of the first UK festivals to cancel, so we’ve had plenty of time to grieve, and at least we can still enjoy it the way many of us would have anyway: watching it on telly. The BBC is repeating an array of classic performances all weekend. This list is surely incomplete, as we seem to have left an important part of our brain somewhere in a field in Somerset, but here’s what we remember as 10 of the best.
This was the first year the festival was televised, on Channel 4 at this point, which gave a huge boost in profile to cult bands who might otherwise never get on the box. Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll managed an underwhelming mimed rendition of their early single Chime on Top of the Pops in 1990, but it was here on the NME Stage that the nation really got to see what it had been missing with rave culture: tireless beats, warmly melodic synths and those now iconic bobbing head torches.
Johnny Cash (1994)
“That was one of my best bookings of all time,” organiser Michael Eavis said of the Man in Black’s arrival on the main stage in 1994, an early example of the “teatime legend” slot which has come to mean that late Sunday afternoon often draws the biggest crowd of all. Cash was at a turning point having just released the first of his American Recordings albums, unpolished productions made with Rick Rubin that finally made him cool again. This was the moment he saw the size and youth of that new fanbase.
It’s a safe bet that famously patchy live band The Stone Roses, especially in the era of their poorly received Second Coming album, wouldn’t have made a list of best ever Glastonbury performances. Thankfully for everyone apart from their guitarist John Squire, who broke his collarbone, Pulp proved to be inspired last minute replacements. With their biggest single, Common People, just out that month, and the landmark album Different Class still to come, with this set they strode into Britpop’s top tier and Jarvis Cocker attained national treasure status.
This is probably the year that most people picture when they think of Glastonbury: drenched festival goers looking barely human under a thick coating of mud. It was a wet one. With the Britpop scene feeling much less exciting than it did in 1995, when Pulp stepped up, and 1996, when Oasis conquered Knebworth, it was left to Radiohead to show what was next. The songs from the newly released OK Computer album were serious, not celebratory, and emotionally overwhelming for a crowd shellshocked by the weather.
David Bowie (2000)
Despite paying less than the more corporate upstarts, Glastonbury has had no trouble attracting legends over the years. Bowie looked ecstatic to be back for the first time since he appeared at the second Glastonbury in 1971. Back then he went on at 5.30am and didn’t have anywhere near as many hits to choose from. In crowd-pleasing form this time, he did classic after classic, with Ziggy Stardust, “Heroes” and Let’s Dance all part of an unsurpassable encore. It’ll be shown in full for the first time on BBC Two this Sunday.
Amy Winehouse (2007)
Her album Back to Black had sat in the UK top 10 for the entire year up to that point, so demand to see Amy Winehouse at her too brief peak was understandably huge. The truly dedicated could see her twice on the Friday – a slightly stunned mid-afternoon set for the flag-waving masses at the Pyramid Stage, and then a more relaxed showing on the smaller Jazz World Stage as it got dark. By the time she returned to play second on the bill to Jay-Z the following year, any focus was gone. Those who glimpsed her on top form must treasure it.
Oasis may have won the notorious battle with Blur in the end, but it was Noel Gallagher who came off worst in the conflict with the first rapper to headline Glastonbury. “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong,” said the guitarist in the run-up. In response, Jay-Z came on to the strains of Wonderwall and then fired into a version of 99 Problems that rocked harder than anything on Definitely Maybe. Kendrick Lamar should have been following in his footsteps this weekend, with the argument long over about what types of music Glastonbury welcomes – it’s all of them.
Speaking of inclusivity, it was hard to believe that Beyoncé could be the first solo woman to headline the Pyramid Stage since Sinéad O’Connor in 1990. Though undeniably a more natural fit for the glitz of the Super Bowl Halftime Show than the grime of Glasto, she gave her all and fitted right in. “I want you all to know that right now you are witnessing my dream,” she said. She even covered Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire to appease any disgruntled rockers, though most had surely already been convinced by her gigatonnes of star power.
Dolly Parton (2014)
The Sunday afternoon legend slot to end them all, if Dolly Parton had been any more crowd-pleasing she would have visited everyone’s tent afterwards offering cups of tea. Visible all the way to the back of the vast audience in a rhinestone-studded white suit and that towering peroxide hairdo, she realised that no one wants new material from old superstars and crammed her set with hits. Jolene, Here You Come Again, 9 to 5 and the ultimate singalong finale, I Will Always Love You, were all ticked off.
Few have felt as much pressure as Stormzy when he stepped up to become the first black British Glastonbury headliner since Skin from Skunk Anansie 20 years earlier. His second album wasn’t finished and for most of the set he couldn’t hear himself after an in-ear monitor failure. “I came off stage and thought I’d totally, absolutely, blown it. I was crying for, like, an hour. I was in hysterics,” he said afterwards. In fact, joined Orbital, Jarvis Cocker, Radiohead and the rest on the list of musicians who successfully leaped to the next level on the biggest stage of them all.
The Glastonbury Experience is broadcast across BBC television, BBC iPlayer, BBC radio and BBC Sounds until Monday.