Following in the footsteps of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond, Lionel Richie took over the Pyramid Stage for the Sunday afternoon “legend slot” last weekend – and drew the biggest crowd of Glastonbury 2015. With over 100,000 festival-goers singing along to classic hits like ‘Hello’, ‘Easy’ and ‘All Night Long’, the soul singer became so overwhelmed by what was happening in the audience, he began yelling the already immortal line: “What the hell is going on?” NME called him for a debrief the following day, and found that Lionel was still very much dancing on the ceiling.
How are you feeling today?
“After the mud fest? I mean, give me a break! I mean, what did we wanna do? That was, like, a crowd’s best performance ever.”
You seemed genuinely taken aback by the reaction you got from the crowd. “What the hell is going on?” is destined to become one of the lines of the festival.
“‘What the hell is going on?’ In other words, there’s a certain point where I’m listening in my ears and thinking, ‘OK, Lionel, can you hear yourself? Yes!’ And I’m feeling good about it. But all of a sudden I’m having interference in my ears, and I’m thinking, ‘Why?’ And it’s because the crowd are coming through my microphone! I couldn’t hear myself singing! But no, it was a complete hoot. I must tell you, I haven’t had that much fun on stage in I don’t know how long. The crowd just took over the show.”
How does it feel having 100,000 people sing back your songs at you?
“Not only singing back my songs, but in between they decided to sing a song all by themselves. On top of that there’s a a nude doll of Lionel Richie out in the audience with a hard-on; and there’s a lady at the front wearing an afro wig and a moustache. I mean, if you could see the show as I could see it… I had to stop so many times just to look at the audience. It was like the Lionel Richie Rocky Horror Picture Show where everyone came in costume! If there was ever a perfect show, this was it. It was as good as it gets.”
How did you go about building your setlist beforehand?
“It’s funny, just leaving out songs made me nervous – I mean, we left out a lot of songs. But what we tried to do was just think of the songs that the crowd would actually enjoy singing. But when I was thinking that, I had no idea that they were going to take over completely! It was the best set because they sang through every song. We tried to make it a high-energy show, but even the slower songs became loud songs – I mean, you saw what happened during ‘Three Times A Lady’…”
Did you get nervous before you came on? Do you still get nervous?
“You get what I call ‘game stomach’. But the good news compared to, say, 30 years ago, is 30 years ago you weren’t sure if the crowd knew all the songs. Thirty years later, they know all the songs and they can remember the lyrics better than I can! But what happened is really a wonderful testament to how well the melodies have stayed around. What I was really laughing about [on stage] is there were kids in that audience that weren’t even thought of being born when these songs came out.”
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Obviously the slot you played in has become known as the “legend slot”. How do you feel about that title – do you like being called a legend?
“Well, as long as they put the word ‘living’ in front, I’m happy about that! A lot of times I think that when people get to a certain point in their career, they’re a little offended by certain things. I am not in any circumstance! I loved the idea of being here and still viable. To find myself in that category with Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, I mean, listen… you know how long it takes to build a career like that? It takes forever. And it also says that we have generational appeal – we had the four generations out there in that audience.”
Your set drew the biggest crowd of the festival – over 100,000 fans.
“Well, that answers your question. I didn’t know that! As I was leaving, a kid of about seven years old came over to ask me for a selfie. And of course, his father was saying, ‘Tell Lionel what your favourite song is!’ And the kid said ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’! I mean, that song came out when his dad was a kid… what are you talking about?”
When were you asked about doing Glastonbury?
“I was asked last year. But it’s taken me about five years to figure out what the hell this thing was all about. I started seeing little posts on the internet saying, ‘here’s the Lionel Richie head at Glastonbury’ or ‘here’s the Lionel Richie flags at Glastonbury’. I kept thinking, what is this Glastonbury thing? And then the fans started getting together and saying I should play Glastonbury, and then finally I got the phone call asking if I wanted to play. And I said, ‘Well I guess so, because I’ve heard so much about it!’. But I must say, it was beyond what I expected. You all lived up totally to the hype.”
Did you watch Dolly Parton’s set from last year for research?
“Yes, I got a little sneak preview of the crowd singing along with ‘Nine To Five’. And I watched some of Neil Diamond’s show which was perfect. And of course Kenny Rogers is a friend of mine, so all I had to do was ask Kenny and he said, ‘You’re gonna have the time of your life!'”
Why do you think the Glastonbury crowd is so special?
“It’s not a gimmick. It’s really raw and the crowd are absolutely music lovers. It’s really what Woodstock was about years ago: you come out and you brave the elements, you get as crazy and wild and as dirty as you possibly can, but in the middle of all that happening, you’re gonna hear some great music. I actually had flashbacks as we were driving in: I was like, am I driving back into the 1970s? You all have created year after year a thing that we used to call a ‘happening’. And I must tell you, I enjoyed every bit of my experience.”
How long did you get to spend at Glastonbury before you went on stage?
“I arrived about an hour and a half before my set. I arrived just in time to see the Dalai Lama on stage, and as he walked off we both collided in the hallway backstage as I was coming in. It was perfect. We had a chance to have some words together. I mean, when you start off meeting the Dalai Lama backstage, you know it’s gonna be a great show.”
Finally, you seemed surprised that the weather was so good. Had everyone warned you about rain?
“Oh please. Shall I tell you what I had planned to wear? I prepared for the downpour! I decided I wasn’t going to wear my leather boots because it was going to be raining. So I was going to have two sets of boots: a beautiful pair of wellies, and then a pair of wading boots – like, you know when people go fly-fishing. I was going to walk out in those! But as I was heading out to the stage, I was told, you’re not going to believe this, but the sun is coming out! So I went back, changed into some regular boots and played the damn show.”