50 Of The Best Festival Performances Ever

Blur at Glasto? Arctic Monkeys at Reading and Leeds? Stone Roses at Spike Island? Here’s a run down of the 50 greatest ever festival performances, to remind you of those giddy times when you left a little part of your brain somewhere in a field in Pilton/ Yorkshire/ Cheshire (delete as applicable)… alright.

50 Basement Jaxx

After Kylie pulled out due to health reasons, naysayers wondered if the Brixton duo could come up with the required spectacle (or the gold lamé hot pants) which would equal the Aussie pop princess. Well they did and then some, thanks to a troupe of Brazilian drummers, dancers dressed as monkeys and singers decked out like brides.

49 Arcade Fire


“Anthemic”, “triumphant”, “There’s the Napoeon Dynamite guy!” are words regularly associated with Arcade Fire festival shows, but this was one of the first to evoke such a response. A euphoric performance which more than matched the mood of debut album ‘Funeral’.

48 L7

Hot on the heels of their breakthrough album ‘Bricks Are Heavy’, L7 brought their own brand of,um, ‘grunge’ to Reading festival. In the L7 book the way to deal with a restless, mud-throwing crowd was to bark “eat my used tampon, fuckers!” and chuck said sanitary product at jeering audience. 50 Cent could have taken a note on how to deal with festival hecklers.

47 Beck

Orville, Mr Blobby, Leona Lewis. Puppets in music haven’t had a very distinguished lineage. That was until Mr Hansen kitted out his V stage with marionette version of himself and his band for a hit-tastic set which included tracks from his ‘Odelay’-like album ‘The Information’. This time it was 2 turntables, a microphone and some carefully placed strings.

46 David Bowie


An early special performance from The Dame, which saw him play acoustically at dawn (5 am), strumming out such future classics as ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.

45 Eminem

Friends of conservative middle America and the two most infamous rock stars of the early noughties were united, as Marilyn Manson teamed up with Marshall Mathers for a version of the blonde one’s ‘The Way I Am’. It was also notable for the odd juxtaposition of a one minutes silence in honour of the recently departed Aaliyah with some cartoon interludes.

44 Grace Jones

Sexagenarians aren’t meant to be seen hula hoping (unless they are on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’) but then Ms Jones isn’t like any other 60 something. Along with the hula hoop skill show, she played with a career encompassing set list, a bit of ‘kooky’ onstage banter (“Wow! Am I on the moon?”) and a few gravity defying hats.

43 Led Zeppelin

Drummer John Bonham promised a performance that would show the band playing “as they’ve never heard us play before”. The audience responded rapturously to a set that included ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Immigrant Song’ and closed with a medley of old time rock and roll classics (including ‘Johnny B.Goode’ and ‘That’s Alright Mama’).

42 Orbital

Will history look kindly upon two men wearing year zero optician headgear pumping out beats to a gurning massif? Who knows, but there’s no doubt that this ’94 performance was a pivotal moment for dance music.


41 New Order

A final festival hurrah from the New Order we knew and loved. They hadn’t released a new album since 1993’s ‘Republic’ and it was Gillian Gilbert’s final performance with the band. The gig saw the band bust out the hits as well as tracks by Joy Division. Also included Bernard Sumner’s ‘dad’ dancing. Eek.

40 The Who

Performing much of Tommy at the festival, it was perhaps an audience ruckus that got the most attention. Guitarist Pete Townshend roared “Fuck off!” as Vietnam protester Abbie Hoffman ran onstage and grabbed the microphone during ‘Pinball Wizard’. Townshend smashed up his guitar and knocked the protester off the side of the stage as a counter protest.

39 Franz Ferdinand

In 2006 we couldn’t work out whether we loved Alex Kapranos’ Ironic Wink or Knowing Point more. The art-poppers crested on this wave of adoration and played a jubilant homecoming show at the Kinross festival. Hot on the heels of second album ‘You Could Have It So Much Better’ the highlight was, of course, ‘Take Me Out’.

38 Pixies

On top of their game, this post-‘Doolittle’, pre-‘Bossanova’ headlining set from the Bostonians was filled with an embarrassment of riches, their 90 minute set saw them bust out an exhaustive set. Every Pixies corner was covered (‘Debaser’, ‘Gigantic’, ‘Where Is My Mind’ was played and everything in between).

37 Muse

Two reasons to celebrate with a space-rocking high five at IOW in ’07; firstly the success of ‘Black Holes And Revelations’ and secondly Matt Bellamy getting to the milestone of 29 years of age. Bona fide hits, a lavish light show and a couple of unhinged, alien based conspiracy theories ahoy, The New Age Of Muse had officially begun.

36 U2

Probably the moment when U2 became superstars. Their set was only 20 minutes long, and yet it seemed to capture the passion surrounding the Live Aid cause. Notable too for the appearance from guest star: Bono’s Massive Mullet.

35 Kevin Rowland

Kevin you look…different. It’s the hair isn’t it? Yes, the former Dexy’s Midnight Runner decided to mark his festival return by sporting suspenders, a white dress and eschewing the hits in favour of some odd covers (Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love Of All’, anyone?). “I’m a lay-dee” he insisted later (ok, he didn’t but he might as well have done).

34 Queens Of The Stone Age

Has there been a more rousing festival chant than ’Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol’? And no, we’re not counting Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’. Joined by Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and his rotating band of comrades played did indeed bust out ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’ in a raucous set.

33 Underworld

As The Stone Roses painfully imploded on the Main Stage, Underworld were forcing people to use the word ‘banging’ about their rave-tastic set. Surfing on a wave of ‘Born Slippy’ ubiquity (thanks to ‘Trainspotting’), Underworld made the most of their moment with an unforgettable performance. Banging. (sorry).

32 T-Rex

It was the very first Glasto (then known as ‘Pilton Festival’) and T Rex frontman Marc Bolan arrived in a velvet covered Buick. According to legend when Michael Eavis stroked his car, Bolan barked ‘DON’T TOUCH MY CAR MAN!’ Totally in the spirit of peace and love then…ahem… Their set saw them transition from long haired folkers to glam rock stars.


31 Rage Against The Machine

They’d only played a few shows since 2000 but their political message seemed ever-relevant and important. With their orange boiler suits (that were either a reference to Guatanamo or Sainsbury’s plastic bags) and blistering performance of ‘Killing In The Name’, they rose to the occasion.

30 Paul McCartney

Thankfully staying away from ‘We All Stand Together’ and ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, Macca busted out the Beatles hits (and of course the comedy thumbs) for one of the ultimate Glasto headlining slots. A set of all-ages joy.

29 Manic Street Preachers

Following Richey’s 48 hour disappearance (and return from an apparent suicide attempt) the band play Reading without him. When the band returned in 2008, Nicky Wire said: “I think we last played this here in 1994. Richey was in the hospital then, we had to play it as a three-piece just to pay the bills.”

28 Primal Scream

The debauched rock circus came to Reading town and dragged a pre-rehab Dave Gahan (from Depeche Mode) onstage with them to play harmonica on a fuzzy version of ‘Loaded’ and a bawdy set drawn from the Rolling Stones-tastic ‘Give Out But Don’t Give Up’.

27 The Verve

Despite Michael Eavis wanting Keane to headline (presumably this is some sort of ‘farmers humour’ that most of us don’t get), Emily Eavis rightly went for The Verve instead. Calling it ‘an epic end’ to the festival, their set had the crowd in raptures singing along to the post-millennial shrug of ‘Sonnet’ and ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.

26 Dolly Parton

OK, so maybe Dolly’s choice of setlist wasn’t entirely classic (impromptu song about mud, anyone?) but the country legend drew the biggest Glastonbury crowd of all time for her Sunday afternoon ‘legend slot’ so… ‘Nuff said.

25 Biffy Clyro

With a Mercury nominated album under their belts and a top 10 hit, Simon Neil decided to celebrate Biffy Clyro at the tipping point by standing directly under a vat of bleach and going blonde. Festival veterans they might have been but this performance cemented their reputation: three years later, they’d return as headliners.

24 The Jimi Hendrix Experience

This was a pivotal appearance for The Jimi Hendrix Experience because US TV audiences saw his amazing guitar skills for the first time. Which included setting fire to his instrument, playing it on his back, behind his back and lying down. Pretty much the hard rock aerobics.


23 PJ Harvey

With a set drawn heavily from the all-conjuring ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ and dressed like someone who’d definitely forgotten to pack their wellies, PJ Harvey caught the mood of Reading festival perfectly from the triumphant pop ‘Good Fortune’ to the dirty blues strut of ‘This Wicked Tongue’.


22 Iggy and the Stooges

Iggy having ‘special time’ with the bass amp, an unforgettable version of ‘No Fun’, a huge stage invasion and then Iggy deciding that, oh wait, he actually wanted the crowd to leave the stage provided The Igster and his Stooges with several Glasto ‘moments’.


21 Radiohead

Before concept albums about twigs and songs named after rabbit diseases came this Glastonbury performance. Bookending the ‘major label’/’golden age’ ear, the band took to the Pyramid Stage for one of the most seminal performances in their and the festivals history. And yes, they played ‘Creep’.

20 Bob Dylan

Dylan’s performances at the revered folk festival in 1963 and 1964 had made him the toast of the cardigan-wearing massive. But, like a puppy you get for Christmas who makes a mess on the Santa-themed carpet, in 1965 he debuted his first ‘plugged’ performance to general boos and the sound of a thousand beards being twisted in anguish. Not the most well-received set, sure, but certainly one of history’s most pivotal.

19 Hole

Just months following Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the death of bassist Kristen Pfaff, Hole played Reading. Brutal, cathartic, teetering on the edge and a little bit nutty, Hole’s performance was half car crash, half unsettlingly brilliant. Changing the lyrics to tracks like ‘Asking For It’ to reference their tragedies made the spectacle all the more compelling.

18 Daft Punk

The French duo bought hit medleys (‘Human After All’!/’Together’!/’One More Time’!/’Music Sounds Better With You’!), chunky robotic helmets (ou est le breathing holes?), a stunning light show and a general sense of ‘Le Cool’ to Hyde Park. The rumours that the duo weren’t actually in the suits at all just added to the mystique. Sorry, le mystique.

17 Big Brother & The Holding Company

The moment when Big Brother front-woman Janis Joplin went from salty voiced frontwoman to proper star. Six minute closer ‘Ball And Chain’ made jaws drop. Mama Cass is caught mouthing ‘Wow, that’s heavy’ in the film of the festival, which we’re pretty sure means: ‘that was jolly good, wasn’t it?’

16 Flaming Lips

Dancing furry animals and huge paper mache hands; was it a rock performance or was it art? Neither, it was Sesame Street on crack. Clearly having the time of their lives (they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to two gig goers) and with Wayne Coyne in fervent preacher mode, it was unforgettable.

15 Queen

By the early 80s, most considered Queen past their pomp rock sell by date. So it came as a massive surprise that Live Aidperformance was so iconic. As soon as Freddie Mercury appeared on stage with his peacock-like stage strut, it was clear something iconic was taking place. All together now; ‘ALL WE HEAR IS/RADIO GA-GA/RADIO GOO GOO’ *claps hands in unison*

14 The Prodigy

The band’s popularity had reached its peak with ‘The Fat Of The Land’ (Keith Flint had officially become “that scary man off Top Of The Pops”) and their V performance was so packed that they had to stop their set for 15 minutes to stop people getting crushed. Liam Howlett later said it was one of their best gigs ever.


13 Beyonce

Making history as the first woman to ever headline Glastonbury, Beyonce’s performance was going to be huge even before she arrived. It didn’t hurt that she brought with her one of the biggest pop back catalogues of this century and the kind of fierce and fiery attitude that’d slay any stage, anywhere without so much as a Y chromosome in sight.

12 The Smiths

A look at 1984’s Glasto line up and it’s clear things are in transition. A mix of stuff old bores (Joan Baez, Tangerine Dream) and hot young things (The Smith and…well, that’s it really), Mozzer may have ruffled a few feathers but Michael Eavis later said that the band’s appearance “changed the whole event.” *waves Gladioli triumphantly*

11 Pet Shop Boys

PSB ran through their 25 year history with the help of avant garde stage props, brightly dressed dancers, a poppers o’clock rendition of Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and enough rousing hits (‘Go West’,’Suburbia’ and closer ‘West End Girls’) to make people forget about Muse (who were playing at the same time).

10 The Strokes

‘The Garage Rock Revival’ – remember that? At a time when we were getting very excited at the sight of someone decked out in one colour and carrying a guitar, Jack White joined The Strokes onstage for a bawdy version of ‘New York City Cops’. There was also time for a quick ‘Happy Birthday’ for Julian.

9 Jay-Z

A rapper headlining Glastonbury? Whose stupid idea was that? But, of course, the Jigga man proved these people (for ‘these people’ read: ‘Noel Gallagher’) spectacularly wrong. The highlight for many was a tongue in cheek version of ‘Wonderwall’ with Jay Z sporting a Gallagher-esque parka.

8 The Libertines

Several hundred court cases and some dodgy solo albums later, the gloss on The Libertines career had almost certainly been tarnished. But halt! The boys in the band were back just in time to play the mammoth show they were always destined to play, but never quite reached the first time round. Up the AlbioN!

7 Oasis

Ok so there was no (literal) ‘syun-shiiiiiine’ in Pilton but it was original line up Oasis’ first Glastonbury and it was their best. They topped a Britpop heavy bill (Blur, Radiohead) and Liam and Noel were on brilliant, louche form. It was a performance full of believable bluster and an innocence they wouldn’t quite ever recapture.

6 The Rolling Stones

It was the one everyone had been waiting for and possibly the most well-attended Glastonbury headline set ever. Crowds stretched as far as the eye could see and, for once, not one single person questioned the validity of the band taking the Saturday night top spot.

5 Pulp

Stepping in as last-minute headliners to replace The Stone Roses, it was fight or flight for the Sheffielders and oh how they flew. Taking their long-awaited opportunity and running with it, they stormed through a set that included the first ever live outings of ‘Sorted For Es and Whizz’, ‘Mis-shapes’ and a little known ditty called ‘Disco 2000’. Not too shabby.

4 Blur

Reunited and it felt so good. Blur closed Glastonbury with all the mind-blowing pomp you’d imagine. A set full of hits and memories, highlights included ‘Tender’, ‘End Of A Century’ and ‘The Universal’. By the end, even seasoned pro Damon was getting visibly misty eyed at the crowd reception that greeted the returning heroes. Aw.

3 The Stone Roses

The unglamourous setting didn’t exactly look like the scene of the birth of a new movement; opposite a cement factory, on a reclaimed toxic waste site. But there it was; the beginnings of ‘Madchester’ and the moment when The Stone Roses stepped into the spotlight making good on their early promise.

2 Arctic Monkeys

It’s the biggest festival ‘I was there’ moment of this century. It’d be another five months before the release of ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ and even two before ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, but in August 2005, Arctic Monkeys were the most hyped new band on the planet. A mid-afternoon slot on the none-too-big Carling Stage could barely hold 10% of the heaving crowd trying to get a glimpse of Alex Turner and his mates.

1 Nirvana

Post-‘Nevermind’, the backlash had begun and Kurt Cobain was being labelled an over-hyped drug addict. How did he decided to respond to his critics? By being brought on stage in a wheelchair of course. A blistering set followed including new songs ‘Dumb’ and ‘All Apologies’ and with it came possibly the most iconic festival image of all time.


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