Glastonbury 2000: The night Bowie reclaimed his legend

Imagine the perfect Glastonbury Festival evening. Or just watch this film so you don’t have to.

David Bowie was not always seen as the untouchable demi-god we see him as today, nor was Glastonbury always the Wimbledon of music.

This document – Bowie’s stunning 2000 headline set, released in full for the first ever time – is testament to these things; it’s an artist reminding a field full of people that he’s the absolute best of British, and a TV audience at home, for whom the feed was cut off after just a few tracks, wishing they were there.

The view, as the show starts, is not one of endless flags and phones. There’s no crush at the front. There’s no big stage production to speak of. It’s a festival performance, not a TV event, not an attempt to be the biggest or the most legendary; the music – and the charisma ­– would take care of that.

With the ‘Sound+Vision’ tour in 1990, Bowie had capped off his often maligned ‘80s period, driven by a quest for more commercial success, with a live set he promised would see the retirement of most of his greatest hits. Bowie said at the time, “Knowing I won’t ever have those songs to rely on again spurs me to keep doing new things, which is good for an artist”. And it worked.

With the pomp of the ‘Glass Spider’ shows behind him, Bowie’s ‘90s was arguably his most diverse era to date, from the rocky Tin Machine band to the jazz-fuelled art-rock of ‘Black Tie White Noise’, the heavenly soundtrack to ‘The Buddha Of Suburbia’, the industrial metal stomp of ‘Outside’, his jungle dalliance on ‘Earthling’ and the spacey and pensive ‘Hours’. He was living for the thrill of the new rather than playing up to a pastiche of the past, and though much of it was brilliant, it didn’t all connect with critics and audiences.

This set was a fine way of reintroducing the public to Bowie’s unimpeachable majesty – and it nearly didn’t happen.

A Sunday newspaper declared that Bowie would be topping the bill at Glastonbury before he’d actually signed up for it, as he wasn’t sure it was a good idea. The resulting rush for tickets (it didn’t used to sell out in 30 minutes in those days) hurried the booking along, making Bowie the first ever accidental Glasto headliner.

Then the week of the festival, Bowie fell ill with laryngitis, and it was touch and go whether he’d actually perform.

But to say it was alright on the night is an understatement. Beneath a postcard Worthy Farm sunset, Mike Garson’s madcap jazz piano exploration of ‘Green Sleeves’ beckoned Bowie  to the stage – as he casually strode out in a one-off, three-quarter-length Alexander McQueen frock coat, with a floral pattern based on the ‘bipperty-bopperty hat’ he wore at his previous appearance, nearly 30 years before.

“In 1971 when I first played here, I stayed at Worthy Farmhouse with a couple of other people,” he says introducing ‘Ashes To Ashes’, recalling his early Pilton visit loaded on cannabis ‘from a London doctor, for medicinal purposes’. “I got out to the stage at about 5.30 in the morning, because there was no curfew in those days. This curfew business is all new stuff”. There were an estimated 10,000 people at his first Glasto, and at least 120,000 at the latter, but it’s impossible to say for sure as countless fans jumped the fence – something that’s just not possible with today’s strict security and photo ID entry.

While the scale may have exploded and the organisation become more structured, that ancient spirit of love, celebration and togetherness was intact – not least when he drops a unifying run of Grade A Bowie songs: ‘China Girl’, ‘Changes’, ‘Stay’, ‘Life On Mars?’ and the immaculate ‘Absolute Beginners’.

“Having a good time?” he asks the crowd before the fever rush of underrated banger ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, dropping his ice-cool persona to be lost in his own party. “Well we’re having a ball, I assure you. This is cool for us. I’ve not been here for 30 years, and it’s fucking great. I’m really hot and sweaty, I wore a stupid jacket, I’m too vain to take it off.”

It’s strange seeing Bowie appearing so playful and humble here, and the camerawork does well to capture the waves of love between stage and crowd. The communal sway during ‘All The Young Dudes’ will make you yearn to be back on Worthy Farm, and this film does well to make you feel like you are. “Not only the greatest Glastonbury headline performance,” NME once wrote of this show, “but the best headline slot at any festival ever”. It must surely be up there in the top five best encores too: ‘Ziggy Stardust’, “Heroes”, ‘Let’s Dance’, and the brutal but genius left-turn finale of the prophetic ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’.

In sitting his newer material alongside the unretired classics with a performance so consummate and a band so accomplished, Bowie reset the dialogue to focus on his vitality, paving the way for his latter work on ‘Heathen’, ‘Reality, ‘The Next Day’ and his perfect curtain call, ‘Blackstar’. He reclaimed his legend, and gave Glastonbury a night for all time.

‘DAVID BOWIE: GLASTONBURY 2000’ out now. Order it on CD, vinyl and DVD here

*Promotion: In partnership with Warner Bros. 

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