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This year’s quintessentially British festival of mud and music concluded a few days ago, Glastonbury 2014 no doubt leaving its scores of devotees and regulars happy for another year and its newbie first-timers suitably initiated, some with memories and impressions they’ll never forget and others probably with the vow that they’ll never go back again.
There’s undeniably something about Glastonbury that marks it out as the classic British cultural event, even with all the other annual festivals that now take place across the UK, some of which are genuinely relevant events and others seemingly being there merely for the sake of it.

The other major UK festival on Glastonbury’s level is probably Reading and Leeds, but even that event doesn’t seem to attain the aura and stature of Glastonbury despite the fact that Reading has had just as many (if not more) major appearances or line-ups in its history (including laying claim to Nirvana in 1991 and 1992). From what I can tell the Reading Festival has probably trumped Glastonbury for line-ups over the years; it certainly did so in the 1990s. But others would argue that the festival experience isn’t just about the line-ups but about numerous other factors, most of all atmosphere.

Some of the more thoughtful Glastonbury adherents will talk about ‘ley lines’ and ‘mystical energies’ associated with the site, with references perhaps to the mythical burial place of King Arthur or apocryphal tales of Joseph of Arimethea bringing a young Jesus of Nazareth to the area in the early AD years (presumably for a very early Glastonbury festival that might’ve included some of the finest indie acts of the Roman world).

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Glastonbury 2014 was a fittingly diverse affair, with the main stages featuring the usual eclectic mix of performers, including Blondie, the return of The Pixies, Massive Attack, the Manic Street Preachers, Metallica, Lana Del Rey, Lilly Allen, among many others. As usual, there was something to please everyone; and something to annoy everyone too. Metalheads delighted at Metallica’s takeover might’ve been scratching their heads in bemusement at Dolly Parton, for example. But that’s the nature of the event – there’s something for every taste; at least in theory.

Of course the much-publicized and televised aspects of these festivals are always the major names and acts appearing on the main stages, but what these festivals can be said to really be about are all the things going on away from the limelight; all the minor acts, new bands and artists, word-of-mouth buzz bands and genuinely underground acts plying their sound on lesser stages and in obscurer tents, waiting to be discovered by open-minded explorers looking for their next obscure obsession. Revelatory moments await such explorers, looking for the new unknown artist or band to discover and champion. That’s the real magic of the festivals, surely; and not Arcade Fire, Kasabian or whoever else passes for great guitar-based acts nowadays.

However, there’s no denying there have been some incredibly memorable appearances at Glastonbury over the years; appearances that have passed into the realm of cultural legend, such performances having the capacity to become both cultural events and markers in time. And in this mass media age, you don’t even necessarily have to have even been there to witness or share the experiences, any more than you need to be in Rio to experience the World Cup.

From Jay-Z’s deliberately awful cover of Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’ in 2008 (a response to Noel Gallagher’s objection to a hip-hop act headlining the festival) to the Beastie Boys performing ‘Sabotage’ in 1994 (a year that included appearances from Rage Against the Machine and Bjork), with everyone from Jeff Buckley (1995), Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, New Order (1987), L7, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and even Tony Bennett having graced the Glastonbury stages over the years, there’s a lot to take into account, a lot to choose from, music of differing genres and artists of wildly varying natures and statures.

Here are 10 such performances The Burning Blogger has shortlisted for entry into the immortal hall of fame for Glastonbury…

Amy Winehouse – 2007

It’s difficult for me to argue a case for any Glastonbury performance sweeter than this or as moving; and that’s not just being said with hindsight. It’s hard to think of a better singer, a better stage presence or a more endearing live performer in the 21st century than Amy Winehouse. And while this isn’t necessarily her at her absolute best, it’s undeniably a classic performance, a moment in time beautifully rendered and preserved. She looked and sounded absolutely beautiful throughout, the magic being very much with her.

Amy Winehouse was a performer so dripping in natural charisma and sometimes magical talent that all she needed to do was just turn up half the time and that was half the job done; and if she happened to be on top form, then all the better. Set highlights included the obvious – ‘Back to Black’, ‘You Know I’m No Good’, ‘He Can Only Hold Her’ – and the not-that-obvious, such as a really lovely cover of The Specials’ ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’. Amy played Glastonbury again the following year, but it’s this 2007 performance, occurring when the Back To Black material was still fresh and new and Amy herself was in notably better health and spirit, that remains most memorable.

R.E.M – 1999

There probably couldn’t be a better band to headline a festival than R.E.M for stature and gravitas and for the sheer number of songs that even non-R.E.M fans can sing along to; many of those songs were featured in this incredible set from Glastonbury 1999, including ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘The One I Love’, and the ultimate crowd-participation song ‘It’s The End of the World As We Know It’ (and having such an enormous and classics-laden catalogue, they could even leave some obvious crowd-pleasers out entirely, such as ‘Shiny Happy People’, ‘Daysleeper’ or ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’, for example).

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It was actually an Up album track, ‘Walk Unafraid’, that was the standout performance in the set, a much better rendition of the song than the actual album version. Michael Stipe is on great form, prancing about like a Duracell-powered King of Fairies and Master of Ceremonies, in utter contrast to the shy, hesitant, murmuring frontman he’d been in earlier days. For sheer set-list potential, there was no band better suited to headlining a major festival.

Manic Street Preachers – 1994

The Manics have an ongoing relationship with Glastonbury, as they do with most UK festivals. But their 1994 appearances as both Glastonbury and Reading came in arguably the band’s most potent era, being The Holy Bible era, with that album’s superb material being aired live, with Nicky Wire being at his most caustic and James Bradfield being on terrific form, and this also being less than a year before Richey Edwards’s disappearance and therefore one of the last major appearances the original band line-up made.

Nicky Wire, in lovely confrontational mode, famously referred to the site as a “shit hole”.

Opening with the super-brilliant ‘Faster’ and ending with only partially tongue-in-cheek ‘You Love Us’, this was when the Manics were still very much the angry, young punk-indie outfit who thrived on causing a stir and making bold statements (remember James wearing a balaclava during ‘Faster’ performances?). I miss that era of the Manics; but of course all artists must evolve, and the post-Richey second birth of the Manic Street Preachers from 1996’s Everything Must Go onwards was just as potent and endearing on its own merit as what had come before it.

The set itself was strangely lacking in the more potent The Holy Bible material, however; ‘She Is Suffering’ was played, but the absence of ‘Die In The Summertime’ and ‘Mausoleum’ among others is a little baffling. The Manics returned to Glastonbury this year on the twentieth anniversary of their 1994 appearance; Nicky Wire has recently expressed a desire to play The Holy Bible in full at shows to mark the 20th anniversary of that extraordinary album; whether that will actually happen or not is unclear at present.

Public Enemy – 2013

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They were minus Flava Flav, but the mere presence of Public Enemy at Glastonbury 2013 was something special, something lending itself to incredible atmosphere, much more so than the more hyped Jay-Z headlining act of 2008. That’s partly because it’s always substance beyond style with the godfathers of rap and the standard-bearers of genuineness and relevance in hip-hop. The set was missing some obvious numbers, but ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’, ‘Bring the Noise’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ were given energetic, impassioned airing, among others.

“What is this bullshit about people cheering for a fucking hologram?” Chuck D complained on-stage, referring to the famous Tupac Shakur hologram that had been appearing at over-hyped hip-hop shows. “We have real rappers.. fuck an illusion!”

The Pixies – 1989

I was only 9 years old when this was happening, but I’ve managed to watch the video footage of the set; The Pixies performing at Glastonbury the first time – I also watched some of the BBC footage of their return performance this weekend at Glastonbury 2014 and though the music is of course still great, the effect isn’t quite the same, even if we can never really tire of hearing music like ‘Debaser’ and ‘Where Is My Mind’, both of which were performed.

Opening with the stupendously good ‘Bone Machine’ and finishing with The Pixies staple ‘Where Is My Mind’, the band’s 1989 performance had them formulate a set-list in alphabetical order – the only time they’ve been known to have done this (and the only time I’ve heard of any performer doing that, actually). Death to the Pixies? No, Long Life to the Pixies!

Bjork, 1994

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The fairy queen of pop and then former Sugarcube Bjork graced Glastonbury for the first time in 1994, bringing her singular brand of ice (landic) queen class and pop genius to the raincoat-and-wellingtons brigade. Opening with the genius of ‘Human Behaviour’ and closing with the stomping ‘Army of Me’, Bjork looked and sounded as ever like a magical being briefly transported into our realm by some strange planetary alignment.

Radiohead 1997 and 2003

It’s difficult to pick between these two iconic Radiohead Glastonbury appearances, both upheld by music journalists and fans alike as absolute watersheds in both the band’s and the festival’s history. In 1997 Radiohead were in their OK Computer era and were the standout act in what is still largely perceived as a bright era for British music; their set was rich, including ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Karma Police’, ‘The Bends’ and ‘Just’, with ‘Iron Lung’ as the opener. I personally was more into the pre-OK Computer Radiohead material at that time, but the excitement around Thom Yorke and Radiohead in 1997 was something that happens only once or twice a decade and that excitement surrounded their Glastonbury appearance.

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2003 was something different, it being the era of the bleaker, less friendly Hail to the Thief, but it was a performance of great depth by a remarkable musical entity that had evolved substantially in the intervening years to become something even more special than 1997 had indicated (and 1997 had already indicated a remarkable musical landscape being forged). The 2003 set included the standards like ‘Karma Police” and “Just”, but also included the electrifying ‘2 + 2 = 5’ and beautiful ‘Sail To The Moon’ among other elements of Hail to the Thief material. It was treated like the prodigal sons’ returning home to their spiritual birthplace; whether that notion had any real merit or not.

 

PJ Harvey – 1992

Possibly the finest British songwriter of modern times, PJ Harvey also put in memorable Glastonbury appearances in 1995 and 2004 at points in her incredible career when she had much more material to showcase; but her raw and unpolished set in 1992 when she was still a relatively new and ‘breaking’ artist exhibits Polly Jean Harvey in her earlier, youthful glory, and the curt set-list included such classic PJ material as ‘Rid of Me’, ‘Man Size’, ‘Me Jane’ and ‘Dress’, with the brilliant ‘Water’ as the encore.

Oasis – 1995

I’m not even much of an Oasis fan, but there’s something exciting (or at least engaging) about a band at the height of its powers. And in 1995 Oasis was the biggest band going (and becoming bigger still at the time) and their Glastonbury appearance, the object of a bigger buzz than I can recall for any other act in recent memory, reflected everything that made them so stupendously popular. I said I’m not a fan particularly of Oasis; what I mean really is that they’ve never really been a band I listen to, but I’ve never denied their potency or blatant coolness (who could?).

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In ’95, Liam Gallagher was the perfect frontman at the peak of his powers, embodying that Beatles-fronted-by-Johnny-Rotten dynamic to perfection. The idea of ‘big acts’ headlining festivals and ‘exciting’ festival-goers is a common thing on paper by now; but there’s a difference between tepid, radio acts like Coldplay or fucking Mumford and Sons and a group like Oasis, who may have become too big for their own good, but certainly came from somewhere genuine and created a genuine – rather than manufactured – excitement around their music and their performances.

Though they were a major feature in the 1994 Glastonbury line-up too, it’s their 1995 headlining of the first night that is perceived to have represented the band at their most triumphal and ‘complete’, much the same way some Nirvana fans prefer to talk about that band’s 1991 Reading Festival appearance though no one could really argue that Nirvana’s 1992 Reading headline set remains the real triumphal, defining moment. So with Oasis 1995.

Blind Melon – 1994

One of the greatest and most underrated bands ever and fronted by the almost messianic Shannon Hoon, the early nineties New Orleans ‘hippies’ must’ve bemused a sizeable portion of the Glastonbury crowds. Their set-list wasn’t as great as it could’ve been given the available material, but it opened with the utterly spellbinding ‘2 x 4’ (or an early version of it at least). Even two decades on from the young death of Shannon Hoon I’m continually amazed that Blind Melon aren’t much more known and regarded. Under-regarded though they may have been, Blind Melon were actually in many ways the ultimate festival band and, being unabashed hippies, a perfect fit for Glastonbury, Hoon in particular.

Rage Against the Machine, 1994

The legendary US rap/metal rogues kicked Glastonbury’s English backside in 1994, with a short set that included ‘Bullet in the Head’ and ‘Killing in the Name Of’ among other RATM standards. You couldn’t get any further away from the airy hippy vibe or floppy indie associations of Glastonbury than Zack de La Rocha, Tom Morello and Rage Against the Machine doing their undiluted, unremitting, no-holds-barred thing as only they can.

 

Hole – 1999

In a Glastonbury that also featured Courtney’s best friend Michael Stipe and R.E.M, this wasn’t the best Hole set imaginable, but you’d get nothing less than a memorable, even elaborate, performance from Celebrity Skin era Courtney Love, appearing as a pink fairy, the set playing out as part rock show and part Courtney-centered pantomime.


Certainly no comparison to Hole’s utterly compelling 1994 Reading Festival appearance, but even so the 1999 set included ‘Miss World’, ‘Doll Parts’ and ‘Malibu’, opening with ‘Violet’; though it also omitted several songs that might’ve served it better. It ended with a loose cover of Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’.

Jeff Buckley, 1995

I have a mixed sense of Jeff Buckley as an artist; lots of people of course adore him, consider him some sort of genius or at the very least some great romantic figure, a musical James Dean perhaps. I’ve always felt he’s overrated and a lot of his music too overwrought; yet without doubt he was talented and he wrote some very good songs, several of which were performed in this 1995 Glastonbury appearance. I could never argue with ‘Dream Brother’ being an incredible piece of music, and that’s what he opened with in this set, going on to perform Grace standards including ‘So Real’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ and finishing with ‘Grace’ itself. He earnt a lot of life-long devotees and crushes during that appearance. He gained even more by dying so prematurely; the question is how many more would he have gained had he lived?

Blur, 2009

As with their traditional ‘rivals’ (as the magazines would have it) Oasis, I’ve always had an uncertain attitude towards Damon Albarn and Blur, not being entirely sure if I’m a ‘fan’ or not. Time, more than anything, has taught me that I am; when a band has accumulated such a catalogue of music, including so many songs you’re fond of, there’s no longer any point questioning whether you like them or not.

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The sort of ‘greatest hits’ set-list that Blur can bring to a stage is difficult for any modern British act to compete with; and in 2009, well over a decade on from the ‘Britpop’ phase (I hated Britpop as a fad, by the way) and the height of Blur’s and Oasis’s rivalry and popularity, Albarn and co’s Glastonbury show was more like a celebration of that band’s life and times than anything else and had the tone and manner of a band playing their last ever show. All the obvious ports-of-call were there, from ‘Girls and Boys’ and ‘No Other Way’ to ‘The Universal’.

Beyonce, 2011

It was Jay-Z’s 2008 headlining of the festival that attracted all the controversy; questions about whether hip-hop belonged at Glastonbury, disapproval (even if lighthearted) from Noel Gallagher, etc. By the time Beyonce came to headline in 2011 there were no real issues anymore, Jay-Z’s performance three years earlier having gone down broadly well with most.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to this divide between what ‘belongs’ at a festival like Glastonbury and what doesn’t – and it has nothing to do with rap or hip-hop as a genre of music, but has to do with the type of artist.

There’s an argument that could be made that a Jay-Z or Beyonce is no more suited to a Glastonbury-type set-up than a Bon Jovi or an N-Sync – artists who are in that corporate, millionaire mega-star, superbowl-type arena of music. There’s just perhaps a slight sense that the presence of those types of global ‘brands’ is somewhat in conflict with the perceived spirit and idea of something like Glastonbury.

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That’s my view of it; I know plenty of people would disagree. And in fairness acts like Coldplay and Kasabian and Kings of Leon, for example, are also big, rich, mainstream entities too (not to mention Metallica or The Rolling Stones), and if Glastonbury can encompass anyone from Dolly Parton to Metallica then why should there be an issue with Jay-Z or Beyonce? Glastonbury, like most things that become institutions, grows and adapts and evolves in order to stay relevant and interesting. As far as corporate type superstars go, The Rolling Stones are even more in that arena by now than someone like Beyonce, but no one complained about Mick Jagger and co appearing at Glastonbury.

There’s something still a little ‘off’ to me about Beyonce headlining Glastonbury, but all idealogical considerations aside, Beyonce blew the crowd away in 2011; I’ve never heard anyone ever suggest that she didn’t completely ace that performance. As far as pop mega-stars go, probably only Michael Jackson could’ve had that effect. Gosh, I’m just now picturing what Michael Jackson headlining Glastonbury might’ve been like…

 

 

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