"He didn't want to do Glastonbury and Michael Eavis didn’t want him — he was worried he was going to do a Tin Machine set or a little drum and bass set": When David Bowie played a career-altering Glastonbury festival set… by accident

David Bowie performs live on the Pyramid stage wearing a coat designed by Alexander McQueen, at the Glastonbury festival at Worthy Farm on June 25, 2000 in Pilton, United Kingdom.
(Image credit: Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Life On Mars, Let's Dance, All The Young Dudes, Starman, Rebel Rebel, Ziggy Stardust, Heroes, The Man Who Sold The World, Under Pressure… David Bowie's 22-song Glastonbury set in 2000 is still a benchmark for the world's greatest festival – a legend in his element delivering an absolute masterclass in performance, charisma, catalogue and musicianship with a band of top gun musicians. But it wasn't supposed to happen at all.

It's almost inconceivable to think that at the turn of the century Bowie wasn't seemingly regarded as a guaranteed draw. The '90s had been interesting for him though –  following the commercial and critical kicking that had been given to his band Tin Machine in the early '90s, he found his feet solo again for 1993's Black Tie White Noise, received mixed reactions to 1995's opaquely conceptual Outside before braving drum n' bass excursions on 1997's Earthling.  The perception from some quarter at the end of the decade was some older fans had drifted away, while he was yet to be re-introduced to a younger audience. On top of that, Bowie didn't even want to play Glastonbury anyway. Surely a negative combination that would result in a complete non-starter on both sides. 

We had this period in the '90s where we couldn't even give away David Bowie tickets

Alan Edwards

British publicist Alan ­Edwards has worked with big names over the years including The Sex Pistols, Spice Girls, Rolling Stones and Blondie, as well as the Thin White Duke from the late '70s until his passing in 2016. He recently appeared on the Rockonteurs podcast, hosted by musicians Guy Pratt and Gary Kemp, to share his memories – and it's a great listen. Edwards admitted a plan was hatched to plant a story in the press about Bowie and Glastonbury. 

"After Tin Machine it really drops off," reflects Edwards, setting the scene. "We had this period in the '90s where we couldn't even give away David Bowie tickets, and David would be doing places like the Hanover Grand. 

"What we did is we came up with this strategy of going to the nationals [newspapers] and particularly the tabloids," continues Edwards. "And the editors like Richard Wallace, who was the editor of the [Daily] Mirror – a lot of them were big, big David fans. And I wanted to just make sure he was still really visible during this period where it just wasn't cool really, because it could have just faded away.

"Actually, the visibility was fantastic, and we were getting more of that mainstream coverage which is not where we would have expected," Bowie's publicist explains. "David was great, he was not a snobby guy at all. He wasn't one of those people that would only talk to this paper or that. He'd have been quite happy talking to someone from the Daily Star and saying he had egg and bacon for breakfast and whatever. He just didn't worry about stuff like that. Then of course he starts making some really good records again – [like] Black Tie White Noise and discovers who he is. Then there's a moment when he does Glastonbury by mistake. 

"He didn't want to do Glstonbury," explains Edwards. "And [Glastonbury festival founder] Michael Eavis didn't want him either – Michael Eavis was worried he was going to do a Tine Machine set or a little drum and bass set, and David just didn't want to do it. 

"So what happened was John Giddings, the promoter, and I were trying to pressure him into it and we cooked up some scheme and John has said to me, 'Leaks something to the Sunday Times speculating that he might do Glastonbury'. Of course, the Sunday Times went a lot of bigger on it than I expected – front page 'Bowie to play Glastonbury'. The phones went crazy at Glastonbury – by the end of that day David was headlining Glastonbury."

I didn't hear from David for three days and we were really nervous

There's was only one other factor in this – David Bowie wasn't privy to Edwards and Giddings' plan. 

"I didn't hear from David for three days and we were really nervous. We thought, this is pretty big and he didn't want to play there and now he's headlining in front of 120,000 people. Are we gonna survive this? After three days I get a message from David and it said something like, 'You naughty boys, don't ever do that again but thank you very much, that was brilliant' – something like that."

The rest, as they say, is music history. 

"It was the biggest crowd I think they ever had at any Glastonbury," adds Edwards of a live audience estimated to have been a quarter of a million, including trespassers. "The fences came down and after that they made it a lot more secure. After that I believe there were 120,000 people. But I had to go onstage with him at that gig – I had to try and stop the BBC from filming it because he didn't want it filmed. He only wanted three songs to go out."

An argument ensued while Bowie was performing and the BBC ended up taking the flack from angry viewers who were looking forward to seeing Bowie's set through to the end. According to Mark Cooper, the producer of the brodcaster's coverage at the event, an agreement had been made with Bowie via Edwards that the BBC could film the first four songs and then a song or two from the encore. No more. 

Unfortunately we had nothing to screen that might remotely explain why we were coming off the great man in full flow

After Bowie and the band took the Pyramid Stage at just after 10pm became clear that the set could become one for the ages as Wild Is The Wind, China Girl, Changes and Stay were delivered to a thrilled crowd. Cooper spoke to Edwards and attempted to see if Bowie would change his mind about the set being filmed, but his assistant Coco Schwab couldn't get an answer from the musician between songs. The BBC decided to broadcast a fifth song, Life On Mars? After that, Cooper knew they couldn't continue to broadcast footage of the performance.

"Unfortunately we had nothing to screen that might remotely explain why we were coming off the great man in full flow," the producer recalled for The Guardian in 2018. "To the viewers, it seemed as though it was the BBC’s editorial decision. Jamie [Theakston, BBC presenter] sat there by the campfire and – clearly smart enough not to take the hit – proceeded to read out the entire setlist. Which we wouldn’t be broadcasting … 'I am not sure I’m supposed to do this,' he announced, before running through hit after hit while the sound of Absolute Beginners wafted over from the Pyramid stage. 

I spent the next two weeks writing to viewers who complained about us not showing more – or all – of Bowie’s set

Ouch. After following the gap between other live performances with some space-filling footage, the BBC showed footage of acts Embrace and Basement Jaxx performing live before rejoining Bowie much later – as agreed – for encores of Ziggy Stardust and Heroes. 

"I spent the next two weeks writing to viewers who complained about us not showing more – or all – of Bowie’s set," recalled Cooper. "Since then I’ve often tried to persuade his management to let us screen more of that night’s performance. There were mutterings about audio quality, about some aspects of the performance, but I think the great man already had at least half an eye on posterity."

The whole set would eventually be released commercially in 2018, but the gig turned out to be bigger than the thousands watching at Worthy Farm – and millions who saw what was allowed of the transmission on the BBC. It heralded a new era for Bowie in many ways.

"At the end of that show you realised, and he realised, that his career had changed," concludes Edwards. "I remember he came off and he was in a trance actually, and I was very close as he walked off and he didn't really know where he was. It was like a spiritual moment – that connection with this big crowd. The day afterward we came back to London, and we hung around a lot that week. It was different. One generation had rediscovered David, and at least two or three new ones had discovered him. And he was again David Bowie the most important performer on the planet… so that was incredible to go through that experience with him in a way. Not that he knew he was going to go through that experience." 

Listen to the full Rockonteurs podcast with Alan Edwards above. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.