22 seminal festival moments

In the last 50 years, music festivals have changed, and corporate-fuelled affairs aimed squarely at the mainstream are now more common than the spontaneous counterculture events of yesteryear.

Fortunately, the spirit and soul of festivals is still in evidence and festivals are still capable of producing those seminal, era-defining moments when artists and their audiences acknowledge that something truly remarkable is taking place on stage.

One contributing factor is obviously great live performances. But other elements are often at play, such as chance, conflict, tension and controversy. Toeing the line has rarely resulted in great music, whereas a dogged refusal to conform to expectations and a strong desire to evoke change can lead to seminal festival moments that artists and their audiences will remember for decades to come.

Take, for example, Bob Dylan's controversial 'electric' performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Kurt Cobain's blistering response to his critics with Nirvana at the 1992 Reading Festival; and the then-startling spectacle of Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his Stratocaster at the Monterey Festival in June 1967.

All these instances, and others, are featured here. These are some of the most iconic festival moments, when artists ramped up their game, realised their true potential and crossed the line from great to magisterial.

Cobain responds to his critics

Nirvana, Reading Festival - August 1992

In the wake of the colossal success of Nevermind, Nirvana found themselves catapulted towards the mainstream and a critical backlash began, with Kurt Cobain being dubbed an over-hyped drug addict.

Cobain responded to his critics by being brought onstage at the 1992 Reading Festival in a wheelchair, by journalist Everett True, before launching into a blistering, visceral set that many regard as the band's finest ever performance. New tracks unveiled that day included Dumb, from the band's third and final album In Utero. Dave Grohl later said the 1992 Reading performance was a pivotal moment for the band.

The day Dylan went electric

Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival - July 1965

For the folk faithful who had witnessed Bob Dylan's performances at the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals, the Minnesota-born troubadour was little short of a messiah - and expectations were high for this 1965 return.

Such hopes were obliterated as a modishly-besuited Dylan trotted on stage, plugged in a Fender Stratocaster and hurled himself and his band into a scorching three-song electric set. This was Dylan's first plugged-in gig and the cardigan-clad folk fans were not happy.

Amid the boos, folk patriarch Pete Seeger allegedly had to be restrained backstage from cutting the main power cable with an axe. None of which seemed to deter Dylan. His audience felt betrayed but he was ready to move on, with or without them. This was a defining moment, which transformed him from protest folkie to rebel genius.

"Brothers and sisters… come on now"

The Rolling Stones, Altamont Speedway - December, 1969

© Bettmann/CORBIS

The free concert by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway, California, was supposed to mark a triumphant end the band's US tour. Instead, what started as a chilled-out event took an ominous turn as Hell's Angels, hired to police the event, started dishing out random beatings to members of the audience.

Many of the Angels were high on PCP and speed. By the time the Stones took to the stage, good vibes were in short supply. Time and again, the band were forced to halt Sympathy For The Devil, and Mick Jagger's thin pleas of "Brothers and sisters, come on now… everybody just cool out" fell on deaf ears.

Minutes after the Stones launched again into Sympathy For The Devil, 18-yr-old Meredith Hunter from Berkeley was stabbed to death. This tragic event is regarded as the end of an era, the moment that the hippy dream turned sour.

"Don't touch my car man"

T.Rex, Glastonbury - September 1970

If one moment marked the erosion of hippy ideology and the advent of glam rock in the UK it was Marc Bolan's arrival at the very first Glastonbury festival, then known as Pilton Festival. According to legend, when fledgling festival organiser Michael Eavis stroked Bolan's velvet-covered Buick, Bolan barked "Don't touch my car man!"

Barely 2,500 people turned up for the festival and if it hadn't been for Bolan's presence, the event would have been a financial disaster. But for Eavis, who had hoped to pay off his mortgage with the proceeds, the seed had been sewn. 12,000 people turned up in 1971 for the re-named Glastonbury Fayre, which featured a stellar line-up. But it wasn't until 1979 that Eavis organised the next Glastonbury Fayre, a far more sophisticated and organised event, and a sign of what was to come.

Janis Joplin comes of age

Big Brother & The Holding Company, Monterey Pop Festival - June 1967

When Janis Joplin took the stage at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967, she was essentially just the vocalist of Big Brother & The Holding Company. By the time the band played the last few bars of their rousing six-minute closer Ball And Chain she was a bona fide star.

No white female vocalist had ever sung with such unbridled soul as Joplin and this was the moment that introduced her to a global audience. Joplin's soaring blues/soul vocal style made jaws literally drop at Monterey.

In DA Pennebaker's film of the event, Mama Cass can be seen mouthing "Wow, that's heavy" as a smiling and slightly-stunned Joplin departed the stage to mass applause. Three years later Joplin was dead from an overdose. This performance captures her raw talent as she stands on the cusp of greatness.

Underworld mark their moment

Underworld, Reading - August 1996

Riding high on the success of Born Slippy - used to potent effect in the film Trainspotting - Underworld made the most of their moment with a memorable set at Reading '96 while promoting their album Second Toughest In The Infants.

As the Stone Roses virtually died on the main stage, some audience members bolted for the tent where Underworld were performing. A disappointing evening soon turned into a sublime one as Underworld delivered an unforgettable performance. "This was the performance of the weekend," said one fan, "spine-tingling to say the least."

Tender was the night

Blur, Glastonbury - June 2009

© Rune Hellestad/Corbis

"I'm pleased we decided to do these gigs now… this is fantastic," said Damon Albarn shortly after the reformed and re-invigorated Blur ended their main set with a stunning version of This Is A Low.

Later, as the 100,000-strong crowd sang the refrain of Tender, Albarn stood speechless, tears streaming down his face.

As comebacks go, Blur's career-spanning headlining set on the Pyramid stage was an utter triumph, hailed by some as the best Glastonbury performance ever.

It had been ten years since the band had appeared on a large stage together and guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James looked frankly terrified as they strode out on stage. They needn't have worried. This was a majestic conclusion to one of the best Glastonbury Festivals ever.

The best-ever headline Glastonbury performance?

Radiohead, Glastonbury - June 1997

Described by Michael Eavis as "the most inspiring festival gig in 30 years", this performance cemented Radiohead's status as arguably the best band on the planet at the time, and was subsequently voted the best ever headline performance at Glastonbury.

The band's Saturday night headline performance coincided with the release of their third album, OK Computer and, like all iconic gigs, it exuded some sublime moments. Despite dire weather conditions and numerous technical problems, Thom Yorke and the band rose to the occasion with a set of outstanding beauty.

Radiohead may never eclipse this blinding Glastonbury performance: an angry, poignant and triumphant gig of real emotion and power.

Spirit of the times

Rain chant, Woodstock - August 1969

"It looks we're going to get a little bit of rain so you might want to cover up," said master of ceremonies Chip Monck slightly solemnly to the burgeoning crowd at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Then, in what sounds almost like an afterthought… "Hey, if you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain," he bellows.

"No rain, no rain, no rain…" he begins and some of the 450,000-strong crowd duly join in.

If one moment captures the optimism and spirit of Woodstock and a belief in the power to change for the greater good, then this is it.

Second that emotion

Bruce Springsteen, Roskilde - July 2012


Few artists are as successful at getting their personality out to the farthest reaches of an audience as Bruce Springsteen. And few have a reputation for going the extra mile, and them some, quite like the Boss.

But by all accounts, this performance at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, was extremely special. Rousing anthems were interspersed with very personal anecdotes about events that inspired certain songs. When the band stopped for a visual tribute to late sax player Clarence Clemons, ripples of emotion were tangible throughout the audience. As one attendee put it, "It's really personal for him still… anthemic hit after hit after hit, packed through with such intense emotion and charisma."

The only way is Essex

The Prodigy, V Festival - August 1997

Essex was the rather apt setting for this performance by the Braintree band, who had become one of the UK's most exciting live acts by the time they took to the stage at the V Festival.

This was the year they went global thanks to the popularity of the album The Fat Of The Land. So burgeoning was their appeal that Keith Flint's scary persona was a talking point in living rooms across the UK, thanks to appearances on shows such as Top Of The Pops.

At V, the performance was so packed that the band were forced to stop their set for 15 minutes to ensure people did not get crushed. According to Liam Howlett, this was one of the band's best gigs ever.

Glastonbury raises its hip-hop game

Jay-Z, Glastonbury - June 2008

© Rune Hellestad/Corbis

The announcement that a rapper would be headlining the Pyramid stage caused some consternation among journalists, festival-goers and artists, most notably Noel Gallagher, who said it was "wrong" to have a hip-hop artist headlining the festival.

In the event, Jay-Z proved them all spectacularly wrong, delivering a blazing set. As he took to the stage, vast video screens played images of Gallagher's criticism of the Brooklyn rapper, which triggered a massive chorus of jeers. Then, in a witty riposte to the Mancunian guitarist, Jay-Z kicked off the set with his own take on Oasis's Wonderwall.

Amy Winehouse' Rehab was another track given the Jay-Z cover treatment. As a performance, it was inspiring and organic. It also marked a turning point, away from the stilted belief that only white guitar acts have the clout to headline festivals such as Glastonbury.

Real fervour for a fledgling band

Arcade Fire, Lollapaloza - July 2005

The Canadian band's performance at Lollapaloza in Chicago in 2005 is widely regarded as one of the finest at the event. The band, decked out in suits, ties and dresses, were on tour promoting their debut album Funeral and on startling form, playing all but two songs from that breakout album.

This was a big slot for the fledgling band but they embraced it with a real fervour in the blazing heat of the day. The audience responded with near-religious zeal.

Epic opening track Wake Up prompted a sea of lifted hands. The set ended with lead singer Win Butler out on the crowd, engulfed by his new fanbase. An anthemic and triumphant moment.

Birth of a legend

Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival - June 1967

It's worth remembering that virtually no-one in the US had heard of Jimi Hendrix before he played at Monterey. But when he triumphantly left the stage, his place in history was assured.

At Monterey, Hendrix pushed music irrevocably forward, thrusting the electric guitar to the fore, transforming it into a raw and powerful instrument.

Everything about the exotically-attired Hendrix that day was delivered with flair and theatricality. But it was the conclusion of Wild Thing - when Hendrix knelt over his Stratocaster, setting it on fire with lighter fluid before smashing it into the stage seven times - that remains the iconic moment of Monterey. The sounds he created and the instrument destruction contributed hugely to his popularity and remain the defining image of Hendrix for many.

Manchester's finest stir things up

The Smiths, Glastonbury - June 1984

One glance at the line-up for Glastonbury 1984 highlights the period of transition that was under way in the music industry at the time. Sharing the bill with The Smiths that year were Joan Baez and Tangerine Dream. Not that this particularly concerned Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce, although Glastonbury 1984 was the first time the band had played to anyone other than their devoted fanbase.

"We'd always played to manic, devoted audiences who were more like supporters at a cup final," recalls Johnny Marr, "but at Glastonbury we were playing to people who largely hadn't seen us before."

The Smith's presence at the festival was certainly controversial. "People were saying, 'What's happened to Santana then?" said Michael Eavis. "I said, 'This is not Santana, this is The Smiths'. They didn't like it."

Eavis says that the band's appearance in 1984 "changed the whole event".

A lesson in showmanship

Otis Redding, Monterey Pop Festival - June 1967

The Monterey Festival may be forever associated with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin but, in terms of sheer showmanship, Otis Redding was the artist who made the most impact. Monterey was the first, real introduction of Otis Redding to a large, predominantly white audienceand when heblasted into his set, the entire crowd of 50,000 spontaneously rose to its feet.

"This is the love crowd," said a clearly moved Redding, "We all love each other, don't we?" Redding commanded the stage and delivered the performance of a lifetime, unleashing a real depth of human emotion. After four encores, he exclaimed, "I have to go, and I don't wanna go!" before leaving the stage to riotous applause.

One year later, Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay reached No1 in the US but Redding was not around to enjoy his success. On 10 December 1967, he and four members of his band died in a small plane crash.

When dance music went mainstream

Orbital, Glastonbury - June 1994

If you had to pick a moment when dance music broke through to the mainstream, Orbital's performance at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival would arguably be it.

For many, the electronic duo are the act that define Glastonbury and their first appearance, on the NME stage, in 1994 is now widely acclaimed as one of the greatest performances. The duo headlined the Friday night just weeks after completing their breakthough album Snivilisation.

In an era when the Conservative government was attempting to use the Criminal Justice Bill as a tool to outlaw raves, the presence of Orbital and their euphoric repetitive beats at a high profile event such as Glastonbury was particularly remarkable.

Michael Eavis certainly thought so. He promoted them to the Pyramid Stage the following year and the duo went on to make three consecutive appearances.

Raised from the dead

Tupac, Coachella - April 2012

Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg wowed the crowd at the 2012 Coachella Festival in California, when they brought late rapper Tupac back from the dead in the form of a hologram. The stunt had a powerful and unnerving effect. Tupac appeared to take the stage after a tribute performance of his hit California Love.

The performance reportedly used the same technology that enabled Mariah Carey to perform a concert simultaneously in five cities. After the event it was variously described as 'amazing', 'tacky' and 'macabre'.

Part of the union

Morrissey, Madstock - August 1992

In retrospect, he should have known better. A few songs into his set at Madness's Madstock festival in Finsbury Park, Morrissey and his be-quiffed band launched into a storming rendition of National Front Disco, from the album Your Arsenal. Out at the lip of the stage, dressed in gold lame shirt, against the backdrop of two skinheads, Morrissey wrapped himself ostentatiously in a large Union Jack flag.

Any irony was lost on the Madness faithful. By the second chorus, Morrissey and his band were being pelted with plastic bottles and abuse. A few songs later, following a swift signal from Morrissey, he and the band strode off stage and didn't return. They played only a handful of songs, but as storming performances go, this was up there with the very best.

Sheffield veterans seize the moment

Pulp, Glastonbury - June 1995

Festival history is littered with chance moments when last-minute line-up changes produce blistering performances. Such was the case with Pulp, who filled in at the eleventh hour at Glastonbury Festival in 1995, after Stone Roses were forced to pull out because of John Squire's damaged collar bone following a mountain bike accident.

Cocker and the band stepped up to the plate and pulled off a magnificent set on the main stage. This was Cocker's moment and he knew it. Highlights included zeitgeist-defining anthems from the Different Class album, including Mis-Shapes, Disco 2000 and a storming eight-minute version of Common People.

See Me Feel Me

The Who, Woodstock - August 1969

It's no secret that Pete Townshend and co had little empathy with the hippy movement. So it's ironic that of all the artists that performed at the iconic "free" festival in upstate New York in August 1969, theirs is one of its defining performances.

The performance was aided by circumstance. Although due to play on the evening of Saturday 16 August, The Who finally went onstage at 5am on the Sunday 17 August, just as the sun came up. As the poignant and powerful refrains of See Me Feel Me build and segue into Listening To You, the dynamism of the band really comes to the fore. While Keith Moon flails dynamically around his kit, Townshend - in Clockwork Orange-style boiler suit and Doc Martens - throws trademark windmill moves with his right arm, coaxing wonderfully-twisted tones from his Gibson SG. A defining and moving moment, with the band's aggression and dynamism marking them out firmly from the pack.

A career highlight for the Man In Black

Johnny Cash, Glastonbury - June, 1994

It's fair to say that when Johnny Cash walked out onto the stage at Glastonbury on the morning of Sunday 16 June 1994, he looked more than a little bewildered. In his rich, varied career, one sensed he'd never seen anything quite like this. In front of him stood 50,000 young people applauding him before he'd even played a note. "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," came the familiar greeting before Cash and band launched into Folsom Prison Blues.

This was the first time Cash had played the festival and the performance became legendary. Watching Cash stare out across the crowd to the Somerset countryside beyond, was a strangely warming experience.

According to broadcaster Andy Kershaw, the applause from the audience rolled in "great waves", crashing over the stage, again and again throughout the whole performance. In later years, Cash claimed that this Glastonbury performance was one of the highlights of his career.

Neil Crossley

Neil Crossley is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and the FT. Neil is also a singer-songwriter, fronts the band Furlined and was a member of International Blue, a ‘pop croon collaboration’ produced by Tony Visconti.