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It begins next week; people piling into cars, loading up with tents and galoshes and cagoules and umbrellas and sunblock and shades and just about anything they can lay their hands on to reduce the devastating effects of whatever the weather may throw their way. Glastonbury festival is about to start, and while we don’t have enough space to go over its illustrious history in depth, we have prepared five astonishing moments from the festival’s past, as a way of demonstrating exactly why people go to all of that bother in the first place.
1997 was the year it rained a lot, and the drainage at Worthy Farm simply couldn’t handle it. The beautiful green fields changed into a quagmire, everything became brown and sticky, people described the entire site as looking like the Somme, complete with actual trench foot. Enter Radiohead, with their songs about things raining down, with their songs about being high and dry, two things that most Glastonians could only dream about. And as they took to the stage, the heavens opened (again), and their monitors failed, so the band couldn’t quite hear what they were doing. Add to this some malfunctioning stage lights shining directly into Thom Yorke’s eyes, and disaster started to loom. And then something odd happened. Radiohead’s music, the “OK Computer” classics which were brand new at the time, full of terrifying visions and dark paranoia, began to make total sense. Thom demanded the stage lights be changed so he could see everyone, and the band’s performance became a shared experience, a way to transform all the wet and misery into something communal and beautiful. This video won’t capture that side of things in any way, but it’s still pretty great:
It wasn’t supposed to be Pulp headlining that year. Glastonbury was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the honour belonged to the Stone Roses. But John Squire broke his collarbone in a mountain biking accident, leaving them unable to perform. Pulp had just put out “Common People” as a single, arguably the best song of the entire Britpop era, and they were preparing to release their imperious pop album, “Diffferent Class.” So they were ready to take the job on, but only just. On the day itself, they played with total fire and commitment, Jarvis Cocker seizing the crowd’s attention with both hands. They ended with a performance of “Common People” which, amplified by the howls of agreement in front of them, ramped up the disgust and fury of the recorded version into some kind of transcendent boom of astonishment and wonder. The Stone Roses played a thank you gig for the organisers, some six months later, but by then Pulp were the new kings of Britpop.
Paul McCartney (2004)
Before this performance, it wasn’t commonly known that Paul McCartney had put together an astonishing band, capable of recreating some of the most fiddly moments of his brilliant career with enough verisimilitude to blow any self-respecting Beatle-nut’s head off. He’d been touring for a couple of years, sharpening them up, but this was the moment where all the cool kids, all the ravers and rappers, suddenly realised that this old man, who’d suffered years of media disdain because he wasn’t John Lennon, had the most enviable back catalogue in pop history, and he was taking it out for a stroll. Stevie Wonder achieved much the same effect last year. All you need to do is show up, play the soundtrack to our lives, and leave. Oh and if you can synchronise your fireworks like this, that’s even better:
It wasn’t our finest moment as a music-loving nation, going toe to toe with the entire hip hop world and acting superior. And to be fair, not everyone agreed with Noel Gallagher when he said he didn’t think Jay-Z should play, because it’s a stupid thing to say. Of course, the way Jay dealt with it all is a masterclass in wiping the floor with your opponent.
He began by showing this video, which you won’t be surprised to hear is NSFW, language-wise:
And then he did this:
Game, set and match to Mr Zed.
There’s something about the return of a musical act who seem to have spent a long time in the wilderness. Whether it be due to public indifference or a band splitting up, their return to full active service cannot fail but be an emotional experience. Having fallen apart seven years earlier, over Graham Coxon’s alcoholism and the pressure of keeping the band together, Blur had just finished a short UK tour of smaller venues by the time they got to Glastonbury. This was the first big test of the reunited band’s power, the chance for all four of them to see the high regard in which they are held. It proved to be overwhelming, with Damon Albarn breaking down in tears at the end of their set.
Do you have a Glasto favourite? Tell us here.
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic