Hundreds of thousands of music lovers descend on to the fields of Glastonbury every summer, a five-day celebration of all things culture that has become one of Britain’s most loved institutions and an international leader in live music.
There are few greater accolades in music, if any, than headlining the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. For the 202 event, a party which was due to celebrate Glastonbury’s 50th anniversary, revellers were due to see headline sets from Kendrick Lamar, a musician who was planning to announce himself as the King during his coronation set which has been cancelled because of the ongoing health situation.
Alongside Kendrick, Taylor Swift was also due to prove herself to the people who doubt that the pop star could do it on the biggest stage of them all. The third headline set, one that grabbed all the headlines, was due to come from former Beatle Paul McCartney who was planning to roll back the years in masterful fashion.
Of course, all three planned performances have been put on ice for 12 months. While they would have undoubtedly caused mass talking points—as all Pyramid Stage headliners do—the coveted spot on Worthy Farm’s most prestigious platform can make or break you as an artist.
Here, in this list, we are going to look at just ten of the best from that hallowed slot.
The 10 best Glastonbury headline sets:
The Smiths (1984)
When The Smiths headlined Glastonbury, the festival was a very different beast to what it is some 36 years on. However, it was an iconic turning point in the Somerset event’s history which helped it become what it is today. This was, in part, due to the angry hippies who didn’t enjoy the performance by the indie-pop dreamboats and would see a new more mainstream era of the festival be born following The Smiths’ headline set.
Johnny Marr remarked this to NME about the set last year: “When The Smiths played Glastonbury in 1984, there was the big field, the other muddy field, then there was the shit field that no one went in. In each of those fields, as I remember it, there were ancient people dancing around in the cold in various states of undress and organic chemical refreshment trying to bring the government down – so it was great.”
Just ten days before The Stone Roses were set to headline The Pyramid Stage they announced that all future dates had been cancelled due to John Squire suffering a broken collarbone which left Michael Eavis in a predicament. Nobody knew who was set to headline at Worthy Farm until Pulp walked on stage and delivered a set of the highest calibre, blistering through classics such as ‘Babies’, ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’.
Remarkably, despite first releasing a studio album in 1983, the Sheffield band didn’t taste commercial success at all until 1994 effort His ‘n’ Her’s and this moment headlining Glastonbury was not one they were going to waste.
Jay-Z’s headline performance famously saw him pretend to play the guitar and sing-a-long to ‘Wonderwall’ in retaliation to Noel Gallagher’s provocative comment of “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
By the end of his set, however, Jay Z had proved all of his doubters wrong and provided one of the most iconic performances in the history of the festival that proved that hip-hop was here to stay at the top of the Somerset bash’s bill.
The Verve and Kings Of Leon were the other two headliners of the festival that year, who both provided sets much more forgettable than Jay Z, with the rapper delivering one of the most memorable Glasto performances of recent years.
Oasis had only made their Glastonbury debut the year previously but had impressed so much in their early afternoon NME Stage slot that they would be invited back the following year as Pyramid Stage headliners. The Manchester band’s stock was flying high following the release of Definitely Maybe in 1994 and were gearing up to release What’s The Story (Morning Glory)? later in 1995.
Following this performance, Oasis were bona fide superstars and royalty of British music, for a band who only have one record released at the time to recieve this kind of reaction shows that they were a once in a generation talent.
Radiohead had performed at Worthy Farm on six occasions and are arguably the quintessential Glastonbury band but their debut headline performance in 1997 is undoubtedly their finest moment at the festival. The Oxfordshire group had just released OK Computer which was a world away from the post-Britpop landscape and was a welcome relief.
Their set was a real fight against the elements as they played through tordrid weather but somehow got through it. Thom Yorke recalled to the BBC in 2017: “At one point I just went over to Ed [O’Brien, guitarist]. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m off mate, see you later’. He turned around and went, ‘If you do, you’ll probably live the rest of your life regretting it.'”
Stormzy’s set at Glastonbury felt like it transcended music and was a moment that sent ripples across Britain as the South Londoner made profound political as well as cultural statements throughout his iconic set. The production levels were out of this world and you could tell that this was a moment that meant more to him than you could ever imagine.
The rapper didn’t realise that he had absolutely killed his set and initially thought he had squandered the biggest opportunity of his career until he got round to watching it back: “My in-ears blew after about 20 minutes, so I had no sound for the whole thing. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. When I walked off stage, I thought I’d [ruined] it. I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever done. I came off stage and thought I’d totally, absolutely, blown it. I was crying for, like, an hour. I was in hysterics.”
Donning a Banksy-designed Britain vest, the grime musician broke through new levels for the genre.
Just three years after her husband’s iconic set on the very same stage, Beyonce delivered an equally memorable performance whilst being pregnant—proving that pop music deserves a place at the festival. She blitzed through hits such as ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ and ‘Crazy in Love’, whilst showcasing that Worthy Form was no longer exclusively just a ‘boys with guitars’ club.
Beyonce’s set was poignant for a number of reasons, as it saw her become the first black female headliner of the festival and she was only the second women to be originally booked to take the headline slot since Sinead O’Connor in 1990. (Kylie Minogue was a replacement after Basement Jaxx pulled out in 2000)
The Rolling Stones (2013)
It’s somewhat remarkable that it took until 2013 for The Rolling Stones to perform at the festival as the band entered their 50th year active and there is no better way of celebrating this milestone than on Worthy Farm with The Stones making up for the lost time in emphatic fashion.
Speaking immediately after the band came off stage, festival boss Michael Eavis described the set as “the high spot of 43 years of Glastonbury.”
Clearly overwhelmed with their show, Eavis added: “They finally did it, and it was fantastic. My God, did they deliver.”
Bruce Springsteen (2009)
Getting The Boss to play Glastonbury was a pretty big deal for the Eavis clan as it not only marked his first appearance at Worthy Farm but it was his first-ever festival show, period. Springsteen along with his merry E Street Band performed for over three hours, a show which went past his curfew but who would dare pull the plug on Bruce?
A high point in the set came when Springsteen was joined by fellow New Jersey rocker Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem to perform ‘No Surrender’ which was a poignant moment and saw Fallon repay the favour for Springsteen joining him for ’59 Sound’ on the John Peel Stage earlier in the day.
Arctic Monkeys (2007)
Just two months on from the release of their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare, Arctic Monkeys made their Glastonbury debut on the biggest stage possible with a headline set on the Pyramid Stage. Despite being in their early twenties, the Sheffield band looked entirely at ease and like they belonged to be in such a prestigious slot.
The set begins with ‘When The Sun Comes Down’ which gets the evening off to a euphoric start and was the moment that saw them become the last British guitar band to achieve legendary status.