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Best Glastonbury headliners: the best Glastonbury performers of all time

Get ready for the festival by remembering the greatest Glastonbury performances...

Best Glastonbury headliners: the best Glastonbury performers of all time
Tom Wiggins
26 June 2023

Search the world over and you'll be hard pressed to find a festival that comes close to that of the mighty Glastonbury. On reflection, nearly 100 bands have headlined Glastonbury since its inception in 1970 - and, as you will read in this best Glastonbury headliners list, there have been some phenomenal Glastonbury performances.

The Glastonbury 2023 line-up saw the return of Arctic Monkeys, who are currently second on this list. They headlined on Friday, while Guns 'n' Roses took the top Saturday slot, and Elton John said his goodbyes to the UK on the Pyramid stage on the Sunday.

As a tease, we can confirm that one of the Glastonbury 2023 headliners has made this list, alongside 20 other classic Glastonbury performances.

The world’s most famous dairy farm has seen more Radioheads than Ed Sheerans over the years - but which of the Pyramid Stage’s main performances will still be remembered in 2070?

We’ve picked out the headline sets that put bands on the map, defined eras or helped shape the future of the festival.

Who do you think deserves to be king (or queen) of Worthy Farm? Upvote your favourites and tell us if we’ve missed out any classic sets down below.

These are the best vinyl boxsets you should own and the best record players to play them on.

Best Glastonbury headliners

Best Glastonbury headliners

1. Arctic Monkeys, 2013

What a difference 5 years makes. In 2007, the Arctic Monkeys headed to Glastonbury and were a diamond in the rough - shambolic but a lot of fun. They didn't quite feel ready, though. In 2013 they were fantastic. Alex Turner, fresh from Josh Homme producing their record, had transformed into an enigmatic frontman. The set began with new song (at the time) Do I Wanna Know and it got better from there.

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2. David Bowie, 2000

£25.18
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At the turn of the millennium David Bowie was experimenting with new-fashioned download releases and a video game soundtrack, but he turned up on Worthy Farm with no intention of messing about.

Despite coming off the back of a bout of laryngitis he casually but charismatically reminded a packed Pyramid Stage just how many bangers he had (and Hallo Spaceboy). The most extravagant thing about the set was his three-quarter length Alexander McQueen coat – a sartorial nod to the hat he’d worn when he headlined in 1971.

Credit: Official Glastonbury YouTube Channel

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3. Radiohead, 1997

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With their equipment malfunctioning and Thom Yorke on the verge of walking off stage in a sulk, Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien has described the band’s 1997 performance as “like a form of hell.”

The frontman remains chippy for the entire set (Thom Yorke? Surely not!) but from the moment he asks for the lights to be turned on before Paranoid Android, things shift into another gear entirely. OK Computer had been released just a couple of weeks earlier, so it’s easy to forget that a lot of these songs weren’t the bonafide classics they are now, but by the end of the set they were well on the way there.

Vote for the Best Radiohead album.

Credit: BBC Music, YouTube

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4. Pulp, 1995

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Headliners pulling out of Glastonbury is, er, headline news these days but bands made a real habit of it in the late ‘90s. After John Squire broke his collarbone in a bike crash, Pulp were parachuted in (not literally, Jarvis Cocker wasn’t wearing the right trousers) to take The Stone Roses’ place.

Being far from first choice and having only recently stepped in to support Oasis on their first arena tour, it was quite a gamble for Eavis to book the Sheffield six-piece, but a suitably self-deprecating yet humble performance meant it well and truly paid off for both parties.

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5. Blur, 2009

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Some bands reform triumphantly, others are Jet. Blur’s reunion performance at Glastonbury very much fits into the first category. The band had headlined 11 years earlier, but it hadn’t exactly been the crowd-pleasing set many had hoped for.

In 2009, however, after all the fighting and the desire to be taken more seriously, this was an inclusive, emotional celebration of what made them one of the biggest bands in the country in the first place. And with the crowd’s own acapella rendition of Tender continuing long after the band had left the stage, it was obvious to everyone on Worthy Farm and beyond that a real Glastonbury moment had just occurred.

Credit: Blur - Live at Glastonbury Festival, Universal

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6. Foo Fighters, 2017

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From the ashes of Nirvana came Dave Grohl and his band of merry men. Foo Fighters are undoubtedly one of the biggest bands in the world, with a fan base so loyal, word has it, they can predict album sales ahead of time. Needless to say, 2017s headline slot at Worthy Farm turned into an all-out riot, with Grohl belting the lyrics to Pretender like a man possessed. To top things off, drummer Taylor Hawkins swapped his drum riser for the mic, belting out Bowie’s "Under Pressure" to the sheer delight of the crowd. Enough said.

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7. Bruce Springsteen, 2009

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Undeniably one of the greatest rock 'n' roll stars of our generation, Bruce Springsteen took to Glastonbury's Pyramid stage in 2009 in what has to be one of his greatest performances. Alongside his E Street Band, Springsteen wowed Worthy Farm festival-goers for close to three hours without pause for breath. His shows are pretty much a religious experience. The veteran rockstar held the entire crowd in the palm of his hand as he belted out hits including No Surrender and American Land.

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8. Elton John, 2023

It was a surprise to many that Elton John's 2023 Glastonbury headline set was the first time he had played the festival. Good things come to those who wait, though, as his performance will go down as one of the greatest ever on the Pyramid stage. From opener Pinball Wizard, a soaring rendition of The Who classic, to Rocket Man it was an assured, beautiful performance where Elton John looked genuinely awe struck that he was at the festival.

The show wasn't all about the showman, either. He brought on special guests who are up-and-comers in the music industry, letting them shine through duets and even let Stephen Sanchez sing his own song, Until I Found You. The biggest guest was Brandon Flowers who appeared for a heartfelt rendition of Tiny Dancer - we also spotted Kate Hudson back stage which was a lovely, perhaps unintentional Almost Famous nod. When the set truly shone, though, it was because of Elton and his band, many of which have been with him from the start.

His voice still masterful, his stage presence electric, his standing up and clapping the audience after every song a mark of the man he is. The end did come too soon, with no encore, but when you finish on Rocket Man with rockets lighting up the Glastonbury sky, there really is no better goodbye.

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Long before Glastonbury was commandeered by posh twentysomethings in designer waterproofs and £100 wellies, it was widely accepted that Pilton’s premier festival was for proper hippies.

That’s who made up the unreceptive crowd that greeted Morrissey, Marr and co in 1984. And while it was by no means a set worth recording and releasing on Betamax, it spawned what must’ve been the world’s least threatening stage invasion and helped to alter the course of the festival towards what became known as indie music, eventually turning it into the cultural behemoth it is today.

Credit: The Sound of the Smiths, Warner Music, Warner Music

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10. Metallica, 2014

Before Metallica, Glastonbury never really embraced heavy metal. Because of this there were many who were wary of Metallica headlining - but their 2014 set is a masterclass in appeasing your fans and bringing newbies in with your sound. Not many bands can spin so many classics together but Metallica playing One, Master Of Puppets, Nothing Else Matters and Enter The Sandman in that order was just sublime.

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11. The Prodigy, 1997

The first dance act to headline Glastonbury, Prodigy pulled off a masterclass of ferocity with their set list. The first and last songs (before the encore) were fairly new to the crowd, but already classics thanks to being released as singles a few months before their performance. Smack My Bitch up set the tempo, with first closer Firestarter bringing the mud-caked crowd to a frenzy. There were a few moments to breathe (well, about 20 minutes when during Breathe there was a technical issue) but, for the most part, this was an adrenaline rush.

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12. The Levellers, 1994

The crowds at Glastonbury are now notoriously huge but in 94 the biggest festival crowd the festival had ever seen was for... The Levellers. The Brighton pop, punk, folk band pulled off a blinder of a headliner, capitalising on their fantastic set in 1992 and really showing the power of a band with a conscience.

They were the first to play on the 'new' Pyramid stage, as the previous one had put things into disarray after it burned down, and came on after a very energetic Rage Against The Machine got the crowd riled up. From 100 Years of Solitude to What You Know, they played a magnificent set that summed up everything good about the festival

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13. Oasis, 1995

In just one year, Oasis had gone from making their Glastonbury debut to headlining the festival on a Friday night. It was a euphoric set that pushed Britpop to the masses, with the band filled with rock'n'roll swagger debuting songs that would become instant classics, including: The Swamp Song, Hello, Roll With It and Morning Glory.

While Noel Gallagher decided not to play Wonderwall (saving it for an acoustic set the following night), the crowd did also get renditions of Don't Look Back In Anger and, strangely, an appearance by Robbie Williams who came on to dance during Shakermaker. It was an all-time classic performance that the band couldn't quite recreate when they last played the festival in 2004.

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14. Dolly Parton, 2014

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Dolly Parton, the Queen of Dollywood, conquered Glastonbury in 2014 with her oversized hair and cries of "Joleeeeene!". The US superstar has a history of making country music accessible to the masses. Her Worthy Farm performance was no exception. Dressed head-to-toe in white, Parton cracked out the guitar - redefining the term crowdpleaser in the process.

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15. REM, 1999

Legend has it that Michael Stipe, lead singer of REM, almost never made it to the stage as the security was a little too tight that night. Thankfully he managed to sweet talk his way in, and the set is now one of legend. They opened with one of their newer songs at the time, Lotus, and closed before the encore with a soaring rendition of Man On The Moon. And given this was 1999 and everyone feared the Y2K bug, it was fitting that their final encore ditty was the fantastic It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

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16. Paul McCartney, 2004

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Unless it’s Pete Best, booking an ex-Beatle to headline your festival is always going to be a big deal. Even Ringo Starr recalling key moments from Thomas the Tank Engine would draw a pretty decent crowd. But when your name’s Paul McCartney and you can play a set full of songs (all 33 of them) that pretty much every single person in the crowd knows the words to, you’re onto a winner, even if the on-stage patter did veer into embarrassing dad/#AccidentalPartridge territory a little too often.

Credit: PaulMccartney.com

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17. Carter USM, 1992

Before Glastonbury went thoroughly a-list with its Pyramid Stage headliners, a number of alternative bands got their time to shine. One of these managed to do what no other has done to this day: headline and then get a permanent ban straight after (due to a shorter set and a scuffle with Michael Eavis). The ban shouldn't tarnish what an epic, rowdy set it was though, playing tracks from their recently released The Love Album and classic punk tunes, including the landlord-baiting Sheriff Fatman.

The band weren't happy with the short set and the fact that they couldn't fire foam balls into the crowd. Some 30 years later, though, and the gig has gone down as one of the seminal 'you had to be there' moments of the festival, marking a turning point for Glasto where the corporate side was starting to overtake the free spirit of the festival

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18. Tyrannosaurus Rex, 1970

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Tickets for the inaugural festival on Worthy Farm cost just £1 (one 248th of 2019’s price, plus it included all the free milk you could drink) but the line-up wasn’t exactly bursting; the original ads promised The Kinks, Wayne Fontana and “at least six other groups.”

In the end, The Kinks didn’t even make it, but a pre-abbreviation T-Rex did instead. Only around 1500 people saw the performance but Michael Eavis called it “one of the most memorable slots ever”, even if he did have to give Marc Bolan £100 of his milk money for the next five months to pay for it.

Credit: T-Rex Gold, Crimson

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19. Beyoncé, 2011

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Anything Jay-Z can do, Beyoncé can do... better? The singer’s performance in 2011 marked the point Glastonbury started booking the world’s biggest pop acts to headline, not just geezers with guitars to please Q magazine readers.

And with stage productions getting more and more extravagant, Beyoncé was the perfect choice to kick off the new era. Getting any remaining doubters on side by opening with Crazy in Love and Single Ladies was probably key, but by the time she finished on Halo, you could count any left on the fingers of one hand.

Credit: BBC, YouTube

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20. Stormzy, 2019

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The first British rapper to headline Glastonbury, Stormzy took the challenge on headfirst and delivered a barnstorming set that took the audience from the south London freestyle rap battles that began his career, all the way up to his current number one, the brilliant Vossi Bop. Even bringing Chris Martin from Coldplay on to stage didn't dampen the spirits of the show. He ended with Big for your Boots - no encore, no need.

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21. Jay-Z, 2008

£4.35
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Unfortunately it’s impossible to talk about Jay-Z’s 2008 performance without mentioning Noel Gallagher, aka the Britpop Jeremy Clarkson, and his absurd whining about hip-hop not belonging at Glastonbury. It must’ve come as a surprise to The Roots, Slum Village and The Beastie Boys, who all appeared in the ‘90s.

The fact of the matter remains that even Jigga’s unrehearsed cover of Wonderwall at the start of the set was more enjoyable than Oasis’s last lacklustre headline performance in 2004, not to mention his storming renditions of Big Pimpin’ and Hard Knock Life.

Credit: GlastonburyFestival.co.uk

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Additional words: Marc Chacksfield