One of the hot topics in the toilet queue at Glastonbury is always: who should headline the next one? But as anyone who’s ever been will tell you, Glastonbury isn’t all about the headliners. The wealth of entertainment on offer at Worthy Farm means that the organisers have always been fairly relaxed about exactly who is topping the bill. In the early days in particular, a highly personal approach to booking bands led to some memorably eccentric line-ups that defied contemporary pop trends.
Looking back at old Glastonbury posters also reveals a number of headline bands whose star has since waned, but who were undoubtedly big at the time, particularly with a festival-going audience. Here are 12 of the unlikeliest Glastonbury headliners from years gone by - and by headliners, we mean any act who closed out a night on the main/Pyramid Stage or received top billing on the official poster.
When reminiscing about the glory days of Britpop, Northern Irish pop-punk outfit Ash are rarely one of the first bands mentioned. But a string of hit singles in the mid-90s earned them an Other Stage headline slot on the Friday. Then, when Steve Winwood was forced to pull out of Sunday night’s bill - supposedly his truck got stuck in the mud - Ash were asked to perform again, becoming the youngest-ever Pyramid Stage headliners. Come to think of it, had Winwood played, he’d probably be on this list instead…
Ginger Baker, 1981
The notoriously irascible former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, appearing with his new band, was the first act to headline the newly-built Pyramid Stage on 19 June, 1981. In a moment that certainly trumps Lee Nelson’s stage invasion during Kanye West’s set, Baker caused an almighty ruckus by setting up his equipment while the previous act, folk-rocker Roy Harper, was still playing. Understandably miffed, Harper confronted him and the two ended up scrapping on-stage. According to an eyewitness account on UK Rock Festivals, the crowd then pelted Baker with bottles during his set, with one hitting him square on the forehead. Some claim that Baker, hardman that he is, simply carried on drumming.
Basement Jaxx, 2005
Tim Blake, 1979
The first-ever three-day Glasto in 1979 was also the first since 1970 to charge for tickets, becoming a significantly more professional operation complete with healthcare facilities, children’s entertainment and a state-of-the-art Funktion One sound system. So who was chosen to headline this momentous event? Why, Tim Blake of course! Er sorry, who? Let us explain… Peter Gabriel was undoubtedly the biggest name on the bill, delivering a rousing set on the main stage (not yet a pyramid) with the help of a band that included former Genesis cohort Phil Collins and ex-Gong guitarist Steve Hillage. Yet it was another former Gong member, prog synth wizard Tim Blake, who was asked to close out the festival after Gabriel’s set - largely because of his pioneering use of lasers. “I spent the whole evening s****** myself,” Blake told UK Rock Festivals. “But yes, I headlined the '79 Festival with P.G. as support! Never forget it!”
Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, 1992
It seems improbable now, but in 1992, pun-loving electro-punks Jim Bob and Fruitbat - aka Carter USM - were kinda a big deal. Riding high on the chart-topping success of 1992 - The Love Album and its attendant Top 10 single The Only Living Boy in New Cross, the duo celebrated their Pyramid Stage headline appearance by firing thousands of Carter-branded rubber balls into the audience. However, their set was forcibly cut short due to previous bands overrunning; as a result, Fruitbat badmouthed Michael Eavis from the stage and Carter were never booked again.
Level 42, 1986
Purveyors of slick funk-pop to wine bars, Level 42 were a curious choice to headline Glastonbury, the epicentre of British hippiedom. But there they are on the 1986 poster, above Madness and The Housemartins. However, when it came to the day itself, it seems the organisers saw sense and it was actually jazz-funk firebrand Gil Scott-Heron who closed out the festival.
They’re still awaiting their critical rehabilitation, but folk-punk renegades Levellers were hugely popular in the 90s, racking up six consecutive gold albums. Glastonbury is their spiritual home, and having worked their way up the bill from their first appearance in 1990 in the travellers’ field, they were rewarded with a bumper crowd for their headlining appearance in 1994 - believed to be the largest-ever assembled in front of the Pyramid Stage.
Moby’s had more exposure for his highly entertaining 2016 autobiography Porcelain than for any of his recent albums. But back at the turn of the millennium his music was everywhere, thanks to his mega-selling 1999 album Play and the fact that every track on it was famously licenced many times over to films, TV programmes and commercials. Despite reservations that his high-class muzak might not translate to a festival crowd, The Guardian described his set as a “revelation”, including an apology on behalf of America for president George W. Bush and a surprise cover of Creep, which the previous night’s headliners Radiohead were too cool to play.
Shakespears Sister, 1992
Another anomaly from 1992. Everyone remembers Shakespears Sister’s chart-topping mega-ballad Stay, but did the duo really have enough songs to pull off a Pyramid Stage headline set? Handily for the doubters, the Other Stage provided an excellent alternative that year, with raucous sets from Blur and 808 State.
Skunk Anansie, 1999
What can we say? It was a lean time for music, with other Pyramid Stage acts over the weekend including Bush, Barenaked Ladies, The Corrs and Delirious? (question mark their own, but entirely warranted), while the Other Stage was headlined by Kula Shaker and Paul Oakenfold. Touting their third album Post Orgasmic Chill with its lead single Charlie Big Potato, snarling pop-rockers Skunk Anansie did their best. But let’s just say it wasn’t quite a ‘Pulp moment’.
Taj Mahal, 1981/1987
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, aka Taj Mahal, is a hugely respected blues guitarist and world music champion who’s played with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Toumani Diabaté. But was he worthy of headlining the Pyramid Stage not once but twice? You’ll have to ask someone who attended in 1981 or 1987 (when he topped the Sunday night bill above Van Morrison and pop duo The Communards).
Weather Report, 1984
Before the arrival of TV cameras at Worthy Farm, the concept of big-name headliners wasn’t so important, with Glasto-goers tending to buy into the whole experience rather than fixating on three specific acts. Even so, it’s a surprise to see the name of jazz-fusioneers Weather Report at the top of the poster for the 1984 festival, ahead of the likes of The Smiths, Ian Dury and The Band. Perhaps they were advertising an actual weather report, to ensure punters arrived properly equipped for a potential mudbath? But no, Weather Report definitely noodled their way across the Pyramid Stage on Sunday night - although in the end, they were merely the warm-up act for that year’s special guest, Afrobeat maestro Fela Kuti.