Whether we’re talking about a seasoned performer decades into their career, or a wide-eyed newcomer setting foot onto Worthy Farm for the first time, an act’s first ever show at Glastonbury is a milestone that just can’t be matched. Often, these appearances result in the magical, once-in-a-lifetime sets that get whispered about for years.
This weekend we’d normally be tramping our way around the ginormous Glastonbury site in search of exactly this kind of musical sorcery – but with the 50th anniversary bash postponed until next year, we’ll just have to make do with a trip down memory lane, from the comfort of our living rooms.
Wondering where to begin? Grab a camping chair and a warm tinny for posterity, and stick on these unbeatable first outings.
Christine and the Queens (2016)
When Christine and The Queens arrived at Glastonbury in 2016, she was faced with a truly bizarre blend of circumstances: the immediate wake of the Brexit referendum vote, and a farm packed full of downcast Remain supporters all trudging their way through the muddiest festival to date. Still, if anybody was capable of rising to the challenge, it was Héloïse Letissier – at that point armed with a breakthrough debut album that held up the idea of ‘Chaleur Humaine’ (French for “human warmth”) and the beauty that can be found from sticking out as a tilted outsider.
When the rain lashed down during gender-bending anthem ‘iT’ – completely drenching the sea of punters, a few of whom were equipped with European Union flags – Chris challenged the elements themselves to a spar: “what’s up, rain?” she goaded, flexing her biceps, “you want to fight, rain?!” And when the sun finally broke through, during the celebratory ‘Tilted’, it felt like Christine and The Queens herself had defeated the surrounding gloom.
In Glastonbury’s half-a-century history, Jay-Z’s headline set – and first Glastonbury – is unbeaten on the power-move front. After the trailblazing rapper’s booking was ‘mired in controversy’ (a great euphemism for: ‘pissed off some people who could do with reading up about the history of their sacred guitar music, beginning with Sister Rosetta Tharpe) Jay kicked off his milestone Pyramid set with a perfectly shambolic rendition of ‘Wonderwall’. It was a pointed response to Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who previously said “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” Followed with a quick-fire rendition of ‘99 Problems’, Jay hammered his point home once and for all, before blazing through an incendiary set: zero guests, zero gimmicks, just hit after quick-smart hit.
With one gravelled “alright?” from Thom Yorke in 1994, Radiohead became embedded in Glastonbury’s folklore, forever. The band would go onto headline a whopping four times (an achievement only matched by The Cure and Coldplay) but for their first ever outing at Worthy Farm, the band found themselves in the middle of an Oasis-Pulp-Blur sarnie on The Other Stage. Arguably the day that well and truly cemented Britpop as a cultural phenomenon, Radiohead were reborn elsewhere, silencing all the naysayers who had them pinned as one ‘Creep’ wonders with a succession of now-classic, then-unheard rippers from ‘The Bends’.
In 2019, Stormzy’s historic headline set was a triumphant moment for British music; long an influential cultural force, he became the first grime artist to headline Glastonbury last year, with a single album to his name. But the Pyramid was not the London talent’s first rodeo – his festy debut took place back in 2016 at the Sonic stage, for a lucky crowd of around 300.
On a smaller scale it may have been, but it set down the foundations for the historic moment that followed years later: uplifting fellow artists like Kano, J-Hus, Nadia Rose and Novelist through a variety of guest appearances, and paying tribute to the past influences that shaped him.
Think of artists who bend the conventions of pop at will, and Lorde springs to mind immediately – and when the Kiwi artist made her Glastonbury debut, this same hunger for invention shaped her set. Her big entrance left out pyrotechnic flurry, and brought a disarming intimacy to The Other Stage instead; it began with Lorde singing a stripped back opening verse of ‘Green Light’ into an onstage camera, backed only by fluttering strings. It set the tone for a skewed performance that was less pure pop, and more pure theatre, Lorde eventually clambering into a glass-walled box filled with a revolving cast of house party attendees. It was the essence of ‘Melodrama’ encapsulated – inward-looking, reflective gold cast from the same mould as Robyn’s ‘Dancing on my Own’.
Janelle Monae (2011)
Think of Janelle Monae and Glastonbury, and her 2019 show at West Holts will most likely come to mind first – “we must impeach Donald Trump,” she urged at that show following an impassioned message of solidarity. By then, Monae was an undisputed megastar – but her first trip to Glastonbury on the same stage, eight years previously, has to be one of the festival’s most sought after ‘I was there’ sets.
Janelle Monae was a megastar then, too – even if fewer people had caught on. An immaculately choreographed set raced through robotic smashes from her debut album ‘The ArchAndroid’ – a dystopian exploration of love, lust, sexual identity, and technology. Hundreds of black and white balloons, a martial arts fight with a monk, and a bout of on-stage painting followed – mashing together funk, Rn’B, pop, blues, and sc-fi in the way that few artists other than Monae are capable of.
Arctic Monkeys (2007)
When it comes to scaling the heady heights of Glastonbury’s bill, Arctic Monkeys do not fuck around – skipping straight to Pyramid Stage headliner for their first ever appearance. And given that they achieved this enormous milestone a mere two years after the release of debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ (and just four years after their first gig) makes their victory all the sweeter. Thousands and thousands of people belting out not just every single lyric, but air-guitaring along with note-perfect accuracy to every single riff. That’s how you know you’ve truly made it. “This only happens once,” remarked a slightly baffled Alex Turner, struggling to make sense of the enormity. Lightning may never strike twice, but a ‘Brianstorm’? That tends to strike a second time – and sure enough, in 2013 the band headlined again.
Kylie Minogue’s big Glastonbury moment was supposed to take place back in 2005. The Aussie powerhouse was midway through a Greatest Hits tour, with too many bangers to count shoved up her shimmering sleeves. A Pyramid Stage headline slot was planned to mark the biggest lap of honour, with Kylie set to become Glastonbury’s first pop icon headliner. ‘Spinning Around’. ‘Better the Devil You Know’. ‘Slow’. ‘It’s In Your Eyes’. ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. It would have been historic, euphoric silliness from start to finish.
Kylie ended up postponing the show following a breast cancer diagnosis – and returning to Worthy Farm fourteen years later than originally planned, she pulled out every stop, and then some. Weaving in a sneakily deployed Evelyn “Champagne” King sample into flash-mob anthem ‘Spinning Around’, along with an emotional look back at her original billing, and a fleet of pastel-trousered dancers, it was campy, ridiculous, over-the-top pop genius at its very finest.
In the six years following Kylie’s postponement, Glastonbury was still yet to host a true pop headliner – a wrong eventually set right by Beyoncé in 2011. As well as marking a first for pop, Bey was also the first black female solo artist to headline the festival.
Fireworks, hydraulic lifts, faultless choreo, flawless vocals, a big-screen mud montage, a Destiny’s Child mega-mix, and a cover of Alanis Morrisette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ – this was a headline set that truly had everything, with ‘Crazy In Love’, ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ ‘Irreplaceable’ and ‘Halo’ to boot.
Billie Eilish (2019)
Billie Eilish began 2019 as the name on every new music-head’s lips, and ended it as Gen Z’s brightest, most brilliant pop star. By the time Glastonbury came around, co-organiser Emily Eavis had to bump the LA artist’s set up to The Other Stage (a wise decision, can you imagine the carnage at John Peel?). From the moshpit-fuelled menace of ‘Bad Guy’ to the juddering ‘You Should See Me in a Crown’ and ‘Bury A Friend’ Eilish put in the kind of performance that burst with future headliner promise, overcoming technical issues like a proper champ in the process.
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