The following was compiled using books and personal reminiscences, countless internet forums and old magazine reports. All headliners are ordered by the day they played (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), and their ranking is based solely on the weight of the three performances, not on the wider excitements of the many other stages at each year’s festival.
35. The Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Wynton Marsalis (1993)
A weird line-up by any standards, partly due to Red Hot Chili Peppers dropping out (Lenny Kravitz stepped in). Anyone actually into music was at the Other Stage to see Suede, Spiritualised and Stereo MCs. Meanwhile the Black Crowes jammed endlessly, Kravitz didn’t really have the songs and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was… pleasant.
34. Coldplay, Rod Stewart, Stereophonics (2002)
Coldplay’s first Pyramid-headlining set caught fire with songs from the yet-to-be-released A Rush of Blood to The Head, but Rod the Mod was ill-fittingly bland, while Stereophonics, although at the peak of their career, lacked the heft to truly shine.
33. Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, The Who (2007)
Amid some of the worst weather the festival has known – relentless cold sleet – these three headliners also had to battle sound levels so feeble that despite Arctic Monkeys’ energised form, The Killers’ fireworks extravaganza and The Who’s ballsy greatest-hits set, things failed to fire up.
32. Steve Hillage, Sky, Peter Gabriel and Friends (1979)
One of only two Glastonburys with no Pyramid Stage. Instead, playing beneath a curious inflatable white awning were Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, prog-classical outfit Sky and a jam-band that Peter Gabriel put together, which included Tom Robinson, Nona Hendryx and Alex Harvey, with Phil Collins on drums. The latter were the weekend’s highlight.
31. Carter USM, Shakespear’s Sister, Youssou N’Dour (1992)
Carter went onstage late, fired thousands of promotional foam tennis balls into the crowd, then moaned about the festival curfew, while flash-in-the-pan pop act Shakespear’s Sister were simply not a big enough draw. Only Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour’s Sunday serving of Afro-flavoured optimism truly hit the spot.
30. Florence + the Machine, Kanye West, The Who (2015)
This could have been Kanye West’s crowning moment; instead, he played a po-faced set in a coldly designed box with no crowd interaction. The only lively moment was provided by a stage invader (comedian Lee Nelson). Both Florence Welch and The Who, meanwhile, were decent, but didn’t muster that elusive magic.
29. The Levellers, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel (1994)
The Pyramid Stage burned down just before the 1994 festival; it was thus on a reassuringly substantial makeshift affair that folk-punk renegades The Levellers drew one of the biggest crowds to date in Glastonbury’s history. The old guard, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel, performed respectably well received sets, broadcast for the first time by Channel 4 as the festival began its journey to becoming a fixture of June’s TV schedules.
28. Black Uhuru, Sad Café, Richie Havens (1982)
Are Mancunian pop-rockers Sad Café the least-remembered of all Glastonbury headliners? They certainly didn’t create waves with their Saturday night set. Sunday saw Richie Havens float on good vibes left over from Woodstock, but the one that most attendees remember is reggae outfit Black Uhuru, who on Friday showered the Worthy Farm masses with whopping dub basslines.
27. Joe Cocker, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Hugh Masakela (1985)
A very rainy year. Ian Dury stormed off during his set when mud was thrown at him, but returned half an hour later to charge through his hits to much appreciation. Joe Cocker gave it his all, and trumpeter Hugh Masakela, his status as a vocal opponent of apartheid to the fore, gave Sunday a gently funky finish.
27. Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello, Fela Kuti (1989)
Wearing a bulletproof vest due to death threats, Suzanne Vega emanated reassuring calm during her set, while Elvis Costello, returning for two hit-fuelled encores, was his usual entertaining self, but it was white-suited Nigerian rebel musician Fela Kuti who was the weekend’s highlight, closing Sunday with a potent brew of Afro-funk.
26. The Cure, Sinéad O’Connor, World Party (1990)
Drama was caused by a medical helicopter descending on the crowd during The Cure’s sturdily enjoyable set, to retrieve someone who singer Robert Smith described as “being in a bad way”. Sinéad O’Connor and rockers World Party were on fine form, but headlining above the bands on Friday and Saturday were wild French troupe Circus Archaos, who entertained the 72,000 attendees.
25. Ginger Baker, Hawkwind, Taj Mahal (1981)
Ginger Baker came on during Roy Harper’s prolonged set, started setting up, and told him that he was going on too long. A full on fistfight ensued before Harper was dragged off. The crowd turned on Baker, chucking detritus at him, including a rock that gashed open his head. Musically, free festival kings Hawkwind owned Saturday, and Taj Mahal gave Sunday a lesson in mellow blues classiness.
24. Arcade Fire, Metallica, Kasabian (2014)
Metallica were a surprise headliner, posing the question: can full-on heavy metal succeed on Glastonbury’s main stage? The answer: kind of. They had the power and the enthusiasm, but only their fans knew any of the songs bar Enter Sandman. Arcade Fire, meanwhile, surprised naysayers by putting on a glittery show replete with fireworks and dancers, and Kasabian gave an efficiently ebullient festival-closing crowd sing-along.
23. Primal Scream, Blur, Pulp (1998)
A couple of years after the shine had come off it, 1998’s line-up celebrated Britpop. (Pulp were even headlining over Bob Dylan.) All three acts acquitted themselves passably, but monsoon-like weather and a feeling that the party had moved on didn’t help their cause.
22. REM, Manic Street Preachers, Skunk Anansie (1999)
Female-fronted heavy rockers Skunk Anansie, a few years into a stable but hardly stratospheric career, were a baffling choice to headline Sunday night, and only had limited appeal. The Manic Street Preachers had to halt occasionally due to crowd crushes, during a decent rather than amazing set. On Friday, however, REM gave their all to a hit-filled performance, syncing with the Glastonbury spirit.
21. Melanie, UB40, King Sunny Adé (1983)
Seventies hippy singer Melanie’s set was invaded by Hell’s Angels who, rather sweetly, only wanted to each give her a peck on the cheek. UB40 delivered a red-hot set, a balance between their ska roots and the pop to come, and King Sunny Adé, with a sprawling band and multiple searchlights playing over the surrounding countryside, topped all that had come before.
20. Gorillaz, Muse, Stevie Wonder (2010)
At the most sun-beaten Glasto ever, Gorillaz – standing in for U2, who’d dropped out due to Bono’s back problems – brought on a Who’s Who of guests (Lou Reed, Shaun Ryder, Mark E Smith, half of The Clash) but failed to win over a large percentage of the crowd. Muse’s epic rock flash succeeded much better, especially a guest appearance from The Edge for U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name. Stevie Wonder topped both, and even had Michael Eavis onstage singing Happy Birthday.
19. The White Stripes, Coldplay, Basement Jaxx (2005)
The White Stripes, at their commercial peak, didn’t appear to be enjoying their self-indulgent set. Seven Nation Army aside, the crowd wasn’t persuaded. Both Coldplay and Basement Jaxx played Can’t Get You Out of My Head in honour of Kylie, whose headline slot was cancelled due to her diagnosis with breast cancer. The latter band, standing in for her and packing the stage with a fiesta’s worth of musicians, truly brought the party.
18. Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Ed Sheeran (2017)
Radiohead’s morose set challenged anyone to stick with them, until it finally lightened up at the end. Foo Fighters, however, set Saturday night alight with a gigantic dose of tension ’n’ release rocking, massive choruses, virtuosic musicianship and a snippet of Queen. But it was Ed Sheeran’s communal sing-along, the work of one man, one guitar and some effects pedals, that truly won over the crowds, and eventually drew plaudits from even the Sheeran-phobic music press.
17. New Order, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal (1987)
Elvis Costello’s set is renowned among his fans, for he finished his solo turn and a curtain went up to reveal his former band, The Attractions, and a whole new set began. New Order, meanwhile, were at the peak of their powers, and concluded with a guitar-smashing version of the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray.
16. REM, Radiohead, Moby (2003)
REM nailed a well-received greatest-hits set, and Radiohead, on buzzing form, almost matched their career-defining previous Glastonbury appearance, but it was Moby who, despite the onset of drizzle, proved a revelation. With the Brit soul belter Diane Charlemagne on vocals, he fired out a contagious electronic dance set, topped off with a version of Radiohead’s Creep.
15. Stormzy, The Killers, The Cure (2019)
The Killers and a slow-to-warm-up Cure nailed it at a scorching festival but no headliner has ever thrown more showbiz at the Pyramid than Stormzy: a ballet troupe, a gospel chorus, Chris Martin from Coldplay, and more. But at the heart of it all was a long overdue acknowledgement of grime’s triumph.
14. Muse, Adele, Coldplay (2016)
Muse’s gigantic rock sound, backed up by confetti and streamer cannons, is purpose-built for any festival; even so, Coldplay went one better by distributing thousands of light-up wristbands to the crowd and welcoming guests Barry Gibb and Michael Eavis (who sang My Way). None of this, however, could outshine Adele, whose down-to-earth persona and massive popularity was Glastonbury gold.
13. Kings of Leon, Jay-Z, The Verve (2008)
Arguably Glastonbury’s most anticipated set ever, Jay-Z’s appearance had been preceded by a storm of media blather, led by Noel Gallagher, as to whether the hip-hop star was an appropriate headliner. Opening with a version of Oasis’s Wonderwall, he drove the place wild with a glitzy greatest hits extravaganza. And on the following night, 10 years after they might have, a briefly reformed The Verve finally owned the Pyramid.
12. Tyrannosaurus Rex, Al Stewart, Quintessence (1970)
Michael Eavis’s first festival was a ramshackle affair, with 1,500 hippies turning up at £1 a pop. The Kinks were replaced at the last minute by Marc Bolan’s rising glam act Tyrannosaurus (soon to be T.) Rex, who proved an exciting proposition. While there were no official headliners, folkie Al Stewart and flute-playing prog-jazz hippies Quintessence were the other notable performers.
11. Dr John, Elvis Costello, Fela Kuti (1984)
1984 is a Glastonbury best remembered for the appearance of a band lower on the bill, The Smiths, somewhat out of their element but pushing the festival into new pastures. Fela Kuti and Elvis Costello were a last-minute addition and a surprise guest respectively, and all three headliners lived up to their substantial reputations.
10. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Blur (2009)
The year of the American heavyweights saw Neil Young play a fiery set, heavy on Crazy Horse rock-outs, and closing with The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, while Springsteen amassed new fans with a three-hour marathon that made Worthy Farm feel like a gospel revival tent. A reformed Blur proved that the Brits could also hold their own, giving a triumphant closing set that featured an emotional Damon Albarn in tears at the crowd’s response.
9. Nik Turner (1978)
This was Nik Turner of Hawkwind – or, actually his Egyptian-themed space-rock project, Sphynx – on his own travelling Pyramid Stage at a free, rainy, impromptu Glastonbury. This one comes in at No. 8 because Turner’s performance represents the era’s anarchic free-form jamming and underground festival culture at a time when not many, least of all the mainstream media, gave a hoot.
8. The Chemical Brothers, Travis, David Bowie (2000)
The moment when the skies opened on a previously temperate evening after Travis played their hit Why Does it Always Rain on Me? has become part of Glastonbury lore, but the reason this line-up ranks so high is down to the Chemical Brothers turning the Pyramid field into an open-air techno club and, more especially, a long-haired, dandified, gold frock-coated Bowie cracking through a set of 24-carat belters. His take on Heroes later provided the climax to Julien Temple’s Glastonbury film.
7. Paul McCartney, Oasis, Muse (2004)
Ever since 2004, Glastonbury’s walkways and campsites have been liable to randomly burst into the chorus of Hey Jude, for McCartney’s set was an epochal celebration of his peerless decades in pop music. Meanwhile, Muse delivered rock pomp with their usual epic aplomb. Only a fading Oasis seemed to be going through the motions.
6. Oasis, Pulp, The Cure (1995)
And yet, nine years before, Oasis, just heading into the big league, yet with only one album under their belt, hit the Pyramid stage with a Mancunian swagger that brooked no argument. Pulp, meanwhile, standing in for the absent Stone Roses, performed the set of their career, cementing their status as major contenders; it was left to The Cure to close Sunday in suitably sharp style.
5. U2, Coldplay, Beyoncé (2011)
U2 had to contend with both a torrential deluge and a large balloon raised from the crowd protesting their tax-dodging. They only partly succeeded. Coldplay were their usual crowd-pleasing selves but Beyoncé, who front-loaded her set with a firework display accompanying her two biggest songs – Crazy in Love and Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) – blew the place apart with choreographed Amazonian pizzazz. And she was three months pregnant!
4. Arctic Monkeys, The Rolling Stones, Mumford and Sons (2013)
While Arctic Monkeys attacked their set with a frenetic energy and Mumford and Sons appealed mainly to existing fans, it was the presence of The Rolling Stones that gave 2013 its real frisson. They delivered in spades with 69-year-old Mick Jagger on outrageously lithe form, the highlight being a spine-tinglingly euphoric sing-along to You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
3. David Bowie, Traffic, Melanie (1971)
The Glastonbury Fayre, captured on film by Nic Roeg, was a very far cry from today’s festival. In a haze of acid and marijuana, the scheduling seems to have been quite random, the idea of “headliners” going against the ethos of the times – so, for instance, Bowie came on at dawn. If you can remember it, you probably weren’t there.
2. Radiohead, The Prodigy, Ash (1997)
This was one of the most water-sodden Glastonburys ever, but The Prodigy, riding high on Firestarter and The Fat of the Land album, gave Worthy Farm a rave workout while teenage Northern Irish punk-pop trio Ash, who’d replaced Steve Winwood at the last minute, were a fizzing ball of energy. But it was Radiohead who played a set that would go down as the making of them, their moody power completely carrying the crowd away.
1. The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Level 42 (1986)
A triple-header of Glastonbury-headlining brilliance. The Psychedelic Furs rendered drizzle irrelevant with driving punk-fuelled alt-pop. Level 42, best known for their middle-of-the-road pop, may seem an odd band to be at the No.1, but on Sunday June 22 1986, they returned to the rawer jazz-funk of their early career, laying down an elastic, riveting bass and percussion groove that was full of righteous attack.
And The Cure were best of all, playing an extraordinary set during which an electrical storm rolled in. The band’s squall of post-punk pop played against a backdrop of fork lightning that cut across the night sky alongside their lasers. It imprinted a truly mind-boggling night on the memories of anyone caught up in it.