Why Glastonbury belonged to the Rolling Stones

There were plenty of standout moments at the festival this year, but it was dominated by one band. And, in contrast to many former headliner acts, it was the Stones' ramshackle raw energy that made their set an unforgettable Glastonbury experience

In the pre-internet age, the Glastonbury festival was famously a hive of bizarre rumours about what was going on in the outside world. For a period in the early 90s, a story seemed to be passed around every year that Cliff Richard had died, while in 1995, the news that John Redwood was launching a leadership challenge to then-prime minister John Major somehow got mangled into a report that the entire Tory government had resigned en masse.

The rise of the web and the smartphone was supposed to have done for that kind of thing, but this year the spirit of the unlikely Glastonbury rumour seems to be abroad once again, although this time the stories are concerned not with the sad demise of the tennis-loving Peter Pan of Pop, but with a plethora of secret guest appearances. Lady Gaga is supposed to be turning up. Almost nowhere in the festival is safe from an imminent guerilla gig by Daft Punk. And David Bowie, we are earnestly informed, is going to appear on stage with the Rolling Stones, giving rise to the flatly horrifying thought that he and Mick Jagger might favour us with their cover version of Dancing in the Street.

None of them are true: in reality, the secret guest appearance comes from Liam Gallagher's Beady Eye, who take to the Pyramid stage at an improbably early hour on Friday. "Tonight I'm a rock'n'roll star," says Gallagher, "at 11.30 in the fucking morning."

Still, even without them, there's enough variety on offer. If you find Alt-J's performance on the Other stage a little bookish and opaque for a festival crowd – they perform an unrecognisable cover of Kylie Minogue's Slow, decorated with the keyboard riff from Dr Dre's Still Dre – then the Pyramid stage appearance by Dizzee Rascal provides a striking counterpoint: certainly no one in their right mind is going to protest at the opacity of his approach to live performance. "This one's dedicated to all the ladies with fat arses!" he bellows, by way of introduction to a new song, apparently called Arse Like That. When he plays his debut single, I Luv You, it's hard not to be struck by the contrast between his early material – which still sounds challenging and avant-garde a decade on – and the Day-Glo Club 18-30 pop-house that he now deals in and to conclude that something has been lost along the way. But it's equally hard not be perversely charmed by his crowd-pleasing shamelessness.

Friday night's headliners offer an equally arresting study in contrasts. Complete with an improbable but nonetheless lovely orchestrated version of Mardy Bum, the Arctic Monkeys' performance eradicates memories of their previous attempt at topping the Glastonbury bill in 2007, which fell surprisingly flat, not least because their insouciance looked troublingly like indifference. Those who opt to see Portishead, meanwhile, come back looking slightly shell-shocked by the harrowing intensity of Beth Gibbons's performance and the fact that the accompanying visuals climax in a giant image of David Cameron's face with red lasers shooting out of his eyes.

Nile Rodgers of Chic
Nile Rodgers of Chic adds to the party atmosphere. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images Europe Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images Europe

Noticeably more conducive to a party atmosphere are Chic, whose irresistible set is almost comically stuffed with hits: hits by Chic; hits that Chic's mastermind, Nile Rodgers, wrote for Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Madonna and INXS; and cover versions of hits that sampled Chic, including the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. All this is rapturously received: even Rodgers seems slightly taken aback. He invites the audience on stage to dance during the closing Good Times. When their set ends, the PA plays Daft Punk's Get Lucky: Rodgers stands alone, watching the crowd sing it back to him. The famously loquacious songwriter looks momentarily dumbstruck.

Indeed, one of Glastonbury's unique pleasures is seeing artists authentically moved by the audience's reaction: for some reason, perhaps one of scale, it seems to have an impact above and beyond a normal gig. The bass player from Haim calls their Friday-afternoon performance "the greatest moment of my life" and demands someone come on stage and take a photograph of her with the cheering audience behind her. Jagwar Ma, whose sparkling take on early 90s Balearic pop unexpectedly packs out the John Peel Stage at Saturday lunchtime, announce "this means everything". Disclosure, whose set not only fills the Sonic tent, but brings the entire area around it to a complete standstill, look close to tears. Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis is so moved by the reception that he flings himself into the audience at the front of the Other stage, while playing a guitar solo: as the crowd struggle to keep him aloft, the screens at the side of the stage show him wearing the unmistakable expression of a man rapidly reconsidering the wisdom of his actions.

On Saturday, Laura Mvula's set fits perfectly with the weather, which has turned scorching: listening to the complex vocal harmonies and weird string arrangements of Is There Anybody Out There? wafting around the supine and increasingly sunburnt crowd, you are struck again by how charmingly odd her music is. Equally peculiar is Azealia Banks's choice of stage wear, which is both fluorescent green and covered in what appear to be inflatable spikes: it looks like something sported by a reveller staggering, bug-eyed, around the Stone Circle in the small hours. It has to be said that Banks is not an artist overburdened with charm, as anyone who follows her constant bickering with other artists on Twitter might have guessed, but her music makes up for it. Hip-hop's ongoing obsession with four-to-the-floor house beats and rave-inspired synthesisers is wearing a little thin, but somehow Banks's take on it works. It sounds more propulsive and less generic – one track samples Underworld's Born Slippy, another is audibly influenced by the New York vogue scene, complete with a sample of a gay man reflecting on the relative fierceness of the queens he knows – than a lot of her peers. Her biggest hit, 212, brings with it the bracing sound of a vast field of people screaming along to a hearty endorsement of cunnilingus.

Azealia Banks
Azealia Banks opts for practical stagewear. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images Europe Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images Europe

Still, it's not the most unfeasible lyric you can hear on Saturday afternoon. Anyone chancing upon the Leftfield stage – famed for its mix of music, political debate and talks from Tony Benn – might be surprised to see its curator Billy Bragg duetting with comedian Phill Jupitus on a version of his hit Sexuality, with the titular lyric changed to "bestiality". It segues into a similarly themed version of the Smiths' Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now: "I was looking for a dog," offers Jupitus, "and then I found a dog."

Presumably unaware that, elsewhere at Glastonbury, one of his most celebrated songs is being reworked into a paean to zoophilia, Johnny Marr appears on the John Peel stage. His set suggests that his recent album The Messenger has been slightly undervalued: if the most vociferous audience reactions are reserved for his occasional dips into the Smiths' back catalogue – Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before, Bigmouth Strikes Again – the tracks he plays from The Messenger sound punchy and exciting. Meanwhile, on the main stage, Elvis Costello deviates from the hits – Pump It Up, I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea, Oliver's Army – to prove that his ire hasn't left him. He plays Tramp the Dirt Down, the song in which he famously offered to dance on Margaret Thatcher's grave, suggesting that "it's not about burying someone underground, it's about burying an idea in the ground".

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream
Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream performs on the Pyramid stage. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Europe Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Europe

He is followed by Primal Scream, whose performance initially seems to wobble. Bobby Gillespie clearly thinks the audience are showing insufficient interest in their new material. Those who have camped out at the front of the stage all day in order to catch a glimpse of the Rolling Stones seem a little nonplussed by their support act performing a brooding song about familial abuse called River of Pain, complete with a cacophonous free-jazz interlude, nor – more surprisingly – are they much moved by the blaring sirens and relentless bassline of Swastika Eyes. "Has somebody dosed you with valium?" he snaps. "Come on, you fuckers." For a moment, it looks as if things might go the way of Primal Scream's 2005 Glastonbury appearance, where things got so confrontational between band and audience that their set ended with Gillespie being manhandled offstage by security. Instead, however, the band win the crowd around, by the simple expedient of playing the hits, with Haim as guest backing vocalists: Loaded, Rocks, Come Together.

By the time the Rolling Stones arrive, the crowd in front of the Pyramid stage has swelled to 100,000, something you might have predicted had you noted the sheer number of people walking around the site in Stones T-shirts: it's hard to think of another Glastonbury that's been so conclusively overtaken by a solitary headlining act. As U2 discovered a few years back, parachuting a hugely successful band in to headline Glastonbury doesn't always work, something of which Jagger at least appears aware. For someone with a reputation for lofty diffidence, he seems to have been on a charm offensive for weeks: no sooner had their headline slot been announced than he took to Twitter to claim, a little implausibly, that he was going to stay on site in a yurt. The charm offensive carries over into their set. Just as he joked about the cost of the seats at last November's O2 performance, he jokes about Glastonbury's dogged pursuit of the band over the years: "So, they finally asked us."

If mention of his actual sleeping arrangements is conspicuous by its absence, Jagger mentions having spent the previous night at the festival: "I went to Shangri-La!" he says, sounding as ever, exactly like a man doing an impersonation of Mick Jagger. "I saw the Arctic Monkeys." Indeed, so keen is he to underline his awareness that this show is more than just another stop off on the Stones' 50th Anniversary Tour, he has reworked the song Factory Girl for the occasion: Glastonbury Girl makes reference to wet wipes, inhaling nitrous oxide, camping and ecstasy.

The Rolling Stones on the Pyramid stage
The Stones: thrillingly ramshackle. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

What's striking about the other songs they perform is how thrillingly ramshackle the Stones sound. In contrast to most of their stadium-filling peers, you can hear the imperfections, the occasional fluffed notes. They sound like a real band, rather than bored multimillionaires going through the motions, which adds a genuine edge to the big hits: Wild Horses should be dulled by overfamiliarity, but it packs an emotional punch. It's a sense heightened by their evident delight at having former guitarist Mick Taylor back on stage with them – a delight not shared entirely by the audience, which thins out a bit during the lengthy versions of You Got the Silver and Midnight Rambler – and the set's occasional surprises: they perform a fantastic version of 2,000 Light Years From Home, from the most reviled of their 60s albums, the psychedelic folly Their Satanic Majesties Request.

As they play Sympathy for the Devil, the scrap-metal phoenix at the top of the Pyramid stage begins to slowly rise up and belch out fire. In the crowd, people are letting off flares and red smoke billows around. It's incredibly exciting: one of those much-vaunted Glastonbury moments.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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