Glastonbury's 5 most controversial moments

·5-min read
Crowds listen to Kylie perform on the Pyramid Stage at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival held at Worthy Farm, in Pilton, Somerset on June 30, 2019 near Glastonbury, England. The festival, founded in 1970, has grown into one of the largest outdoor green field festivals in the world.
Crowds listen to Kylie perform on the Pyramid Stage at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival. (Getty)

As Glastonbury Festival returns to Worthy Farm this weekend for the first time since the summer of 2019 (thanks Covid), there’s never a better time to have a look back at the always exciting, often tumultuous history of the festival that has battled licensing restrictions, drug dealing and modern health and safety.

A festival that always has an eye on progression, in recent years it has aimed to be a broader, more inclusive festival, especially on the main stages, meaning some headliner bookings have been met with various degrees of disgruntlement by old timers.

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This year, the icon that is Paul McCartney as well as rap God Kendrick Lamar and cerebral pop superstar Billie Eilish headline the Pyramid Stage, a trio that offers something for everybody.

But before we get to that, let’s look at some of Glastonbury’s most controversial moments.

Jay-Z becomes the first rapper to headline

The video screen before Jay-Z performs on the Pyramid Stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival, Somerset..   (Photo by Yui Mok - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
The video screen before Jay-Z performs on the Pyramid Stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival, Somerset.. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Up until 2008, no rapper had ever headlined the most famous music festival in the world. That all changed when the Eavis’ recruited Jay-Z.

While most greeted the move as a great leap forward for the festival, one particular big name was not shy with his objection to the booking.

Noel Gallagher, then still of Oasis, pulled his dogwhistle out of his pocket and said it was 'wrong' for rap to be at Glastonbury, which was typically headlined by guitar rock acts.

Jay-Z performs on the Pyramid Stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival, Somerset.   (Photo by Yui Mok - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Jay-Z performs on the Pyramid Stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival, Somerset. (PA Images via Getty Images)

The New York rapper clearly heard Gallagher’s ignorant badmouthing as he strode onto the Pyramid Stage with a stratocaster draped over his shoulder and launched into an ironic cover of Wonderwall.

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He’d later take another dig at Gallagher with his song Jockin Jay-Z which included the lyric: "That bloke from Oasis said I couldn't play guitar, somebody should have told him I'm a f***ing rock star.”

1994 shooting and drug overdose

A general view of the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival, United Kingdom, 1994. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)
A general view of the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival, United Kingdom, 1994. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

The darkest weekend in the festival’s history came in 1994. That year Glastonbury was headlined by the Levellers, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel but is unfortunately best remembered for two dark incidents.

On the Saturday night, a man began firing indiscriminately into the crowd, hitting five people. Two women and three men were taken to hospital but fortunately they escaped serious injury. Armed police later arrived to arrest the man and the incident was described as 'drug related'.

The weekend also saw the festival’s first ever death as the result of a drug overdose. A 23-year-old man died in the early hours of the same night

Kanye West and the petition

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 27: Kanye West performs on The Pyramid Stage during the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 27, 2015 in Glastonbury, England.  Now its 45th year the festival is one largest music festivals in the world and this year features headline acts Florence and the Machine, Kanye West and The Who. The Festival, which Michael Eavis started in 1970 when several hundred hippies paid just £1, now attracts more than 175,000 people.  (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
Kanye West performs on The Pyramid Stage during the Glastonbury Festival, 2015. (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Never one to evade controversy, the announcement of Kanye West as a Glastonbury headliner in 2015 immediately drew the ire of online trolls.

They even went to the trouble of setting up a petition to try and stop the rapper from headlining the festival. The petition, which roused over 100,000 signatures, read: “Kanye West is an insult to music fans all over the world. We spend hundreds of pounds to attend glasto, and by doing so, expect a certain level of entertainment.”

West was backed by the Eavis’ and went on to a deliver a blistering set of classics and album deep cuts though was at times blighted by tech issues.

The Smiths stage invasion

UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 16:  Photo of Andy ROURKE and MORRISSEY and Mike JOYCE and Johnny MARR and SMITHS; L-R: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce (drums), Johnny Marr (playing Gibson ES-335 guitar), performing live on The Tube - MusicBrainz: 40f5d9e4-2de7-4f2d-ad41-e31a9a9fea27  (Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns)
The Smiths: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce (drums), Johnny Marr performing live on The Tube. (Pete Cronin/Redferns)

The Smiths being announced as headliners in 1984 already generated controversy with the hippy crowd complaining the indie rockers were too 'heavy' for the festival with most of the headliners up to that point being of the progressive rock variety. But Morrissey and Johnny Marr won over the masses on the weekend.

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So much so that a swarm of fans ambushed the Pyramid Stage structure and climbed it as the band performed. It was the type of raucousness that was possible before the age of health and safety. It was the only time the Pyramid Stage was ever stormed en masse.

The fence

The security fence at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton.   (Photo by Andy Butterton - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
The security fence at Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Glastonbury was always known as being the easiest festival to hop into without paying, with Michael Eavis once joking there more fans there without tickets than with.

As the festival continued to grow in popularity through the 90s with headliners such as Oasis, Blur and Bob Dylan, a record rush of gatecrashers tunnelled their way into the festival in 2000.

As a result, organisers invested a mammoth £1m on an intimidating steel fence which upset many of the regulars who argued it was against the free love ethos of the festival.

Stewards patrol the much improved super fence that has been erected during the 2003 Glastonbury Festival being held at Worthy Farm, in Pilton, Somerset on June 26, 2003 near Glastonbury, England. The festival founded in 1970 has grown into one of the largest outdoor green field festivals in the world.
Stewards patrol the much improved super fence that was erected during the 2003 Glastonbury Festival (Getty)

Erected in 2002, Glastonbury has featured far less gatecrashing in the years since and also better ensures the safety of those attending.

Festival safety was also rightly at the top of the news agenda last year after the tragic crush at AstroWorld in Texas saw 10 people die.

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