Festival headliners from years gone by are always a great sign of the times. From David Bowie’s legendary 2000 performance at Glastonbury to Foo Fighters at Reading and Leeds, there’s no clearer way of judging the biggest bands of an era than seeing who topped the biggest festivals of them all.
There are already some eye-catching headliners at festivals across the UK this year, such as Stormzy who will grace Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage– the festival’s first ever grime headliner, and a bold vote of confidence for an artist only one album into his career. Will this mark the start of a huge career for Stormzy or will he grow to develop a more niche audience? The fun of a festival is finding out.
Ahead of the festival season this summer we look at several artists who have come from humble beginnings to become festival headliners at some of the UK’s biggest festivals, as well as acts who have subsequently vanished from view.
In just six short years, Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots have gone from being the last name in their section (sometimes even the last name on the poster that year) to co-headline their own day at Reading and Leeds with Post Alone this year.
In 2013 Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun were booked to play Reading and Leeds' Festival Republic Stage, two years before their multi-platinum breakthrough record Blurryface would even hit shelves. It was that album that caught people's attention across the world, turning them into one of the biggest bands around.
Now, Twenty One Pilots play to huge sold-out arenas with fans camping days on end to get that coveted barricade spot. They tour all over the world and are regular festival headliners. No doubt their set this year will be a fantastic one.
In 2013 The 1975 played in the middle of the day at Reading and Leeds’ Festival Republic Stage sandwiched between little known indie rock bands Splashh and Swim Deep. In just a few short years, Matty Healy and his band’s star grew quickly as they played second on the NME/Radio 1 stage the following year before headlining it in 2016.
The Cheshire pop-rockers have now graduated into full-blown arena-fillers with their latest album A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships – they’ll be one of three headliners at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival alongside Post Malone/Twenty One Pilots and Foo Fighters.
For emo kids in the mid-2000s, listening to My Chemical Romance was a rite of passage. The New Jersey rock band led by comic book artist Gerard Way were everywhere last decade, selling millions of albums and landing an unlikely UK No. 1 single in ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’. MCR’s huge cult following led them to headline Reading and Leeds Festivals in 2011.
Since breaking up in 2013, the members of My Chemical Romance have thrown themselves into several, lower-key projects with Way returning to writing comic books. MCR’s example shows that anyone can briefly be a rock star if they really want to be.
The first time Paramore were meant to play Reading and Leeds in 2005, the pop-punkers were forced to pull out as their singer Hayley Williams had throat problems, leading them to be replaced on the Lock-Up Stage by punk stalwarts Sonic Boom Six.
Paramore’s time eventually came though – they played first on the main stage at Reading and Leeds in 2007 and headlined Leeds Festival in 2014. Now dabbling with 1980s new wave sounds, Paramore have become one of rock’s biggest crossover acts.
At one time, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine were one of the buzziest bands in the UK. Their irreverent brand of power pop led them to headline Glastonbury Festival in 1992 right at the peak of their fame - where they quickly got banned for insulting its co-creator.
Carter ASM continued for a few more years before they broke up in 1999, with its duo Les Carter and James Morrison moving on to present radio shows and write novels. Like the now-forgotten Shakespear's Sister, at least they would always have 1992 at Glasto, proving that it was a very strange year.
Muse initially attracted comparisons to Radiohead when they first appeared at Glastonbury on the Other Stage in 2000, thanks to singer Matt Bellamy’s gloomy falsetto.
The space-rock trio have since taken a path of their own, becoming one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Muse first headlined Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in 2004 and have gone on to do so twice more since in 2010 and 2016, as well as Reading and Leeds in 2017 - exactly what a band with their mammoth sound deserves.
It may seem strange now but Travis were truly huge in the early 2000s, headlining Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in 2000 and Reading and Leeds in 2001.
Travis are still pleasing crowds, albeit of a far more modest size. Instead, the Scottish soft-rockers are now respected for paving the way for contemporaries like Coldplay before they overtook them on the way to super-stardom – some small comfort.
Sheffield lads Arctic Monkeys were one of the first bands to explode in the streaming era, popping up with their floppy fringes and tales of messy nights out midway down the line-up on Reading and Leeds’ Carling Stage in 2005.
After just two albums, Alex Turner and co. were big enough to headline Glasto’s Pyramid Stage in 2007. Arctic Monkeys have only grown in stature since as they have cemented their position as one of the UK’s most critically acclaimed and popular bands.
Way before Arctic Monkeys, Ash were breaking the mould. The teenage trio from Downpatrick, Northern Ireland became Glastonbury’s youngest-ever headliners in 1997 as they filled the Sunday night slot on the Pyramid Stage after Steve Winwood was forced to drop out.
Twenty years on, Ash are still touring and started re-releasing records in 2015 after spending eight years as a solely live act. After topping the Pyramid Stage so early in their careers, you can’t blame the trio for not getting back there since.
Like them or loathe them, no one can deny that Coldplay are one of the single biggest bands out there. Whether it's the familiar opening chords of Viva la Vida or the tearjerking Fix You, their music is now known by almost everyone.
But Coldplay have not always been so ubiquitous. Back in 1999 when they had only been together a few years, Coldplay were featured on the Glasto lineup in text so small you could barely see them. It was a year that was headlined by REM and Manic Street Preachers, whilst Coldplay and other new bands like Muse were resigned to the 'New Tent'. Much has changed since then.
When they were just starting out in 2004, Leicester rockers Kasabian started out bottom of the billing on the Other stage at Glastonbury.
Within ten years Kasabian have cemented themselves in the British consciousness, headlining the Sunday night of Glastonbury in 2014. While their latest album 2017’s For Crying Out Loud wasn’t as highly acclaimed as previous efforts, Kasabian remain one of Britain’s biggest live acts.
London ‘clit-rock’ band Skunk Akansie are a curious entry in Glastonbury history. Falling in the middle of the 1990s Britrock boom, the political punkers led by Deborah Dyer a.k.a. ‘Skin’ were the last band to headline Glastonbury in the 20th Century as they rocked the Pyramid Stage in 1999.
Skunk Akansie split up in 2001 and have faded from the public consciousness since, even though they reunited in 2010 and are still writing and touring music now. Nevertheless, people who caught Skunk’s unique headline set will never forget it.
As you can see, festivals are where you can witness the arrival of the next big thing or unique performances you’ll be remembering for years after.
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