No thanks, Glastonbury: the stars who turned down the world’s biggest stage – and why
The first Glastonbury Festival was where the disappointment began. In 1970, Michael Eavis, then an enterprising 35-year-old farmer, had arranged for The Kinks, and several other bands, to perform live at his Somerset farm. Admission would cost only £1 (about £15.20 today). The attendees were promised an “ox roast” to eat, and “free milk” on tap.
But Eavis was a farmer, and not well-versed in PR. He quipped to the press before his event that “playing skittles” was the acme of local culture; Melody Maker reported this, and described Eavis’s project as a “mini-festival”, no more. Ray Davies got wind, faked a doctor’s note about a sore throat, and The Kinks handed their slot, at the top of the bill, straight back.
Stormzy headlined Glastonbury in 2019 – to mesmerising effect – yet when his billing was announced there were mutters that he, like Davies, should have turned it down. He was too green. Naysayers said the festival was too big for the artist, who, at that point, had just one album to his name (Gang Signs & Prayer). But Stormzy had no plan to back out. As he told Radio 1Xtra: “If you think you’re going to give me [a] Glastonbury 2019 headline slot, and I’m not going to give you an incredible performance, you’ve gone mad.” He was true to his word.
But this line of attack has had historical success, because we don’t all have Stormzy’s pride. The Killers themselves, for instance, first appeared at Glastonbury in 2004, playing the New Bands tent a fortnight after their debut Hot Fuzz was released.
As their stock rose, Eavis booked them for second billing on the Pyramid Stage on Friday the following year. Then, before that event began, Kylie Minogue, the Sunday headliner, withdrew on medical grounds. Eavis offered The Killers her slot: the weekend closer, the grandest prize. To his surprise, the band said no.
Ronnie Vannucci, the drummer, explained their stance to the NME: “We didn’t take it because we’re basically a band that’s been around for, as far as the UK’s concerned, a little over a year. So we didn’t think we were deserving of a headlining slot… We only have one album out.” They stuck to their slot on Friday, and Basement Jaxx stood in for Kylie instead. (The Killers would become headliners in 2007.)
The Oxford band Foals followed suit in 2015, albeit one rung down the bill. That year, Foo Fighters were supposed to headline Friday, with Florence + the Machine in support. Then Dave Grohl jumped off a Gothenburg stage, as frontmen are apt to do, and broke his right leg. With Florence upgraded, Eavis needed a new act in slot number two, so he turned to Foals, who’d just finished recording the brash, weighty What Went Down.
But they hadn’t worked the album into their set, or performed live at all for some time. “It would have been awful,” guitarist Jimmy Smith told the Belfast Telegraph. “We wouldn’t have played any new songs. We would have come back with the same old set we played last time. I think it would have done us a lot of harm, to be honest.” The band declined Eavis’s offer. A surprise Libertines comeback struggled to compensate.
There are several more stories like these, of bands or individuals – Adele declined in 2013, wary of the festival’s scale, but headlined three years later – who were savvy enough to bide their time. Glastonbury, note, isn’t a straightforwardly positive deal. Its sheer exposure can kill budding careers as easily as nurture them. Think of The Darkness, whose 2003 set was a display of unintentional camp. When they weren’t asked back in 2004, they had a tantrum, born of not only ego but fear. They’ve been absent from Glastonbury, and public taste, ever since.
The less surprising refuseniks are those who, like The Kinks, know which side needs the other more. Nowadays, though, this pool is diminishing. Eavis claimed in 2013, a little hyperbolically, that he’d always kept a wishlist, and The Rolling Stones, booked that year, were the final box to tick. Fatboy Slim, a veteran act himself, said in 2017 that Glastonbury was “running out of big headliners”. Nobody from the festival came out to return his serve.
A few high-profile options are still on the road. After The Beatles, Elton John is the second-biggest-selling British act of all time, and unlike The Beatles, he’s still available. Even in his spectacular twilight, he isn’t sure whether to appear. “I don’t think I’m a Glastonbury type of act,” he told Heart radio in 2018. (Despite saying this, he did headline Bestival in 2013.) Then there’s Fleetwood Mac, less a band than an internecine conflict with guitars. They’re all represented by different agents; Eavis has been after the group for years, but says it’s impossible to do a deal.
The window for other luminaries, alas, is gone. The Smiths were killed by acrimony years ago; Pink Floyd likewise, nor are they all around to rethink. Led Zeppelin, sans John Bonham, refuse to reunite. Eavis has fruitlessly wanted them all. Members of these bands have played solo – Johnny Marr on the Other Stage last year – but none has ever headlined. (Perhaps Morrissey could have, once upon a time, but he branded Eavis an “animal hater” in 2015, and any festival that now chants for Jeremy Corbyn has probably left Morrissey behind.)
Holding Eavis at arm’s length has therefore led to close calls. Dolly Parton, who hadn’t headlined anywhere outside America until 2007, was approached by Glastonbury every year from 2006 to 2013. She refused, and refused, and refused. Eavis’s next entreaty was fringed with an ultimatum: last chance, Dolly… To riotous effect, in front of a colossal crowd, she turned up in 2014.
Depeche Mode, on the other hand, rejected a headline slot in 2009 with typical charm – “The line-up didn’t quite work for us. Getting the right bill is important” – and there hasn’t been a whisper about them since. In a somewhat greater loss, Prince pulled out twice, in 2014 and 2015, on obscure pretexts each time, then he died in the following spring.
The lesson of those who say no to Glastonbury is that cultural moments pass. When you’re at your peak, and the scene is ripe for the taking, there’s no reason not to appear. There are now few Kinks left to turn the festival down; the heritage acts are mostly spun out, the stadium-fillers have mostly appeared. When The Cure appeared on Sunday night in 2018, it was their fourth headline turn, spanning 33 years. As a 2015 study in The Economist showed, the average age of festival-goers has been rising for 20 years; the average age of performers too. This trend, for obvious reasons, cannot last.
And so, to youth. Glastonbury’s turn to new genres, new styles, isn’t just canny – it’s the only prospect they have. The future is meant to arrive.