Top of the bill

From festivals to charity gigs, the multi-act pop concert has a long history. But what was the greatest line-up of all? 

David Sinclair | November/December 2012

It was 1967, and Jimi Hendrix’s battered Stratocaster lay smouldering on the stage. The guitar, which Hendrix had just doused in lighter fluid and set on fire at the climax of his set, was no longer ablaze, but a nervous stage hand stood over it with a fire extinguisher. As the Jimi Hendrix Experience left the stage, a bemused ripple of applause went up from hordes of teenage girls in the stalls. Many were clutching teddy bears ready for the arrival of the headlining act, the Walker Brothers. Before that, they were wooed in rather more emollient fashion by Engelbert Humperdinck. Immaculately coiffed and tuxedoed, Engelbert followed Hendrix’s incendiary version of “Purple Haze” with a smooth rendition of “Release Me”, which had been number one for six weeks earlier in the year. Humperdinck smarmed his way off, to be replaced by a hot young thing called Cat Stevens, who sang some spirited songs about loving his dog and getting himself a gun. Finally the Walker Brothers arrived, to be greeted by a merciless barrage of soft toys. 

This was pretty much the first pop show I ever saw and the wonder of the line-up has stayed with me ever since. Such a mixture might seem eccentric now—and indeed it seemed so at the time. But the multi-act bill has always promised a special sense of occasion. Whether staged in a football ground or the rolling farmland of Glastonbury, a diverse line-up draws a broad audience and adds an element of contrast to the entertainment—possibly taken too far by the Hendrix-Humperdinck face-off. When it works, it can be far more than the sum of the parts. 

So which bills generated the biggest thrills? What was the greatest line-up of all? Here are my choices in some of the main categories, taken in roughly chronological order. The cast lists are not exhaustive.

American tour, March-May 1958
Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Like rock’n’roll itself, the pop package show was invented in 1950s America. The Big Beat tour was one of many line-ups that criss-crossed North America, featuring men who are now legends. The promoter, the DJ Alan Freed, had coined the phrase “rock’n’roll". “Rock’n’roll show wows ’em—they were dancing in the aisles!” proclaimed the Dayton, Ohio, Journal Herald under the headline: “Get Hep—Go, Man, Go”.

American tour, Jan-Feb 1959
Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Dion

The music was magical, but for the musicians these early tours were arduous, even dangerous. The tour bus on this one was so ill-equipped that Buddy Holly’s drummer was hospitalised with frostbitten feet. Weary and keen to get his laundry done, Holly chartered a plane to take him, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper to the next venue. The plane crashed, killing all three of them and the young pilot. Don McLean called it “the day the music died” in his song “American Pie”, fixing this line-up in popular legend. Incredibly, the tour carried on, with Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup stepping into dead men’s shoes.

Wembley Empire Pool, London, May 1st 1966
The Who, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, the Small Faces, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles

The Beatles had played Shea Stadium in New York the year before and the era of the stadium supergig was beckoning. But when you see grainy old footage on YouTube, you get a sense of the simplicity and lack of pretension that enabled these multi-act live shows to work. This was surely the greatest line-up of British pop talent assembled for a single show in the 1960s. It was supposed to be televised, but the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was at loggerheads with ABV TV and got the cameras switched off, which was a pity, as it was the last time the Beatles played live before a paying British audience. There was also a blazing backstage row between John Lennon and Mick Jagger.

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Oct 28th-29th 1964
Chuck Berry, James Brown and the Famous Flames, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Lesley Gore, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Supremes, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. House band: the Wrecking Crew, including Leon Russell and Jack Nitzsche

A sensational list of American R'n’B stars and British Invaders combined for these two live shows, filmed for television in front of an audience of high-school kids. Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash’s producer, said that James Brown’s contribution “may be the single greatest rock’n’roll performance ever captured on film”.

British tour, March 1965
The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas

Sitting in a half-empty Bristol hall at 6.45pm, a fan named Adam White thrilled to the sight and sound of the Supremes in black dresses singing “Stop! In the Name of Love” with its distinctive police choreography. The tour was a resounding flop, but that didn’t bother White or other diehards watching this advance party of superstars-to-be from Hitsville, USA. “The fact that the majority of British concert-goers didn’t recognise the uniqueness of this sound...only reinforced our innate sense of superiority,” White wrote. He went on to be international editor-in-chief of Billboard.

Tulip Bulb Auction Hall, Spalding, Lincs, May 29th 1967
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, Pink Floyd, The Move, Zoot Money 

Was this the greatest one-off, non-charity, non-awards, non-tribute gig ever? It is thought to be the only time that the Hendrix Experience and Eric Clapton’s Cream shared a stage, and down the bill, below Geno Washington, was the original Pink Floyd line-up, featuring Syd Barrett. Below them were The Move, with Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, who had just had top-five hits with “Night of Fear” and “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”. Another of Hendrix’s guitars ended up in flames. According to his driver, it was picked up with the rubbish at the end and thrown into the council dump. Tickets, as the poster shows, were £1.

Bethel, New York, Aug 15th-18th 1969
Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Band, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Canned Heat

At a time when little music made it to the cinema or even the television, the Woodstock movie was like a bar in the desert. The three-way split screen was an excuse to see it three times—and after repeated exposure to Santana’s explosive percussion section, Alvin Lee’s stupendous mauling of “I’m Going Home” and Hendrix’s sad, sweet instrumental come-down amid the fields of rubbish, even a schoolkid stuck in south London could feel as if he had been there. Only 32 acts played—a modest tally by today’s standards. But these three days of peace and mud set the template for the modern music festival.  

East Afton Farm, Aug 26th-31st 1970
Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, the Doors, The Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Free, Leonard Cohen

England’s answer to Woodstock was close enough for even a south-London schoolboy to sample the festival experience for real. Three days spent in and out of a sleeping bag in front of the stage brought great music but not so much in the way of peace and love. Each day started to the strains of a chaotic instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” by The Great Awakening played over the PA, a reveille that still brings a tear to my eye. An estimated crowd of 600,000 turned up. The facilities were unbelievably crude, the scheduling non-existent, the whole experience gruelling. At one point a small fire broke out on the roof of the stage. “Does anyone have a fire extinguisher?” the mc enquired—not the most reassuring request to hear at a vast gathering.

100 Club, London, Sept 20th-21st 1976
Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, the Vibrators

A new energy, tainted with aimless thuggery, emerged in 1976. The punk revolution crystallised at this event, staged with typical opportunistic bravado by Malcolm McLaren. It was only the fourth gig The Clash had played. They declined to let the Banshees use their gear because Siouxsie was wearing a swastika armband. She played on regardless, making up her set on the spot. Meanwhile, Sid Vicious—not yet a Sex Pistol—was arrested for throwing a glass that blinded a fan in one eye. Everyone who was there started their own band, or said they did, but none went on to become as instantly notorious, or influential, as this lot.

The Rainbow, London, May 9th 1977
The Clash, The Jam, the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect

The Jam were booked to play ten dates with The Clash, but quit over a row about money after this one historic and thrillingly anarchic show. The Rainbow’s seating never fully recovered. It is now a church.

Donington Park, Leicestershire, Aug 20th 1988
Iron Maiden, Kiss, Guns N’ Roses, David Lee Roth

Monsters of Rock had some incredible line-ups. In 1984 it had an ear-melting bill: AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe. But gigs like this had become half bacchanalia, half battlefield. You had to be tough to play at them, and even tougher to be a fan. Fever pitch was reached in 1988, when the festival’s biggest audience, 107,000, saw Guns N’ Roses in their pomp, the paint-spitting shock-rockers Kiss and the reigning kings of modern metal, Iron Maiden. Triumph turned to horror when two fans were crushed to death in thick mud during Guns N’ Roses’ set. An age of innocence was brought to a rude and tragic end.

Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Jan 18th-27th 1991
Prince, INXS, Run-DMC, George Michael, Guns N’ Roses, Happy Mondays, A-ha, New Kids On The Block

The Rock in Rio festival doesn’t happen every year but has made a global name for being bigger and longer than the rest. This, its second incarnation, featured nine nights of multi-act bills. It was deemed by “Guinness World Records” to have drawn the largest paying concert audience in history on the night of the 26th, when 198,000 fans turned out to see...A-ha.

Madison Square Garden, New York, Oct 16th 1992
Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Lou Reed. House band: Booker T & the MGs

“Bobfest” was Neil Young’s nickname for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. Sinéad O’Connor was booed off before she could sing a note—a poor reflection on a show dedicated to a great protest singer.

Royal Albert Hall, London, Nov 29th 2002
Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Tom Petty, Anoushka Shankar, Monty Python

George Harrison was remembered with the scent of incense and pink chrysanthemums, the sound of Hare Krishna chants, and as close to a Beatles reunion as we will ever get. A heavyweight line-up paid a moving tribute to a much-loved figure and exceptional guitarist. Spines tingled as McCartney on piano, joined by Starr on drums and Clapton on guitar, came together for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, June 13th-14th 1998

Beastie Boys, Radiohead, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band, Pulp, Sonic Youth

One of a series of 1990s shows in which the cream of American alt.rock, plus two fine British bands, protested at China’s abuse of human rights in Tibet. An electrifying event in rather too literal a sense: there was a storm, and some fans were struck by lightning.

Wembley Stadium, London, and JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, July 13th 1985 Wembley: U2, Queen, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Who, David Bowie, George Michael, Eric Clapton
Philadelphia: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Beach Boys, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Crosby Stills & Nash

Sitting in the bleachers at Wembley for the entire duration of Live Aid was a concert-going experience like no other. Everything happened so fast. Status Quo—a band who yielded to no one in their capacity to boogie on at interminable length—came on at 12.02 and were gone by 12.17. By 12.19 Paul Weller was on, with The Style Council. The revolving stage that allowed such a rapid turnover was a revolution indeed. And that 15-to-20-minute window sorted the men from the boys. The Who re-formed specially, but didn’t bother to rehearse, and were ropey. Queen, who crunched their greatest hits down and choreographed them to the last handclap, were unassailable.

Watched live by an estimated 1.5 billion people in 150 nations, Live Aid transformed the landscape. Everything about it was bigger and grander and more special than anything before (or since). The righteous emotion swirling around the stadium was tangible as the pop world threw an amazing party and Did Something Worthwhile. Empirically, it was surely the best line-up ever assembled on a single day. But it also had a conservative impact, reinforcing the global sway of the Anglo-American pop aristocracy.

Hyde Park, London, + 9 other venues, July 2nd 2005
Pink Floyd, U2, Paul McCartney, Sting, R.E.M., Dido, Annie Lennox, Elton John, The Who, the Killers 

Hanging around in Hyde Park 20 years after Live Aid was nothing like as exciting or timely. The Gay Pride march going on at the same time in Park Lane had more colour. Yes, there was another awe-inspiring convention of big names in all departments—minus Status Quo, royally miffed not to be asked back. But Live 8 lacked the power of precedent. Bob Geldof did, however, manage to reconvene Pink Floyd for the first and last time, confirming powers of persuasion bordering on the supernatural.

One person’s greatest gig may be another’s cue to stay in and wash their hair. For me, it is the great gigs of the 1960s that remain most fondly, if sometimes fuzzily, fixed in the memory. I actually bought a ticket for the Hendrix-Cream-Floyd show in Spalding in 1967, but was forbidden to go by my parents. This was perfectly sensible—I was 14 and proposing to hitch-hike from Glasgow, 300 miles away—but still heartbreaking. There again, I made it to Live Aid and Live 8. And the three days and nights I spent camped in front of the stage at the Isle of Wight in 1970, bug-eyed and bug-eared, remain the most vivid experience in a long gig-going life.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.