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David Bowie's Glastonbury headline set was astonishing – and that's exactly why it shouldn't be for sale

David Bowie performing at Glastonbury in 2000
David Bowie performing at Glastonbury in 2000 Credit:  Reuters

Not all magic can be bottled. Which is why my heart sank when I heard that David Bowie’s headline set from the Glastonbury Festival in 2000 is getting the luxury release treatment. 

The Thin White Duke’s Sunday headline slot from Glastonbury 2000 is rightly hailed as one of the festival’s greatest ever. It was an astonishing two hours; an emphatically delivered greatest hits set played by a beaming Bowie after he’d shunned such career-spanning shows for a decade.

In being released for the first time, it’s getting the full monty: CD, DVD and 3-disc vinyl versions conveniently in time for Christmas. The package will include extracts from Bowie’s diary (originally written for Time Out), sleeve notes by Caitlin Moran and artwork from Jonathan Barnbrook (the designer behind the Blackstar cover, among others). According to the PR blurb it will also contain “photos of Bowie resplendently dressed in a three-quarter length one-of-a-kind Alexander McQueen frock coat”, the pattern of which echoed the “famous ‘bipperty-bopperty hat’ …worn by David at his Glastonbury Fayre debut in 1971”. Reports that some editions will contain a kitchen sink in the shape of the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt remain unconfirmed.

Repackaging the past has become an industry. A look at the album release schedule in the run-up to Christmas confirms that. As well as live albums of decades-old performances from Neil Young and REM, completists can buy lavishly re-issued and expanded albums by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush and Massive Attack. Meanwhile Take That’s greatest hits and The Greatest Showman soundtrack will both be “re-imagined” in new releases, the latter less than a year after it was originally released. The nostalgia loop is alive and well.

But, rightly or wrongly, I have numerous niggles about the Bowie release. I was there in June 2000, and the evening is seared into my memory. But what made it so special was a confluence of things: the atmosphere, the friends and a strange collective energy that spread as that exhausting but exhilarating weekend drew to a close.

I remember the crush (an estimated 100,000 jumped the fence that year resulting in Glastonbury’s cancellation in 2001 and the construction of a £1 million super-fence); catching glimpses of Bowie’s smile on the screens and the surprise outbreaks of moshing during Changes. I recall the cold and the dirt and thousands of voices bellowing the “baa-BAA-BAAAA” build-up of Let’s Dance. And I remember my friend Mackerel clambering onto someone’s shoulders to scream (bafflingly, still) “Can you hear me, Ginger Tom?” in his thick Scottish burr over and over again. “Oh Glastonbury, you’ve got a lucky face,” Bowie said at one point. The show felt like a communal undertaking and not a passive spectacle. It was the archetypal “Glastonbury moment” – built on goodwill and emotion in a very specific time and place. I remember all these factors more keenly than I recall the specifics of the music being played. And the only comment I remember about his frock coat was that it made him look a bit like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. 

It is very hard to capture any of this just with the audio (or with the visuals too for those who buy the DVD or saw the edited highlights on BBC Four on Friday). To try to do so risks not doing the performance justice. There’s that famous quote about art residing in the pauses between notes rather than in the notes themselves (Google tells me it was said by the Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel). Well, sometimes the art also resides in the energy of an event, that indefinable essence that comes from being there, rather than in the mere notes being played or the songs sailing from the speaker stacks. This was one of those times. 

I’m setting myself up for obvious and easy criticism here. You might rightly say: you smug git, you were there yet you’re arguing that other people shouldn’t enjoy it. I can see why people might think me ridiculous, privileged and non-inclusive. But I’m actually trying to say the opposite: I wish everyone had been there (indeed with the fence-jumpers it occasionally felt like everyone was).

On top of all this, decades-old live recordings nullify context. Today Bowie’s Glastonbury 2000 performance is seen as a classic. It sounds like sacrilege to say so, but expectations on the night itself were tempered for numerous reasons. Bowie’s most recent album, Hours, had been his first since 1972 to miss the US top 40. He’d last done a “hits” set on the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour (after which he promised to retire his back catalogue), and setlists of his recent tours had been peppered with drum ‘n’ bass numbers.

The story goes that even Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis was initially reluctant to book Bowie having seen one of these shows, according to John Giddings, Bowie’s former promoter and the man who revived Isle of Wight festival. Giddings told a conference in 2016 that, keen to play Glastonbury, Bowie had invited Eavis to a show at the London Astoria in 1999. Eavis left early as he wasn’t enjoying it, Giddings claimed, only to change his mind and book Bowie later.

On the Glastonbury night itself, Bowie was preceded on the Pyramid Stage by Embrace, the musical equivalent of a wet lettuce. And even when he took the stage, he opened with Wild Is The Wind, a ballad. But one of the things that made his set so great was the unexpected way it soared. After the quiet start it suddenly took off like a rocket. This element of surprise can’t exist when you’re listening to a recording with a track listing in front of you. 

Who knows, perhaps I’m worried about stoking the golden embers in my mind. Perhaps it was all so good that I’m scared of plucking the fruit of memory and spoiling its bloom. But there’s nothing wrong with holding on to a memory, is there? We seem to be approaching the point where nothing in music can be genuinely worthy or meaningful unless it has been re-issued in heavyweight triple vinyl with a gatefold sleeve. 

Bowie was exceptional that night, no question. But capturing that show’s essence would be impossible. Sometimes a performance is about more than mere sound and vision.