This coming Saturday will be the anniversary of The Beatles‘ legendary Rooftop Concert in 1969. To mark the event, please help us count down ten of the most important and significant live performances of all time:
10: Live Aid Charity Concert – Wembley Stadium, 13th July 1985
Organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, the Live Aid concerts were a continuation of the fund raising efforts started by the pair the previous Christmas with the charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?‘. The event’s aim was to raise money for those affected by a large-scale famine which had hit parts of northern Africa, in particular Ethiopia. The two main Live Aid concerts took place at Wembley in London and at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, while other smaller events were held throughout Europe and Australia. Beginning in London at midday, the concerts lasted for over 16 hours, with many of the biggest stars of the era taking part. In London, Status Quo kicked proceedings off, and were followed by acts such as U2, Queen, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. The day’s exploits have perhaps informed the most famous musical concert in history, and began a trend of musicians launching projects in aid of charity efforts. The day wasn’t just about the message however; many great performances were delivered, and an industry poll in 2005 voted Queen’s appearance at Live Aid as the ‘greatest live performance ever’.
9: Bob Dylan – Newport Folk Festival, 25th July 1965
The moment in which he was accused of abandoning his folk roots, this was the gig when Bob Dylan ‘went electric’. Dylan had always been a reluctant associate of any particular movement or genre, and had kept his plans to move away from folk a secret from the public until he walked on stage that summer’s evening in 1965. It should be noted electric music had been played at the festival before, indeed it was The Butterfield Band, a group who had done just that the day before Dylan’s headline spot, with whom he quietly rehearsed the controversial set before the show. Just a few seconds into the first song, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, booing was heard from the crowd, and after third track ‘Phantom Engineer‘, Dylan and his backing band left the stage to a mix of jeering and clapping. He did return to play a short acoustic set, but for many the bridges had already been burnt. Since then, there has been many differing opinions as to why a section of the crowd reacted so negatively to Dylan that day. The widely accepted view is that they were attacking someone they felt was selling-out, someone who was abandoning the unique qualities of folk music for the rock n roll ideals which had been made hugely popular by acts such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles. They felt their man was turning his back on them. Others simply put the booing down to a reaction to sound problems, and the fact that Dylan had left the stage prematurely. Whatever the truth is, the events at that year’s festival have helped to make Dylan’s headline performance at the ’65 Newport Festival one of the most talked about and controversial in rock & roll history.
8: Elvis Presley – ’68 Comeback Special, aired 9th December 1968
Originally intended by his manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker to be a broadcast of Elvis Presley performing Christmas songs, the idea of a nationwide TV special was quickly seized upon as an opportunity to re-ignite Elvis’ career after a string of underwhelming, poorly received movies and recordings which had plagued the sixties. Originally apprehensive about the live performance, which would be his first since 1961, Elvis delivered with a degree of passion, showmanship and charisma which made a mockery of those who had written off his credentials as a genuine music star. The mix of hits, gospel tracks and new material was filmed in two segments on the 27th and 30th June 1968 and, despite the nerves, the broadcast shows Elvis in a relaxed but focused mood amongst the intimate crowd. The performance reminded the world just what a unique talent they had on their hands, and became a landmark gig for the legendary singer. Over 42% of the viewing audience in America watched the show and as a result, Elvis’ career was instantly reignited. He went on to enjoy record-breaking tours of the US and bank-busting residencies in Las Vegas, and was once again enjoying huge success in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The ’68 Comeback special captures one of the all-time greats with something to prove, and the results are spell-binding.
7: The Who – Live At Leeds, 14th February 1970
While lacking the cultural significance of many of the other gigs featured on this list, this performance is nevertheless quite simply the benchmark by which all other rock concerts should be judged. A blistering celebration of rock and roll, ‘The Who – Live At Leeds’ captures possibly the best live band to have ever plugged in an amp at their absolute peak. When they took to the stage at the Leeds Metropolitan University in February 1970, The Who had everything a band could wish for; an effortlessly talented, pulsing bassist in John Entwhistle, one of the most charismatic and gifted lead guitarists in Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, a natural frontman with an enviable vocal ability and of course, driving them all, the tireless, manic, ruthless drumming of Keith Moon. After a long world tour organised to promote their first rock opera ‘Tommy‘, The Who scheduled two dates in Yorkshire, one in Leeds and one in Hull, for the purpose of recording a live album to mark its conclusion. With a brilliant rendition of their single ‘Substitute‘, a clutch of excellent covers and a near 15-minute version of ‘My Generation‘, the resultant recording is not just the greatest live album of them all, but one that captures in time one of the greatest live bands of them all at their absolute best.
6: Oasis – Knebworth, 10th/11th August 1996
The gigs which defined Britpop, and crowned Oasis as kings of the movement, this was the moment Liam, Noel, Bonehead, Guigsy and Whitey confirmed their all-too-fleeting status as the most popular British band since The Beatles. Over two nights in August 1996, the 250,000-plus people who were the lucky two million or so to get tickets payed homage to a band which was at its zenith. Knebworth was a culmination of the phenomenal world-wide rise Oasis had enjoyed following the release of their second album ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?‘ and the huge global hit ‘Wonderwall’. For a short time, they were the biggest band in the world, and these two nights captured just what that meant to both the bandmates and their army of fans, still in touch with their adidas-clad heroes and still truly representing all that is great about rock and roll. The significance of the gig was lost on no-one, and was summed up perfectly by Noel Gallagher as he strode on to the stage on the second night and declared: ‘This is history!’.
5: The Beatles – Rooftop Of Apple Offices, 30th January 1969
Looking for a suitable way to end their ultimately doomed Let It Be documentary, it was finally decided that The Beatles should perform some new songs on the office roof of their increasingly troubled Apple venture. The Let It Be project, which Paul McCartney had hoped would document the Fab Four rehearsing new material in preparation for a unique live broadcast, had in fact only captured a band close to the end – engaging in constant petty arguments and disagreements. The live broadcast was shelved, and the documentary was instead released as a soon forgotten feature film. The huge positive which came out of the project however was undoubtedly the famed ‘Rooftop Concert’, which is now one of the most iconic moments of The Beatles’ eventful career. It was the first time the John, Paul, Ringo and George had performed a genuine concert publicly for nearly five years, having abandoned the world of live music in 1966 for various reasons to concentrate exclusively on studio work. The group caused a sensation on the London streets below as they played ‘Get Back’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, ‘One After 909‘ and ‘I Dig a Pony‘ before being stopped by the police. As the busybodies broke up the concert, Lennon ended the show with his famous line: ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!’. Not long afterm The Beatles’ split was confirmed but this gig proved to be a fitting end for the most important band in pop history, adding another iconic chapter to their unrivaled story.
4: Nirvana – MTV Unplugged, 18th November 1993
MTV’s Unplugged series had been running for four years, and had featured artists such as Paul McCartney, R.E.M and Pearl Jam by 1993, but when the company finally signed up Nirvana to appear on the show that year, they set the wheels in motion for what would become one of the most intense performances ever recorded, and one which now over-shadows anyone who has appeared on the show before or since. From the earliest rehearsals, it was clear to everyone that Nirvana’s appearance wouldn’t be your typical Unplugged concert. From the choice of little known band The Meat Puppets as guests, to the make-up of a setlist which omitted many of the trio’s most recognisable tracks, this was clearly always going to be something unique. The mood of the show was set when frontman Kurt Cobain requested the stage be designed to look like a funeral, and his haunting, stirring performance went on to match the decor perfectly. Brilliant covers of tracks such as David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World‘, ‘Oh, Me‘ and ‘Lake Of Fire’, together with superb versions of some of their lesser known tracks such as ‘About a Girl’ were all obvious highlights, while the incredible renditions of ‘All Apologies‘ and ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night‘, which closed the set, were about as near as perfect as the band could get – so much so that Cobain refused to return for a planned encore. Just four months later, the night’s tone and set-up became even more poignant when news broke of Cobain’s suicide; this phenomenal gig would help to cement the legend of his band which is now seen as one of the most significant of the last 25 years.
3: Sex Pistols – Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, 4th June 1976
A gig organised by Manchester group the Buzzcocks, they would in fact be over-shadowed by a little-known London band they had booked as support. In the end, the Buzzcocks didn’t appear at the concert at all, but it didn’t matter. That support band, the Sex Pistols, had signalled the arrival of punk all by themselves. That night, the small upstairs room usually used for public debates at once became one of the most influential venues in British music history. Playing to a room barely half full, by the end of the set the Sex Pistols had changed the lives of those in attendance, some of whom would go on to become hugely successful figures in their own right. The myths that now surround the gig spark debate as to who was actually there to witness the events, but most agree in the crowd that night were Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook – soon to become the main players in Joy Division and later New Order. Also there was Tony Wilson, the man who signed Joy Division to his Factory label, and who would help to shape the musical landscape in coming years thanks to his work with Factory and the Hacienda nightclub. Morrissey, who of course would later form The Smiths along with Johnny Marr and later Andy Rourke and Micky Joyce, was also in attendance. Despite the myths and uncertainties surrounding the performance, there’s no question that this one gig, this one performance, cemented the direction of British music for two decades. Not bad for less than an hour’s work.
2: Jimi Hendrix – Woodstock Festival, 18th August 1969
Jimi Hendrix’s closing performance in the early hours of Monday, 18th August 1969 at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair has gone down as one of the greatest rock performances ever. After bad weather and logistical problems had delayed the start, Hendrix eventually took to the stage in front of a crowd which had diminished from around 500,000 to roughly 180,000, but as he introduced his band as the Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, Hendrix began the longest set of his career and would go on to play at a ferocious pace which his band struggled to keep up with. The stunning performance was rounded of with his now seminal rendition of the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ a significant contribution to Woodstock now seen as a fitting metaphor for the imminent culmination of the radical changes in society and culture which had occurred during the 1960s. His amazing musicianship at the Woodstock Festival has ensured Jimi is now forever synonymous with one of the most enduring musical occasions in history – one of the greatest performances by one of the greatest musicians at one of the greatest events.
1: The Beatles – Live On The Ed Sullivan Show, 9th February 1964
By February 1964, the Beatlemania craze which had gripped Britain and Europe had arrived in the United States following the release of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand‘ in December 1963, and so, when The Beatles touched down at JFK Airport in February 1964 to begin their first North American tour, over three thousand screaming fans were there to welcome them. On February 9th, they made their debut on US television on The Ed Sullivan Show and in doing so changed pop culture forever.
Over 50,000 people were reported to have applied for tickets for the programme that night, and the excitement that swept America is perfectly captured in the frenzy of the theatre that greets the performance. The group opened the show with ‘All My Loving’, ‘Till There Was You‘ and ‘She Loves You‘, before returning to finish the broadcast with ‘I Saw Her Standing There‘ and the track that had made them stars in America – ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand‘. Nothing out of this world, but more than enough to change it.
On The Beatles’ Anthology series, Paul McCartney remembered the event, saying:
“It was very important. We came out of nowhere with funny hair, looking like marionettes or something. That was very influential. I think that was really one of the big things that broke us – the hairdo more than the music, originally. A lot of people’s father shad wanted to turn us off. They told their kids, ‘Don’t be fooled, they’re wearing wigs.’ A lot of fathers did turn it off, but a lot of mothers and children made them keep it on. All these kids are now grown-up, and telling us they remember it. It’s like, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ I get people like Dan Aykroyd saying, ‘Oh man, I remember that Sunday night; we didn’t know what had hit us – just sitting there watching Ed Sullivan’s show.’ Up until then there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis, and then, suddenly, The Beatles!”
A reported 73 million people watched, the British Invasion had begun, and The Beatles had swiftly confirmed themselves as the most influential band of all time – things would never be the same again.
What do you think? Which gig do you think was the best, most significant in history? Which should have been included in the list? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.