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Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Friday, 25 June 2010 12:14 UK

How do you headline Glastonbury?

Pyramid stage, Glastonbury Corwd, Jay-Z in 2008, tents, Jarvis Cocker in 1995, the infamous toilets

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

With the Glastonbury festival in full swing, Gorillaz are preparing to headline on Friday night after U2 pulled out. How can an act make the most of topping the bill at the biggest event in the British music calendar?

As the lights come up on the Pyramid stage, you step out to face the crowd.

Your intestines churn at the sight of 100,000 faces stretching to the horizon as their roar shudders through you like a bassline.

They haven't showered in days, nor slept much either.

Fan at Glastonbury
Over 177,000 are expected to attend the 2010 festival

You are billed as the focal point of their weekend, the reason why they put up with the squalor and dirt and abysmal toilets. And now you must entertain them.

For better or worse, Glastonbury is more than a festival.

The ageing hippies say the ley lines and spiritual energy make it a place of mysticism and magic. Even if you don't buy this, it makes for a more evocative backdrop than, say, Reading.

Even the cynics wonder with astonishment what drives so many grown adults to willingly spend a long weekend wallowing in the fields of Somerset amid mediaeval scenes of cider-fuelled indigence.

It is also an event that can utterly transform the careers of those who top its bills, propelling little-known alternative acts to stadium-filling success and resurrecting the fortunes of those presumed past it and washed up.

Jim Bob
From Jim Bob of Carter USM (headlined in 1992)
Go large. No room for subtleties
Play the hits. Don't try out your new musical direction
Encourage sing-alongs, clap-alongs etc
Spend most of your fee on a ridiculous over-the-top light show
Have an expensive and spectacular gimmick. We fired foam balls into the audience from cannons - we had planned on dropping them from helicopters but were told we couldn't get clearance from air traffic control
Climb on stuff. Up the PA stack, on top of the drum kit etc
Jump off stuff
End your set with a big finish. Smash everything up if needs be
Jim Bob's debut novel Storage Stories is out on Ten Forty Books

Pulp laboured in John Peel-sponsored obscurity for almost two decades before they were elevated to the top of the bill in 1995 when the Stone Roses pulled out - a triumphant performance turning Jarvis Cocker into a genuine star and his band into one of Britain's biggest.

Robbie Williams' 1998 appearance won over indie and rock fans who might previously have dismissed him for his boy-band past, and so-called "heritage" acts such as David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart have all seen their critical reputations burnished by putting on a good show.

And Jay-Z cannily exploited the controversy generated when Oasis's Noel Gallagher said a hip-hop artist was "wrong" for the festival by delivering a witty and self-effacing set (the rapper opened his set with an energetic, if deliberately tuneless, version of Wonderwall, instantly winning over the crowd).

But if the opportunities for headliners are immense, the pressure not to squander the chance weighs heavily, too.

With the Glastonbury experience itself attracting a bigger pull than any group, acts used to playing gigs to their own fans must reach out the merely curious, the uncommitted and the barely conscious. And that's just the TV audience.

Having stepped in to replace U2, Friday night's headliners Gorillaz will have to win over an audience geared up for another group - over and above the ordinary challenges of heading up Europe's largest festival, as confronted by Muse and Stevie Wonder, who top the bills on Saturday and Sunday.

Mark Chadwick of the Levellers in 1995
Mark Chadwick played to Glastonbury's biggest-ever crowd in 1994

One performer who understands the pressures of the occasion is Mark Chadwick, lead singer of folk-punk group The Levellers - believed to have played to Glastonbury's biggest-ever crowd when they headlined the Pyramid on the Friday night in 1994.

With no steel fence yet having been erected to keep out gatecrashers, as many as 300,000 people are thought to have seen the show.

For Chadwick, the only way to deal with such a terrifyingly-sized audience is to block it out.

"You have to treat it like any other gig," he says. "Obviously, you make sure you play the sing-along numbers and the big choruses.

"But because it's dark, you can't actually see the crowd - except when they put the lights up between songs, and they look like a field of ploughed potatoes. You can't let nerves get to you."

Chadwick did eventually succumb to stage fright, but only after he had left the stage - he spent the aftermath of the gig "curled up in my tent with awful stomach cramps".

If you crack a gag about the weather or the Glasto toilets, you really can't go wrong
Arthur Smith, comedian

For all that The Levellers maintain a dedicated fan base, this approach did not quite propel them into the big time - as illustrated by the fact that in 2010 they headline the Glade, one of the festival's smaller stages. Although the band's green-anarchist politics suggest that this troubles them little.

A truly memorable headlining set is one which taps into the sense of togetherness that distinguishes Glastonbury from other festivals, says Wendy Fonarow, professor of anthropology at Greendale University, California, who has studied the social dynamics of the British indie music scene.

For all that it is criticised for having become too commercial, she argues, Glastonbury still attracts visitors because of its hippy ethos - its audience ultimately wants bands to succeed, and those cast as underdogs like Pulp and Jay-Z are best placed.

"The thing with Glastonbury is that it's not primarily about the music," she says. "It's about seeking a communal experience. Part of what unites everyone is the arduousness, the discomfort, the fact that it's an ordeal.

Glastonbury festival in 1971
Glastonbury regulars insist that it remains true to its original ethos

"Damon Albarn [of Gorillaz] has headlined Glastonbury before and understands this. Gorillaz aren't going to have any problems."

The blitz spirit may be more difficult to invoke during 2010's projected fine weather, and Albarn surely cannot match his other band Blur's emotional reunion on the Pyramid last year - but replacement headliners, like Pulp and Basement Jaxx, who stood in for Kylie Minogue in 2005, have a habit of winning over the crowd.

Comedian Arthur Smith, himself a Glastonbury regular, likens the process of charming an uncommitted festival audience to compering a comedy night.

"Basically, you have to be direct," he says. "Make sure you have strong material at the start to hold their attention. If you crack a gag about the weather or the Glasto toilets, you really can't go wrong."

Music journalist David Quantick agrees - and although he is giving the festival, which he believes has grown too big, a miss, he admires its capacity to prick bloated rock star egos.

"You've got an audience of people who have been up for three days," he says. "Some of them can't speak. Some of them think you're the Ramones.

"This isn't the time to start playing experimental stuff from your new album. Give them the hits."

Surely the Glastonbury crowd will agree. Thanks very much. You've been brilliant.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Interesting how you've put up a quote from Arthur Smith. Guess which comedian didn't bother showing up to his slot in the Comedy Tent last year?
Arthur Smith!
Boom boom.
Niko Ovenden, Edinburgh

I've seen The Levellers in a small space in Chester and in a huge room at the NEC in Birmingham, and they have an amazing ability to get the whole audience stirred up and dancing, rather than just the front few rows, regardless of the size of the gig. They are amazing live and I can easily see them keeping 300,000 people entertained. Wish I'd been there.
Kaylie, Runcorn, UK

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