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Ziggy bows out, Madonna scares the pope and Dylan goes electric: 50 gigs that changed music | Music

Ziggy bows out, Madonna scares the pope and Dylan goes electric: 50 gigs that changed music | Music

Billie Holiday

Café Society, New York City, early 1939
The 23-year-old Billie Holiday was mostly unknown outside the jazz loop when she began her 1939 residency at this liberal New York club. Her understated, delicately implacable debut of Strange Fruit, a terrifying depiction of lynchings in the south, made a unique new vocal sound famous worldwide. John Fordham

The birth of bebop

Minton’s Playhouse, New York City, 1941
Rising young originals such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the guitarist Charlie Christian lived off commercial swing gigs in 1941, but they forged the revolutionary modern jazz style called bebop in tumultuous after-hours Harlem jam sessions, where Thelonious Monk and the drums innovator Kenny Clarke were in the house band. JF

Buddy Holly and the Crickets

Buddy Holly (left) and the Crickets
Buddy Holly (left) and the Crickets. Photograph: V&A Images/Getty Images

UK tour, March 1958
Britain had never seen a rock band before March 1958. Then, for 25 consecutive nights, came the first true rock band – two guitars, bass and drums, a revolution in horn-rimmed specs. A schoolboy Keith Richards caught a London show, but many more future stars would see Buddy Holly on TV during his visit, when he appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Michael Hann

Judy Garland

Carnegie Hall, New York City, 23 April 1961
Forty years into her career, Garland’s lavish performance to a star-studded audience is often regarded as the greatest night in showbiz history. Through a combination of vocal prowess and self-deprecation, she set the bar for concert orchestra performance. The recording made Garland the first woman to win the Grammy for album of the year. Laura Barton

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Photograph: TV Times/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Whalley Range, Manchester, 7 May 1964
It was the brilliant idea of the Granada TV producer Johnnie Hamp to film a selection of blues greats in south Manchester’s derelict Wilbraham Road railway station, mocked up to looked like the deep south, with “wanted” posters, washtubs and even goats and chickens. About 200 people arrived by rail to see the Gospel and Blues Train: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Cousin Joe, Otis Spann and the duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee giving intense performances on the platform.

Waters was mobbed by blues-mad youngsters. Tharpe arrived in a pony and trap and seized the opportunity presented by a Mancunian downpour to strap on an electric guitar and launch spontaneously into Didn’t It Rain? Countless musicians, including Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, subsequently told Hamp they were influenced by the show, which broadcast to millions and was instrumental in taking the blues explosion to the mainstream. Dave Simpson

Bob Dylan

Newport folk festival, Rhode Island, 25 July 1965
It was a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster that stole the show at Newport in 1965. Dylan’s decision to play an electric guitar on a largely acoustic bill stunned the crowd, with many booing and jeering. Audiences for his world tour were similarly polarised, one disgruntled heckler in Manchester yelling: “Judas!” at the former folk hero. Essentially, it was the birth of folk rock – the real-time expansion of a genre. Laura Barton

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Frankie Valli (left) and the Four Seasons
Frankie Valli (left) and the Four Seasons. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Franklin & Marshall College, Pennsylvania, 1966
A show in a college gym was the breakthrough that made arena rock possible. The PA system supplied by the Clair brothers so impressed Valli that he took them on tour as his personal sound engineers. Other artists noticed the quality and soon they were in demand. Their sound systems spurred rock’s spread to the big halls. MH

The Velvet Underground

The Dom, New York City, 7 April 1966
A former Polish wedding hall hosted the birth of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Andy Warhol showed films and worked the lights, his “superstars” danced and the Velvet Underground played at a volume witnesses tended to describe in terms of violence: rock music as envelopment and sensory assault. AP

The Beatles

Candlestick Park, San Francisco, 29 August 1966
The Beatles’ final real gig wasn’t a great show. The stadium was half-empty, the band at the end of their tether, struggling to recreate the sound of their latest recordings. But it represented a shift in rock music: no more Beatles gigs meant more time in the studio – and albums that would change everything, again. Laura Snapes

The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream

Alexandra Palace, London, 29 April 1967
British counterculture’s coming-out ball. Every one of the country’s psychedelic luminaries played – Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Tomorrow and the Pretty Things among them. Performance art was provided by Yoko Ono, while the sense that the audience was as much part of the spectacle as the artists presaged 80s rave culture. AP

Big Brother and the Holding Company

Janis Joplin as part of Big Brother and the Holding Company
Janis Joplin at Monterey as part of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Photograph: Paul Ryan/Getty Images

Monterey pop festival, California, 17 June 1967
Arriving at Monterey with a lesser-known San Francisco psychedelic bluesy rock band, 24-year-old Janis Joplin gleefully demolished every stereotype of the “demure” female singer. The hard-living, hard-rocking Texan’s raucous, gut-wrenching performance attracted international attention and has been described as one of the greatest ever. DS

Terry Riley

Philadelphia College of Art, 17 November 1967
Not the birth of minimalism, but certainly its breakthrough. Riley’s eight-hour set of tape manipulation and organ pulses, played to an audience seated on hammocks and cushions, generated an early recording of his classic Poppy Nogood and set the pace for electronic experimentalism in chill-out environments decades ahead. Joe Muggs

James Brown

‘Are we together or we ain’t?’ James Brown calms stage invaders on 5 April 1968.

Boston Garden, 5 April 1968
The night after the assassination of Martin Luther King, violent protests spread across many US cities. In Boston, Brown’s show was almost cancelled for fear it might become a hotspot for public outcry. Instead, the show was repurposed: broadcast live on TV and radio in an effort to ease the grief and tension. Fans climbed on stage as he sang I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me); police officers rallied. Brown paused the song. “I’ll be fine,” he told the officers, then turned to the stage invaders: “You’re not being fair to yourselves and me, or your race. Now, I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people … Are we together or we ain’t?” The crowd cheered. The fans climbed down. Brown turned to the drummer: “Hit that thing, man.” Laura Barton

Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples

Harlem cultural festival, New York City, 13 July 1969
Effectively buried until the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul resurrected its memory, the 1969 Harlem cultural festival was possibly the greatest selection of black talent ever assembled, from Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone. If you had to pick a highlight, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ charged performance of Take My Hand, Precious Lord might be it. AP

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Photograph: Henry Diltz/AFP/Getty Images

Woodstock festival, New York, 18 August 1969
Often cited as the gig that defined the 60s, the countercultural festival attracted half a million people to upstate New York. Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star-Spangled Banner was interpreted as a protest at the Vietnam war, while “three days of peace and love” showed that people power could change history. DS

The Who

The University of Leeds, 14 February 1970
A blue English Heritage plaque outside the university’s refectory now honours the site of the incendiary live performance of the post-Tommy, Keith Moon-era Who captured on Live at Leeds, often cited as the greatest live rock album. DS

Elton John

The Troubadour, Los Angeles, 25 August 1970
Not quite overnight success, but close: Elton John walked on to the stage of a celebrity-packed Troubadour a largely unknown British singer-songwriter, and walked off it a star. Aside from the music, a backstage decision to wear an outrageous outfit and a burst of energetic showmanship midway through the gig helped: two lessons he has never forgotten. AP

BB King

Cook County jail, 10 September 1970
Two years after Johnny Cash’s turn at Folsom prison, the blues legend King performed in Chicago to an audience of 2,000 prisoners, mostly young and black. A subsequent live album highlighted the dire conditions at the jail, helping bring about prison reform, which became a lifelong cause for King. Laura Barton

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin at Fillmore West
Aretha Franklin at Fillmore West. Photograph: David Tan/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Fillmore West concert hall, San Francisco, 5-7 March 1971
Franklin’s appearance at Fillmore West wasn’t a star-making performance – she was already very much a star – but it featured the Queen of Soul at the peak of her powers, actively seeking to build a bridge to a post-hippy audience, covering Stephen Stills, Bread and the Beatles. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, it worked. AP

David Bowie

Hammersmith Odeon, London, 3 July 1973
The moment when David Bowie appears to announce his retirement during this show is astonishing: the crowd’s screams become a vast howl of disappointment, peppered with yells of “No!” Did he mean it? Obviously not: even if he was just announcing the end of the Ziggy Stardust era, why was he on stage at the Marquee Club in London in full Ziggy drag three months later?

It didn’t matter. The announcement – before a crowd so febrile that, according to one eyewitness, audience members were pleasuring themselves as he played – wasn’t just a guaranteed headline, but an extraordinary piece of staging, an act that left everyone racing to catch up: very Bowie. It is hard not to wonder if he had it in mind when he was dying, too: the way he seemed to stage-manage his passing was all those things as well. AP

Bob Marley & the Wailers

Bob Marley at the Lyceum
Bob Marley at the Lyceum. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

The Lyceum, London, 17-18 July 1975
Probably the most dynamic and exhilarating reggae concerts ever. Perhaps more importantly, the presentation was familiar enough to the rock establishment to allow them to feel comfortable with roots reggae. The album recorded at these shows put Marley on the path to global superstardom. Lloyd Bradley

The Last Waltz

Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 25 November 1976
This Thanksgiving Day show was billed as the Band’s “farewell concert appearance”. Across its remarkable five hours, they were joined by many of their contemporaries, including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – jamming, improvising and high-kicking through an astonishing display of musicianship and camaraderie. The show was later released as a seminal documentary by Martin Scorsese. Laura Barton

Sex Pistols

River Thames, 7 June 1977
Insurrectionary publicity stunts don’t come better than punk’s prime movers playing on a boat sailing past the Houses of Parliament during the Queen’s silver jubilee celebrations. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, was among those arrested. Moral pandemonium ensued as God Save the Queen shot to No 2. Or was it really No 1? DS

Burning Spear

The Rainbow theatre, London, 26 October 1977
When Winston Rodney came out on stage, raised his arms and asked: “Do you remember the days of slavery?” the “Yes!” from the 3,000-strong, almost entirely black crowd nearly raised the roof. It set the tone for an evening that reclaimed roots reggae for its primary audience. Lloyd Bradley

Black Sabbath/Van Halen

Sheffield City Hall, 16 May 1978
No one hails Black Sabbath’s final UK tour with Ozzy Osbourne. What they remember is the support band. An old, tired, bloated Sabbath were destroyed night after night by Van Halen, who showed the future of hard rock – sunny, exciting, glamorous. Here was generational change embodied in the time it took for one gig to unfold. MH

Kate Bush

Kate Bush at the London Palladium
Kate Bush at the London Palladium. Photograph: Pete Still/Redferns

Tour of Life, April-May 1979
Notable for being Bush’s only live tour (until 35 years later, when she made her surprise live return with the After the Dawn residency), these dates set in motion a straight line from Bush to Britney Spears and beyond. Intent on singing and dancing (fully choreographed) at the same time, Bush pioneered the invention of the head mic (hers fashioned from a coat hanger) and the modern pop show was born. LS

The Specials, Madness and the Selecter

2 Tone tour, autumn 1979
Named after Jerry Dammers’ Coventry label and kicking off in Brighton, the 2 Tone tour unleashed the Specials, Madness and the Selecter on 40 UK dates, a blur of legs, arms and adrenaline. Scenes of euphoric dancing ensued as black and white youth came together to celebrate a chart-conquering, multicultural pop phenomenon. DS

Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela

Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela
Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

Lesotho, 28 December 1980
In South Africa’s apartheid era, the tyrannically segregationist laws of the country’s white government forced many black African artists into exile. The singer and campaigner Miriam Makeba and the jazz trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela were international stars who hadn’t seen family or home for 20 years when the businessman and fan Victor Maloi funded a defiant comeback on their oppressors’ doorstep.

In Lesotho, at Christmas time in 1980, a stadium crowd of 75,000 – with thousands more thronging into the tiny country’s streets to share the vibe – attended a historic event. The artists could behold their homeland from the stage – on which Masekela was reunited with his 90-year-old grandmother. A jubilant and political setlist included Makeba’s The Healing Song and Soweto Blues (“Just a little atrocity / Deep in the city”) and the churning, train-mimicking migrant workers’ lament Stimela, a Masekela concert staple for the rest of his life. JF


Kraftwerk on tour in 1981
Kraftwerk on tour in 1981. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Computer World tour, 1981
This world tour offered a glimpse into the future, combining purely electronic pop and visual technology. The band synchronised films to their music, played handheld miniature keyboards during Pocket Calculator and performed Robots alongside identically dressed humanoid replicas of themselves. DS

Diana Ross

Central Park, New York City, 21 July 1983
Sometimes everything going wrong can turn a gig into a memorable event, as when torrential rain broke out just after Ross took the stage here. She battled on for 45 minutes while the audience surged and fought among themselves. Probably better experienced on screen than in person, a rain-lashed Ross belting out Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is quite a sight. AP


The Haçienda, Manchester, 28 October 1983
Four years after Rapper’s Delight, hip-hop was still alien to most UK kids. So, seeing breaking, body-popping rappers Whodini – then superstars, yet barely out of their teens – in the flesh was transformational. Playing at the electro evangelist Greg Wilson’s night, they were true cultural ambassadors. JM


Wham! fans take in their first show at the Workers’ gymnasium
Wham! fans take in their first show at the Workers’ gymnasium. Photograph: Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images

Workers’ gymnasium, Beijing, 7 April 1985
For the Chinese government, the first visit by a western group signalled its willingness to open its commerce to capitalism. But it made a different kind of impact: Rose Tang, who was at Tiananmen Square in 1989, later said that seeing Wham! made young Chinese people realise that rebellion was possible. MH

Live Aid

Wembley stadium, London, 13 July 1985
Almost every major rock act played Bob Geldof’s “global jukebox”, held simultaneously in Wembley and John F Kennedy stadium in Philadelphia and broadcast to a billion people. Raising millions for famine relief, it created a new generation of superstars as Queen and U2’s epic performances ushered in the era of the mega rock event – and enshrined the white saviour act. DS

Public Enemy

Hammersmith Odeon, 1 November 1987
Public Enemy weren’t even the headliners of the Def Jam package tour, but when their performance at Hammersmith was played on the BBC’s A Fresh Start to the Week, it was a revelation. Armed paramilitaries on stage? What?! Bring the Noise, played months before it was released, was hip-hop as no one in Britain had heard it. MH

The Shamen

Synergy tour, 1989-91
Fearless psychotropic explorers, the Shamen turned their tour into an acid house club on wheels. Featuring live sets from Irresistible Force (AKA Mixmaster Morris), Meat Beat Manifesto and newbies Orbital, it was the seed from which 90s arena dance – Leftfield, Underworld et al – grew. JM


Madonna on the Blond Ambition tour
Madonna on the Blond Ambition tour. Photograph: John Roca/Rex Features

Blond Ambition tour, April-August 1990
Touring her fourth album, Like a Prayer, Madonna altered the blueprint for modern pop shows with this combination of narrative, choreography, high production values and fashion. That it was also a taboo-busting exploration of sexuality and religion only solidified its legacy: she nearly got arrested in Toronto for simulating masturbation, while Pope John Paul II called it “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity”. Alim Kheraj


Reading festival, 30 August 1992
Bands being pelted by objects is common at Reading – less so is bands fighting back, as L7 did in spectacular fashion. Donita Sparks hoicked out her tampon and hurled it at the crowd, proving that long-patronised “women in rock” weren’t going to be underestimated any more. Ben Beaumont-Thomas


Woodstock festival, New York, 23 July 1999
This performance to an infinite sea of boiling bros showed how far hip-hop had crossed over into white middle America – and how much the white artists on the bill borrowing from it still had to learn. Even on YouTube footage, DMX’s throaty holler remains singular and gorgeous. BBT

Roll Deep

Sidewinder, Milton Keynes, 9 November 2002
Although grime wasn’t even accepted as a term in 2002, the sound was fully formed. Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Flowdan and Jamakabi, plus DJs and the singer Gemma Fox, managed only 20 minutes of their allotted hour before things got too rowdy and the show was cut, but the energy echoed for years. JM

The Dixie Chicks

The Dixie Chicks – now the Chicks – in 2003
The Dixie Chicks – now the Chicks – in 2003. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 10 March 2003
Natalie Maines’ onstage criticism of George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq got country music’s most successful women blacklisted by radio stations, dropped by sponsors and subjected to death threats. Nevertheless, the band – now the Chicks – paved the way for more outspoken female country artists, from Taylor Swift to Miranda Lambert. Laura Barton

Céline Dion

A New Day residency, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, 25 March 2003
It was Liberace who invented the Vegas residency and Dion (DiMucci) who revived it, but it was Céline Dion who turned Caesars into the stage for a glorious pop comeback. Her initial five-year run was followed by a further eight years – and prompted copycat turns by Britney Spears, Pink and Katy Perry. Laura Barton

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift and Craig Wiseman at the Bluebird Cafe in 2018
Taylor Swift and Craig Wiseman at the Bluebird Cafe in 2018. Photograph: John Shearer/Getty Images for 13 Management

Bluebird Cafe, Nashville, 4 November 2004
Swift played three songs at the bijou Nashville institution aged 14 and was spotted there by her future label boss (and future foe) Scott Borchetta. By no means the only artist to get discovered at the venue, she was the first to blow that coffee-shop intimacy stadium-sized, addressing thousands of fans as if they were friends sharing hot chocolates in between her glittering country-pop hits. LS

Daft Punk

Coachella festival, California, 29 April 2006
Despite the best efforts of umpteen DJs and performers, dance music remained an underground phenomenon in the US until Daft Punk arrived at Coachella. Their rapturously received audiovisual extravaganza begat the American EDM explosion, a topic on which Daft Punk remained tight-lipped until the end. AP


Super Bowl half-time show, Miami, 4 February 2007
Any number of shows from Prince’s later years could make this list – his O2 residency, his Hit and Run guerrilla gigs – but for sheer “I’m back” bravado, his rain-soaked Super Bowl performance wins. His recording career had faltered, but this astonishing display of hits, guitar pyrotechnics and unexpected covers offered a very public reassertion of his genius. AP


Jay-Z at Glastonbury in 2008
Jay-Z at Glastonbury in 2008. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris/EPA

Glastonbury festival, Somerset, 29 June 2008
Noel Gallagher should have known better than to underestimate the showmanship of rap’s No 1 superstar. He had led a pre-festival chorus of opinion that hip-hop wasn’t meant for Glastonbury; Jay-Z responded with a sarky cover of Wonderwall and an arsenal of anthems, cementing rap in mainstream British culture. BBT

Ariana Grande

One Love Manchester, Old Trafford cricket ground, 4 June 2017
Has a pop star ever exhibited such fortitude? Less than two weeks after the bombing at the singer’s Manchester Arena show that killed 22 people and injured hundreds more, Grande performed for a 50,000-strong crowd and became a symbol of bravery. She had planned a sombre setlist in respect of the victims, but a conversation with the mother of the 15-year-old victim Olivia Campbell led the singer to scrap it: “She told me that Olivia would have wanted to hear the hits,” Grande said on stage – so that is what she delivered.

It transformed a moment of tragedy into an opportunity for defiance. Joined by big names such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Liam Gallagher, Grande and the crowd danced, sang, laughed and cried through their grief. “This evening has been so light and so filled with fun and love and bright energy,” Grande said, summarising what made One Love Manchester a unique act of resistance. AK


Lorde at Manchester Apollo on the Melodrama tour
Lorde at Manchester Apollo on the Melodrama tour. Photograph: Myles Wright/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Melodrama tour, September 2017-November 2018
The euphoric world tour for Lorde’s second album featured a floating room designed by Es Devlin in which the New Zealand singer and dancers acted out the drama of a house party. Months later, Lorde accused Kanye West and Kid Cudi of stealing her stage design. They denied it; meanwhile Devlin expressed her interest that both acts were “responding to our disjointed times”. A symbol for this era of precarious pop. LS


Coachella festival, California, 14 April 2018
This spectacular feat of artistic and musical ingenuity disrupted and decolonised homogenous modern festival culture. Drawing on the traditions of historically black colleges and universities, black feminism and a reverence and sense of restitution for Beyoncé’s black musical forebears, it redefined the festival headline set. AK


Glastonbury festival, Somerset, 28 June 2019
The most potent moment of this set – a grand production featuring BMX bikers, ticker tape and a ballet interlude – was probably when Stormzy recited a list of 52 British MCs, charting the breadth of homegrown rap. His platforming of the scene was modest and generous, but Stormzy’s statuesque performance was its own form of evangelism. BBT

Billie Eilish

American Airlines arena, Miami, 9 March 2020
On the first night of her world tour (which was curtailed by the pandemic days later), Eilish unveiled the Not My Responsibility video, in which she rejected the toxic narrative surrounding her body image. It showed gutsy self-assurance to implicate her audience and say: I am not yours. This pointed separation of church and state broke the generations-old contract between teen stars and their spectators and exemplified Eilish’s self-preservation-first interpretation of pop stardom. AK

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