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Coachella’s 25 greatest headline performances: From Beyoncé’s marching band to Billie Eilish’s record breaker

With the California festival set to return this weekend, Kevin E G Perry looks back at some of its most memorable performances

Sunday 14 April 2024 19:24
From left: Madonna and Drake; Beyonce; Billie Eilish
From left: Madonna and Drake; Beyonce; Billie Eilish (Getty Images)

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is back this week, with Lana Del Rey, Tyler, the Creator and Doja Cat set to headline and a much-anticipated reunion set from So Cal ska-punk heroes No Doubt.

We’ve already rounded up five of the best things you can do at the festival beside listening to music if you’re heading to Indio for either Weekend 1 (12-14 April) or Weekend 2 (19-21 April), but to whet your appetite for the performances to come let’s take a look back at some of the legends who’ve graced the stage in the last quarter of a century.

Here are the wildest headline sets in Coachella’s 25-year history.

Rage Against The Machine get things off to an explosive start - 1999

The inaugural Coachella in 1999 was headlined by Beck, Tool and Rage Against The Machine. It was the latter band, fresh from playing the ill-fated Woodstock ’99, who made the biggest and loudest impact. The group split the following year shortly after releasing fourth record Renegades. Where did they pick for their 2007 reunion? The main stage of Coachella, of course.

Jane’s Addiction reunite - 2001

Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell is well known as the founder of touring festival extravaganza Lollapalooza, but he also found time to help out the fledgling Coachella festival in 2001 by reuniting his band for the first time since the Nineties and delivering a hit-filled set.

Iggy and the Stooges, back together at last - 2003

Prior to the 2003 edition of Coachella, Iggy Pop hadn’t played with brothers Ron and Scott Asheton for 30 years. After headline sets from The White Stripes and The Beastie Boys, it was the reunited original Stooges line-up who brought the festival to a delirious climax with a timely delivery of raw power.

Wayne Coyne crowdsurfs in a bubble - 2004

Coachella sold out for the first time in 2004, helped by the long-awaited reunion of the mighty Pixies, but that wasn’t the only memorable performance of the weekend. The Flaming Lips’ set is well remembered for the moment frontman Wayne Coyne’s crowd-surfed out over the audience in a man-sized plastic bubble.

New Order honour Ian Curtis - 2005

Playing Coachella just a month before the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of their bandmate Ian Curtis, New Order did something they hadn’t done in nearly two decades – they played Joy Division songs. Powerfully moving performances of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and ”Transmission” provided the year’s most heartfelt moments.

Daft Punk during their famous 2006 Coachella performance (Getty Images)

Daft Punk’s game-changing pyramid - 2006

Arguably the most famous and influential Coachella performance of all time – at least pre-Beyoncé. Daft Punk landed in the festival’s Sahara Tent in a pyramid that looked uncannily like a spaceship and proceeded to deliver a suitably out-of-this world performance that changed the course of dance music. It proved so influential on a generation of young producers that this show was to EDM what the Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall was to punk.

Amy Winehouse defines an era - 2007

2007 saw headline sets from Björk, Red Hot Chili Peppers and a reunited Rage Against The Machine. However, it was a British soul singer much further down the line-up who captured the public’s imagination. As Vice wrote: “Amy may not have headlined the festival, but she was the definitive Coachella performer of 2007, the axis of the cultural elite and messy starlets that defined the era.” As well as performing at the peak of her powers, Winehouse partied with Paris Hilton and Kelly Osbourne and even found time to be photographed backstage with Danny DeVito.

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Roger Waters proves pigs can fly - 2008

2008 is remembered for a stunning Prince headline set and for Roger Waters pulling double duty, playing his own set and a full run-through of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. During “Pigs” he released a two-storey inflatable hog into the skies. The porcine icon had the words “Don’t be led to the slaughter” painted on it alongside a cartoon of Uncle Sam holding two bloody cleavers, lest anyone accuse Waters of subtlety.

Morrissey storms offstage after smelling “burning flesh” - 2009

Performing on the Friday night, shortly before fellow vegetarian Paul McCartney, the former Smiths frontman brought his show to an early finish after catching the scent of meat on the air. “I can smell burning flesh.. .and I hope to God it’s human,” Morrissey uttered before gagging and walking off halfway through “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”. He did eventually return to the stage, declaring: “The smell of burning animals is making me sick. I just couldn’t bear it.”

Phoenix survive a volcano - 2010

Back in 2010, a series of volcanic eruptions in Iceland grounded flights across the Atlantic. That meant many bands, including The Cribs and Gary Numan, simply couldn’t make it to Coachella. While French indie rockers Phoenix did manage to arrive on time, their lighting tech didn’t, which left them with no choice but to perform in front of simple white lights. Turns out that was all they needed, and their set went down so well they were asked back to headline in 2013.

Kanye touches the sky - 2011

The news that Kanye West has dropped out of this year’s Coachella will be disappointing to anyone who witnessed his triumphant first headline set back in 2011. West set the bar by appearing above the main stage atop a glowing crane 30ft above thousands of awestruck fans. There was just one rhetorical question on his lips: “Can we get much higher?”

The late Tupac Shakur making a virtual appearance at Coachella 2012 (Getty Images)

The resurrection of Tupac - 2012

During a festival-closing set by Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, rap icon Tupac magically appeared to join them, undeterred by the fact he’d died in 1996. His hologram appearance shocked fans and divided critics, but Tupac’s performances of “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” were certainly unforgettable.

Fall Out Boy make surprise cameo during 2 Chainz set - 2013

As unlikely collaborations go, rapper 2 Chainz bringing out emo rockers Fall Out Boy to perform “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Remix)” is certainly up there. The Georgia artist’s fans were left largely bemused by the whole incident, despite his claim onstage that: “Not only did I come to save hip-hop, I came to save rock and roll.”

Nas celebrates Illmatic with Jay-Z and Diddy - 2014

Nas knew that the 20th anniversary of his genre-defining rap album Illmatic was something worth celebrating, so for his midnight set in 2014 he was helped out by a couple of icons: Jay-Z made a surprise appearance on “Dead Presidents”, while Diddy came on stage for “Hate Me Now”.

Madonna snogs Drake - 2015

Drake’s closing set on the Sunday night of Coachella 2015 is best remembered for the moment when Madonna herself interrupted a performance of the Canadian artist’s song “Madonna” by strutting onstage, singing a couple of her own songs and then planting a long, passionate smooch on the headliner. Looking flustered, Drake could do little more than giggle: “What the f*** just happened?”

Axl Rose and Slash bury the hatchet - 2016

Coachella has built a reputation for reuniting bands long after they seem to have called it quits. In 2016 they brought back not just LCD Soundsystem but also Guns N’ Roses, with frontman Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan playing together at a major event for the first time since 1993. Sadly, a snapped metatarsal meant Rose had to perform from a seat straight out of Game of Thrones, but in better news fans did enjoy a cameo from iconic AC/DC guitarist Angus Young.

Lady Gaga tops the bill, and a movie star is born - 2017

Lady Gaga’s headline set in 2017 showcased the pop icon at her best, moving seamlessly from massive club-ready dance bangers to heart-shredding emotive piano ballads like “Edge of Glory”, which proved a genuine tear-jerker. Afterwards, she dusted herself off and shot scenes with Bradley Cooper which would go on to be used in 2018’s A Star Is Born.

(Rex Features)

Beyonce (and her marching band) conquers Beychella - 2018

Beyonce had been due to play Coachella in 2017 before discovering she was pregnant. She finally took the stage in 2018 for a performance so staggering that by the time it was over the festival had been temporarily renamed “Beychella”. The whole production was so epic it formed the basis of her own documentary film Homecoming, which shed light on the eight months of choreography and rehearsals that went into bringing the historic concert to the stage.

Kanye takes Coachella to church - 2019

When Kayne West returned to Coachella in 2019 for his Sunday Service performance, he delivered a truly religious experience. Not only were there gospel singers and celebrity cameos from Donald Glover and Chance The Rapper, but the whole thing took place on top of a purpose-built grass mountain constructed in the festival’s campground. Rumours circulated that West could have performed on one of the festival’s main stages, but apparently this was one hill West was willing to die on.

Billie Eilish becomes the youngest person to headline - 2022

Billie Eilish’s Coachella career didn’t get off to the best start: When she made her festival debut in 2019, aged just 17, the pop prodigy’s set was blighted by sound problems and technical difficulties. Three years later, she made up for it and then some. Her set on the main stage in 2022 made her, at 20, the youngest artist ever to headline the festival. She may not have been old enough to wear one of the festival’s ubiquitous 21+ wristbands, but she delivered a performance of power and verve that made smart use of cameos from artists including R&B star Khalid and Blur’s Damon Albarn, or, as he’s known in America, Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn.

Blackpink make history as first K-pop headliners - 2023

Blackpink - made up of singers Jennie, Jisoo, Rosé and Lisa - have history when it comes to Coachella. In 2019 they made their US debut while becoming the first Korean girl group to play the festival, and in 2023 they returned triumphantly as Coachella’s first ever K-pop headliners. Onstage, Rosé called the moment a “dream come true” - a sentiment shared by the group’s loyal fans, known as Blinks, who turned out in huge numbers to salute their heroes.

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