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Top of the bill

From festivals to charity gigs, the multi-act pop concert has a long history. But what was the greatest line-up of all? David Sinclair presents 17 contenders...

It was 1967, and Jimi Hendrix’s battered Stratocaster lay smouldering on the stage. The guitar, which Hendrix had just doused in lighter fluid and set on fire at the climax of his set, was no longer ablaze, but a nervous stage hand stood over it with a fire extinguisher. As the Jimi Hendrix Experience left the stage, a bemused ripple of applause went up from hordes of teenage girls in the stalls. Many were clutching teddy bears ready for the arrival of the headlining act, the Walker Brothers. Before that, they were wooed in rather more emollient fashion by Engelbert Humperdinck. Immaculately coiffed and tuxedoed, Engelbert followed Hendrix’s incendiary version of “Purple Haze” with a smooth rendition of “Release Me”, which had been number one for six weeks earlier in the year. Humperdinck smarmed his way off, to be replaced by a hot young thing called Cat Stevens, who sang some spirited songs about loving his dog and getting himself a gun. Finally the Walker Brothers arrived, to be greeted by a merciless barrage of soft toys. 

This was pretty much the first pop show I ever saw and the wonder of the line-up has stayed with me ever since. Such a mixture might seem eccentric now—and indeed it seemed so at the time. But the multi-act bill has always promised a special sense of occasion. Whether staged in a football ground or the rolling farmland of Glastonbury, a diverse line-up draws a broad audience and adds an element of contrast to the entertainment—possibly taken too far by the Hendrix-Humperdinck face-off. When it works, it can be far more than the sum of the parts. 

So which bills generated the biggest thrills? What was the greatest line-up of all? Here are my choices in some of the main categories, taken in roughly chronological order. The cast lists are not exhaustive.

American tour, March-May 1958
Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Like rock’n’roll itself, the pop package show was invented in 1950s America. The Big Beat tour was one of many line-ups that criss-crossed North America, featuring men who are now legends. The promoter, the DJ Alan Freed, had coined the phrase “rock’n’roll". “Rock’n’roll show wows ’em—they were dancing in the aisles!” proclaimed the Dayton, Ohio, Journal Herald under the headline: “Get Hep—Go, Man, Go”.

American tour, Jan-Feb 1959
Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, Dion

The music was magical, but for the musicians these early tours were arduous, even dangerous. The tour bus on this one was so ill-equipped that Buddy Holly’s drummer was hospitalised with frostbitten feet. Weary and keen to get his laundry done, Holly chartered a plane to take him, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper to the next venue. The plane crashed, killing all three of them and the young pilot. Don McLean called it “the day the music died” in his song “American Pie”, fixing this line-up in popular legend. Incredibly, the tour carried on, with Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup stepping into dead men’s shoes.

Wembley Empire Pool, London, May 1st 1966
The Who, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison, the Small Faces, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles

The Beatles had played Shea Stadium in New York the year before and the era of the stadium supergig was beckoning. But when you see grainy old footage on YouTube, you get a sense of the simplicity and lack of pretension that enabled these multi-act live shows to work. This was surely the greatest line-up of British pop talent assembled for a single show in the 1960s. It was supposed to be televised, but the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was at loggerheads with ABV TV and got the cameras switched off, which was a pity, as it was the last time the Beatles played live before a paying British audience. There was also a blazing backstage row between John Lennon and Mick Jagger.

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Oct 28th-29th 1964
Chuck Berry, James Brown and the Famous Flames, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Lesley Gore, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Supremes, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. House band: the Wrecking Crew, including Leon Russell and Jack Nitzsche

A sensational list of American R'n’B stars and British Invaders combined for these two live shows, filmed for television in front of an audience of high-school kids. Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash’s producer, said that James Brown’s contribution “may be the single greatest rock’n’roll performance ever captured on film”.

British tour, March 1965
The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas

Sitting in a half-empty Bristol hall at 6.45pm, a fan named Adam White thrilled to the sight and sound of the Supremes in black dresses singing “Stop! In the Name of Love” with its distinctive police choreography. The tour was a resounding flop, but that didn’t bother White or other diehards watching this advance party of superstars-to-be from Hitsville, USA. “The fact that the majority of British concert-goers didn’t recognise the uniqueness of this sound...only reinforced our innate sense of superiority,” White wrote. He went on to be international editor-in-chief of Billboard.

Tulip Bulb Auction Hall, Spalding, Lincs, May 29th 1967
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, Pink Floyd, The Move, Zoot Money 

Was this the greatest one-off, non-charity, non-awards, non-tribute gig ever? It is thought to be the only time that the Hendrix Experience and Eric Clapton’s Cream shared a stage, and down the bill, below Geno Washington, was the original Pink Floyd line-up, featuring Syd Barrett. Below them were The Move, with Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, who had just had top-five hits with “Night of Fear” and “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”. Another of Hendrix’s guitars ended up in flames. According to his driver, it was picked up with the rubbish at the end and thrown into the council dump. Tickets, as the poster (above) shows, were £1.

Source: The Economist
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