By Brian Ives
The news that rock legends AC/DC and Steely Dan would be among the artists headlining this year’s Coachella was met with such rage/annoyance/disbelief that you’d think that it was a major decision that would impact popular music and culture for years to come. It’s fun to talk about, it probably doesn’t really impact your day much, and most of all, it’s a bit of information that is really easy to ignore.
Coachella, of course, has generally positioned itself as a cooler-than-the-mainstream three-day bash, rooted in indie music, dance culture, hip-hop and the alt rock of the ’80s and ’90s. So now that they’ve booked the quintessential hard rock and soft rock bands of ’70s/’80s classic rock radio… what does it all mean? Well, that’s a question for another article, and we’ve already discussed why people care so much.
But Coachella has never been 100% ageist; they’ve always booked a few older acts here and there, either as (a) a way to pay tribute to the scene’s roots, (b) an indulgence on the part of the festival’s producers, Goldenvoice or (c) both. In 1999, the festival’s first year, they booked the Art of Noise (featuring former Buggles and Yes singer Trevor Horn), Gil Scott-Heron and, in a sign of the changing times, Lollapalooza mastermind Perry Farrell, who played a DJ set.
(Fun fact: the festival’s second year, 2001, featured an artist called Bad Company, but it was the drum and bass group, not the Paul Rodgers-led classic rock legends.)
It was a few years later that they started booking much more popular legendary artists for the festival, including a few hotly anticipated reunions that launched on their stage. Here then, is a brief history of Coachella’s instances of giving stage time to 40-somethings.
1. Paul McCartney (2009)
After Madonna, Waters and Prince, Coachella went full-on classic rock and pop by booking an actual Beatle. So, how did it go? The Los Angeles Times Pop and Hiss blog said “The verdict from his Coachella debut on Friday? Never underestimate the power of a Beatle. Perhaps some fans stayed away because a member of the world’s most popular rock band showed up, but for the ones who didn’t, the night belonged to Paul. Pity the poor acts who had to go on opposite him while 95% of those still on hand for the conclusion of Friday’s opening show packed themselves like so many sardines as close to the big Coachella stage as they could.” Entertainment Weekly‘s reporter admitted, “I found myself grinning like a fool at the teenaged girl in the hippie headband boogie-ing her butt off next to me, and felt my heart soar to realize that these songs I fell in love with when I was a teenager are still a vital and celebratory part of the human condition, not just for my parents’ generation, or mine, but even for the (occasionally horribly misguided) generation that’s finding them right now, and probably all the generations to come,” concluding that “Paul McCartney does have a place at this festival, and I was glad I got the chance to partake in his emotional night, and I thank him for unexpectedly and beautifully giving me one of my own even when I was hellbent against allowing that to happen, and as it turns out I don’t have to be so crabby about everything all the damn time.”
2. The Pixies (2004)
Aside from the Replacements and Sonic Youth, there were no more respected bands from the American post-punk scene than the Pixies. And if you weren’t too cool to enjoy reunions and you come from the previously mentioned Spin generation, you probably wanted to see the Pixies one more time. As with the Stooges, the Pixies returned to a world that eagerly welcomed them back: they would go on to headline larger shows than they ever did during their ’80s/’90s heyday. They didn’t disappoint in Indio: Rolling Stone wrote “The Pixies rocked their way through an hour-long performance… It was the Saturday set fans spent most of Sunday talking about.” And again, like the Stooges, the reunion stuck: the group have toured and recorded often in the decade since, albeit in significantly altered form: bassist Kim Deal famously left the band in 2013.
3. Madonna (2006)
In the same year that “poptimism” became a thing, Coachella proved to have its finger on the pulse by having one of the most famous pop stars on the planet play the dance tent. It seemed to be a big deal at the time: would the precious indie-centric audience be OK with the decidedly non-indie Madge bringing huge hit singles to their party? But it turned out to not be such a big deal at all. Although she started her set late (generally, a big no-no at festivals) and only played six songs, Billboard reported that she performed to “one of the largest crowds ever to witness an artist at the event.” This year, Billboard called her set one of the 15 best Coachella performances ever. Watch a bit of her performance here.
4. Crowded House (2007)
Not every Coachella reunion launch works. Crowded House’s big comeback show took place on the main stage in 2007… three hours before Rage Against The Machine would play the same stage. Bad planning. As Stereogum reported, it did not go well. They opened with their biggest hit, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and were interrupted mid-song with frontman Neil Finn was beaned in the head with a water bottle. The takeaway: sometimes a cool band reuniting makes for good copy, but it many only work in theory. In practice, sometimes it’s a bust; the kids paying hundreds of dollars for a weekend pass may simply not care. The odds of Crowded House’s fans going to Coachella was pretty low, and putting them on the huge stage at an American festival was ambitious at best (they followed Willie Nelson, who had just turned 74, surely one of the oldest acts to play the fest). It wouldn’t be the last time Coachella confused what they wanted to happen with what actually happened: 2013’s Stone Roses reunion may have been interesting to some Americans, but few of them would attend the three day festival in the desert. And the younger fans who were there didn’t have a frame of reference for Stone Roses, and didn’t seem to care about their reunion.