35 magic moments in music we wish we’d witnessed

From Björk’s wild debut as a pregnant teen to Tupac and Biggie’s ultimate freestyle, we choose the most indelible moments of modern music history.

by Courtney Iseman
03 August 2015, 5:25pm

1. Bob Dylan "plugs in" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Expecting to hear his politically charged songs played acoustically, the crowd booed, but Dylan had clearly entered the next chapter of his career.

2. Andy Warhol creates art-rock with The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1966.
As the band's manager, Warhol had the Velvets play while he projected abstract film on them and had Factory regulars dance onstage as part of his multimedia event series, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

3. Jimi Hendrix improvs an electrified version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in 1969.
The legendary guitarist closed the generation-defining festival with an emotionally charged version of the anthem that was still seen as controversial to play so freely then, with the Vietnam War going strong.

4. Iggy Pop walks on the crowd's hands at the Cincinnati Music Festival in 1970.
Like some sort of dark and twisted god, Iggy cemented his reputation for insane, heroin-fueled performances by walking right onto the audience while The Stooges played.

5. David Bowie introduces the world to Ziggy Stardust in 1972.
Just a couple of years after breaking out as a rock star, Bowie was inspired by Lou Reed and BFF Iggy Pop to create an alter-ego in order to unleash an even stranger, more mystifying side of his music.

6. The Ramones debut at CBGB in 1974.
ust four kids from Queens who could barely get onstage without fighting or ingesting different drugs, The Ramones ignited punk and changed music forever from their very first performance, exciting the crowd with their fast, aggressive songs.

7. The Patti Smith Group storms London in 1976.
Following her release of the seminal Horses, Smith and her band worked the crowd into a frenzy at the Roundhouse. After delivering a mix of punk and poetry, the group smashed their instruments in the ultimate exit.

8. The Sex Pistols swear on live TV in 1976.
The brashest band to come along and shape the London punk scene had been on a fast and dangerous rise throughout 1976. They capped off the year by raising public concern about their influence, cursing at interviewer Bill Grundy while live on Thames Television's Today.

9. Queen's "Picnic by the Serpentine" in 1976
Officially on top of the rock scene in the U.K., especially after releasing "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen put on a free show for 150,000 ecstatic fans in Hyde Park, and ended up growing its following even more.

10. Sugarhill Gang debuts "Rapper's Delight" in 1979
With its lifted beats, the single itself is controversial, but there's no doubt "Rapper's Delight" and its success helped launch a whole new genre once Sugarhill Gang started performing it.

11. Blondie debuts "Rapture" in 1981
Two years after "Rapper's Delight," an unlikely contender threw its hat in the hip hop ring: Blondie. It was queen of the CBGB scene Debbie Harry who scored the first No. 1 single to feature rap in the U.S. and the first rap video played on MTV with "Rapture."

12. MTV airs for the first time in 1981
Footage of the first space shuttle launch and the words "ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll," kicked off the world's first channel devoted to music videos at 12:01AM, August 1st. It's true, the network now known for "Teen Mom" used to be the place to discover your new favorite band.

13. Yoko Ono accepts the Grammy for her album with John Lennon in 1982
Two years after his untimely death, Yoko took the stage with six-year-old Sean Lennon when Double Fantasy won Album of the Year, delivering an emotional speech to a standing, teared-up audience.

14. 19-year-old Björk breaks out with a performance while 7-months pregnant in 1982
Björk began a long career of challenging society's ideas of what women should look and sound like when she was just a teenager performing in Iceland. The world was starting to take notice by the time she tore things up onstage while still only 19, and very pregnant.

15. Michael Jackson moonwalks for the first time in 1983
James Brown might have been doing it all along, but it was Jackson who made the moonwalk a phenomenon with his expert execution. The world lost its collective mind when he did it for the first time performing "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special.

16. Madonna performs "Like a Virgin" at the VMAs in 1984
The success of MTV's first Video Music Awards was looking doubtful until a relatively unknown Madonna burst from a wedding cake and rolled around the floor. Her shocking performance kept viewers coming back for more, both from her and from MTV.

17. The Cure make their TV debut in the U.S. at the 1989 VMAs
The band that made it cool to be tortured had been playing since 1976 and had already become big in the U.K., but it wasn't until the goth outfit performed on the 1989 VMAs that a mainstream audience clung fast to "Just Like Heaven."

18. MC Hammer debuts "U Can't Touch This" on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989
At some point, hip hop moved from no-frills urban rhyming to over-the-top flash, and MC Hammer's dance moves and golden harem pants certainly had something to do with that, starting with the premier of one of music's most frustratingly catchy songs.

19. Eazy-E meets President George H.W. Bush in 1991
The posterchild of gangster rap went from being investigated for N.W.A.'s anti-cop violence lyrics to being cordially invited to lunch with the president at a private Republican fundraiser--who wouldn't have wanted to be a fly on the wall for that meeting?

20. Kurt Cobain jabs at the media at the Reading Festival in 1992
At what would be Nirvana's final U.K. appearance, Kurt decided to have a little fun with all of the journalists wondering if he was headed for a breakdown by being pushed out in a wheelchair before launching into a crazy but glorious performance.

21. Sinéad O'Connor tears into the pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992
Sinéad O'Connor's entire music career has been strongly tied to activist missions and speaking out, but no statement was louder than her singing Bob Marley's "War" a capella and ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II in her protest of child abuse in the church.

22. Sonic Youth plays Late Night with David Letterman in 1992
Late-night talk shows had tended to stay away from younger bands in more extreme genres, but Sonic Youth broke through to introduce the masses to grunge, performing "100%" and seeming to alarm Letterman with their aggressive thrashing.

23. Huggy Bear incites a riot on The Word in 1993
One of the trailblazing bands of the riot grrl movement was also one of its toughest. After performing on the U.K. TV show, the activist band and its fans started rioting against the program's next segment, two American models called the Barbie twins.

24. Biggie and Tupac freestyle at Madison Square Garden in 1994
Like a clash of the titans, it became forever known in hip hop as "the greatest freestyle ever" when powerhouse rivals Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur recorded live at MSG.

25. Fiona Apple declares the world is bullshit at the VMAs 1997
Most people thank their labels and God when they win an award, but Fiona Apple is not most people. The outspoken singer fittingly used her time to remind the audience that everything is crap--but she ends with a positive message.

26. Radiohead performs at Glastonbury in 1997
On the heels of the release of OK Computer, the album that firmly placed Radiohead on a rock-and-roll throne, the band blew audiences away with what would still be referred to as the greatest concert of all time years later.

27. The Spice Girls meet Nelson Mandela in 1997
It was certainly a meeting of icons (of different sorts) when the Spice Girls met Nelson Mandela a year after smashing onto the scene with "Wannabe" in 1996. Worldwide hero Mandela actually declared Sporty, Scary, Baby, Ginger and Posh his heroes when they met.

28. Ol' Dirty Bastard invents the Kanye in 1998
Just a reminder that everything shocking has actually been done before: ODB crashed Shawn Colvin's acceptance speech at the Grammys to inform everyone that it was the Wu Tang Clan who really cared about the children, and that he bought his nice outfit expecting to win something.

29. Talking Heads reunite at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2002
David Byrne had made it crystal-clear that he would never play with the Talking Heads again, making their performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for every fan--on top of that, they slayed.

30. The Pixies reunite at Coachella in 2004
The breakup of Kurt Cobain's favorite band in 1993 had been so bitter, a reunion seemed unlikely. But, after a new generation had been turned on to their music, the Pixies got it together for the festival and a subsequent tour.

31. The Fugees come together at Dave Chappelle's block party in 2004
Dave Chappelle did what so many Fugees and Lauryn Hill fans wished they could have done since the group disbanded: got them together on one stage. Hill's amazing rendition of "Killing Me Softly" proved they still had it and brought the house down.

32. Amy Winehouse sings "Love is a Losing Game" at the Mercury Prize in 2007
Amy Winehouse was already a well-known, well-loved singer in the U.K. for a few years before the rest of the world caught on, but soon everyone was aware of her bluesy, soulful chops. This performance is often thought of as one of her most vocally moving, and happened right before she swept the 2008 Grammys.

33. Kanye performs at Bonnaroo and introduces the world to a Kanye tantrum in 2008
By now, Kanye's fits and rants are an integral part of his persona, but several years ago, they were more special occurrences. Yeezy gave an amazing performance at Bonnaroo--two hours late. Fans booed and following acts mocked him, leading him to unleash his wrath in the media.

34. Beyonce sings "At Last" at the 2013 Inauguration Ball
What happens when you take one of the most beautiful songs, the coolest first couple and the most iconic singer in contemporary music? A truly tear-jerking performance. Beyonce crooning Etta James's hit while the Obamas danced is one for the history books.

35. Kendrick Lamar surprises L.A. fans with a concert in 2015
Kendrick Lamar is definitely one of those rare exciting artists that has the power to shake up their entire genre, and he does so with performances like this surprise concert on a moving truck in L.A., making the crowd jog to keep up and also making everyone not in that right place at that right time feel really bummed.


Text Courtney Iseman

the 35th birthday issue