Concerts are part of our culture and history, and the past century has produced some historical iconic music moments. From the countercultural revolution of Woodstock in 1969 to the global philanthropy of Live Aid in 1985, our collective history is filled with these moments of musical prowess from the top artists to ever live. These iconic moments capture the essence of the artists, the energy of the crowd, and the unique magic that can only be found in a live setting. Below, we will relive some of the top 7 most iconic music concerts in history, each a testament to the profound impact of music on our lives.
Iconic Music Moments Began in the 60s
1965– Dylan Goes Electric At the Newport Folk Festival
Bob Dylan is considered one of the greatest songwriters of his time. He became the voice of a generation, defining the folk sound of the early 1960s with deeply profound and poetic lyrics that captivated audiences. Dylan was known for his acoustic sound and had established himself as a prominent and influential figure in the folk music scene, with protest songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’ and “Blowin’ In the Wind’, becoming anthems for the Civil Rights and social justice movements.
In 1965, Dylan took The Newport Folk Festival stage with a performance that shifted the musical soundscapes of the years to follow. For context, The Newport Folk Festival was an event that celebrated traditional folk music and acoustic instruments. It was the epicenter of the folk music revival in the United States with festival organizers who fully embraced the traditional sonic elements of folk music. But while festival organizers and fans attended the festival to celebrate traditional folk music, they were met with shock when Bob Dylan appeared on the stage carrying a Fender Stratocaster in place of his familiar acoustic guitar. Rather than his usual acoustic performances, he was backed by a band, who crashed into a raw Chicago boogie while he sang “Maggie’s Farm.” Mixing electric guitar with folk music was unheard of, and as a result, many fans booed him, with the jeering and yelling loud enough to nearly drown out the sound of the performance. Many folk music purists considered this artistic choice the worst sort of heresy.
Despite the negative responses, this performance was a turning point for folk music and popular music in general, signaling the evolving direction of contemporary music and the integration of electric rock sounds with traditional folk songwriting. It remains a pivotal example for artists who defy genre boundaries and expectations and is an extremely historic part of music history.
1968 – Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
On January 13th, 1968, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California. Accompanied by The Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, and The Statler Brothers, he took to the stage at Folsom Prison with a two-part performance. The first part of the concert occurred in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. Both performances were being audio recorded and would later be compiled for his live album “At Folsom Prison.”
A decade after writing “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1956, and following correspondence with imprisoned fans across America, Cash first played at Folsom in 1966 on the suggestion of a local preacher. Two years later, in the midst of a decline in his career and while suffering from alcoholism and addiction, Cash returned to Fulsom Prison and convinced his record company to let him record a live album there, hoping it would help boost his career.
With songs that discussed themes of redemption and second chances, his performance at Fulsom resonated with inmates. The atmosphere of these performances is palpable in the live album recordings, capturing the raw energy and enthusiasm of the inmates in the audience. “At Folsom Prison” ended up being a major success, revitalizing Johnny Cash’s career. In addition, he won two Grammy awards for the album, was acknowledged by Rolling Stone, Time, and Country Music Television as one of the greatest albums of all time, achieved triple platinum status from the RIAA in 2003, and the Library of Congress chose it for addition to the National Recording Registry.
1969 – Jimi Hendrix At Woodstock
Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival is one of the most iconic moments in music history. Taking the stage on the morning of August 18, 1969, Jimi Hendrix and his band Gypsy Sun & Rainbows captivated the crowd with a set that became legendary. Though he was originally booked to close the festival the previous night, plans had changed. Ten hours later than his original set time, Hendrix took the stage on a Monday morning to a crowd that had dwindled from 400,000 to 30,000. By this point, the festival grounds were a trash pile of mud and debris, with cold and hungry attendees witnessing one of the most historic musical moments.
Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during Woodstock 69’ was electrifying and revolutionary. He delivered an intensely psychedelic and distorted performance of the American national anthem, with his iconic white Stratocaster in hand. His rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner ” transformed the song into a blazing freak flag that spoke to eccentrics, oddballs, weirdos, outsiders, and marginal people of every sort. Hendrix’s interpretation and rendition of the national anthem opened the door for other musicians to interpret a song that had previously been considered off-limits.
The performance both displayed Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar virtuosity but also reflected the turbulent times of the late 1960s, with the anti-Vietnam War counterculture and bubbling social unrest. It was a time of protest, patriotism and musical innovation. Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock was a pivotal moment for rock music and a testament to his lasting influence on generations of musicians and fans. His transcendent guitar work, along with the social and political context behind the performance, cemented it as one of the most iconic performances in live music history.
1969- The Beatles At Apple Corp Rooftop
Though it didn’t get much attention at the time, The Beatles’ performance on the rooftop at Apple Corp in 1969 was an incredibly iconic and historic moment. This rooftop concert was completely impromptu and marked the first time in over two years that the band had played together live. It was also one of the last public performances the band would ever give.
The setup of the concert was meant to create the feel of a live performance but the sound quality of a studio recording. They had cables running from the roof to the basement studio to record the music, and speakers facing downwards to passersby on the street. During the performance, The Beatles played “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “The One After 909” and “Dig A Pony.” Because they hadn’t performed together in over two years, this concert was a surprise to both Londoners below and to fans worldwide.
The rooftop concert was more than just a reunion, it emphasized their strong and enduring musical chemistry. Though the band’s unity was being held together by a thread, with disagreements about their management and frequent discussions about breaking up, they came together at this moment to return to their roots and perform. This rooftop performance is fondly remembered as a legendary moment in the Beatles’ career and is a document of their devotion to their craft and talent as a group.
1985 – Queen At Live Aid
As depicted in the 2018 biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ about Freddy Mercury, Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 is considered to be one of the most iconic performances of Queen’s career. Live Aid took place at Wembley Stadium in London, and it’s intent was to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. The concert was broadcast globally and viewed by an estimated 1.9 billion in 150 nations. Additionally, it’s estimated that nearly 40 percent of the worldwide population tuned in to watch. Among the 75+ artists performing, which included Elton John, David Bowie, and Madonna (to name a few,) was Queen.
Queen was not expected to perform well amongst the stacked lineup, especially since they were considered to be beyond their peak and had been caught in some heat after a run of shows in apartheid South Africa the previous year. Before their Live Aid performance, Freddie Mercury had also been the center of gossip and disparaging comments in the press over his sexuality. However, Queen took the stage for a 21-minute set where they sang all their hits: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “Ay‐Oh” /”Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are the Champions.”
Devoid of their flamboyant 70s costumes and theatricality, Queen appeared in basic clothing, with Mercury donning a stripped-back outfit, which has now become an iconic look. The way that Mercury was able to captivate and command such a massive audience was nothing short of legendary. During “Radio Ga Ga ” Mercury engaged the 70,000-person audience and had them participate in a clapping sequence, and during “We Are the Champions” the entire stadium was singing along. Queen’s Live Aid performance is considered a masterclass in stadium rock and is widely celebrated for its musical excellence and its role in making Live Aid one of the most significant charity events.
1988- Bruce Springsteen Plays East Berlin
In 1988, Bruce Springsteen played East Berlin, marking a performance that spoke to the historical conflicts of the time. His performance at Radrennbahn Weißensee stadium in East Berlin was a historic and significant moment in the context of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany. About a year before the Berlin Wall fell, Springsteen took the stage in the middle of a divided Berlin to an audience that was restless, jaded, and sick of being locked behind the Berlin Wall.
About 300,000 people attended the concert from all over the German Democratic Republic and millions more watched the concert on state television. During this 4 hour concert, Springsteen made a speech in broken German saying “I’m not here for any government, I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you,” before adding, “In the hope that one day that all the barriers will be torn down.” Additionally, after this speech, he sang Bob Dylan’s ‘Chains of Freedom.’
Gerd Dietrich, a History Professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University, says that “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall,” and that it made people “more eager for more and more change” and aware of “how locked up they really were.” Thomas Wilke, a music expert on the impact of rock/pop in East Germany, maintains that there was a “different feeling and a different sentiment in East Germany after that concert.”
Music is embedded in history and can make a real difference and impact, providing hope and unity during times of turmoil. Looking back at this concert, Springsteen said:
“Once in a while […] you play a show that ends up staying inside of you, living with you for the rest of your life. East Berlin in 1988 was certainly one of them.”
2015 – Aretha Franklin honors Carole King at The Kennedy Center
The Queen of Soul’s 2015 tribute to Carole King is such an iconic and moving performance and a true celebration of the impact that both Aretha Franklin and Carole King have had on the music industry. At The Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2015, where Carole King was being honored, Aretha Franklin performed a rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which was written by Carole King.
Both of these artists are extremely significant forces in their own ways, with Aretha Franklin being a trailblazing presence amid the civil rights scene, and Carole King marking a significant transition from a hit songwriter to a performing artist herself. Their overlap in their respective careers was this song, written and recorded by King, and popularly covered by Franklin. Her powerful and emotional performance was a showstopper that visibly moved audience members who had the pleasure of witnessing it live.
This heartfelt tribute spoke to these two artists’ profound impact on music and culture and stands as a symbol of the transformative and lasting power of music. Following Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018, Carole King reflected on her life and legacy, recalling this performance as “the only thing that topped the original” performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King continued by saying that “after all these years,” not only did Franklin “still have it,” but “she had it and more.” King was blown away by the 2015 performance and states that though they “didn’t really see much of each other,” their mutual “affection and respect was evident on both sides at that performance.”
These are just a few of some iconic music moments in history, but they serve as a reminder of the power and impact of music in our culture and history. There are others that could be added to this list, e.g., Janis Joplin at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. As seen, these iconic music moments are just snapshots into the vast and diverse world of music, and these moments truly capture the essence of these artists and continue to resonate with music lovers globally.