The Iconic Wembley Stadium Turns 100: World Tours, World Cups & World Records

Wembley Stadium in all its glory, with its iconic arch, and naming rights partner EE on prominent display.

When a promoter legend like Phil Bowdery talks about a moment that made his hair stand up – “all of my hair, not not just on the back of my neck” – you know it must have been special. Live Nation’s executive president of touring international has seen and done it all in this game of live. But there is one moment that will “stay with me for as long as I’m doing shows,” he told Pollstar, referring to the first of seven sold-out concerts by Michael Jackson as part of the “Bad” tour, which came to London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988.

It marked Bowdery’s first job at the iconic building being fully in charge, and he remembers, “standing on stage as the first show was about to start. That feeling, the noise in the stadium, it was very special, really something I’ll never forget.” Bowdery has been back promoting shows at Wembley countless times since, of course, more recently with BTS, Harry Styles, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, and he said, “Every artist I’ve worked with at Wembley has had an incredible reception, because the people are there for a specific reason.”

Michael Jackson performs on stage during his "BAD" concert tour
Michael Jackson on stage at the Old Wembley on July 15, 1988, during the “BAD” tour, when he broke a world record with 504,000 people attending seven sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Michael Jackson’s seven-concert run sold half-a-million tickets – all of them physically over the counter, causing mile-long queues in and around the stadium during the presale in November 1987 – a Guinness world record at the time. Today, Take That holds the record for the longest-run at Wembley, performing eight nights in 2011 (June 30–July 9) selling 623,737 tickets for a resounding $62,823,259 gross, according to Pollstar Boxoffice.

Simon Moran of SJM Concerts, who promoted the shows, said it was the many “unbelievable” and “fun memories” that helped Wembley achieve iconic status around the world. He first experienced it himself at the age of 10, sitting in the top tier to watch the Challenge Cup final between Warrington, his favorite rugby team, and Widnes, in front of a crowd of over 85,000. Warrington lost, but made up for it in recent years. Moran particularly remembers the 2010 final against Leeds as “quite a nice non-music memory at Wembley.”

The first show he promoted at the stadium was Spice Girls’ “Spice World Tour” in 1998, who performed two nights, already using an in-the-round stage setup. 150,000 bought a ticket, which were priced around £23.50 at the time. Spice Girls agent John Giddings described Wembley as “the home of legends.” It feels pointless to even begin naming the artists, who have helped build the stadium’s legacy, and created their own legacy through performing at Wembley. Queen, Madonna, Tina Turner, Oasis, Bon Jovi (the last band to play at the Old Wembley, Aug. 20, 2000), George Michael (the first to play the new stadium, June 9, 2007), or Adele (who set the current attendance record for a UK music event, when she played in front of 98,000 fans in 2017) are just the very tip of the iceberg.

Oasis Fans Wembley Stadium 2000
Fans holding a union jack flag at Wembley Stadium, on July 21, 2000 – at the first of two Oasis gigs, which marked some of the last concerts at the Old Wembley. (Photo by Patrick Ford/Redferns)

There’s an equal amount of sports history, beginning in Wembley’s opening year in 1923, when the Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United in the FA Cup Final on April 28. And while it is probably impossible to tell exactly how many people entered the stadium that day, some reports mention 200,000. Pictures floating around the internet show spectators taking up all the official ranks as well as half the soccer pitch. They also show police constables on horseback pushing back the crowd until the edges of the pitch became visible again and the players could kick off the game. The FA Cup wasn’t of much interest to soccer fans outside of Britain, unlike the FIFA World Cup of 1966, which took place in England. The hosts made the most of their home turf advantage, and beat West Germany in the final. That’s when Wembley truly became a world-renowned sports stadium.

“It is quite ironic really,” said Paul Smyth, Wembley Stadium’s head of event operations, that the building “was never intended to become a national relic. The stadium was built as the center point of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25 and for many years was known as the Empire Stadium.” Construction lasted 300 days and cost £750,000. “Although it had held The FA Cup Final to vast crowds in 1923, the exhibition, for which the stadium had been originally built, was financially disappointing, sending the stadium into liquidation. Demolition was recommended,” Smyth explained, “then along came [business man] Arthur Elvin, who saw its potential and raised the funds to keep it open. Apart from football, he relied on the growing popularity of greyhound racing to keep the finances ticking over in the early days.”

Harry Styles played four concerts at Wembley Stadium this summer, June 13-17, selling 335,394 tickets and grossing an astounding $37,341,665 in the process, according to Pollstar Boxoffice.

Wembley’s history is separated into two parts. The Old Wembley, instantly recognizable by the twin towers marking the entrance, opened in 1923. Its first music concert dates back to 1969, when progressive rock band Yes took to the stage. Three years later, the multi-act London Rock ’n’ Roll Show came to town. But the real music history was made in the era from 1980 to 1999.

Live Aid, of course, stands out, uniting Status Quo, The Boomtown Rats, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Bryan Ferry with David Gilmour, Paul Young, Dire Straits, U2, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and more on stage on July 13, 1985, to raise money for the victims of a famine raging in Ethiopia. Queen delivered what is still considered one of the greatest performances in rock history that night, with some 70,000 in attendance, and a TV audience of more than a billion people across 110 countries. Most promoters who’ve worked at the building over the decades confirmed that this was an exceptional moment in Wembley’s incredible timeline, SJM Concerts’ Simon Moran said both Live Aid and Wembley have become “synonymous.”

Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury of Queen during one of rock’s most memorable performance during Live Aid at Wembley, July 13, 1985. (Photo by Georges DE KEERLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Stuart Galbraith, CEO of Kilimanjaro Live, remembers it well, too, probably because it marked his first time working at the stadium as a promoter. “I was a junior member of staff at MCP [Midland Concert Promotions, the biggest UK promoter at the time]. Harvey Goldsmith and MCP were co-promoters of the very first Live Aid in 1985, and I was the transport director for that show. Quite an experience.” Galbraith explained, “At that time, it was really the first-ever large scale charity fundraising event to have a major broadcast on TV. Working on the show was quite incredible because it really did capture the public Zeitgeist, and everybody, whether it be a paint or wood supplier, a minibus or helicopter, was very happy to just donate products and services for free. It was quite phenomenal.”

Bowdery, who was also on site on that Saturday in July, remembers Live Aid as “a huge thing that really did bring the visibility of Wembley Stadium around the world. You don’t really talk about the American version [at JFK stadium], you always talk about Wembley.”
Queen returned in 1986, with a show that featured the largest lighting rig for a Wembley live show, weighing nine-and-a-half tons; Madonna brought her “Who’s That Girl” world tour to London in 1987, with 216,000 attending across the three nights. The same year Michael Jackson played Wembley, the venue hosted a 10-hour concert in celebration of the 70th birthday of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years. The concert, which helped pave the way for his release two years later, was the first major Wembley gig for Marshall Arts, who co-produced and promoted the tribute in collaboration and partnership with Tony Hollingsworth and Elephant House Productions.

The lineup included Simple Minds, Dire Straits, George Michael, Sting, The Eurythmics, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Bryan Adams, Joe Cocker, Freddie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Peter Gabriel, the list goes on. “It was a special day,” founder and chairman Barrie Marshall recalled, “it was broadcast to around 60 countries and directed by Ken O’Neill. Not everyone in the world was aware of Nelson Mandela’s plight at the time – but the participation of so many great artists brought a huge message. We repre- sented Whitney Houston – and John, her father, knowing the injustice of apartheid, was one of the first people to agree that she would appear.”

Nelson Mandela Concert
The concert in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday took place at Wembley Stadium on June 11, 1988. (Photo by Dale Cherry /Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Marshall recalled “one moment in the Red Bar under the Royal Box, when a phone call was made to Winnie Mandela, so that she could hear some of the music and could personally convey the messages of support. It was a truly great moment for all of us who had been involved, to see Nelson Mandela walk free on Feb. 11, 1990. Proof that music matters, and definitely does make a difference.” The year he was released, Nelson Mandela visited Wembley to make his first public speech to a worldwide audience as part of a concert in his honor.

Marshall Arts brought one of India’s greatest movie stars, Amitabh Bachchan, to Wembley in 1990, in front of 17,000 seated on the grass like a gigantic picnic. Bachchan came riding into the Stadium on a beautiful white stallion, with special guests Sridevi, Anil Kapoor and Kalyanji Anandji, bringing Bollywood to London long before movie streaming made the genre as popular as it has become. “The legendary Mark Fisher designed the show,” Marshall recalled, “It was quite an extravaganza.”

Marshall Arts also presented George Michael, the first artist to perform at the new Wembley, June 9-10, 2007. Marshall said, “His voice, as ever, was incomparable perfection. How we miss him.” P!NK, who has been working and rising to stardom with Marshall Arts since 2002, sold out Wembley Stadium twice, June 29-30, 2019, selling 145,230 tickets for a $16,568,721 gross, according to Pollstar Boxoffice. It marks the most recent of “a lot of amazing memories,” according to Marshall, who said, “Wembley Stadium is recognized and renowned around the world – I think there are very few places on earth that haven’t heard of it. Long may that continue.”

A look inside Wembley Stadium.

One of the reasons the building is recognized everywhere is the design by architects Populous and Foster + Partners, of which the iconic arch supporting the 7,000-ton steel roof structure is the most prominent feature. “Flying back from many trips, it’s quite a comfort to see that arch, and know you’re nearly home,” said Marshall.

Wembley held a record 16 music events in 2022, this year, it was nine, but a wider mix of everything else, as Wembley’s Paul Smyth explained: “In the four weeks of August alone we had football, rugby league, music and wrestling. You couldn’t get a more diverse set of events and audiences. And I love that. I love the fact that we can turn the stadium around in such a short period of time to cater for different types of events.” And Smyth continued, “It’s the national stadium and it’s only right that we put on events that appeal to a wide variety of people – not just football fans. If you look back at Wembley’s history you will see that it has always hosted a diverse range of events including greyhound races, Gaelic football, hockey and even ski-jumping. So, it is rather fitting in our 100th anniversary year we have continued that trend.”

Some more recent concert highlights include The Weeknd, Aug. 18, with 87,000 in attendance, breaking the capacity record for concerts with an end-stage configuration; two gigantic comeback shows by Blur, July 8-9; Harry Styles playing to his biggest UK audience yet across four nights, June 13-17, selling out 335,394 tickets for a whooping $37,341,665 gross, following last summer’s two shows, June 18-19, 2022 (147,269 tickets, $14,887,699 grossed); six sold-out nights with Coldplay, Aug. 12-21, 2022, (464,839, $49,209,920); and, of course, Ed Sheeran, who performed five times, June 24-July 1, 2022 (420,269, $38,437,649).

Sports history has been made again: The rugby team St Helens R.F.C. Women celebrate after their win over Leeds Rhinos Women in the first-ever Women’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley Aug. 12, securing their third consecutive win in the competition.

The stadium’s team is all set to continue on the current trajectory with 2024 and 2025 shaping up nicely. “It’s looking busy,” Wembley Programming Manager Matt Owen said. “We have Taylor Swift for the small matter of six nights next year. The demand for her ‘The Era’s’ tour has just been incredible. Wembley will also be holding the Champions League Final on June 1 next year, so it’s going to be a busy time with some very big events. We expect a few more big names to be announced shortly and I have already told staff that if they are looking for a weekend off next year then they will need to book it early as the calendar is filling up.”

The Taylor Swift concerts are promoted by AEG Presents. The company’s senior vice president of international touring, Simon Jones, “vividly” remembers his first visit to Wembley as it was “the very first gig that I attended, the Toxic Twin Towers Ball with Aerosmith, Lenny Kravitz, Stereophonics, 3 Colours Red & The Black Crowes.” As the name of the gig suggests, it took place inside the Old Wembley, a year before it closed. Oasis performed two of the last concerts in July of 2000, and Jones was at both. And while he saw dozens of additional shows at the new Wembley over the years, next year’s Taylor Swift concert run marks his first time working at the building. Jones’ most memorable Wembley experience, aside from what he described as “a couple of tragic not to ever be mentioned memories” was “meeting a cricket hero of mine backstage at one of Ed Sheeran’s shows, in Michael Gudinski’s ‘Oz Father’ dressing room. Gudinski, Sue and I were chatting away, and out of nowhere, in walked Shane Warne and Russell Crowe, both long-time friends of MG, who were the loveliest people and proceeded to join us for a bottle of Penfolds.”

Like The Summer Of Britpop Never Ceased: Blur performed two huge comeback gigs at Wembley, July 8-9.

Ed Sheeran’s agent Jon Ollier, when asked for comment on Wembley’s 100th anniversary, said he couldn’t say it better than he had already done in a June 25, 2022, Instagram post. Looking over the crowd and Sheeran’s massive in-the-round stage, he wrote: “People ask me what my favorite venue is and I wish I had something more clever to say…”

The Ed Sheeran concerts also form part of Stuart Galbraith’s favorite Wembley memories, having promoted them alongside Steve Tilley, but there are more. “Live Aid, for sure, whether that be Status Quo opening the show or the finale, getting Phil Collins out there on a helicopter, landing him at Heathrow, getting on a Concord to play in Philadelphia the same day, That was quite a big day for us. What else? We had Guns N’ Roses going on late, no surprise there, Axl insisting on being flown to the stadium by a helicopter, even though where the helicopter landed was further away than where he took off, but he wanted to come by helicopter, so that’s what we arranged; the “Stars” shows with Simply Red at the peak of that huge album; the first ever stadium show with Muse, putting one on sale, seeing it fly out, and adding a second; myself and Steve Tilley talking to Ed Sheeran, just as he was about to go on stage ahead of his first ever stadium show in 2015. And his question to us was, ‘Can we do this bigger?’”

Fans going to see England’s last soccer match at the old Wembley – a World Cup qualifier against Germany, Oct. 7, 2000. The two towers used to be the stadium’s most prominent identifier. Today, it’s the arch.

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