“I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day!”
Sounds pretty good in a song, and it might not even be a bad idea if things are under control. Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Some of these concerts have ended in fights, riots, and even murder—maybe a good sign one should only rock n roll in the early evening and party on the odd occasion. Here are 42 riotous facts about the wildest concerts in history.
The ultimate record in rock n roll: loudest band. The title has to go to our old friends Deep Purple (see #19). At a 1969 concert, their heavy, heavy rock songs reached 117 decibels, a volume comparable to standing 100 feet away from a jet aircraft. While other bands have gone on to beat those numbers—with some bands clocking in at a horrifying 139 dB—none have yet matched that concert’s most impressive achievement: knocking three audience members unconscious through sheer volume.
41. Submitted For Your Approval
In 1975, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling staged his final project: a two-day-long concert to be broadcast on over 200 radio stations nationwide. In typical Twilight Zone fashion, there was a twist: the concert wasn’t real. Serling and his collaborators edited together more than 48 hours of tape from live recordings by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and other popular bands of the day. Serling even “reunited” The Beatles for his imaginary festival.
40. A Real Turnout
Serling himself appeared on the radio every hour to explain that the concert was an elaborate piece of theatre (“the greatest concert never held,” he called it), but that didn’t stop rock n rollers across the country from flooding their local stations with calls, begging for tickets. Seeing the response, Serling quipped “the crowds have been unreal.”
39. Deep Note
How about some friends in really low places? The deepest concert ever held took place in 2006, when British songstress Katie Melua performed in the leg of an offshore oil rig, more than 900 feet below sea-level!
38. Wards and Music
In 1978, psychobilly icons the Cramps gave a free show for the patients of Napa, California’s State Mental Hospital. The concert was later released as a concert video, under the title Live at the Napa State Mental Hospital.
37. Breaking The Law
Because of a 1984 concert, where some overzealous metalheads caused $250,000 of damage to the venue, the members of Judas Priest are no longer welcome at Madison Square Garden—not even as audience members!
Despite objections from city officials and historians, Pink Floyd went ahead with their 1989 free concert in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Not only did the vibrations from the concert cause structural damage to several historic works of sculpture and architecture, but the more than 200,000 concertgoers left 300 tons of garbage (not to mention other messes caused by promotor’s failure to provide toilets for the event). The Venetians’ outrage at the destruction of their beloved piazza led to the resignation of the city’s mayor and, eventually, the entire city council.
35. Aww Crap
At a 2010 show in St. Louis, rock band Kings of Leon were forced to leave the stage after playing just three songs. No, there weren’t technical issues or rowdy fans. Rather a flock of pigeons roosting above the stage began to pepper the band with their droppings. Everyone’s a critic.
34. Understatement of the Century
Dance music supergroup Swedish House Mafia gave a free concert in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in 2012. Over the course of the concert, nine people were stabbed, leaving some of the victims in critical condition. Two others died of “uncertain circumstances.” While much of the Irish press was outraged, the Justice Minister calmly asserted that the event was “very unusual.”
33. The Riots of Spring
Rock and rap music get a bad reputation, but classical music fans are no shrinking violets either. The ballet which accompanied the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sharply divided the audience between “traditionalists” and “bohemians,” who engaged in a full-scale gang fight before turning on the orchestra themselves.
32. Rebels, Rebels
In 1987, David Bowie performed a concert in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin. Bowie’s performance led to a gathering of thousands of would-be concertgoers on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, which in turn led to days of violent clashes between concert-goers and East Berlin police. Suffice it to say, the concert by the “Space Oddity” singer required considerable (ahem) ground control.
Bowie’s concert at the Reichstag was later identified as a turning point in the effort to reunify Germany. After Bowie’s death in 2016, the German government tweeted their gratitude to the musical icon for “helping bring down the wall.”
30. Welcome To My Nightmare
At a concert in Toronto, a fan inexplicably threw a live chicken at shock rocker Alice Cooper. City boy Cooper had no idea that chickens couldn’t fly, and threw the poor bird back toward the audience, where it was viciously ripped apart Cooper’s frenzied fans, who then threw parts of it back at the stage.
29. No More Mr. Nice Guy
Or that’s the way Alice tells it. According to the band’s bassist, Denis Dunaway, the group had kept the chickens with them throughout the tour, and would bring them onstage during the show. Cooper really did think the chicken would fly away, and concocted the story of it being thrown onstage to escape criticism from animal rights activists.
28. Rest In Pieces
For anyone wondering, the chicken’s name was “Pecker.” What else?
27. Kids Today
Alice Cooper and the band had to remain onstage, covered in glitter and chicken guts, for the rest of the evening: they promised to serve as the backing band for the headliner, ’50s rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, and did not have time to change between sets.
26. Unexpected Guests
Despite a lineup that included Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, and The Eagles, promoters Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander only sold 30,000 tickets for their 1972 Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival. The promoters were taken by surprise when more than 300,000 concertgoers showed up—a crowd neither the promoters or security had prepared for.
25. An Erie Site
With supplies and facilities for one-tenth the audience, and just three town deputies hired for security, the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival soon descended into anarchy. An unexpected rainstorm reduced the fairground to a muddy nightmare in which three people drowned; more opportunistic concertgoers sold drugs and looted with impunity. Many of the biggest bands refused to take the stage, and the concert was called to a close as rioters set the fairground ablaze. Duncan and Alexander faced a series of lawsuits from the IRS, the State of Indiana, and the State of Illinois, and were eventually forced to pay fines in the thousands of dollars.
24. Lesson Learned?
Despite the disastrous outcome—or perhaps hoping to cash in on the notoriety—a group of promoters tried to revive the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival in 2016. The idea was quickly abandoned.
23. And The Band Played On…
All these concerts might sound disastrous and even tragic, but they can’t hold a candle to the concert held by the Berlin Philharmonic on April 12, 1945. With Russian forces marching confidently towards Berlin, and the outcome of the Second World War now all but certain, all concertgoers were reportedly offered cyanide pills, in case the Red Army arrived before the band had finished playing.
22. Wakeman’s Wildest Dreams
Now for something a little lighter: when Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman struck out on a solo career, he was determined to pursue the kind of ambitious ideas his bandmates had rejected in the past. The result was Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a prog-rock-opera concept album about…well, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Inexplicably, the record reached #2 on the British charts, prompting Wakeman to take a “go big or go home” approach to the concert tour. Big mistake.
21. Epic Proportions
For his King Arthur tour, Wakeman decided on an even more grandiose idea than a mythic concept album: a prog-rock ice show, complete with massive castle set pieces and ice dancers dressed as knights on horseback, culminating in a massive concert/staged battle at Wembley Stadium. In addition to his usual backing band (The English Rock Ensemble), Wakeman employed a full orchestra, a choir, and a narrator. A specialized sound system had to be brought in from the United States and installed at Wembley, as well as hydraulic lifts for Wakeman’s keyboards and synthesizers. At one point, Wakeman’s cape was caught in one of these hydraulic lifts, hoisting the rock star high above the stage.
20. Morte d’Arthur
Despite attracting an audience of 27,000 (including John Lennon and Yoko Ono), the over-the-top spectacle was a financial disaster, personally costing Wakeman more than $125,000, and the remaining dates of the tour were canceled. In 2016, Wakeman staged a one-time revival performance at London’s O2 Stadium, before finally laying the king to rest.
19. One Hit Wonder
In stark contrast to Serling’s imaginary “Fantasy Park Festival,” Detroit garage rockers The White Stripes once performed a concert that was just one note long. At the end of their 2007 Canadian tour, the band set up outside a bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland, played a single note, thanked their audience, and left amid calls for an encore. In total, the “concert” lasted less than a second.
18. Scratched Record
The band did play a full concert at the local hockey stadium that night, but their one-note concert earlier that afternoon officially fulfilled their commitment to play every Canadian province and territory during the tour. The band was miffed however: they had hoped to land in the Guinness Book of Records, but the Guinness record keepers denied the band’s claim, arguing that the concert could have been made shorter if the band simply hadn’t played at all.
17. Setting The Pace
Jack and Meg might remain locked out of the Guinness Book of World Records, but there was plenty of room for 160,000 NASCAR fans. Prior to a 2009 race in Bristol, Tennessee, the crowd joined together to sing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” setting the record for “World’s Biggest Karaoke Session.”
The 1971 Altamont Free Concert, starring the Rolling Stones and featuring such acts as the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was billed as “the Woodstock of the West.” It ended in tragedy, with Rolling Stone magazine calling the concert “Rock n Roll’s All-time Worst Day.”
15. You Get What You Pay For
So what went wrong? For one thing, the local chapter of the Hells Angels had been hired for security. They had also been paid in beer, $500 worth (that’s more than $3,000 worth of beer by today’s standard). As the evening wore on, both the crowd and security got increasingly intoxicated and restless, leading to skirmishes and fistfights. At one point, one member of the Hells Angels knocked out the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, effectively ending their set. The Grateful Dead, who were supposed to follow Jefferson Airplane, wisely refused to take the stage.
14. Just Keep Dancing
With the situation worsening, the Rolling Stones were brought out. When one drug-addled concert goer approached the stage, holding what looked like a gun, one of the Hells Angels stabbed him to death. The Stones stopped playing and called for a doctor, but soon resumed their set—stopping the performance, they all agreed, would almost certainly lead to a riot.
13. Rock n Roll’s All-Time Worst Day
In addition to the stabbing victim, Meredith Hunter, two other people were killed in a hit-and-run, and one drowned in an irrigation ditch after falling into an LSD-induced stupor. Fist-fights, beatings, and incidents of people being struck by flying beer cans were countless. If Woodstock was about peace and love, Altamont was the exact opposite.
12. Sympathy For The Devil
“In fairness to the Hells Angels…” is not a good way to start a story about Altamont, but in fairness to the Hells Angels, they made it very plain to concert organizers that they were not a security force. Sonny Barger, founder of the gang’s Oakland chapter, was at Altamont; he recalls “I said, ‘I ain’t no cop, I ain’t never going to ever pretend to be no cop.’ I didn’t go there to police nothing, man. They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that’s what I went there to do.”
11. Trials and Tribulations
Alan Passaro, the Hells Angel who stabbed Meredith Hunter, was tried for the murder, but was acquitted when the autopsy showed that Hunter had been high on methamphetamine, and video footage showed Hunter with a gun.
10. Breaking Even
The attendance level remained the same at Altamont from beginning to end. Even though four people were killed in the violent skirmishes, four babies were born during the concert as well.
Altamont became the focus of the concert film Gimme Shelter by the Maysles Brothers. Among the people at Altamont capturing footage for the brothers? Two little-known film school graduates named George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.
Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger regretted hiring the Hells Angels and publicly blamed them for the violence at Altamont. This didn’t sit well with the bikers—according to the FBI, they hatched a plot to sail out to Jagger’s summer home on Long Island and kill him. That’ll show him to call the Hells Angels violent criminals!
The plot allegedly failed when the boat was nearly sunk in a storm.
When a 1979 rock concert unexpectedly sold out, a lack of assigned seating was blamed for one of the most disastrous events in rock n roll history. 18,000 fans waited outside Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum to see The Who. After several hours’ delay, a single door finally opened, and everyone tried to burst through to grab the best seats. 11 people died of asphyxiation, trampled by the crowd.
6. By The Way…
Despite the horrible tragedy, The Who went ahead with their show; they weren’t told about the deaths until after the concert was finished.
5. Won’t Get Fooled Again
The Who concert tragedy prompted Cincinnati to enact a law making assigned seating mandatory for all concerts and performances. The city lifted the ban in 2005, but still requires venues to preserve nine square feet per audience member.
4. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
The Cincinnati concert wasn’t the first time a Who concert ended in disaster. At a New York show in 1969, a man rushed the stage and tried to take the microphone from singer Roger Daltrey. No need for bodyguards, the band cheerfully kicked the crap out of the intruder to the cheers of the audience…until it was revealed the man was a plainclothes police officer, trying to alert the audience to a fire next door that was threatening everyone at the concert. Guitarist Pete Townsend was arrested for assault but settled out of court.
Frank Zappa was playing a concert at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland when an audience member fired a flare gun toward the stage. The flare struck the ceiling, and while no one was hurt, the entire casino was burned to the ground.
2. They Really Did Burn Down The Gambling House!
An upcoming British band happened to be at Montreux that weekend. They had planned to record their album there once the casino closed for the winter, but were forced to find a new venue after the fire. The band was Deep Purple, and “Smoke on the Water,” their account of the Montreux fire, became their biggest hit, destined to be the first song learned by every new guitar player, ever.
1. Hard Rock
Deep Purple even went so far as to dedicate the album, Machine Head, to Claude Nobs, who was instrumental in getting the concert goers to safety. In return, the newly rebuilt Montreaux Casino honored the legacy of “Smoke on the Water” by erecting a monument engraved with the notes to the song’s famous opening riff.
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