12 Concerts That Ended in Pandemonium or Riots
1. Daniel Auber, La Muette de Portici
Auber’s five-act opera (the title translates as The Mute Girl of Portici), regarded as the earliest French grand opera, was a revolutionary work in the most literal sense. It debuted in Paris in 1828, but it was its revival two years later that stirred the fires of freedom. In August, a month after the French Revolution of 1830, it was performed in Brussels. During the opera’s patriotic duet “Amour sacré de la patrie,” a riot broke out in the theater and became the rallying signal for the Belgian Revolution. Within four months, Belgium had seceded from rule by the Netherlands and been recognized as an independent nation.
2. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
The Parisian audience that turned out for the ballet on May 29, 1913, was accustomed to music and dancing that was graceful, pretty, and elegant. Stravinsky hit them with dissonant notes, strange harmonies, and weird choreography that had dancers striking angular positions, then hitting the floor in bone-jarring heaps. It was more World Wrestling Federation than Swan Lake. The audience fidgeted. They booed. And as arguments broke out amongst the crowd about the merits of Stravinsky’s work, punches were thrown. Police were called in, as the composer fled the theater in shock.
3. Erik Satie, Parade
A collaboration between Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, this ballet was about circus performers trying to attract an audience to a show. Given the authors, it was naturally an unorthodox presentation. Some of Picasso’s cubist-inspired costumes were solid cardboard, restricting the dancers’ movements. The orchestra included such non-instruments as a typewriter, a foghorn and a milk bottle. And the score incorporated a ragtime section. When it debuted in 1917, audiences booed and walked out of the theater. One critic penned such a harsh review that Satie sent him a postcard that read “Sir and dear friend—you are an arse, an arse without music!” The critic sued Satie, and at the trial, fellow author Cocteau was beaten by police for repeatedly yelling “arse” in the courtroom. Satie was sentenced to eight days in jail.
4. Hans Werner Henze, The Raft of the Medusa
Henze and writing partner Ernst Schnabel wrote this piece as a requiem for revolutionary Che Guevara. That should’ve been an indication that there was trouble ahead. During its debut performance in Hamburg, Germany in 1968, a student hung a poster of Che over the balcony. An official tore it down. Other students raised a red flag and a second portrait of Che. Then anarchists in the audience raised black flags. Scuffles ensued between the two groups. The police arrived. Students were hauled off, as was Schnabel. The premiere was cancelled.
5. Steve Reich, Four Organs
The constant shaking of a maraca. The stabs of repeating chords from four electric organs. Slowly, the chords are deconstructed, causing overlapping notes and dissonance. When modern composer Reich’s piece was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1973, some audience members yelled for the music to stop, while others applauded, hoping to end the piece prematurely. One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head against the stage, crying, “Stop, I confess.”
6. Suicide and Elvis Costello
In Brussels in 1978, when Elvis Costello’s opening act Suicide took the stage, the avant garde duo had no guitars or drums. Instead, over strange repetitive keyboard loops, front man Alan Vega spoke and sang in a monotone voice. The audience booed, heckled, and eventually stole Vega’s microphone. Elvis Costello was so disgusted that he delivered an abbreviated set, then walked off stage. The crowd erupted in a riot. Police arrived with tear gas. Suicide later released a bootleg of their set, called 23 Minutes Over Brussels.
7. The Cure
Sometimes the riot happens on stage. In 1982, at the end of their Pornography tour, The Cure closed their show with a 15-minute freeform jam entitled “The Cure Is Dead.” During the song, one of the band’s roadies, Gary Biddles, grabbed the mic and unleashed a foul-mouthed tirade against singer Robert Smith and drummer Lol Tolhurst. Smith threw drumsticks at Biddle. A band fight ensued on stage. Bassist Simon Gallup quit the group that night. Later he rejoined, and 30 years later is still a member.
The name of this ‘80s-era band from Osaka translates as “snot-nosed,” which should give you an idea that they didn’t play pretty ballads and love songs. Their live shows included Molotov cocktails, machetes (used to cut dead cats in half), and circular saws (strapped to band members’ backs). And in their most infamous performance ever, nicknamed “The Bulldozer Show,” front man Yamantaka Eye destroyed part of a venue with a backhoe bulldozer. The band was banned from performing in Japan for years, but made a less destructive comeback in the ‘90s.
In the summer of 1995, when the Lollapalooza Festival came to Charles Town, West Virginia, it was a hot, dry day. The audience was hosed down, and a gleeful, muddy mosh pit resulted. But Pavement, with their low-key shoegazey sound, was the wrong band to provide the soundtrack. The crowd got restless and hurled mud balls and rocks at the stage. The band walked off, but not before bassist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg dropped his trousers and mooned the audience.
10. Frank Zappa
On December 4, 1971, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing Montreux Casino in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. During the encore, someone in the crowd fired a Roman candle into the ceiling of the venue. A canopy hanging from the balcony ignited. Flames spread quickly. As the balcony collapsed, the audience panicked. Zappa’s roadies smashed a plate glass window at the side of the stage and helped fans to safety. Fortunately, no one was killed and there were only a few minor injuries. But the venue burned to the ground. And as it did, escaped audience members Deep Purple got the inspiration for their biggest hit, “Smoke On The Water.”
11. Rolling Stones
In 1969, when the Stones arrived by helicopter at California’s Altamont Speedway for the huge free outdoor festival, Mick Jagger was immediately confronted by an angry fan who screamed “I hate you,” then punched him in the mouth. That set the tone for what unfolded. For the event’s security, the Hells Angels had been hired (either by the Stones, or on recommendation from the Grateful Dead). They had a violent way of crowd control, beating people with pool cues and punching them bloody. When audience member Meredith Hunter, 18, tried to get onstage during the Stones’ set, then pulled a gun, Hells Angel Alan Passaro stabbed and killed him. The Stones escaped the mayhem by helicopter. Passaro was later tried for murder but acquitted for acting in self-defense. Altamont is often cited as the death of the love and idealism of the 1960s.
Wavves—the duo of young California musicians Nathan Williams and Ryan Ulsh—didn’t have much stage experience when they were invited to play Barcelona’s Primavera Festival in 2009. Mix that with alcohol, ecstasy, and valium, and it all made for Williams’s infamous YouTube viral moment (above, and not safe for work) where he baited the audience and berated the soundman. Wavves’ subsequent European tour was cancelled. Ulsh quit. Williams has since reformed the group.
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