Rock-and-roll has been accused of inciting fans to mass violence from the days of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis onward. One description often employed, not always inaccurately, has been “riotous.”
Came 1958, the “r”-word took on some gravitas after Bill Haley and His Comets toured Europe, where “Rock Around the Clock” drove concertgoers in London and especially Berlin to run wild, trash auditoriums, and physically clash with authority figures.
That same year, the city of Boston banned rock shows outright following a daylong festival hosted by disc jockey Alan Freed. Some say the crowd turned dangerous, others maintain the police interference was an anti-rock set-up.
“These so-called musical programs are a disgrace and must be stopped,” Boston Mayor John B. Hynes decreed at the time, “As far as I’m concerned, Boston has seen the last of them.” Like the rest of the world, Boston, of course, had not.
Nonetheless, rock, rioting, and mass panic have unfortunately mixed throughout the decades, occasionally to horrific results. Here are twelve of the most hair-raising examples.
Please note: Not all the events listed below are “riots” in the sense of crowd anger turning to violence. In some cases (such as the Who in Cincinnati and the Great White fire in Rhode Island), innocent victims perished due to poor planning and simply human desperation to flee danger. Our hearts will always go out to them.
Black Sabbath in Milwaukee (1980)
Just three songs Black Sabbath’s set on the Milwaukee stop of the Heaven and Hell tour, a hurled bottle clocked bassist Geezer Butler in the skull.
“I think I was doing the intro to ’N.I.B.’ and I heard something hit a cymbal,” Geezer recalled. “Then I was hit in the head. One minute I’m playing ’N.I.B.,’ the next I’m covered in blood! I backed out and was taken off stage. Unfortunately, this happened while the lights were down so everyone thought we walked off! Our f—king idiot road manager came out and asked the audience if they thought it was 1776 again. Just what you want to say to an American crowd!”
The show ended immediately and Butler still pins the ensuing chaos on that bigmouth road manger. “He continued to say things until the crowd went absolutely nuts,” Geezer said. “By the time I’m in the hospital and kids in Sabbath shirts started arriving covered in blood. We’re all lying there, side by side, as if it was a battlefield.”
Iron Maiden in Bogota, Colombia
On May 8, 2009, raucous gatecrashers at Simon Bolivar park jeopardized the good time of the 25,000 other Maidenheads who simply came to rock.
Brawls with police turned so wild that authorities called in military troops to quell the disturbance. Ultimately, cops arrested 111 people and one officer required facial reconstructive surgery.
Fortunately, the situation subsided early enough for Iron Maiden to hit the stage on schedule, and kick off the show with “Aces High.”
Alice Cooper in Toronto (1980)
The dawn of the 1980s proved to be a challenging time for Alice Cooper, both professionally and personally. He adapted to New Wave with the album Flush the Fashion, but his alcohol and drug issues nearly killed him—repeatedly.
Such internal strife came to a head on August 19, 1980, when 13,000 fans waited 90 minutes for Alice to take the stage after opening act Zon (we had to look them up, too). Someone announced that Alice was delayed due to a luggage mix-up at the airport. Then rumors spread throughout the crowd that Alice had been spotted getting drunk in a Toronto bar at show time. Tension mounted.
When guitarist Dick Wagner finally announced that Cooper had fallen ill and that the show was cancelled, the audience rose up in crazed rebellion.
Thirty-five years later, Alice, now sober for decades, swears he really had just gotten sick. “It was the first show I had missed in 15 years,” he said. “I have bronchial asthma; I was born with it. I hadn’t had an attack since I was six years old, but I arrived in Toronto that day, was in full costume and make up and couldn’t walk across the room.”
Metallica in Santiago, Chile (2010)
Nobody loves heavy metal more than South American headbangers, so when they launch a heavy metal riot, they really make it count.
When Metallica returned to Chile for the first time in a decade to play the 55,000-capacity Club Hipico horseracing stadium, more than 2,000 ticketless fans hurled themselves through the gates to get inside.
Some made it, most didn’t. All, however, felt the wrath of the Caribeneros, Chile’s paramilitary law enforcement division, resulting in 160 arrests amidst insane brawling and head-busting outside the venue.
It wasn’t the first time fans rioted outside a Metallica show. The video above depicts a similar, but not as severe incident, in Bogota, Colombia.
Guns N’ Roses in St. Louis (1991)
Technically, 1991’s notorious Guns N’ Roses incident in St. Louis took place at the Riverport Amphitheater in the nearby Maryland Heights, Missouri. It’s since been dubbed the “Riverport Riot” or, in keeping with the song Axl Rose cut short from the stage, the “Rocket Queen Riot.”
GNR was fifteen songs in when Rose stopped belting to point out a camera in the audience. “Take that! Take that!, Get that guy and take that!” Axl yelled at security guards until finally declaring, “I’ll take it, godammit!”
Rose then jumped into the crowd, knocked the amateur photographer to the ground, and he did indeed seize the camera amidst the dust-up. Returning to the stage, Axl announced, “Well, thanks to lame-ass security, I’m going home!” He slammed down the microphone and walked off.
The audience went berserk, decimating the amphitheater. Dozens suffered injuries, many serious. Later in 1991, Guns N’ Roses marked the occasion in the liner notes for Use Your Illusion with the message: “F—k you, St. Louis!”
Guns N’ Roses and Metallica in Montreal (1992)
In terms of rock concert disasters, the GNR-Metallica Montreal debacle ranks high among the most heinous.
First, Metallica’s set was cut short after frontman James Hetfield suffered life-threatening third-degree burns from a pyrotechnic mishap.
Following that mass trauma, Axl Rose deigned to one-up the audience despair and frustration by taking more than two hours to come on stage. Once there, the band played for what most accounts say was about 15 minutes before Rose proclaimed, “This will be our last show for a long time!” He then, as Axl does, stormed off the stage.
An estimated 2,000 of the 53,000 concertgoers ran amuck, destroying property in and out of the stadium, looting everything in sight, and injuring dozens in the process. Montreal police used tear gas to dispel the mob.
Axl maintains he acted rationally, saying: “We had just stopped the tour because I had throat problems. Came back, and I realized, ‘I’m gonna hurt myself.’ I told Slash, ‘Two more songs, if we can’t get it fixed, I gotta go.’ We did more than two more songs, and finally I was just, like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I looked over and Gilby was like, ‘Dude, I can’t hear.’ And Duff was like, ‘I can’t hear either.’ We had a little huddle, and we were like, ‘We’re outta here.’”
Frank Zappa at the Montreux Casino (1971)
On December 4, 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of invention played the Montreux Casino in Switzerland. Rock history was made—all due to “some stupid with a flare gun.”
The show had been going well for 80 minutes when a fan fired a flare gun into the casino’s wooden roof, which immediately went up in flames (some in attendance say the young man was actually just throwing lit matches).
Initially, the band joked about the blaze from the stage, with singer Howard Kaylan even quipping, “Fire! Arthur Brown in person!” Rapidly, though, the danger became real.
Fans hurled themselves through the venues giant plate glass windows, while firefighters responded quickly, coming through the walls with axes. According to a fan who had been in attendance: “The glass smashed to the ground, and all the people in the front started to jump out. The building was on the second floor, or at least half a floor up, so it was quite a jump.”
The casino burned to cinders but, amazingly, the only human injuries were minor.
Deep Purple, who had also been on hand, famously immortalized the inferno with their rock anthem, “Smoke on the Water.”
Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway (1969)
December 6, 1969 is a day that lives in rock infamy. As unflinchingly chronicled in the masterful 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway proved to be a living—and dying—nightmare.
Hundreds of thousands descended on the open field to witness the daylong festival, intended to be “Woodstock West,” that also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Trouble started before the first not was plucked, specifically in the form of the “security” that had been hired for the show: the hippie-hating Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. Compounding that questionable decision was that promoted paid the gang with LSD and beer.
Amidst freezing, miserable weather, artists made it to the stage while the Angels pummeled the hell out of concertgoers, often with billiards cues. When Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin leapt from the stage to break up one such melee, the bikers knocked him unconscious.
The pressure cooker situation reached its apocalyptic combustion point during the Stones’ late-night set. The freezing, hungry, insanely stoned crowd took on a terrifying life of its own, and the Hell’s Angels responded by stomping out the last traces of Flower Power in the brutal, unrelenting manner of… indeed, the Hell’s Angels. The footage in Gimme Shelter is as frightening as any horror film.
The air of universal hatred repeatedly flared into violence, and ultimately culminated with an 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter drawing a pistol, then immediately getting stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel.
Remarkably, after the show, Keith Richards called Altamont, “on the whole, a good concert.”
Pearl Jam at Roskilde (2000)
Denmark’s annual open-air Roskilde festival is one of the largest such gatherings in all of rock. In 2000, it also turned into one of the most tragic.
After Pearl Jam kicked off their set, a 100,000-strong throng rushed through the muddy field toward the stage, crushing nine concertgoers to death, and seriously injuring 23 others.
“It was chaos,” PJ frontman Eddie Vedder said. “Some people were yelling ‘thank you.’ Others, who weren’t in bad shape, were running up and saying ‘hi.’ Then someone was pulled over, laid out and they were blue. We knew immediately it had gone on to that other level.”
Pearl Jam has honored the deceased throughout the years since the tragedy, with band members staying in touch and even becoming close friends with their loved ones.
The Who in Cincinnati (1979)
The Who tragedy in Cincinnati was not a riot in that crowd members turned on the event in anger; rather it was a tragic, soul-scarring mishap resulting from misguided policies and fans simply herded in without proper forethought given to their safety.
Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum boasted a “festival seating” policy when the Who came to town on December 3, 1979. That meant that, upon admission, 14,770 pumped-up fans could charge as fast and as far as they could toward the front of the venue to get the best view. That’s exactly what happened. The crazed crowd unknowingly trampled eleven of their fellow concertgoers to death.
Hoping to stave off an even larger riot, Cincinnati Mayor Ken Blackwell advised that both the show go on as scheduled and that the Who not be informed of the horror until after the performance. Both proved wise decisions.
Afterward, devastated Who frontman Roger Daltrey told the news: “There’s no words to say what I feel. I’m a parent, as well. I’ve got a boy of 15 and two little girls. All I can say is: I’m sorry for what’s happened.”
The city quickly banned festival seating after the disaster and TV’s great rock-and-roll sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati even did a tasteful episode about the incident.
Woodstock ’99 (1999)
The irony of Woodstock ’99 celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the original “music, peace, and love” festival can only be described as savage. Although just one accidental death was reported, the level of sexual assault among the crowds was so unchecked that the event has come to be called “Rapestock.”
Everything else that could have gone wrong absolutely did. The festival took place on the scorched tarmac and concrete of upstate New York’s Griffiths Air Force base during a heat wave. Promoters installed just a handful of drinking fountains for the crowd of 220,000 and then charged $4 for a bottle of water.
Amidst thirst and physical misery, predators set upon women in grotesque numbers (one, of course, is too many). Moshing and crowd-surfing turned into felonious assaults by the hundreds. A total of 500 police and state troopers attempted to keep order. Security volunteers and other staffers simply walked off the job.
The masses finally erupted during Limp Bizkit’s performance, specifically during “Break Stuff.” The audience took that direction literally.
Finally, during the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s closing set, the band unwisely covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” Blazes ignited all over the concert site and full-scale rebellion erupted amidst flaming debris and thirsty rioters liberating water bottles, then torching the vendor stands.
There was no Woodstock 2009 and, we imagine, there won’t be a 2019 edition either.
Great White at The Station in Rhode Island (2003)
On February 20, 2003, one hundred fans who came out to have a good time with ’80s glam metal band Great White lost their lives when the venue they were playing exploded in flames. On top of the deaths, 230 suffered injuries, many of them severe. 132 others made it out intact and alive—at least physically.
The Great White Station fire was not a riot the way other shows were when fans rose up in mass rage. As with the Who tragedy in Cincinnati, these innocent victims perished while simply trying to survive.
On-stage pyrotechnics lit up the Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Flames entirely devoured the building in five-and-a-half minutes. Fans initially thought the sparks and subsequent flames were part of the stage show. Vocalist Jack Russell saw the flames, stopped singing and said, “Wow, that’s not good.”
The crowd of 432 rushed to the club’s four exits, resulting in crushed bodies, confusion, and suffocation as the inferno raged. Numerous other doors were locked shit.
Three years later, Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, who lit off the fireworks, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15 years, with the possibility of parole in 2007. Many of the victims’ loved ones forgave Biechele and supported the seemingly light sentence, acknowledging that he simply made a tragic, horrific decision with no intention of hurting anyone. He got out in 2008.