Being in a band or operating as a solo artist must be right up there with the best things possible in life. Think of the fame. The adulation. The money. The plentiful opportunities for excess. But while most of us would do anything to be in the shoes of these bands and musicians, it isn’t always as rosy as it seems. Performing, for instance, can sometimes be a nightmare. So while the following artists may have achieved legendary status for their many fans, on these occasions everything that could have possibly gone wrong for them while playing live did.
20. Amy Winehouse, Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade, Serbia, June 18, 2011
British singer Amy Winehouse brought jazz and soul back into the mainstream in the mid-2000s with her hit album Back to Black and songs such as “Rehab” and “Valerie.” But the troubled Londoner would struggle with addiction during her short life. This would often affect her live shows, which were inconsistent, to put it mildly. But perhaps none would be as infamous as her performance in Belgrade, Serbia.
The gig in the Serbian capital on June 18, 2011, would sadly turn out to be the British soul singer’s last. On the day, a clearly inebriated Winehouse cut a sorry and dejected figure, unable to hold a note, let alone sing any of her songs competently. In fact, she didn’t even seem to know where she was, hailing the “Athens” and later “New York” audience. Jeered off by the fuming crowd, Winehouse died a month later.
19. Nickelback, Ilha do Ermal festival, Portugal, August 19, 2002
Ah, Nickelback. Probably the most critically reviled rock band of all time. Often placed up there with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Creed in a who sucks the most battle. But the Chad Kroeger-fronted band’s plodding, post-grunge sound seems to appeal to a very large number of people around the world. Judging by their often impressive album sales and lucrative tours, anyway.
But they’re not so popular with Portuguese rock fans. That’s if Nickelback’s performance at the Ilha do Ermal festival in August 2002 is anything to go by. Just two songs into their set in the Iberian nation, the band quit after being mercilessly showered with rocks. The onslaught led a shocked Kroeger to ask, “Do you want to see some rock ’n’ roll, or do you want to go home?” Erm, home please, Chad.
18. Pearl Jam, Roskilde festival, Denmark, June 30, 2000
Pearl Jam became the most popular of Seattle’s so-called Big Four. But while the band were widely marketed as grunge, they were in reality more indebted to mainstream rock, particularly The Who and U2. Indeed, in their earnest singer Eddie Vedder, PJ have a frontman with a heart as big as a lion and a penchant for bold, Bono-style gestures. And this solemnity was on display after a disastrous concert for the group.
On June 30, 2000, Pearl Jam would play at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. And their performance – which was not memorably bad in itself – would be marred by tragedy. Sadly, after the crowd surged forward, eight young men lost their lives because of suffocation, right in front of the band. A ninth passed away in hospital after another five days. It remains one of the worst concert tragedies in history, and scarred the Seattle-based group, who contemplated quitting.
17. Nirvana, Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 30, 1992
Nirvana should need little introduction, even to the most casual of rock fans. The iconic grunge band – who single-handedly pushed the punk underground into the mainstream with their sophomore record Nevermind – ended abruptly upon the death of their chief creative force, singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, in April 1994. But before that tragedy, they had gained a lot of respect for their energetic live shows.
However, a gig in the Argentine capital in October 1992 really upset Nirvana. The first problem was that the sound was out, but there was a worse concern: Cobain later recalled that there had been a hostile and sexist audience. They literally made the band’s all-girl support act storm off in tears. So staunch feminist Kurt and his two cohorts got their own back, refusing to play hits – but constantly teasing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” playing obscurities and generally being antagonistic. Awesome!
16. The Beatles, The Subscription Rooms, Stroud, March 31, 1962
The Beatles are the most famous and most widely loved rock band of all time. But John, Paul and George didn’t have legions of screaming female fans from the get-go. On the contrary, when they were just starting out – in the pre-Ringo era with Pete Best behind the drum kit – there was very little enthusiasm indeed. It’s hard to believe now, given how popular the Fab Four became and the way in which they changed music forever, but it’s true.
An early gig at The Subscription Rooms in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in the U.K. in March 1962 has been cited as The Beatles’ worst gig. Their first show outside Liverpool, Paul McCartney later remembered, “Stroud was pretty bad…We’d never heard of it, but we went there, and I think about three people showed up.” He continued, “Some of them were Teds and started throwing money at us – throwing pennies at us – but we just picked it up and thought, that’ll do it.”
15. Frank Zappa, Rainbow Theatre, London,
Frank Zappa was one of the most prolific and innovative artists in popular music. The self-taught, multi-instrumentalist was noted for his technical expertise and was also an acclaimed live performer. But one particular show that the Mothers of Invention and solo star played at London’s Rainbow Theatre would go down in infamy.
That gig on December 10, 1971, would leave Zappa in a wheelchair for close to a year. After playing a mocking version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” an angry fan named Trevor Charles Howell clambered on stage and pushed Zappa off it. The shocked American fell several feet into the orchestra pit. In truth, it could have been worse. As Zappa remembered in his 1989 autobiography, “The band thought I was dead.” Fortunately, he would make a slow but substantial recovery.
14. Pink Floyd, Earl’s Court, London
Pink Floyd pioneered space rock and helped move popular music into realms that were previously unexplored. However, the English band inspired almost as much ire as they did awe, with their complex work often lauded or angrily lambasted as pretentious. Nonetheless, the group became famous for their extravagant live performances. But one of those shows on what would be their final tour ended in disaster.
During the first London show of The Division Bell tour – a 14-night stand at the city’s historic Earl’s Court venue – a terrible accident occurred. The band had just kicked off proceedings with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” when scaffolding that was holding up a stand full of people suddenly collapsed. Of those, 96 fans were injured, with numerous punters tumbling at least 20 feet in the accident. Fortunately, no one lost their life, and the gig was rearranged.
13. Curtis Mayfield, Wingate Field, New York, August 13, 1990
Curtis Mayfield was one of the 20th century’s most celebrated soul singers. From his influential work with The Impressions to his later solo career, he continually released music from the 1960s through the 1990s. Mayfield was an expert guitarist and live performer too, but one particular show of his would end in complete disaster.
On the warm summer evening of August 13, 1990, Mayfield was playing an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in New York. All seemed to be going really well until suddenly a lighting rig above the stage dropped on top of him. The soul legend was instantly electrocuted by the falling lighting. Tragically, he suffered paralysis beneath the neck, and obviously could not play anymore. He recorded vocals for a final LP before his death in 1999.
12. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Canada, August 8, 1992
It’s 1992. Metallica are the world’s most popular heavy metal band, having released their phenomenally successful, self-titled Black Album in 1991. Guns N’ Roses, though reviled by much of the contemporary underground, are probably the biggest rock and roll act. The bands decide to go on tour together. Two of the biggest names in rock on the same bill. What could go wrong? Well, quite a lot, as it happens.
First, during a show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on August 8, 1992, pyrotechnics scalded guitarist and singer James Hetfield as Metallica performed. The frontman was badly burned on his arms and across his body, and the metal giants had to leave. Guns N’ Roses arrived on stage after a lengthy delay, but sound issues and Axl Rose’s reported sore throat meant that they too would leave early, prompting rioting from an angry audience, inside and then in the streets of Montreal. Oh dear.
11. The Rolling Stones, Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, California, December 3, 1965
Few bands have survived as long and been as successful as The Rolling Stones. The self-styled, “greatest rock and roll band in the world” have continued to put out records and tour, nearly six decades on from their beginning in the early 1960s. Mick, Keef, and co. have gained a hard-earned reputation for excess and continually bringing the goods live.
But on one particular occasion, things went disastrously wrong for The Stones, and in particular for guitarist Keith Richards. Yes, during a gig at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento on December 3, 1965, Keef knocked into an ungrounded mic stand with his guitar and was immediately electrocuted, falling to the ground. The audience thought he was toast. Fortunately, Richards is as tough as old boots, and it might have been his rubber shoes that ultimately ensured that he survived.
10. Guns N’ Roses, Riverport Amphitheatre, Missouri, July 2, 1991
Guns N’ Roses were catapulted to fame in the late 1980s on the back of their mega-selling debut Appetite for Destruction and its popular singles. We’re talking “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and “Paradise City.” Anyway, the Los Angeles rockers quickly developed a reputation for excess and hard living, as well as rousing their sizable fan base in a live setting. But more than one such GNR show did not go to plan.
One such occasion was a gig at the Riverport Amphitheatre in Missouri on July 2, 1991. The show seemed to be going smoothly, and GNR were 90 minutes into their set when they began playing “Rocket Queen.” Then, after Axl Rose spotted an unsolicited cameraman in the audience, all hell broke loose. A riot started shortly after the singer jumped into the crowd to tackle the photographer himself, before leaving the stage in a strop. The incident was labeled “The Rocket Queen Riot,” but Rose was cleared of inciting it.
9. Led Zeppelin, Live Aid, 1985
In their pomp, Led Zeppelin were arguably the greatest rock band in the world. The blues rock behemoths made the album sacred by refusing to release singles, filled stadiums across the world, and took rock and roll excess to new levels. But among their many legendary live shows there will always be one catastrophic clunker.
Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lotta love (sorry) for Led Zep’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. It’d been a while since they’d played together, but replacing their legendary deceased drummer John Bonham with Chic’s Tony Thompson and erm, Phil Collins, was never a great idea, we’d suggest. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hardly covered themselves in glory either, both desperately out of tune with guitar and vocals respectively. But we won’t ramble on…
8. Sex Pistols, Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, California, January 14, 1978
The Sex Pistols changed the course of music history. Before the Pistols, the rock landscape was populated by pretentious prog-rockers and Laurel Canyon softies such as Jackson Browne and The Eagles. But along with America’s Ramones, the English band popularized a harder, back-to-basics rock that became known as punk. Yet despite Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and co. earning a reputation for thrilling and unpredictable live performances, their final gig was a shambles.
That disasterclass would take place at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California, on January 14, 1978. The Pistols’ U.S. tour had already been chaotic, triggering minor disturbances on several legs. But the SF show was the worst of the lot, with the awful sound system marred by feedback and a wasted Vicious barely meriting the description of a musician. Rotten would barrack the crowd throughout and at the end of the show snarled the infamous line, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
7. Kanye West, Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, California November 19, 2016
Kanye West is a rapper who has long courted controversy from stealing the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMAs in 2009 to his lengthy Twitter rants. But on Saturday November 19, 2016, at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, he really surpassed himself. Well, up to that point anyway.
West really tried the patience of his audience on that particular night of his Saint Pablo tour. For reasons only known to himself, Ye went on an ill-advised and frankly bizarre rant, which lasted a full 17 minutes. Despite his audience having paid top dollar to watch him perform his music, he thought that they should listen to diatribes against Jay Z and Beyoncé and his support for then President-Elect Donald Trump. The rapper performed three songs before leaving and canceling the tour entirely.
6. Mariah Carey, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Times Square, New York City, December 31, 2016
Mariah Carey is known the world over for her remarkable, five-octave vocal range and highly distinctive singing style. The American songstress became a huge star in the 1990s on the back of five singles that went straight to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, a unique feat not even The Beatles could match. But Carey has endured some difficult moments in her successful career, not least one infamous, truly embarrassing gig.
In 2016, Carey was selected to perform as a part of the traditional “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” event in Times Square, New York City. But things went badly wrong as technical issues ensured Carey’s in-ear monitors didn’t work properly, and the singer couldn’t hear the music due to the feedback. When an audio track failed, it became obvious to everyone watching that the “Fantasy” songstress was miming her biggest hits. Let’s call it the nightmare after Christmas.
5. David Bowie, Glass Spider Tour, Wembley Stadium, July 19, 1987
David Bowie is one of the most celebrated rockers of all time. The shapeshifting Englishman became an iconic figure for many misfits and weirdos, and after pioneering glam rock in the early 1970s he proceeded to take his music in unpredictable directions in the latter part of that decade. But even the most brilliant of artists can have a stinker from time to time. And the Starman himself was no different.
On July 19, 1987, Bowie would bring his Glass Spider tour to the famous Wembley Stadium in his hometown of London. But the whole thing was a peculiar mess. It featured an extremely naff concept that centered a giant spider-shaped canopy and laughable choreography from Toni Basil. She, of “Mickey” fame, had the rock legend descending down in a futuristic white chair as he phoned in his lyrics. Not surprisingly, the “Ziggy Stardust” star later described the whole thing as “my nadir.”
4. Bubba Sparxxx, The Astoria, London February 9, 2002
There was a time not so long ago that Bubba Sparxxx was viewed as the South’s reply to the Detroit-born rap megastar Eminem. Sparxxx rose to fame on the back of hits such as the Timbaland-produced “Ugly.” But the rapper slipped into relative obscurity after a relatively brief moment in the spotlight. And his cause surely wasn’t helped by a quite bizarre turn at London’s Astoria on February 9, 2002.
Certainly, the MC blew his big chance to win over U.K. rap fans. First, Sparxxx kept them waiting around 40 minutes. Then just three songs in, he left the stage to, erm… “go for a dump.” To be fair to the Georgian, he promised to be quick, telling the audience, “I won’t even wipe my a––.” Charming. Upon returning, Bubba horrifyingly chose to display his ample butt to the paying patrons. He left two songs later to a barrage of flying beer glasses.
3. Talking Heads, Sweetwaters South Festival, Christchurch, New Zealand, February 6, 1984
Talking Heads were one of the most influential bands to come out of the New Wave movement. The New York band – who were fronted by the charismatic oddball David Byrne – went from anxious post-punk in their early years to a heady exploration of African polyrhythms and a serious stab at pop stardom. The group became known for their energetic live shows, but sadly they ended their fine career with a damp squib of a show in New Zealand.
Bassist Tina Weymouth later recalled that disastrous gig, at the Sweetwaters Festival in Christchurch, to U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2011. She effectively blamed Byrne for getting too big for his boots and for wasting the “fantastic opportunity” the Heads had had as headliners. The Scotland-born frontman oddly invited some girls promoting Maori freedom on stage, who took up some time and were jeered. Later, the “Once in a Lifetime” singer suddenly decided to run off stage and wouldn’t return. What a diva!
2. Joy Division, The Derby Hall, Bury, England, April 8, 1980
Joy Division famously disbanded after the suicide of their troubled lead singer Ian Curtis in May 1980. But the Manchester quartet had already made an indelible mark on the burgeoning post-punk and gothic rock movements. Still, the band’s eerily morose and distant records were a far cry from their exhilarating live shows, which often saw enigmatic frontman Curtis dancing maniacally. But one gig at The Derby Hall in Bury, England has gone down in legend for all the wrong reasons.
That gig on April 8, 1980, was a highly anticipated one. However, Curtis had attempted suicide two days prior and was initially deemed too ill to perform. But when the overfilled venue got wind that he would be replaced by Crispy Ambulance’s singer, tensions rose. And they exploded into violence when the quartet’s real vocalist was inexplicably brought on stage to sing. Rioting broke out. Sadly, Curtis died the next month, just before the band was about to embark on their first U.S. tour.
1. The Who, Riverfront Coliseum, Cincinnati, Ohio, December 3, 1979
The Who were one of the most important bands to emerge from the British Invasion. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and co. brought plenty of attitude and ideas to rock music, with ambitious – some would say pretentious – album concepts and stories. But it was in a live setting that the band really shone, with Townshend’s ferocious, windmilled guitar and Keith Moon’s frantic drumming making them one of the best acts of the time.
But the band – sans Moon, who died in 1978 – endured a nightmare gig on December 3, 1979, at the Riverfront Coliseum (now the Heritage Bank Center) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not that it was really The Who’s fault. But a horrific crush at the venue led to the deaths of 11 of their fans. They were sued, and Townshend later expressed regret that the band didn’t stick around to mourn. To date, the band have yet to perform in the city again.