Smash It Up: Exploring The Riot City Blues

Explaining the death of the rock riot.

On the 15th May 1981, an audience thronged the stage at the Ritz in New York City awaiting their first sight of John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. Instead, already an hour later than advertised, the venue’s state-of-the-art video screen stayed down as the music began. Chants went up demanding the screen be raised to be met with less-than-stony indifference by Lydon who began taunting “sil-ly fuck-ing aud-i-ence!” The intention of putting on a performance art piece (with the band projected in silhouette on the screen and video footage of the band’s performance beamed out round the club) ended up coming to nothing as the audience began to haul at the screen, then at the tarp on which the band’s equipment was set up, with tossed bottles falling upon both stage and crowd alike. The venue pulled the plug, the band were hustled out at speed (for their own protection) and the next night’s booking was cancelled.

The riot gig, the ultimate in audience participation, has a basic underlying predictability. A certain proportion of the audience identify with the deviant urges projected onto – and acted out by – a particular artist. Whether its punk’s thuggish side, the slam-dancing of hardcore, the posturing egomania of hard rock, the macho gunplay and chauvinism of gangsta rap, some performances provide an arena for the playing out of societal fantasies of power, control, strength in all their varied hues. Amid those in the crowd who just want to bob their heads are a number who associate the music less with sonic detail and more with the release of pent-up emotion.

If one wishes to stimulate aggressive tendencies among rats, the most basic technique is to just add more rats to a cage or container – the irritations, impacts, the invasions of each being’s space, they all add up to create creatures more likely to lash out. Other environmental factors associated with violent eruptions include noise and heat – few riots happen in the winter or in monsoon season. A crowd situation amplifies emotion further. Next pack the over-excited, possibly intoxicated, over-stimulated crowd into a confined space. This heightens the electric vibe of a live show, while simultaneously creating the stressful conditions suited to a riot and to rat-like violence.

9th June 1978, New York duo Suicide play their first European show at the Third International Science Fiction Festival in Metz, France amid a stead hail of bottles and chairs. Ten shows supporting Elvis Costello commence on 16th June at the Ancienne Belgique – a ballroom of all places. Captured on the ’23 Minutes Over Brussels’ recording, the audience – shocked by the otherworldly sound and confrontational stage approach of Martin Rev and Alan Vega – renewed the shellfire from the previous date, booed continuously, filled every lull with chants of ‘Elvis! Elvis!’, then stole Vega’s mic leading him to demand it back, briefly attempt an acapella then to bellow “Shut the fuck up! This is about Frankie!” before departing the stage. Costello’s sullen reaction to what befell his support band, and his refusal of encore turned the gig into a riot that had to be dispersed by the gendarmerie. A further two shows ended in violence.

Brawls among the crowds at clubs and bars are readily suppressed if they remain one-on-one. Sometimes larger groups face off and either the security staff need to move in to control the situation, or the security staff become the most visible enemy and end up the target of the escalating drama. It takes something else, however, to convert the potential aggression in the room into a confrontation with the band or performer on stage. At some point the audience needs to feel deliberately slighted by the artist in question. This shifts the focus of the attention from a back-and-forth within the crowd, or between the crowd and security, to a direct contact between the crowd and the person/people on stage.

The audience responds in kind to what they feel is an intentional act of provocation. That might mean spitting, hand gestures, tossed coins or bottles. What matters next is how the performers choose to react. Conciliatory comments, deliberately lowering the musical pace – the kinds of ‘backing down’ gestures an individual might use in any confrontation, might avoid further trouble even if some part of the crowd continues acting up. The alternative, however, is that the band up the ante. Usually it’s a verbal reaction – challenging the audience to do their worst, calling people on their bullshit – fuelling the sense that there’s a personal one-on-one stand-off between band and crowd.

‘Metallic K.O’ – music’s most famous riot record. At the preceding show Iggy Pop had spent the show provoking the audience before deliberately starting a fight with a biker who beat him senseless. Iggy claims he got on radio challenging the whole gang to come on down and do their worst – Lester Bangs claims it’s the bikers who call a local station stating they’ll kill Iggy and the Stooges if they dare go on stage at the Michigan Palace, Detroit, their next show. 9th February 1974, the Stooges perform, no one gets killed, but the entire performance takes place amid a barrage of verbal abuse and physical projectiles with the band reduced to a shambles and Iggy effortlessly stoking the flames with lines like “You can throw your goddamn cocks, I don’t care. You pricks can throw every goddamn thing in the world, I don’t care. Your girlfriend’ll still love me, you jealous cocksuckers.”

That’s the truth of musical riots – the band have to participate as thoroughly as the provocateurs in the audience. The feedback is vital, it forges a closed loop in which the audience are persuaded to escalate their violence as the musicians piss off, frustrate, taunt and threaten. It’s symbiotic, energy flowing from one source only to be tossed back harder by the other – someone has to stop. The behavior of some in the crowd, once it goes unchecked by either security or by the musicians, provides unspoken permission for others to join in with the ordinarily forbidden acting out. The crowd begins to mimic, innovate, go one better – it begins to act as a single entity.

Group violence at a music event creates media-perfect material. Firstly, it’s relatively rare – therefore newsworthy. Secondly, it connects to either the gold-dust of celebrity, or to artists cultivating controversial images designed to draw the lightning of publicity. The stage personas of Iggy Pop or Alan Vega, the performance art agitation of Public Image Ltd., all played in a dangerous space involving the arousal and manipulation of audiences. Creating a reaction, however volatile, was a deliberate part of what the artists sought to accomplish – far from being an audience’s moment of madness, the riot almost always verges on the orchestrated, like poking at a dog until it bites.

True tragedies – eleven dead awaiting The Who at Riverfront Coliseum, 1979; two dead during Guns ‘n’ Roses at Donington Park, 1988; nine dead at the Roskilde festival in 2000 as Pearl Jam perform – resist transformation into legend because they speak to human clumsiness rather than swaggering rebellion. In complicity with the media, the artists convert the predictable threat of a riot into the self-mythology of defiant rebelliousness sound-bitten ad nauseam. The squalid mutual baiting of the riot gains ugly glamour in the retelling. The truly uncontrolled violence of accidents and crowd crushes is neither claimed nor celebrated by artist or media, so it fades, in favour of the faux-danger of the rock riot.

On their ‘Second Annual Report’, the band Throbbing Gristle include the track ‘Maggot Death’ recorded live at the Polytechnic in Brighton on 26th March 1977. It’s a minute long piece capturing the venue’s DJ responding to vocal audience assessments of the band with gems like “You’re a load of fucking wankers! If they’ve got something to say why not just let them say it?” and “You’re just idiots, you know? You’re so bloody ignorant it’s unbelievable.” The crowd hoots, hollers, chants and claps “Off! Off! Off!” The venue cut to The Stooges’ ‘Down on the Street’, essentially awarding victory to the audience and diffusing the situation. It was par for the course with Throbbing Gristle. On another occasion the band played hidden by a screen and were rewarded by audience members hurling sections of broken toilets at them.

Most bands retreat once they realise the damaging potential with which they’re playing – which makes Guns ‘n’ Roses an intriguing stand-out. Contrary to popular denigration, “the World’s Most Dangerous Band,” deserve their name – not because of their music – but because they’re the band with the greatest record of concert-based mayhem. The band’s reputation (deserved or otherwise) has led fans to associate them with violence as a legitimate emotional response. Some people release pent-up stress through dancing; when things have turned sour around Guns ‘n’ Roses the precise same catharsis occurs – except with heightened testosterone, machismo and aggression.

The first major case was at the Riverport Amphitheatre near St Louis, Missouri in July 1991. The audience were already throwing objects when Axl Rose chose to dive into the crowd to grab a camera. Having lashed out at crowd members and security, Rose returned to the stage, announced he was leaving and bust his microphone. A riot duly ensued with arrests and substantial damage. A year later on at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Metallica cut their set short after a pyrotechnic accident left Jason Hetfield injured. Guns ‘n’ Roses took two hours to arrive on stage and played a massively curtailed set – not aided by Rose having vocal issues – again leading to crowd violence.

Even the long absence of the band from live performance and the wholesale replacement of its line-up didn’t halt the chaos train. In November 2002 at the General Motors Palace Arena, Vancouver, the show was cancelled not long before it was due to start, leaving crowds of inconvenienced fans outside. In December 2002 at the First Union Center in Philadelphia the support bands played and the clock ticked round to 11pm before the venue announced Guns ‘n’ Roses would not be performing. In São Paulo, Brazil in March 2006 a club full of models and local scenesters again kicked off when it was eventually announced Guns ‘n’ Roses would not be appearing. While at the Velez Stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina in March 2010 it was ticketless fans trying to break in who provoked a police response,  while Rose halted the gig repeatedly due to thrown objects.

The two shows in the 1990s were traditional, ordinary, riots; a perception of shoddy treatment and disrespect from the lead singer and band on stage plugging in the classic cycle of provocation. In the 2000s, however, something new had arisen. Essentially Axl Rose’s personal reputation (deserved or otherwise) meant that whatever occurred – whether within his personal control or not – would be blamed on him and upon Guns ‘n’ Roses. He’s become so well-known for egotistical behavior that he no longer has to do actually do anything – a permanent feedback loop has been forged and, whether the band is there or not, any negative part of the audience experience brings forth aggression.

Woodstock ’99 saw all the conditions come into play…bar one. July temperatures of 38 degrees, tree shade cleared to prevent obstruction, high ticket prices exacerbated by high prices inside and a ban on anyone bringing food or water in, too few water fountains or toilets. Candles handed out by anti-gun protestors were used to start bonfires. Fuel was found by tearing down fences and booths. A number of rapes took place, multiple assaults… But no attacks on the bands because – despite one or two provocative choices on stage – no artist willingly adopted the role of provocateur or wished to become the focal point for audience aggression. The crowd therefore turned on the venue and one another.

Violent confrontation is no longer desirable for most bands. The music industry has become gentrified. Culturally, we’re years away from the tide of recreational violence that swelled in the Seventies and surged through the Eighties. Rock music has become a pursuit watched by an increasingly middle-aged and middle class crowd – the rebellion is punctual, it’s polite. The phallocentric symbol of the guitar has drooped and with it the urge to risk injury at a concert. With an increased average age – of fans but of artists too – few want to play the ego games that would lead to violence. Thirty-something year old fathers are unlikely to launch a bottle toward Bob Dylan’s face, or Springsteen’s, or Bono’s.

The average eighteen to twenty-five year old is rarely confronted with a live band upon whom to project their frustrations. DJs, head down over a turntable or laptop, are already bowed, symbolically submissive figures giving no reason for aggression. The result is more like Woodstock ’99. With no one on stage to react against, violence circulates within the crowd – but without that single central point, it remains disparate, a small group here, a lone drunk there. This makes it far easier for the venue, for security, to suppress and extract the troublesome elements. A riot is a crowd facing outward, toward somewhere or something; at a dance it’s just individuals facing everywhere and at anything.

With the professionalization of security, festivals and venues, many of the basic ‘rat trap’ stimuli for riots have eased. Security staff are now licensed, criminal records are a reason for exclusion from the trade. No venue wants to gain a reputation for heavy-handed security because it has an impact on audience numbers. The operation of venues has been increasingly corporatized; there are fewer amateurs and fly-by-night operators involved. This has led to far more effective crowd control measures, a far greater focus on making sure everything runs smoothly and that nothing interferes with the steady flow of revenue at the door and at the bar.

This focus on making money means an unwillingness to either suffer damage to infrastructure that might lead to costly cancellations and postponements, or to shoulder the costs arising from personal injuries in an increasingly litigious environment. That legal aspect seeps through the entire business of live music. Ever more audience members work jobs where corporate codes of conduct mean turning up next day with a black eye and a police caution would bring real consequences. (We all must maintain the public image.) The language of contractual obligations has infested tours and concerts mitigating against poor time-keeping and unprofessional conduct by musicians. Risks to revenue are bound up in signed agreements.

There’s a wider economic backdrop too. Money no longer floods the record industry in the way it once did – record labels shed hundreds of artists during the Nineties and early part of this century. There’s far less patience with, or tolerance for, artists attracting more (potentially expensive) drama than revenue-generating products and opportunities. The buccaneering spirit has passed. There’s an increasing focus on balance sheets at both major labels and indies – neither of whom have money to waste. A performance of satisfying length and quality will be exchanged for cash. A fixed cost will go to the venue, the carefully calculated remainder is the profit margin making the live show worth label support.

And that’s where we’re at. The desire to breach barriers between performer and audience has been replaced by a passive supplier/consumer relationship. Personal contact between musicians and audiences plays out in tightly controlled online environments rather than in person in a crowded room. The online world is also the main venue now for the name-calling and verbal aggression that used to form the starting point for old-fashioned riots. And ultimately, in an age where everything is a fashion, a fabrication, a consumer choice, perhaps violence simply became boring for all involved. After all, its main impact was to reduce the quality, coherence, audibility and duration of concerts.

Then again, live experiences have never just been ‘about the music’ – perfect sound and vision are why one buys HDTV and Blu-ray, not why one attends a rock show. And, of course, fashions come back around. Maybe the current trend of ever more mellow experiences is just one more wave soon to pass. Our hell-raising past may be part of the future too. And why the hell not? Rock n’ roll – it’s only entertainment.

About Nick Soulsby (46 Articles)
Nick is the author of 'I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana' (St Martins Griffin) and 'Cobain On Cobain: Interviews and Encounters' (Chicago Review Press - February 2016). He lives in Bristol.
Contact: Twitter