[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
Whether you’ve been a musician for decades or are practicing for your first show, there’s always an unavoidable level of uncertainty when it comes to live performances. I’ve played hundreds of shows, but I still experience a tinge of panic every time I play, and for good reason.
Performances are risky, not just for their ability to make performers emotionally vulnerable, but also because so much can go wrong. Today we’re taking a look at some nasty show stories and see what musicians can learn from them.
Frank Zappa’s fiery misfortune was another band’s inspiration
We should all try to learn from live performance mistakes, but show disasters end up being a source for creative inspiration for some artists. At a Frank Zappa show at a casino in Switzerland in 1971, the wooden ceiling burst into flames after someone from the crowd fired a flare gun in the building. Deep Purple, who was in town to record, were forced to flee from the scene along with the other concertgoers. The incident was what inspired their song “Smoke On The Water,” which went on to be a major hit.
Save for the immense value of converting a bad situation into something creative, there’s not much wisdom to glean from this incident. If something bad can happen at a live show, then it probably will eventually, unfortunately.
Disaster struck Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson before he stepped foot on stage
Our next story, which comes from a feature in The Guardian about musicians’ worst show experiences, is not for the faint of heart. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson describes a show at New York’s now defunct Shea Stadium where one of the worst things imaginable happened to him. “In those final moments before walking out onto the field, I was suddenly drenched with warm, sticky liquid from high above, where some of the rowdy, 50,000-strong audience looked down on to the players’ access ramp. Only as I began the inaudible first verse of Thick as a Brick on acoustic guitar, did I realise with resigned horror that the liquid I assumed to be beer, was not, in fact, beer at all. It was urine.”
Anderson ends his accounting of his awful experience by saying “you have to laugh,” which is profound advice. People are nasty, especially when they’re intoxicated and part of a massive, amorphous crowd. Someone literally paid good money to see Jethro Tull and decided to pour pee on one of their members before they even got the chance to play. This means there’s nothing Anderson could’ve done to avoid what happened to him.
Thankfully, most of us won’t have anything like this happen to us in our careers, but it’s an example of how performing can open you up to some truly awful circumstances.
The Sex Pistols went out with a whimper instead of a bang
The Sex Pistols’ first and only tour apparently caused so much of a stir that fans almost broke into riots across the US in 1974. At the last show of their tour in San Francisco, which subsequently became the band’s final show as well, the band played so poorly that the show went down in history.
Between fatigue, lack of preparation and a historical amount of disfunction between members, the show was a disaster. Lead singer Johnny Rotten, who’d been fighting a flu so bad that he’d been coughing up blood, had a feud with bassist Sid Vicious, who was in the throws of a severe heroin addiction. Rotten heckled the audience during the entire set and end the show by asking the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
This is a situation where a band’s problematic public persona swallows up everything that’s good about them, including their music. The Sex Pistols shoulder some of the blame, but not all of it. Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren later admitted to booking the band in southern dive bars to stir up controversy intentionally, a move that exacerbated things considerably.
A cat unexpectedly got U2’s Bono’s tongue at a concert in Berlin
At a recent concert in Germany, U2’s Bono suddenly lost his voice midway through the show. In a video, the iconic musician blames his vocal trouble on the venue’s smoke machines, and was apparently so troubled that he saw a doctor about it later. What happened here is basically every singer’s nightmare: the fact that you could be singing perfectly fine in minute and barely able to speak the next.
Standard advice applies here, including ‘don’t push yourself too hard’, know your limitations and do sensible things to take care of yourself as a musician.
But a larger lesson to be found is knowing when to quit. Rather than pushing through the show and potentially damaging his voice permanently, Bono stopped the concert midway, something that disappointed thousands of fans. That couldn’t have been easy for him.
You can’t predict what’s going to happen at a live show, but you can be prepared as possible, and that work goes a long way. And though there’s exceptions, most audiences see live music wanting the performers to play their best, not to cover them with disgusting bodily fluids. As musicians, the best we can do is show up ready to play and give audiences something real and compelling.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician.