When a gig goes wrong: pop music’s hall of shame
Israeli fans of Australian popstar Sia have reportedly filed a £1.6m lawsuit against her promoter because they felt short-changed by her recent live show. Unhappy punters paid £70 for a 65-minute performance in Tel Aviv that some felt was “too short” and “lacklustre”, while poorly-synched video and a “lack of banter” left some in her audience calling for their money back.
Sia had allegedly been pressurised to cancel her performance by the pro-Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement – so did this affect her performance or the way it was received? A review of her recent Coachella Festival appearance in music industry magazine Billboard makes it clear that the Californian concert was similar to the Jerusalem gig with the atmosphere being more of an arty contemporary dance event than a rock gig.
The promoter, Tandi Productions, commented that there had been “hundreds of comments from satisfied fans”, but the episode highlights the problems that can happen when an audience’s expectations aren’t matched by an act’s creative vision. However, the history of music is littered with examples of truly disastrous performances – here is my “Hall of Shame”.
Battling the bottle
Abuse of alcohol and drugs have been to blame for many shows going wrong. Fans of Amy Winehouse will have seen in director Asif Kapadia’s film Amy, the tragic decline in her performances. But booze-fuelled gig fails aren’t a new phenomenon. In the late 1950s, iconic country music performer Hank Williams was renowned for his alcohol-related performance issues.
The composer of such standards as Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hey Good Lookin’ and Jambalaya was well-known for not showing up at gigs – but his lowest point was in Dallas where the promoter took money from audience members who paid to go backstage to see the artist lying unconscious on the floor.
Williams, who suffered from Spina Bifida, is alleged to have used alcohol to ease the pain from the disease – but Keith Moon, the drummer from British rock band The Who, had no such excuse. On November 20, 1973, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, “Moon the Loon” passed out on stage. He was high on animal tranquilisers and had to be carried off stage to be replaced by an audience member who played the rest of the set.
Scott Stapp, meanwhile, the singer of rock band Creed, was so intoxicated for their performance at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois on December 29, 2002, that he spent much of the show rolling around on the floor unable to remember any lyrics. He then passed out.
The band sent an apology email to their fans praising them for being part of the “unusual world of rock and roll history”. The subsequent legal case brought by several audience members was thrown out by the judge who agreed with the band that they had fulfilled their contractual duty to appear.
On September 9, 1985, the Jesus And Mary Chain were booked to play at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. The riot that ensued after their drunken 15-minute set of “indeterminate white noise hampered by a faulty PA” led to a stage invasion. Their gear was trashed and the police were called.
Sometimes, tensions within bands lead to violence on stage with The Who, The Kinks and Oasis all being renowned for their on-stage scuffles.
Of course, violent behaviour doesn’t just happen at rock gigs. The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music The Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris is a case in point. Fights broke out between fans of the modernist composer and those who objected to his “puerile barbarity”. Vegetables were thrown at the orchestra who soldiered on to the bitter end.
Another classic case of an audience being hostile to an artist’s intentions happened on May 17, 1966, at the now-infamous Bob Dylan concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. To be fair, this has since become one of pop’s seminal moments – the troubadour of folk appeared backed by The Band playing – shock, horror! – electric guitars.
Many members of the audience walked out in protest but disgruntled Dylan fan Keith Butler called Dylan “Judas” with Dylan replying “You’re a liar” – and a new rock legend was born.
Nothing beats sheer incompetence for creating a shoddy live show but – with so many artists miming or using autotune to correct their pitch – a lot has to go wrong for a modern pop artist to really demonstrate their shortcomings.
Milli Vanilli, an R&B vocal duo who won the best new artist Grammy in 1990, went one better by not singing on their records and miming during their live shows link. At an infamous performance for MTV in 1989 their backing track kept skipping, leading to the group running off stage in shame. When the real singers behind the duo’s successes became known they were stripped of their Grammy and disappeared into the footnotes of pop history.
So what is it reasonable to expect from a gig in terms of band for your buck? From a purely legal perspective, it seems that if the artist turns up and makes it onto the stage upright, then you have had your money’s worth. And you’d be surprised how often this still happens. However, it’s probably a good idea to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the performers you invest your money and time in rather than being surprised when they let you down.