From the original Woodstock to Beatlemania and beyond, live rock music has always held a terrific attraction for young people. Unfortunately, poor organization, too many rowdy fans, and casual attitudes towards drugs and alcohol have occasionally turned concerts into complete chaos.
Riots, crowd stampedes and crushes have led to too many deaths at rock shows over the decades. Be it the ill-fated 1969 Altamont Free Festival or the infamous 2000 Roskilde disaster, we list 10 rock concerts that ended in bloodshed.
10. Altamont Free Concert – 1969
The momentous decade of rock and roll that was the Sixties concluded with one of its most infamous incidents. Northern California’s Altamont Free Concert of December 6, 1969 was intended to be a “Woodstock West,” with over 300,000 attendees and top bands like The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead (who later refused to play because of the escalating violence). However, the organizers made two serious mistakes: hiring Hell’s Angels bikers as security and, rumor has it, paying them with $500 worth of beer.
Unsurprisingly, entrusting the safety of the public to the notoriously rough outlaw motorcycle club turned out to be a terrible idea. Fueled by drugs and the rocking ‘60s music, members of the crowd began to attack each other and the stage.
Numerous small scuffles broke out throughout the day. The lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin, was punched in the face by a Hell’s Angel and had to be airlifted to hospital. And, as the crowd grew more and more restless, the bikers armed themselves with chains and pool cues.
The crowning horror occurred during the Rolling Stones’ set. An audience member named Meredith Hunter, who had been punched in the face, came back and drew a gun. He was tackled and stabbed repeatedly by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, then kicked while on the ground. In total, there were as many as 850 injuries and four deaths at the concert.
9. World Series of Rock – 1979
Even by World Series of Rock standards, this event was noted for its intensity. The July 28, 1979 show was headlined by Aerosmith, a band about as famous for their off-stage antics as they are for their music. However, it was in the lead-up to the festival, held in Cleveland Stadium, Ohio, that the real drama took place.
Swarms of fans camped outside the stadium overnight, waiting to rush in and grab the best possible seats when the venue opened. And while people were camping, criminals targeted many individuals, and five unfortunate rockers were shot, one of them fatally.
The numerous robberies and acts of violence and vandalism that also occurred were blamed on the poor safety of the event. As a result, the World Series of Rock concert scheduled later that year was cancelled. Perhaps the violence contributed to the decision to stop holding WSOR concerts altogether after 1980.
8. The Who in Cincinnati – 1979
December 3, 1979 was an infamous day in the history of rock music. Whilst queuing to enter The Who’s concert at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio, 11 fans were crushed to death and dozens were injured in a stampede in front of the stadium. The disaster was caused largely by the recklessness of fans plus poor management on the part of the Coliseum.
The stadium used “festival seating,” a first-come, first-served system. Yet this policy had caused near-chaos at the Coliseum in previous years: in 1977, 60 people were arrested and many were injured when a mob rushed the locked doors of a Led Zeppelin concert. And, on December 3, a mass of 18,000 fans had begun arriving as early as 1:30pm for the 8:00pm show.
At 7.05pm, only a handful of doors were opened due to a lack of ticket-takers. Pushing and competition for seats was intense, and as the mob pressed forward, one set of doors was shattered and another thrown open. Dozens ended up pressed against the glass doors of the Coliseum, fighting for air.
When the few police present managed to break through the crowd, they found 11 dead from asphyxiation and more than two dozen injured. The Who were not informed about the carnage that had occurred outside and were oblivious to the disaster until their final encore. As a result of the deaths, the city of Cincinnati banned festival seating for the next 24 years.
7. Monsters of Rock – 1988
The Monsters of Rock Festival was an annual one-day event that celebrated the best in hard rock and heavy metal music for almost 30 years. However, in 1988, the festival was marked by tragedy when two attendees were killed during the show, crushed to death during Guns N’ Roses’ set.
As with many of the other deaths by asphyxiation at concerts, the cause was unclear. Attendance at Monsters of Rock had grown since its creation in 1980, and by 1988 a crowd of over 100,000 was squeezed into Donington Park in England.
With the situation compounded by muddy weather and the sloping ground, footing was uncertain in front of the stage, and fans reported suffering injuries in the crush. The year after the deaths, horrified promoters cancelled Monsters of Rock. However, the festival made a return in 1990, with a lower limit on the number of people allowed to enter the grounds.
6. Montreal Riot – 1992
In 1992, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica were two of the most popular bands in hard rock, and both acts playing at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on August 8 was big news for fans. Sadly, the set quickly turned into one of the most infamous riots in the history of rock and roll.
Metallica’s performance was cut short when frontman James Hetfield suffered second degree burns after standing too close to a pyrotechnic special effect. The band piled offstage in a hurry, leaving the restless audience to their own devices for more than two hours.
Eventually, 135 minutes after Metallica had left the stage, Guns N’ Roses finally appeared. But, after playing for only 55 minutes, the band left the stage with lead singer Axl Rose complaining that he was suffering from vocal problems. The result was an explosion of rioting amongst the 53,000 audience members that spilled out into the streets of Montreal.
A storm of looting occurred, with rioters smashing stadium windows, burning a sports car, and starting dozens of other small fires. Tear gas and hundreds of club-wielding riot police were needed to bring the fans under control.
5. Woodstock ’99 – 1999
Woodstock ‘99 tarnished the legacy of the peaceful 1969 concert it was named after. Held from July 22 to July 25 in Rome, New York, bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine were the star attractions.
From the beginning, conditions were almost unbearable. The stifling temperatures led to several hundred fans being treated for heat exhaustion. Attendees were charged as much as $4 for bottled water. And the toilet facilities were insufficient for the 200,000 guests and were quickly overflowing.
Serious violence occurred on the Saturday night (July 24). During Limp Bizkit’s performance, a crowd-surfing woman was allegedly gang raped in the mosh pit, and there were several other reports of rapes and sexual assaults as well. Indeed, police investigated at least four rapes following the concert.
During Limp Bizkit’s song “Break Stuff,” the audience ripped planks and pieces of plywood off the walls. And the concert concluded with bonfires during Red Hot Chili Peppers’ encore, with parts of the security fence being ripped down and used for fuel.
Concert promoter John Scher seemed to play down these events in the aftermath, saying: “There was an awful lot of good that happened this weekend. What about 199,000 kids that came and had a great weekend? Everyone is ignoring them.”
4. Pearl Jam at Roskilde – 2000
The Danish rock festival Roskilde turned tragic in 2000, when nine fans were crushed to death during Pearl Jam’s set on the Orange Stage. And, as with many other concerts, the cause of death was asphyxiation.
Approximately 45 minutes into the grunge band’s set, the vast crowd of 50,000 festival-goers pressed forward towards the stage, crushing those at the front against the barriers. It has been suggested that some of the concertgoers fell and did not immediately get up, resulting in them being pressurized and suffocating when crowd surfers fell into the “hole.”
The exact reasons why the Roskilde crush was so deadly are still heavily debated, with blame shifting from heavy rain leading to mud underfoot, to drug use, to inadequate security, to the metal barriers used to keep fans away from the stage. Whatever the case may be, in memory of the tragedy, the Pearl Jam song “Love Boat Captain” includes the line, “Lost nine friends we’ll never know… two years ago today.”
3. Marilyn Manson – 2003
Marilyn Manson tries to shock audiences wherever he goes, but the crowd for his performance at Freakers Ball in Kansas City, Missouri on October 30, 2003 was too terrifying even for the controversial performer. Two songs into the gig, the pressure of 12,000 fans broke down the security fence in front of the sage, and attempts to fix it were unsuccessful. After the barrier was knocked down a second time, Manson was forced to end the gig prematurely.
While many fans left the area peacefully, more than 2,000 decided to take their anger out on the venue. Thousands of rockers smashed up the area, throwing bottles filled with urine at police officers, destroying nine cars, and causing a great deal of property damage. Full riot gear, pepper spray and the Kansas City police were required to contain the crowd. In the end, seven were injured in the chaos and one man was arrested for trying to run a police officer over with his car.
2. San Bernardino Punk Riot – 2006
The skinhead subculture has long been divided when it comes to race, with both pro-racist and anti-racist groups. And on March 4, 2006, at a concert in San Bernardino, California, at the National Orange Show Events Center, tensions between the two sides boiled over.
After a brawl outside involving neo-Nazi and anti-racist skinheads, fans entered the venue to find a skinhead chanting “white power” slogans. The angry crowd pelted him with debris, and security was forced to place him behind a fence to stop the other punks from tearing him to pieces. Eventually, weight of numbers prevailed, and an angry mob stormed the fence and attacked the young neo-Nazi, who during the chaos was stabbed.
Emergency services attempted to restore order by releasing tear gas at the scene, as well as inside the venue itself where no violence had occurred. This prompted angry concertgoers to retaliate, and a rampaging mob of 1,500 punks stormed from the building, overturning police cars and smashing the windows of local businesses.
The final toll for the riot was the serious injury of two concertgoers, four police injuries, at least 12 arrests, and $500,000 in property damage.
1. Family Values Tour – 2006
As part of the 2006 Family Values tour, heavy metal band Korn was headlining a performance at the HiFi Buys Amphitheater in Atlanta, Georgia on July 30. From the beginning, the show was marred by drunkenness, with a group of rowdy fans scuffling with other concert attendees.
During Deftones’ set, two fans had a confrontation that quickly turned into a scuffle. There are conflicting accounts as to what triggered the fight. Most news stories report that 25-year-old Michael Scott Axley stole 30-year-old Andy Richardson’s cap. But some also claim that Richardson had asked Axley to be careful around the pregnant woman and mentally challenged child whom he was with.
The result was that Axley lashed out, knocking Richardson over with one punch and killing him when the latter’s head made contact with the concrete floor. Axley was imprisoned for 10 years owing to his violent action – and, perhaps, all because of a hat.