This past weekend tragedy struck Toronto’s Downsview Park when a stage collapsed before a set from Radiohead. Drum technician Scott Johnson was killed and several others injured.
Such tragedies have happened before. Large physical setups, unpredictable weather, plus cramped mobs, drugs and alcohol combined with the instigative nature of modern pop music can lead to disaster, as we saw in these examples.
6. Altamont Free Concert (1969)
On December 6, 1969, California’s Altamont Speedway hosted a free concert featuring Santana, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and CSNY. It was unofficially billed as a “West Coast Woodstock,” and lived up to that counterpoint by offering the opposite of peace and love.
Even before 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was famously knifed to death, things were already out of control. Somebody punched Mick Jagger not long after arrival, a last-minute venue change meant there was little room for people to pee or tend to their stab wounds, and unruly hippies were freely beating each other up. Scheduled performers the Grateful Dead bowed out, citing their staunch opposition to being violently attacked. At least three accidental deaths were reported, two hit-and-run accidents and a drowning.
During the Stones’ performance, Hunter — high on methamphetamine — repeatedly attempted to climb the stage. Hells Angels bikers hired as “security” (though to what capacity is still debated) knocked him down, but he kept coming. Finally, Hunter drew a gun, a fact rarely mentioned in “What went wrong with the ‘60s?” moral screeds, and rushed the stage. Biker Alan Passaro stabbed him multiple times and was eventually acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
5. Paul Robeson at Peekskill (1949)
Long before Bob Dylan chased answers through the wind, Paul Robeson was fighting the good fight for civil rights and worker equality. The actor / singer / athlete / activist / astronaut openly and forcefully criticized America’s treatment of blacks, causing the government to revoke his passport and keep him from any semblance of a normal life.
In August of 1949, Robeson planned to perform at a benefit for Communist-leaning Civil Rights Congress, but the show was protested by the KKK, and by protested we mean they broke all the chairs and beat people up. The next month Robeson, with Pete Seeger and others, performed in a nearby field, where there were no chairs to be broken but plenty of rocks. Pro-rock opponents threw those rocks at concertgoers, while local police stood by and watched, daydreaming of crimes not happening right in front of them.
4. The Who in Cincinnati (1979)
Before a concert by the Who in 1979, “festival seating” was a common and largely unregulated practice. Essentially, those who got in first or could push their way to the front got a better view, despite paying the same price as those in the back. It’s not uncommon today, but a combination of other factors – crowd confusion (many mistook a soundcheck for the show start), cramped conditions, and blocked entrances – resulted in one of the most notorious crowd-crush incidents in pop music.
As fans broke through and rushed the stage at Riverfront Coliseum, 11 people were trampled to death. The band was not told what happened until the concert had wrapped, motivating them to examine safety precautions for subsequent tours.
3. The Love Parade Disaster (2010)
The 2010 Love Parade electronic music festival was a disaster waiting to happen. It was the first Love Parade contained in a closed-off area, a disused train station preceded by a large tunnel. Almost five times too many people showed up, and attempts to retract the crowd proved counterproductive. Scores of people heading every which way caused panicking and stampeding in the tunnel. Twenty-one lives were lost and hundreds more injured, and future Love Parades were permanently cancelled.
2. Various Stage Collapses
The past few years have seen an increase in physical stage collapses. Some of the most notable:
- August 2009: During a performance by Billy Currington at Alberta’s Big Valley Jamboree extremely high winds caused a stage collapse, injuring Currington and dozens more, and killing a 35-year-old woman.
- July 2011: A storm blew a temporary roof off during a set by Cheap Trick at Ottawa Bluesfest. No serious injuries were reported. The band has actively lobbied Congress for higher safety standards in temporary concert setups.
- August 2011: The Pukkelpop festival in Belgium was interrupted when high winds uprooted trees, which blew into stage setups and killed five.
- August 2011: High winds collapsed an outdoor stage during a performance by Sugarland, killing seven.
1. John Davidson Show Goes Up In Flames (1977)
One of the worst concert disasters in modern history occurred at The Beverly Hills Supper Club, preceding a show by singer / game show host John Davidson.
Like many venues struck by fire, the Supper Club was ill-equipped to handle a mass of audience members, let alone one that might suddenly run screaming in the other direction. The fire began before Davidson’s performance, in a room overcrowded by a few hundred people, but by the time most of them paid any attention the flames were out of control. Predictably, a giant mass of people blocked reasonable exit, and 165 lives were lost. The exact cause of the fire remains unconfirmed and controversial.