Last month, I went to see the excellent band Dawes. Watching from the back of the crowd (I am now too old and too fat to wiggle my way to the front) I was struck by the number of cell phones in the air throughout the show. Many of the concertgoers - quite literally, in some cases - watched the show through the screen of their phones, as they video recorded or took photos throughout the show.
Being an old-ish fellow, the overwhelming videography and photography at shows these days is jarring. In the olden days, taking photographs during a concert would get you thrown out.
Or, in the case of a Guns n' Roses show in 1991, it would start a riot.
The show in question was in my hometown of St. Louis. Guns n' Roses stopped there on July 2 during their Use Your Illusion Tour to play the Riverport Amphitheatre. The venue (now the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) had just opened two weeks prior and had hosted only three shows to that point.
Both the crowd and the band were a powder keg that night. The crowd allegedly became more intoxicated and unruly as the night went on, and the security at the brand new facility allegedly took a laissez-faire approach to enforcing drink limits and good behavior. For his part, GnR's lead singer Axl Rose was already famously loutish: just that summer, he had compared his home state of Indiana to a concentration camp during a tour stop in Indianapolis, and only a couple weeks before the band started a performance in New York almost three hours late.
The show in St. Louis went off for most of the setlist without major incident. Then, an hour and half in and during the song "Rocket Queen," Rose saw a guy taking pictures from close to the stage. Rose pointed him out mid-song to security saying "hey take that, take that now, get that guy and take that." Not getting an immediate response, he said "I'll take it, goddam it" and dove into the crowd to wrestle the camera away and get a few punches in for good measure. As contemporary MTV News footage reports, when Rose started fighting the audience member, "venue security jumped in to pull Rose off of the fan, then Guns n' Roses security jumped in to pull them off Rose." All the while, the band played on. Rose returned to the stage a minute or so later, cut off the band, blamed the "lame-ass security," slammed his microphone down, and stormed off stage. The band followed him.
The house lights stayed down for several minutes while the crowd booed and the band talked to venue staff to figure out what was next. Eventually, they called it a night and took off. When the lights came back up and it was clear that the show was over, a riot began almost immediately. Several thousand fans rushed the stage, where they wrecked or stole the band's gear, fought with security and police and each other, and tore up the place. All told, the riot caused 60 injuries, 16 arrests, and somewhere between $250K and $1 million of damage.
Because their gear was trashed, the band had to cancel its next tour stop at the World Music Theater in Chicago (oddly enough, now also known as the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre). Rose was charged with inciting a riot and was very publicly arrested and booked, but was not ultimately convicted.
After the show and his arrest, GnR held on to their grudge against St. Louis: the band included the note "FUCK YOU, ST. LOUIS!" in the liner notes to their next album and Axl Rose sported a custom made "St. Louis Sucks" shirt at a show (or maybe shows) afterward.
The "Riverport Riot" is still a well-known piece of local history in St. Louis; it has its own Wikipedia entry and the local rock station KSHE-95 made a pretty good mini-documentary about it. Thanks to GnR's tour photographer Robert John, the whole show was captured on video. You can watch it here; the incident starts near the very end (click here if you want to go right to that part).
As a local reporter noted at the time: "all this because Axl Rose didn't like his picture being taken."
BONUS FACT: My friend, bandmate, and TMFW reader Jason worked for one summer during our youth at Riverport Amphitheatre. From him, I learned that when Janet Jackson came through (likely during her "Janet" tour on July 9, 1994), one of her demands was that the toilet seat in the green room must be brand new, and must have the cellophane packaging still attached to prove it. The Riverport crew - always consummate professionals, I am sure - obliged, but they took advantage of the situation to create a unique souvenir of the tour stop. When Ms. Jackson moved on to the next city, the crew put the old toilet seat back on, and hung the new one - which ostensibly had been soiled by only one famous set of cheeks - on the wall of the crew supervisor's office. I sincerely hope that it is still hanging there.
BONUS FACT 2: A nice benefit of the ubiquity of cell phone videographers is the abundance of concert footage out there on YouTube. Here are two videos from the Dawes show I referenced above - "When My Time Comes" and "Most People." I love that band so much.
BONUS FACT 3: Another great, recent example of experiencing life through the screen of a cell phone is this Sports Illustrated cover capturing American Pharoah completing the Triple Crown. I can't imagine that a blurry, poorly-framed cell phone photo of the horse was worth missing the run in real life.
BONUS FACT 3.5: My autocorrect lit up when I wrote the word "Pharoah" above, as the real word is spelled "Pharaoh." The odd spelling was not intentional: by all accounts, the owners just didn't get it right when they submitted the name to the Jockey Club for registry. Oops.
BONUS FACT 4: The original cover of Guns n' Roses's famous album Appetite for Destruction was a painting by Robert Williams of the same name that "depicted a robotic rapist about to be punished by a metal avenger." After several music retailers very predictably refused to stock the record, the label moved the painting to the inside of the album and replaced the cover with more straightforward graphics. The band claimed that the art was "a symbolic social statement, with the robot representing the industrial system that's raping and polluting our environment." I'm sure it was.
BONUS FACT 5: This is almost certainly NOT a true fact, but here's a fun legend about the Geffen Records A&R man who fought like hell to get GnR on MTV and claims to have saved their career as a result. The gist of the story is that MTV very, very reluctantly agreed to play the "Welcome to the Jungle" video one time, in the middle of the night on a Sunday, and that the resulting telephone demand for more literally caused MTV's switchboard to catch fire.