An amazing concert can be a life-changing experience, but it’s rare. Stack one up against the countless instances of tragedy and disaster in the last fifty years alone when something, sometimes everything, goes wrong, and the balance that keeps a mindblowing gig from turning sour becomes a frighteningly fragile thing.
There have been all too many concert tragedies triggered by stupid and completely avoidable mistakes, from igniting pyrotechnics indoors in Rhode Island, killing nearly 100 at once in 2003, to barricading emergency exits in Brazil and even hiring a drunken biker gang as security, resulting in the murder of an audience-member and the deaths of three others at the Altamont festival in 1969.
But there have also been accidents that are infamous in the industry for their sheer unpredictability as well as their horrific impact. None of the right people knew that gunmen would infiltrate the Bataclan in 2015 or that a lone wolf assassin would shoot former Pantera guitarist Darrell Lance Abbott in the head as he performed in Columbus, Ohio in 2005. The sudden electrocution and immediate death of Les Harvey of Stone the Crows in Swansea back in 1972 was also entirely unexpected.
Perhaps worse than death to the victims are the non-fatal yet irrevocable injuries that have been sustained by performers and spectators during live performances. The most extreme instance was suffered by soul pioneer Curtis Mayfield, who in 1990 was hit by a fallen light fixture while performing in NYC. He lived the remaining nine years of his life permanently paralysed from the neck down, no longer capable of playing music.
Though concert disasters are by no means common occurrences, they are in many cases notoriously difficult to prevent. Often the volatility of unpredictable crowds becomes a serious issue, with crushes resulting in asphyxiation, sudden fights, attacks on performers and even spontaneous arson violently interrupting even the most organized events.
In 1979 eleven people were crushed trying to see The Who in concert in Cincinatti, stampeded by impatient crowds while entering the stadium. The city banned general admission concerts for over a decade as a result, yet these tragedies have remained the most common of concert accidents. Nine spectators died of suffocation at Denmark’s Roskilde festival in 2000, buried by fallen crowd-surfers. The festival now has a rigorously enforced ‘no crowd-surfing’ policy in an effort to learn from past mistakes.
The days of bottling disappointing bands, widespread violence against women in the crowd and stabbings in moshpits may have been largely eradicated by increased security, but it is worth remembering that a concert is a peculiar social environment which will unfortunately always have the potential to be dangerous.