A rock performance can be memorable by sheer entertainment and talent but also because of controversy surrounding it. Here is my take on ten (maybe even the top ten) rock performances of all time. I know my list is very classic rock orientated so I am eager to see what other users would add from different genres. Maybe even share performances you’ve seen first hand!
The Who rose to fame with a pioneering instrument destruction stage show. One infamous performance occurred on television in 1967. The drummer, Keith Moon, overloaded his bass drum with explosives which were detonated during the finale of “My Generation.” As a result, guest Bette Davsis fainted, guitarist Pete Townshend’s hair was set on fire, and there is a legend that he received permanent damage to his hearing.
At this point in time, The Doors had already earned a reputation as a rebellious live act and Jim Morrison was a popular sex symbol. The band was approached by CBS reps before their live performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The censors demanded that Morrison change the lyrics to the song from “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.” The band agreed but Morrison sang the original line on live television with no delay. Ed Sullivan was furious and refused to shake the band members’ hands while also stating they would never be invited on the show again. Morrison’s reply? “So what. We just did the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’”
Called “The Gig That Changed the World” because it inspired a generation to make their own music and arguably change the world with the power of punk. The Sex Pistols emerged as a response to what was perceived to be the “increasingly safe and bloated” progressive rock and manufactured pop music of the mid-1970s. The gig is shrouded in myth and legend because only 42 people were in attendance but hundreds claim that they were there. But the people who were there formed legendary bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, and The Buzzcocks.
This show is so memorable in big part because it was one of the last televised performances by Kurt Cobain. It was recorded five months prior to his death in 1994. The set list consisted of several covers and lesser known originals; the only hit they played was “Come As You Are.” Many critics hailed the band’s performance because of their display that they could transcend the grunge stereotype which made them famous. This song’s performance is so eerie because of Cobain’s suicide and the lyrics in the song which seem to stem from the pain the singer was experiencing.
The Altamont Free Concert was headlined and organized by the Rolling Stones and featured other acts such as: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. During the Rolling Stone’s performance of “Sympathy For The Devil,” a young man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed and beaten to death by the Hell’s Angels. They were hired by the band to handle security for a mere $500 and free beer. Various news agencies reported the event as a “drug induced riot” and the Stones continued while Hunter was attacked in order to prevent a possible riot. Many critics called this event the “Death of Woodstock Nation.”
Pink Floyd was, and still is, one of rock music’s most successful acts. They are very well-known for their elaborate live shows which brought psychedelia to the UK in the 1960’s. They were the first band to incorporate light shows and photo effects into their live performances, creating a precedent which still cannot be matched to this day. This tour celebrated the release of their album “The Wall,” which eventually was certified 23x platinum. What made this tour so special was that there were only 31 shows in 4 cities in 1980 and 1981. Many consider this tour to be one of the most celebrated stage shows in rock history.
Despite there being several famous acts playing at the festival, Hendrix was considered to be the festival’s main attraction as the headliner. His two-hour long set (the longest of his career) was cursed with technical difficulties ranging from microphone troubles to a snapped guitar string during the performance of the song “Red House.” Even with all the problems, Hendrix delivered a historical performance with his solo improvisation of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which was played loudly and sharply with stimulated sounds of war from his guitar. Some viewed his rendition as anti-American while others felt it was Hendrix’s statement about the unrest in U.S. society. Whatever his reasoning may be, this act became a defining moment of the 60s.
Freddie Mercury will always be one of the best and most charismatic live performers in rock history. His upbeat and commanding presence is unmatchable. The band is noted for its musical diversity, multi-layered arrangements, vocal harmonies and incorporation of audience participation into their live performances. This medley was performed in front of an audience of 75,000 people for the annual Live Aid festival at Wembley Stadium. A poll taken by the BBC in 2005 named this as the top live performance of all time. Watching Freddie Mercury get the entire audience to clap in unison is mesmerizing.
At the beginning of his career, Elvis’ performances were badly received by both critics and guests (mostly an older, more conservative audience). The controversy would soon get worse after this June 5th presentation of “Hound Dog.” Elvis performed without his guitar and stirred the audience with his vigorous leg shaking and hip thrusts. Forty million people tuned in and the critics were relentless the next day. Elvis was linked with juvenile delinquency and deemed “a no-talent performer.” Others said the dancing was “vulgar” and “obscene” because of its strong sexual connotations. Elvis would later be filmed only from the waist up on the “Ed Sullivan Show” a few months later. Despite the controversy, Elvis quickly became a sex symbol and Rock ‘n Roll genius which would propel him to “The King” status he still holds to this day.
Some say that during the Beatles first American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, normal activities in America came to a standstill watching their performance. Still reeling in shock at the assassination of President Kennedy a few months prior, Americans were overjoyed by the atmosphere created when the four guys from Liverpool came on their black-and-white televisions. Before this program, Beatlemania had already swept Europe and the band was weary if they would be able to make it in America. This performance sealed the deal for the quartet and lead to a simultaneous transformation of rock music and youth culture. Sullivan received the biggest ratings of his career and this performance was one of the most watched programs in the history of television.