By my estimation, I have seen about 1,300 shows in my 27 years of regular concertgoing. Given the sheer volume, it’s amazing that I haven’t seen more undeniably terrible shows. Mediocre and forgettable, yes; straight-up disastrous, no. So when a band plays a truly awful set, I tend to remember it. Here are five that come to mind.
1) Shouting Distance, Livingston College, April 1986. Generally, I have exempted crummy opening bands from this list. However, this band more than earned its place. To be fair, they were in a no-win situation: opening for the Ramones at an outdoor Spring Weekend fest in front of a bunch of annoying college students is no one’s idea of a a prime bill. And the kind of music they played – Flock of Seagulls-esque new wave, as I recall – couldn’t have been less suited to the proceedings. (Then again, this long and confusing bill also included fusion-rock legend Allan Holdsworth. Ah, college.) So it wasn’t surprising that, during the first song, the boos began, followed by seas of upraised middle fingers. The lead singer responded with smug sarcasm: “I know you’re all waiting to see Joey, but we’re first.” Of course, this only increased the boos, chants of “you suck,” etc. After a couple more songs, they left the stage. Shouting Distance is the only band I’ve ever seen to actually get booed off a stage. Oh, it was sweet.
After about 10 minutes, though, they came back – possibly upon being told that they wouldn’t be paid – but it was no use. The band had shown its weakness and the crowd didn’t let up. All I remember about their set was their cover of the Beatles’ “Taxman,” the lyrics of which they altered for current events: “Taxman, Mr. Rayyy-gan!/Taxman, Mr. Bush!” Lesson to all you bands out there: It doesn’t matter how hated you are, you don’t stop playing and you don’t let yourself get booed off the stage without a damn good reason (say, sticks of dynamite thrown onstage). Stick it out and you’ll win the audience’s respect, if not their appreciation.
2) Husker Du, Rutgers University, March 1987. They’d already postponed once for reasons that, at the time, were unknown. I’d heard from a friend of a friend that someone in their camp committed suicide. At this rescheduled date, they played nothing but Warehouse: Songs and Stories in its entirety, song by song. They did not appear to be enjoying it very much. For their encore, they played slowed-down, acoustic versions of “Flexible Flyer” and “Love is All Around.” The RU crowd made the most of it, slamming and singing along … but to this day, I’ve never seen a great band so dispirited onstage. Of course, knowing what I know now from Andrew Earles’ and Bob Mould’s books, it’s clear they were in no condition to do a national tour. So while I now understand and acknowledge why it went down the way it did, I still get depressed thinking about it.
3) Happy Mondays, The Ritz, August 1989. Then there are the shows that inspire rage, not depression. I’m not talking about a cathartic response to fierce music; I’m talking about a band so indescribably horrific that I literally wanted to go up onstage and physically remove them. I knew little about Happy Mondays before seeing them open for the Pixies, except that they were on Factory and apparently were big E connections around Manchester. I certainly didn’t know about Bez, a character so unselfconsciously talentless that it still inspires a mix of bile and hilarity in me now. I was watching this guy do his ridiculous maraca dance and thinking: Is this guy being paid? Occasionally Shaun Ryder would stumble from the back of the stage and mutter some words into the mic. The music struck me, at the time, as the worst, most generic techno-disco of all time. My brain kept shouting, “GET OFF! GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE! YOU SUCK!!!” I may have even yelled it for real.
4) Loop, CBGB, February 1990. The most boring, repetitive, draggy set of all time. I remember them complaining about the sound, but a pristine mix wouldn’t have changed things. I almost fell asleep right there in the middle of the crowd but, sadly, could only enter that half-asleep stage where you’re still all too conscious of reality. Then Jesus Lizard came on and wiped away the memory. Almost.
5) Bis, Bowery Ballroom, September 1999. Bis had been touring pretty much incessantly during the past three years. I must have seen them a dozen times during that period. They slowly eroded from a sharp, energetic live band to a confused and distracted one. They clearly wanted to move beyond “Kandy Pop” and “Teen-C Power” sloganeering, and Social Dancing was a positive step in that direction. Performing at the end of a long Grand Royal showcase at CMJ, though, things went wrong from the beginning. Opening with the superb “Action and Drama,” guitarist Steven immediately began complaining about the sound. It sounded perfectly fine from my spot near the front, but clearly it was bothering Steven. He became progressively pissy as the set went on, at one point insulting “that fucker from Gay Dad” for no clear reason. Eventually he threw down his guitar and stomped offstage, leaving poor John to try to pacify the audience with jokes. It was all unusually prima donna-ish for this band, whom I’d seen perform well under much worse adversity. It sucked all the energy from the room, and Bis really never recovered. Not only was it the worst Bis show I’d ever seen, but it permanently affected my appreciation of the band and magnified the flaws behind their next two records, Music for A Stranger World and swansong Plastique Nouveau.