Top 5 Onstage Freakouts

I’m no Glenn A. Baker, but I think Jerry Lee Lewis can be credited with being the first musician to deliberately and joyfully destroy an instrument on stage.

At the height of his fame in the 50s, The Killer (that was his nickname) would routinely smash up pianos in front of gasping packed audiences, and reportedly even set a piano on fire in front of a coughing packed audience armed with marshmallows on sticks. In the 60s, The Who’s Pete Townsend began smashing his guitar at the end of performances, later explaining to an interviewer that he was creating ‘auto-destructive art.’ Personally, I think he wrecked his guitars out of sheer frustration–he’s not a very good guitarist (don’t tell your dad I said that). Since then, hordes of performers have smashed their shit to bits as part of the show, but only a handful have done it right, and I’ve collected a portion of that handful here.


What Jimi did to his guitar at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was a beautiful stroke of genius. According to rock lore, The Experience and The Who were bickering backstage about who would follow whom. The Who didn’t want to go on after The Jimi Hendrix Experience because Jimi was an infinitely better guitarist than Pete Townsend (most people are–don’t tell your dad I said that), and The Experience didn’t want to follow The Who because The Who always did this big theatrical finale where they smashed their equipment and set off smoke bombs for added ‘crazy’. In the end, Jimi settled the disagreement by jumping on a chair and announcing that The Experience would go on after The Who, but they were going to pull out all the stops and put on the best rock show anyone had ever seen. And they did. Monterey was The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first U.S. show. He was a household name the next day.


Like Jimi at Monterey, Nirvana’s performance at the 1992 MTV Music awards was a watershed moment in rock history, and the exact moment late 80s hairbands were officially shown the door. Moments before they went onstage, Kurt and Axl Rose had a bit of nasty back-and-forth because of something Courtney said (if you ask me, it’s more likely Axl was being a defensive bitch because, you know, Nirvana), and Nirvana bassist, Kris Novoselic, almost had a punch on with Guns & Roses guitarist Duff McKagan. Then, just to ramp the tension up a bit more, MTV forbid Nirvana from playing their new single, ‘Rape Me’. This all happened in the minutes leading up to Nirvana taking the stage, leaving the band more than ready to rip the rock establishment a new asshole. My favorite part of this performance is Dave Grohl saying ‘Hi, Axl! Hi, Axl!’ at the very end, which was a nice way of saying, ‘Get your coat, dipshit.’


I know Vines frontman Craig Nicholls was having a rough trot with his as yet undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome at the time, but I fucking love him for what he did on Letterman in 2002. The media described it as a ‘meltdown’ and a ‘complete disaster,’ but I think it was one of the most beautiful and perfectly surreal events in rock, nay, human history. Unfortunately, it screwed The Vines out of their upcoming appearance of Jay Leno, but you know what? They already did it. They did America. And they ripped TV to pieces for three delicious minutes.


This performance by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on ABC’s Recovery is insane for two reasons: one, watch the video; two, I saw them getting drunk at Melbourne’s Prince of Wales Hotel the night before. When I left the bar, it was 2 AM, and they were still holding court. Then, when I turned on the TV at 10 AM the next morning, they were destroying the Recovery set. If you never caught The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, let me send you some flowers and a ham. You haven’t been to a rock show until you’ve seen these psychopaths in full-flight. Incidentally, I first saw them support Beck on his ‘Loser’ tour a few years earlier. I was at the show for Beck, but once the Blues Explosion were done, almost half the audience (who had never even heard of JSBX) were like, ‘Fuck Beck–let’s go to the front bar and talk about what we just saw!’


This is by far the funniest onstage freak-out because a) it’s Billy Joel, and b) it’s more of a tantrum than anything. I’ll let you have a Google and read about the political significance of Joel playing in Russia in the frigid year of 1987 (whatever) because I’d rather talk about how he sings a line–flips out/sings a line–flips out/sings a line. Too funny. In his defense, Billy had been on tour non-stop for a year and the Russian audience didn’t get him or know the words to ‘Uptown Girl’. Also, the lighting guy kept doing dumb shit like illuminating the audience and blacking out the stage mid-song. Also, Billy Joel is a little asshole with a terrible attitude and an overinflated sense of worth. That’s what I heard. Don’t tell your mum.

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