When Perry Farrell reinvented the rock roadshow with his underground-friendly Lollapalooza 25 years ago this month, he was trying to amp up the appeal of Jane’s Addiction’s farewell tour, inspired by the smorgasbord of UK’s Reading Festival. Plans for a second Lolla emerged before the first was even over, but it was interest from Red Hot Chili Peppers (who were on the year one wishlist) that convinced Farrell and his team to go bigger on the second go-round. Lolla did not invent the mega-tour of course — everything from the Transcontinental Pop Festival to Clash Of The Titans laid the groundwork — but only in the decade beginning with Farrell’s successful ’91 outing did so many likeminded touring events pop up across American amphitheaters. We soon got Lollas for jams (H.O.R.D.E), hip-hop (Smoking Grooves), punk (Warped), rave (Electric Daisy), metal (Ozzfest), and estrogen (Lilith Fair).
Lolla had to diversify to survive, and fortunately cultural omnivorousness was its brand. The juggernaut was quick to introduce a variety of non-musical sideshows — some more memorable (Jim Rose Circus) than others (the spoken-word Revival Tent) — and it was among the first rock fests to add DJs, gourmet food, a kiddie area, and other pop-up amenities we take for granted at these events. Lolla was also first to sell out (as in cash in on its supposed integrity, not in sell all its tickets), though it’s up for debate whether that happened when Metallica headlined or when all the stages were renamed after telecoms.
Here’s the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson in ’95 explaining why he preferred Blues Traveler’s H.O.R.D.E.:
Lollapalooza just didn’t translate to me as a musical thing as much as an MTV thing. It just seemed more fabricated, more manufactured. It’s like McDonald’s counterculture. You’re not going to get much culture hanging around the mall, and Lollapalooza seems like a big mall — but with more piercing stands.
The following summer (the year with Metallica) Lollapalooza had Waylon Jennings and the Cows, though, so relax Chris Robinson. Still, its status as the ur-fest made it ripe for mockery; The Simpsons’ “Homerpalooza” aired in ’96 and the pseudo-suffix hasn’t been a conferrer of relevance since the Clinton era (no offense to Samsung VR-Palooza).
I didn’t get to Lollapalooza until 1995. It wasn’t the first summer music festival I attended, and I’ve been to countless since, but for a few years that’s what I measured other all-day concert events against. Back then Lolla was a traveling single-day experience, and it hit NYC on 7/28 across two stages in the now-demolished Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island (where NYC’s Governors Ball and Panorama currently take place). Hole, Beck, Pavement, Elastica (replacing Sinead O’Connor, who dropped out two weeks in), Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Jesus Lizard, and Cypress Hill played the main stage. The secondary stage had Superchunk, Redman, Built To Spill, Patti Smith (reading from her latest book of poetry), and this performance from Psychotica I don’t remember:
Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson’s girlfriend Drew Barrymore was traveling with the band. The official fest zine Teeth was released on CD-ROM. Tickets were $30. Very ’95 all around.
So while Lollapalooza is maybe less adventurous and more corporate since its heyday, what 25-year-old isn’t? To kick off the festival’s return to Chicago’s Grant Park this weekend (again with those Red Hot Chili Peppers!), we revisit some legendary moments from its past below. (Note Lollapalooza didn’t happen in ’98-’02 and was cancelled in ’04.)
1991: Ice-T Debuts “Cop Killer”
As the only rapper on Lollapalooza’s inaugural rock lineup, Ice-T took the opportunity to debut his own metal group Body Count and their furious call to arms “Cop Killer.” The tour kicked off outside Phoenix in July ’91, just a few months after video famously captured LAPD beating a black drunk driver, Rodney King, within an inch of his life. The officers were acquitted the following spring, sparking widespread riots. In between, Body Count’s self-titled Sire debut (which closed with “Cop Killer”) was released. In 2011 Body Count guitarist Ernie C. told Spin that the not-yet-released song didn’t cause controversy at Lolla, only later on: “You heard it. Your grandfather heard it. But during that election year, it caught the attention of some people who needed a platform.” Among them were high-profile conservatives including George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Oliver North, Tipper Gore, dozens of Congresspeople, and the actor Charlton Heston. They condemned the band and its label’s parent company Time-Warner, some calling for a boycott. When death threats were leveled against label employees, Ice-T finally decided to pull the track. “[‘Cop Killer’] is not a call to murder police,” the future Law & Order mainstay explained at a news conference announcing the decision. “This song is about anger and the community and how people get that way.”
1993: RATM Protest PMRC
Budding rap-rock revolutionaries Rage Against The Machine made their Lollapalooza debut in ’93 with a handful of tracks from their powerful debut LP and future Evil Empire opener “People Of The Sun.” But on 7/18 in Philadelphia they didn’t play at all, opting instead to stand onstage naked, mouths duct-taped, with the letters P, M, R, and C painted across their chests. (The Parents Music Resource Center was the committee responsible for those “parental advisory” stickers you may remember if you ever bought a CD, and yes it had been slapped on that first RATM release.) The band’s feedback-soundtracked protest lasted 15 minutes, and vocalist Zack de La Rocha later told NME how proud he was of their statement, despite the fact that the Lolla audience threw quarters at them. Bassist Tim Commerford, meanwhile, had mixed emotions. “I referred to that moment for me as a half roll of nickels,” he told The Dan LeBetard Show. “I was trying to fluff things up to get the blood flow to happen, but it wasn’t really happening.” Rage ended up playing a makeup show for Philly fans at the Trocadero that fall and triumphantly headlined Lollapalooza 15 years later.
1995: Pavement Get Pelted With Mud
Pavement were set to join Lollapalooza in the summer of 1994, but as frontman Stephen Malkmus would eventually confirm, “the Smashing Pumpkins said, ‘No, if Pavement does it, we’re not doing it.'” (Pavement’s “Range Life,” released a few months prior, included a gentle diss of Billy Corgan’s band.) “We really didn’t want to be on [the ’94 lineup],” drummer Steve West claimed, “because we didn’t like the bands.” Instead they did Lolla the following year along with the “much cooler” (in Malkmus’ opinion) lineup of Sonic Youth, Beck, and Hole. “It quickly became apparent the first day at the Gorge that we were in way over our heads,” Bob Nastanovich recalled. “We were just better suited to indoor venues.” The crowd in Charles Town, WV agreed, pelting the band with mud cakes until they stopped the set. Nastanovich again: “[Cypress Hill] thought it was hilarious. It’s like if they had their druthers, they would be throwing mud at us, too.” Discussing the incident in Lance Bangs’ Slow Century documentary, Spiral Stairs surmised that 1995 was the downfall of the fest. “Quite frankly,” Nastanovich offered, “I think it can be safely said that Pavement’s the band that effectively did in Lollapalooza.” Oh, and Billy Corgan still holds a grudge.
2007: Introducing Lady GaGa And The Starlight Revue
Stefani Germanotta cut her teeth performing avant-garde pop/burlesque around NYC’s Lower East Side in the early aughts. By 2007 she’d adopted the Lady Gaga moniker and, alongside her mentor-cum-DJ Colleen Martin (Lady Starlight), landed a baby spot at Lollapalooza. Since the act was unknown, “Lady GaGa And The Starlight Revue” didn’t earn a mention on the official lineup or anything, but the duo managed to attract a few hundred people to the small BMI Stage on Saturday afternoon. Gaga turned heads in fishnets and a disco-ball bra and belted electro-pop works in progress like “Blueberry Kisses” and “Dirty Ice Cream” that only a Monster could love. But the future star at least made enough of an impression that a few months later she became one of five artists signed to a new Interscope imprint Streamline Records. And even though a Chicago police officer gave her a citation for not wearing pants, Gaga returned to Grant Park in 2010 with better songs and many more costumes.
2013: Death Grips “Choose Not To Arrive”
Three years ago Death Grips became the first band to pull out of Lollapalooza without telling anyone. They were scheduled to perform Saturday night on the Grove stage and at an official Lolla aftershow at the Bottom Lounge the night before. But before anyone at the venue realized the aftershow was off, the enigmatic noise-rap crew’s tour manager placed a child’s drum kit onstage and projected a Gmail screenshot of a fan’s suicide note onto a hanging sheet while the band’s music played. When fans realized Death Grips weren’t going to appear, they destroyed the kit. The next day the Bottom Lounge said they had no idea the band wasn’t gonna show and offered to refund all tickets: Apparently in the hours before the gig, Death Grips’ management kept promising that MC Ride, Zach Hill, and Andy Morin were on their way, only to later claim the prerecorded music and props “was the show.” Lollapalooza promptly replaced Death Grips on the schedule with Olympic snowboarder Shaun White’s band without an official explanation other than “[Death Grips] chose not to arrive in Chicago.” Death Grips’ Montreal, Boston, and New York shows were cancelled, too. The next summer they broke up. Since then they’ve released two more albums. ¯\_(?)_/¯
2015: Travis Scott Gets Arrested
Travis Scott’s 2015 performance lasted only five minutes. The Houston rapper saw his Saturday afternoon set shut down and was arrested after he encouraged fans to climb over front row barricades and chant “we want rage.” “Everyone in a green shirt get the fuck back,” he told the crowd, referring to fest security in the pit. “Middle finger up to security right now.” One person was seriously injured in the ensuing stampede, and Scott received court supervision for a year after pleading guilty to reckless conduct. At his Rodeo album release show a few weeks later, he yelled anti-gay slurs at a crowd he didn’t think was turnt up enough. His tweeted explanation — “WHEN I GET EXCITED I TEND TO SAY THE FIRST THING ON MY MIND OUT LOUD” — maybe explains the Lolla outburst as well. The performance remains a highlight of setlist.fm.