Beer and loathing at Rock In Rio: the sordid story of a festival

A shirtless AC/DC pose on a terrace in Rio
(Image credit: Murray/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In this world there are three ways you can fly: First Class, Club Class and cunt class. Ross Halfin, who has just been voted one of the world’s Top Rock photographers by the readers (all unfortunate halfwits to a man) of US magazine Creem, has his arse plonked squarely in a First Class, access-all-alcohol, $2,000-seat. To his right is Rod Stewart and entourage. Rod is looking incredible for a guy who in a matter of hours – at the stopover in Lisbon, on the stroke of midnight London time – will be celebrating his 40th birthday. 

He’s sporting an LA tan, and LA blond locks swept up in traditional Stewart cockatoo style. Every picture tells a story, and Rod’s eyes, his face, even his nose, are a perfect picture – old rock money built on three ancient Stones guitar riffs and a Dylan love song from Bob’s younger days.

Seated on Halfin’s left are the boys from AC/DC, who over the years have acquired the unhappy habit of completely ignoring the existence of any living thing outside their own familiar sphere. Very little of any cogent value lies outside their own sightless cosmology of band managers, roadies, bodyguards and immediate family members. Malcolm Young nods a ‘hi’ to Ross, and Ross offers a copy of the new Kerrang! to drummer Simon Wright. Simon sneers into Ross’s face and declines. Ah… us and AC/DC, we don’t get on any more…

It goes without saying that The Kid has his half-starved arse parked in the pig-sty humorously referred to as Economy Class, along with the Rod Stewart band, several dozen reptiles from Filth Street (the Daily Mirror, The Sun, the Daily Express, the Observer; everybody wants a holiday in the sun!), a gaggle of competition winners on a Trip Of A Lifetime, and a couple of hundred for-real passengers with only one question they want answered: so tell me, my old doughnut, are you going to the Rock In Rio festival? 

Yes, we thought so… All over Christmas and New Year my name has been jammy bastard to my friends. What my girlfriend was calling me I didn’t know how to spell. Yeah, I was south-bound on some Varig Airlines skyway, climbing through the heavens to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And no one is going to let me forget it.

Thirteen hours from London to Rio, including a 45-minute stopover in Lisbon, and all the snow, all the January hassle of a London blanketed in a macabre cloak of black afternoon sky and white treacherous roads would now be history for the next week. Ahead lay, we’d been assured, temperatures in the 90s, the largest, most prestigious rock festival to be staged anywhere on the Earth this year, and, according to the Daily Star: ‘24-HOUR ORGIES’ and ‘SEX AND SUN AS ROCK MUSICIANS LAY WASTE TO RIO’! Yeah well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?


Because they have actually played here before, Queen are without a doubt the best-known international rock act on the bill. So when the stage lights ignite and the taped intro creams from the speakers it’s enough to push large sections of the loco public right over the edge. Freddie Mercury senses all this, and with one mighty puff of his broad chest throws his head back and coos like a lovebird nestled on her eggs; prancing and pirouetting, chain-smoking and joking with the crowd, winning their confidence and admiration with every regal flick of the wrist.

Guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor maintain the same super-tight musical backdrop that has been their live trademark throughout their career, and the set is largely the same as the show the band were touting around the UK last year. The Seven Seas Of Rhye/Now I’m Here medley is still a feature, as are Tie Your Mother Down, Somebody To Love and Love Of My Life

It’s all the hits and more. Killer Queen, Radio Ga Ga (which, just like the video, has the crowd all clapping right on cue, a quite surreal sight), Another One Bites The Dust… the only real moment of serious metal mayhem occurs in Hammer To Fall, which sees May and co. playing with the slow-handed, sophisticated aplomb of true early-70s veterans: mean, moochy and meticulously magnificent. The only pain in the nose is when Freddie and Brian climb up on two stools and make like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin after a night on the piss for Is This The World We Created?, a pure acoustic wimp-out for all the James Taylor junkies in the audience.

The big fun begins with the encores, though. After the anticipated volcanic eruption of applause, the band bounce back on stage for I Want To Break Free with Freddie sporting the same dark black wig he sports in the video. But the funniest part(s) are the enormous pair of falsies he’s wearing! Huge bristols that so excite the lapsed Catholics in the audience that they start to hurl stones and gravel. There’s even some that attempt a quick heave-ho over the security-infested stage perimeter, only to be met by devastating blows from the wooden truncheons of the guards.

Knuckles are being viciously rapped by long pieces of hardwood and there’s still a ton of gravel flying through the air when the band return for their second encore, It’s A Hard Life. This time Freddie’s got his blond number two wig on but, wily old mistress that he is, he also has a huge Union Jack flag which, when reversed, changes into the Brazilian national flag. The crowd go suitably apeshit and a semblance of good order is restored…

Quen onstage at Rock In Rio

Quen onstage at Rock In Rio (Image credit: Dave Hogan via Getty Images)

As it turns out, Rio de Janeiro is three-and-a-half lanes of traffic populated by Brazilian psychopaths who feel confident enough to drive a taxi without once resorting to clumsy indicators or old-fashioned concepts like keeping at least one hand on the wheel. Shit, these muthas don’t even feel a compulsion to focus their eyes on the road ahead, spending most of their road time chit–chatting out of the far-side window to other, equally dangerous and excitable types.

“Keep your fucking hands on the wheel, you stupid homo foreigner!” screams Ross into the ear of our driver, who has just narrowly missed hitting two old women and a dog.

“Si, si, Señor,” grins our friend. “Estostanovacallimarri albero complimento!” he cries, winding down the window and gobbing hideously into the kerb.

“Oh Gawd, just shut up and get us to the hotel in one piece you horrible, stupid…”

Ross Halfin is not a man to be easily impressed, and so far, what with the three-hour delay going through the antiquated Brazilian immigration, and now the raging onslaught of being subjected to the most dangerous man in Brazil taking the wheel for our trip to the hotel, Rio is doing nothing constructive for his indigestion.

“A fart for all the people who never gave a fart for me,” he sneers before letting go one of his most evil-smelling emissions. I’ve travelled with Ross before and have my gas mask duly prepared for this disgusting eventuality. The taxi driver has not, and consequently nearly passes out over the wheel. This semi-conscious state, however, seems agreeable to his metabolism and his driving improves markedly.

“Welcome to the Rio Palace Hotel, Señor,” hisses the oily desk-clerk into Halfin’s beetroot boat race.

“Push off, Fernando. Just gimme my room keys while I’ve still got a temper left to keep…” And Ross is off, bell boys laid to waste as the great man slings his giant hook in the direction of the elevators. One of the finest men that ever drew breath, Ross Halfin.

The Rio Palace Hotel is situated on the lap of Copacabana Beach in a security-guarded spot as uptown as Rio de Janeiro can offer the casual stinko-riche US tourist out on a middle-aged prowl. It’s the best that bread can buy. And much of my time is going to be spent by the kidney-shaped pool, dictating memos of regret to a brown Brazilian dwarf and talking rapidly into a pink phone while sinking a suitably large, ice-cold jug of the finest local sangria. That, and watching the browned and bulging torso of Halfin waddling in and out of the sun, calling a spade a spade, day in day out for the next seven days, is what is going to be happening. That, and wrestling with the languid, sunburn-slow way in which Brazilians conduct their business. 

For the first thing you notice is how long it takes to get the simplest thing together here. Now, I’m the kind of guy who, it should be admitted, can, on occasion, take bloody donkeys to get the simplest thing together when I’m at home in London, so, you know, I do sympathise, gringo. But, God help us, how long can it take a person to hand me one pack of Marlboros? Compared to your average Rio citizen, I move with the catwalk precision of Torvill and Dean on a heavy coke kick.

My first co-ordinated movement, after dropping off my baggage, is to take a walk down pool-side, there to find women, mostly American, mostly on the wrong side of 30, stretched out on plastic floral mattresses, bikini tops discarded. It’s all too much for my nerves, so I plough gamely into the first six-pack of the afternoon. 

There’s a Whitesnake press conference scheduled for 2pm, with one for Iron Maiden to follow at 3pm. But plans are already askew. George Benson, who was scheduled for 1pm, has turned up an hour late, and the ’Snake boys are left to wander around aimlessly during the interim.

Meanwhile, outside the hotel, hundreds and hundreds of chanting, cheering, hysterical Brazilians push dark, toothy-white faces up against the glass doors and screech menacingly every time a limo pulls up outside. Fame and success and glamour and MONEY and a comfortable ticket on the first flight out of the country are the chief attractions these European rock stars hold for the ticket-buying beat-on-the-street types here in Rio. 

In a country where you either exist completely on the poverty line or are extravagantly rich, 90 per cent of the people walking the Avenida Atlantica alongside Copacabana Beach are making a living from thieving, begging, mugging, prostitution and all manner of high-turnover petty crime.

One of the roadies working for Whitesnake was taking in the sun on the beach one day, his head resting on a travel bag, when two kids simply lifted his bonce gently off the bag and snatched it away (the bag that is), making off down the beach like Carl Lewis with his arse on fire. 

The guy gave chase, but when he finally caught up with them they turned round and beat the living shit out of him, before proceeding to empty out the entire contents of the bag in front of him, right there on the pearly-white sand. The remaining 10 per cent of the resident population make their money from carving slices of flesh off the backs of the 90 per cent. That’s the way it is, Brazilian style…

Back at the Rio Palace, when the Whitesnake press conference finally begins the first thing I notice is how well everybody is looking. David Coverdale appears to be in the absolute pink of good health. Within 24 hours John Sykes will have his face plastered across the news pages of all the national Brazilian papers with a banner proclaiming him to be the major sex symbol of the festival. Even Neil Murray is looking decidedly clear of eye, while Cozy Powell has the appearance of a British mercenary about to burst his taut skin like an over-grilled sausage – brown, brawny and super-fit. The questions are coming slowly and painfully…

“Eltobravo connidenda quel cumilulu?” asks the man from the paper O Globo. The interpreter inclines his head towards the microphone and repeats the question, in English: “He wants to know what you think about Deep Purple re-forming?” he croaks through a cloud of cigarillo smoke. Coverdale looks bored and flips the guy off with some distant instant remark. Quite right too, for asking such a predictable question, I said to myself, and hurriedly crossed that one off the list of questions I wanted to kick around with David at a later date.

Ten minutes of my time is all the deal is worth so I snake off back to the pool, where I fall into conversation with a nice, jolly Texan chap who’s in Rio on his honeymoon. His newly-wed is down with the shits back at his hotel, so here he is killing time and sinking beers under the Crimplene blue sky. He tells me where I can buy all the Moët & Chandon champagne I want for £6 a bottle, so I thank him and take myself back upstairs where the Iron Maiden press conference is about to kick off.

As I saunter through the door Bruce Dickinson is doing his best to explain the true and lasting nature of Eddie. “He’s just a phantom, really,” he suggests. “He started life as the band’s logo, for records and stuff, and just developed from there.”

“Si, si,” interrupts the interpreter. “But they want to know who is Eddie?” After the conference is over, Cozy Powell decides to jog along the beach back to the Copacabana Palace Hotel where Whitesnake are staying. David Coverdale is already being chauffeured back, while Neil Murray, John Sykes, Steve Harris and Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, along with a few hardened rock hacks like myself, repair to the pool-side bar for further light refreshments. The festival doesn’t begin until tomorrow night and there’s nothing to do but drink and wait, drink and…

On the way back to my room I bump into Maiden manager Rod Smallwood who is in his usual jocular form. The word, says Rod confidentially, is that all the security guards operating out at the festival site are really undercover policemen keeping their beady eyes open for any hint of drug-taking among the European rock fraternity. 

“And that includes the likes of you!” he says, jabbing a finger in my direction. “The thing is, if they catch you red-handed having anything whatsoever to do with drugs they’ll arrest you on the spot, and they don’t stand bail on those sort of charges here. So be warned! Anyone caught indulging by the local constabulary is liable to be left behind.”

I’m not really listening, though. I’m too stoned…

So what'sit all about? Why, suddenly, straight out of left field, is there this extraordinarily super-hyped event, Rock In Rio? I mean, when it comes right down to it, so what? There are dozens of rock festivals the world over taking place every year; better organised, more experienced and a hell of a lot closer to home than Rio de Janeiro. 

With the exception of Queen, who have performed in Brazil precisely once before in their lives, in São Paulo three years ago, nobody else on the bill – which includes Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Rod Stewart, AC/ DC, Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Nina Hagen and Yes – has ever cared to step onto a Brazilian stage before now. But in London and New York the popular message to the media right now is that there is a vast market for rock music, not just in Brazil, but also in neighbouring countries like Venezuela, even Argentina (where Rod Stewart has already planned a visit). The people of South America, it seems, are just waiting for a little live encouragement before leaping thongs-first into a rock music major overkill. There’s bucks to be made from these schmucks, and suddenly everybody wants in.

So, yeah, sure. But the most basic research will uncover the fact that more than 75 per cent of the record-buying market in Brazil is much more fascinated with plain old mellow MOR. The biggest names in popular music among the hippest factions of Brazilian youth culture are George Benson, Al Jarreau and, mightiest of all, James Taylor.

Nevertheless, we are here and we are, like it or not, getting ready to rock. Certainly, sitting at home in London watching the snow fall outside my bedroom window, Rock In Rio seemed like a grand thing to be happening in the world. Nursing a heavy hangover the morning of the second day, however, with Rock In Rio coming at me from all sides, I’m starting to wonder. 

O Globo is running daily front-page stories and the damn thing doesn’t even start until tonight; radio is rampant with the whole deal; and on day-time TV videos of all the bands appearing tonight are being rotated like a spit. First there’s Queen, then Iron Maiden; and then it says ‘Whitesnake – Love Ain’t No Stranger’ on the screen, but what they’re showing is a clip of Ronnie James Dio crowing his head off. Dark clouds crept into the corners of the morning sky…

In fact, Rock In Rio is the brainchild of Roberto Medina, who is the president of an advertising agency called Artplan. He is the man responsible for enticing Frank Sinatra down to Brazil a few years back for a gig in front of an estimated audience of 140,000, then roped in all his clients for sponsorship and made a mint out of the whole deal. He is, to all intents and purposes, a sharp-eyed entrepreneur who does a lot of good business out of arranging these ‘media events’. 

He paid for the building of the site – the Barra da Tijuca – situated next door to Rio’s Formula 1 motor-race track the Autodrome. Erected on what was formerly swampland, it has been furnished with state-of-the-art sound and lights by Gerry Stickles, the expert production technician who does a lot of work with Queen.

Medina’s initial outlay, therefore, came to a cool US$11.5 million! That means that over the 10-day period the festival is scheduled to run for, with tickets selling for between five and seven dollars apiece, Artplan will need maybe 280,000 people there every day to even begin looking at any real profit. 

Take into consideration the salaries of the hundreds of interpreters working round the clock, the roadies, the security, the bands, the this, the that, and any way you looked at it the money wasn’t going to be coming from ticket sales. Indeed when the festival was over I was told that Artplan had lost more than $5 million on that side of the deal, but that the business the several sponsors involved were doing proved so phenomenal it was worth the hit. Top of the list was a beer company called Malt 99, then came Wrangler jeans, McDonald’s, the usual crowd.

Now I’m told the plan is to follow up Rock In Rio with annual events. The site has been officially rented from the government for the next four years, and after that the likelihood is that it will be torn down. So the magic of knowing you’re going to Rio disperses pretty quickly once you’re actually sitting there using their toilets and drinking their beer. Everything feels kind of languid and one-off. Everybody seems to dig the place – a drop of sun, sea and sin is hardly the roughest week on the agenda – but nobody really cares if they ever see it again after a while.

By lunchtime during the sweltering afternoon of the second day, word has it that, with only one major road leading to and from the site, the through traffic promises to be a nightmare, and delays of up to three hours are being predicted on a journey that should normally take no more than half-an-hour or so.

Whitesnake are scheduled to appear on stage at 9.30pm. Even so, Ross and I are advised to leave for the site no later than 4.30pm! Just to be on the safe side. All the bands – today that means Whitesnake, Iron Maiden and Queen – are being transported by helicopter no later than 6pm, which will get them into the site by 6.30pm. I hitch a ride with Dwayne Welch, EM International PR exec and son of Shadows rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch. 

Contrary to what we were told, we reach the gig within 40 minutes, arriving at much the same time as the bands. This gives us the next four hours to kill, lucky us. “Definitely time for a spot of sightseeing,” I say to myself. And by flashing one of the six different passes I possess before the eyes of the security, suddenly I’m out with the late afternoon crowd.

So here we are finally: Rock In Rio, Friday night, and only four hours left to go. I’m standing in an area 250,000 square metres in size. The Barra da Tijuca site is trimmed off to the north by large dark hills and a deep, still, blue sky. The actual stage is huge, large enough to hold two bands and all their equipment and props, back to back. At the end of one set the revolving stage simply spins round to bring the next band into view. As a result the change-overs throughout the festival were always fast and clean, exceptions occurring only when artistic petulance reared its conceited, artistically, uh, sensitive head from time to time.

The sound and lights all belong to Queen. The light-show is competent and generous, professional in every respect, if slightly less than completely dazzling in scope and imagination. The out-front sound, however, is superb. Apart from the gigantic army of statuesque amplifiers and speakers perched either side of the stage, approximately 100 metres from the front are placed two further towers of power that throw the sound, as crystal-clear as the foul waters of Brazil are polluted with germs and poisons, an even greater distance. 

However, with the festival capable of containing 300,000 people, the absence of two large video screens to help you navigate the pelvic gyrations of David Coverdale or the head-butting athleticism of Bruce Dickinson (total Neanderthal, baby!) is a strange omission from an otherwise largely impressive set-up. There’s a Press Room, replete with typewriters and telex machines; a shopping centre with more than 30 shops, beer gardens, fast-food restaurants; a telephone centre; a mini-hospital for the severely intoxicated; an information centre for the overly anal; even toilets and – gulp! – showers. 

I was told that there were also, in fact, two ‘video centres’ which were both transmitting the live shows and stringing all the boring press guff simultaneously, but I never managed to locate them personally. I dunno, must have been something I didn’t eat…

As I wander backstage again I spot Freddie Mercury standing at the gates signing autographs. He’s got a superb, quite ridiculous cowboy hat on his head and, my oh my, but isn’t he short! I’d always imagined Freddie to be a lanky matador in shades. In reality he looks more like the villainous cousin of Manolito from The High Chaparral, the far side of one two many enchiladas; broad Captain Kirk torso and gaucho Groucho moustache! So he is human…

In his dressing room, David Coverdale is working out before the show; Cozy Powell, Nicko McBrain, John Sykes and Neil Murray are all wandering around amiably, not quite sure what to do with themselves until show-time. Sneaking out onto the stage, however, craftily disguised behind his portable video camera, is Steve Harris.

“I wanted to get the crowd on video just so I could show it to people when we get home,” he tells me. But he’s recognised creeping around at the back of the stage within minutes and the crowd start to go crazy. He looks at me, surprised. “I knew we’d sold a few albums over here, but I had no idea they all knew what we bleeding look like…”

For the final hour before Whitesnake arrive on stage to begin the festival proper – there’s already been a handful of local acts geeing-up the audience up – I’m holed-up in the beer locker in Iron Maiden’s dressing room. Rod Smallwood is laying down on the couch pondering the life expectancy of the average Marlboro, Adrian Smith is quietly plink-plonking away on his guitar, Bruce Dickinson is squaring up to his mirror reflection, fencing blade gripped in his right hand, repeatedly en guarde, en guarde, en guarde, and tour manager Tony Wiggens is swarming in and out of the door with the urgent calm of a man fully equipped emotionally to deal with at least 12 nervous breakdowns and 550 niggly problems, while still finding time to deal with important stuff like getting the drunken slob from Kerrang! a bottle opener. Oh well, tick-tock-fuck-the-clock… “LADEEZAN’ A-GENTLEMEN… PLISS WELCUM FROMMA LONDON, INNLAND… WHITESNAKE!”

Cue instant, immediate, quite unexpected hysteria. Coverdale shakes his tail under the nose of the crowd, John Sykes rattles his long blond locks while ripping out the monster riff to Slow ’N’ Easy and Neil Murray and Cozy Powell lock horns like rowdy stags, and suddenly the 150,000-strong audience are full of at least 149,999 smiling upturned faces, relieved as much as anything that the whole shebang is finally off the ground.

The one solitary screwed-up and pissed-off face belongs to Ross Halfin. “BLOODY JOHN SYKES!” he screams. “He had me THROWN OFF the stage! They haven’t even built the bloody photographers’ pit yet so there’s no way you can shoot live pictures that mean a shit. Iron Maiden had to fight tooth and nail to get the security to allow me on stage for their set. Then I go through the same routine with Whitesnake and 30 seconds before they come on I’m told I have to get off the stage and get off NOW! AND WHY? Because BLOODY JOHN SYKES said he’d REFUSE to play while I was there. BLOODY JOHN SYKES!!”

Ross is not having a fun time at all. Poor old doughnut. Meantime, Whitesnake are battling hard to keep the enthusiasm for their set high. They haven’t played live for seven weeks and are still rusty. Through Love Ain’t No Stranger and Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City Coverdale’s voice cracks at the edges. Cozy Powell’s drum solo is cut from the show. It’s clear that a short, sharp shot in the ass is what Whitesnake are out to give Rock In Rio. And, despite the disappointment Coverdale expresses over his croaky larynx after the show, that’s exactly what they do.

With Mel Galley now out of the picture for good, and the keyboards – handled well by ex-Magnum/Alaska man Richard Bailey – tucked inconspicuously behind curtains side-stage, the rambling, bluesy Whitesnake of just a year ago is gone and gone for good. This line-up is stripped and ready for some heavy MTV-type Stateside action. With obvious exceptions like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s aforementioned Ain’t No Love…, which, no matter how emotively interpreted by Coverdale, will always sound forced and white and very 70s to me, the direction the Whitesnake set is following these days has much more to do with the super-chrome, rear-wheel drive of upfront rockers like Slide It In and Slow ’N’ Easy, the best numbers of the night. Coverdale ends the set with his usual, “We wish you well. God bless and good night!” and the crowd sighs deeply…

If the response to Whitesnake had been one of unrestrained awe, the reaction Iron Maiden drew from the heart of the vast beast was exultant. Aces High comes roaring out of the speakers with the mega-tonnage of a hub-capped, diamond-starred Sherman tank, the frontline of Dave Murray, Bruce Dickinson, Steve Harris and Adrian Smith hanging over the cliff face of the outer stage limits like condemned marionettes suspended by the throats from invisible steel wire. 

The impact is still on the up when Bruce announces 2 Minutes To Midnight in semi-fluent Portuguese and the crowd goes even wilder. The Trooper and Revelations follow, and Bruce is climbing the rafters, taunting the crowd to raise their arms and punch chest-deep holes in the star-tinged stratosphere. “Scream for me, RIO DE JANEIRO!” he screams. “SCREEEAAMMMM FOR MEEEEEE!!!” Here and there, Union Jacks are sprinkled throughout the crowd, but not to be out-done the Brazilians take up the ferocious chant of “IRRRON MAYYYDEN! IRRROONN MAAYYYDDEENN!!” with emphasis on those rolled errs…

Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, replete with taped creaky hull atmospherics, totally freaks everybody out, slaying the audience completely when the band come trooping back for the snarling finalé. But the suspension of disbelief isn’t truly complete until, halfway through Powerslave, the 12-foot tall figure of Eddie bounds on stage to cries of utter astonishment from the Brazilians who know that these English rock groups are, you know, a leetle crazee, but hadn’t bargained on the appearance of the surreal rogue-phantom, headbanging his savage way across the footlights. 

Eddie is the ultimate symbol of Iron Maiden’s superiority, and the glazed, phantasmagorical image of Eddie insanely poised, arms flailing behind the huddled figure of Adrian Smith, is something they were still yakking about on the streets of Rio long after the group had left the country to continue their marathon trek across America.

Saturday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro is beginning to feel much more agreeable. Me and Boss Halfin draped over two wooden sun beds by the pool, over head a marine-blue sky reflecting temperatures nosing into the 100s, and at our feet the largest glass jug of sangria Ross’s Am-Ex card can afford. Tonight there is a party being held by EMI over at the Copacabana Palace hotel in honour of several unpronounceable, wholly uninteresting Brazilian acts along with Queen, Whitesnake, Scorpions, Rod Stewart and Iron Maiden. This afternoon, though, me and Ross are off to play tourists-for-a-day with Maiden’s Steve Harris and Dave Murray.

Two cars whisk us off to the two main spots any righteous-minded visitor to Rio will go out of their way to see at least once on their journey: Corcovado, and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Corcovado is one of the seven wonders of the world: a mountain peak God alone knows how many feet above sea level with an enormous statue of Christ, arms outstretched, above the clouds, built on the apex of the deep slopes. Sugar Loaf is another high-altitude rock that rises out of the ocean, bloodlessly penetrating the skyline and approachable only by cable-car. 

Climbing out of the cars, the four of us stand transfixed by the sight of Rio de Janeiro splayed out like a map below us. Even Ross takes a breather from beating on the heads of the grinning locals to contemplate the awe-inspiring scene. Above us stands the super-tall Christian monolith, staring unblinkingly into the arsehole of the sun, while at eye level all you see are more mountains and hills vying for their place in the currant bun of life.

The Brazilians, whatever else they may or may not be, are by nature an inquisitive bunch, and within minutes of noticing the long-haired young gringos getting their pictures taken so fanatically by Ross, everybody wants to know what is going on. When the security man tells them that the famous English rock group IRRROONN MAAYYDENN, no less, are in their mountain-top midst, word spreads and it causes a commotion. 

Steve and Dave are still fazed by it all as we drive away an hour later. An hour of being followed every where they walk, 60 minutes of smiles and yelps and handshakes and T-shirt buying and ice-cream scoffing… When we arrive at the cable-car station for the ride to Sugar Loaf, all that’s altered is the location. People surround us wherever we go. Me and Ross have been told by Steve to give up trying to explain we aren’t in the group. “It’s easier just to sign the autographs,” he says, laughing at our discomfort. “Go on – you’ll love it!” And so, for the next couple of hours, me and Ross play at being Iron Maiden for the day.

That night at the Barra da Tijuca festival site it’s Al Jarreau, James Taylor and George Benson, and therefore not of the slightest interest to the geezers from Kerrang! Indeed we felt it from deep within our bones that it was the EMI party we should be attending. And, sure enough, there everybody is. Jesus! The Filth Street hacks and the rock comix clowns outnumber their prey a solid two to one. Queen and Rod Stewart are all there, gadding about with their personal bodyguards in tow to “stop you bastards taking pictures”. 

Mainly, as far as we can tell, because Rod is sat chit-chatting to a knee-trembling blonde with pegs that stretch right the way up to her powdered chin who doesn’t go by the name of Kelly. As a result, Justin Focus, intrepid Englishman-abroad lensman for the insipid Sounds magazine, is thrown out after the fool tries to turn paparazzi and get a sneaky shot of Rod avec blonde. Meanwhile, Neil Murray wants it to be known that he is not simply here for the beer, and that indeed his public image as a, uh, socialite, is wholly unfounded.

This while dashing off another vodka and tonic and gassing about all sorts of things I have to pretend I haven’t heard. Then Brian May dives into the pool fully clothed – gasp! – as a line of news-hound photographers get tomorrow’s page five printout. I’m standing with Michael Jensen, US publicity guru for Rod Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, nose-diving into what Michael likes to call “some very serious cocktails”. 

Over there Robin Le Mesurier (Rod’s guitarist) is supping icky-looking green shit with John Sykes from Whitesnake. And over there Brian May and Neil Murray are discussing, um, technique or something… But, in truth, as these things go, the action is slow, and the wine is turning warm. It’s been a long day and, anyway, my mind is still stuck up somewhere pinned to the slopes of Corcovado…

Sunday is just another some-day marked by only two events of real significance: 1) Ozzy Osbourne and entourage arrive in town from LA, and 2) Ross Halfin discovers Rio’s finest Japanese restaurant. Ozzy has recently been released from the notorious Betty Ford Clinic in California. This is the place you’ve already read about – a clean-out cabin for alcoholic film stars and family-rich junkie vagabonds from the West Coast. It boasts a 100 per cent success rate and its clientele in the past has included Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor, and now… Ozzy Osbourne, the ‘wild man of rock’ (copyright: The Sun).

The question is: will Ozzy stay sober? If so, what will he be like on stage? Will the self-proclaimed ‘born-again drunk’ crack up under the heat and go mad, demanding a barrel of brandy before he hits the boards? And what does this all mean for the rest of us? These and other, equally fascinating questions are firmly answered the following night when Ozzy makes his first appearance in the bar looking trim, tanned and extremely healthy and on his best behaviour. 

Not a single light ale dampened his lips all evening, and he won the admiration of even the most hardened cynic (hi, Ross). But the fear returned when later the story went out that Ozzy had broken his vow of abstinence on the flight over, drinking the aircraft dry, finally collapsing in a happy drunken heap into the aisle where he slept off the remainder of the journey…

Ross discovering a Japanese restaurant around the corner from our hotel was an equally noteworthy occasion. Ross loves Japanese food the way Humphrey Bogart loved Lauren Bacall: with a brutal passion that refuses to accept second-best on any level. Halfin is not possessed of a forgiving nature at the best of times, but when it comes to his sushi fish and soy sauce he simply will not tolerate imperfection. 

A hot, dirty country full of punters ready to swipe your cameras is an acceptable burden on Ross’s broad shoulders; he is, after all, getting paid to suffer. A badly served sushi, with the sake warmed to the wrong temperature is, however, UNACCEPTABLE. On all counts.

“PSSAACHHTT!” he cries. “EERRGGHHH… PPSSSAACCHHTTT!!” His face is going a horrible shade of purple… “GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THEY CAN’T EVEN GET BLOODY SUSHI RIGHT IN THIS BLOODY HELLHOLE… PSSAACCHHTT!!!” Waitresses come running from all directions. But the damage has been done. “Take it away. It’s bloody horrible! You don’t even know what soy sauce is, do you? Do you! Oh, go on, clear off and bring me two beers!” 

The sushi tremors don’t subside until I point out that Moët champers sells for £6 a bottle in this joint. “Oh, well. Now that’s different,” he sighs. The rest of the evening is spent watching Ross bill and coo over his cheap champagne into a stunned Brazilian waitress’s right ear.

The following afternoon, both the Scorpions and Ozzy have arrived at the Rio Palace hotel for their press conferences. While the Scorpions file into the conference room, Ozzy is sitting by the pool being interviewed for local Brazilian television. Up on a ninth-floor balcony, Rod Stewart attempts a bit of thunder-stealing by playing his ancient rock and soul tapes as loud as the volume level will allow – which is VERY LOUD! – and the whole pool-side area is drowned in wave after wave of Booker T, Chuck Berry and Percy Sledge.

Meanwhile, inside the conference room Scorps singer Klaus Meine is explaining to the assembled Brazilian press corps that wherever the band travel throughout the world they always like to learn one of the traditional native songs, and would anybody care to oblige them? Half-a-dozen journalists instantly rise to their feet for an impromptu vocal rendition of some fine old Brazilian folk tune. It’s a weird, touching scene, which the Scorpions acknowledge by standing up and replying with a German folk song.

By the time Ozzy takes his spot behind the media microphone spirits are still high, but the questions are all coming straight out of left-field. The interpreter informs Ozzy that the press wishes to know if he is going to be biting the heads off any chickens while he’s in Rio? “Tell them I’m off chickens at the moment,” he deadpans. “I might try a few cats and dogs though…” The headlines on the front page of O Globo the next morning report Ozzy’s response verbatim amid loud, literary gasps of horror.

Tonight is another George Benson, Al Jarreau, MOR night out at the festival. So in our ceaseless bid to cover the action wherever the hideous trail might lead us, Ross and I do a Judas Priest (as in Head On Down The Highway) over to the Copacabana Palace Hotel where two lonely bar-stools are awaiting our arrival. And in the bar tonight… It’s a bloody rock convention! All of Whitesnake; Ozzy and his wife and manager, Sharon Osbourne; Klaus and Rudy from the Scorpions; world-famous Iron Maiden manager (it sez here) Rod Smallwood, together with various other rock types.

Ozzy wanders by and we shake hands. “What do you think of it so far?” I ask. “I think Rio’s a fucking shit house, myself.” He gazes at me balefully. “I mean, it’s a fucking toilet, ain’t it? Horrible grub, you can’t drink the water, and I can’t go outside the hotel because I’ll get mobbed. I’ll be glad to fucking leave. I tell you what, I feel really sorry for Ronnie Biggs – trapped here! I know people say he did bad things that he never got punished for, but, fucking hell, having to spend the rest of your life in this place must be fucking worse! Me, I’d rather have done my time before I’d come running to this bloody place. Honest, I would. And I’ll tell you something else,” he says, with a concerned look in his eye. “I’ve had the fucking shits since I arrived here.” And he strolls off to a corner table, back to his mineral water and his wife.

Meanwhile, back at the Rio Palace Hotel, a mile or so further up the beach, the action is decidedly more sedate. Rod Stewart and his entourage are joined by Roger Taylor of Queen plus a couple of the Go-Gos. They’re planning a midnight dinner, somewhere out on the peak of the Rio social stratosphere, followed by cocktails and empty talk at the nearest available millionaire’s shack. And for God’s sake don’t forget to wear a jacket. That said, AC/DC haven’t been seen in days. What does it all mean? Fucked if I know. Or care. Let’s get back to the bar, pronto…

“I can’t be certain,” says Michael Jensen the next morning, “but I think I’ve managed to set up an interview for you with Rod. Will it get the cover?” Michael, Rod Stewart’s US publicist, is busting his balls trying to do the impossible: organise a Rod Stewart interview for Kerrang!

“I don’t think you’ll get the cover, Michael,” I reply, trying to stifle a smirk. “Nobody on Kerrang! really cares enough about Rod The Mod any more. We’re all too young, ha ha ha!”

“It has to be a cover, or he won’t go for it.” There’s a nervous edge to Michael’s voice. Everybody in Brazil, it seems, wants to rap with Rod, only Rodders ain’t interested. But his guitarist Robin Le Mesurier, who I once got drunk with, has put a good word in for me, and now Michael’s trying to wrap the deal up.

“All right,” I say, “Tell him I say he can have the cover. But don’t tell him that I told you he won’t get the cover,” I suggest, all bushy tailed.

“Uuuhhhhh… no,” says Michael, “I got a better idea. Meet me in room 855 at 7pm, and for God’s sake don’t be late. Rod will be there. We’ve organised an informal press conference between him and one or two Brazilian journalists. I’ll try and organise something for you then. Just hang out. Make like a fly on the wall for a while and I’ll try and introduce you.”

I tell him I’ll think about it, immediately forget all about it and head on down to the pool, wondering what the hell I can ask Rod Stewart after all these years… That evening I’m scheduled to take a car out to the festival to see AC/DC and the Scorpions strut their stuff before the multitude. Big problem: I didn’t see any of AC/DC once, either on stage or off, the whole time I was in Rio. Where were you hiding, boys? And why? Even when I went to the gig it turned out I had been given the wrong pass and so had to stand outside and was eventually forced to seek solace in a bar. It was a damn shame (hic!).

Fortunately I had the right pass for the Scorpions, so the night wasn’t entirely wasted. I’ve seen the Scorpions set a torch to the night in New York and Madrid so far in the last four months, and Rio, of course, was no exception. The rock machine that powers the music of the Scorpions on stage thrives on road work, and the band have certainly had their share of that since Love At First Sting hit big worldwide. 

Savvy as ever, singer Klaus Meine appeared on stage at the start of the set carrying a huge Brazilian flag which he in turn hurled out into the audience, much to the unbridled displeasure of the tooled-up security guards, before the band launched into a suitably hyper-charged performance of Coming Home. Reaction was rabid, but the biggest thrill of the night was reserved for Still Lovin’ You, a ballad which has already been a hit single in Brazil for the band, and so went down a storm. As I intimated earlier in this never-ending piece, ballads are the big noise in Rio and Holiday was also treated to some very special emotional muscle from the crowd.

Towards the climax of the Scorpions’ set, during Can’t Get Enough, Rudy Schenker almost topped himself when he did a back-flip at the edge of the slanting stage, guitar still in hand, and slipped and cut a gash over his eye that gushed a fountain of purple blood and later required three stitches to hold his face in one piece. For the encore of The Zoo Matthias Jabs arrived on stage carrying a very low-slung guitar shaped like a map of South America, which, with a bit of imagination, resembled a Gibson Firebird. 

And then, finishing off the whole event with a real flavour of international bonhomie, the entire band stepped out to the front of the stage to sing the same Brazilian folk song the journalists had taught them parrot-fashion back at the press conference the previous afternoon. Oh, there is Wagnerian magic afoot this night…

Earlier, back at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, David Coverdale had just run into the millionth person to ask what he thinks of the re-formed Deep Purple, the publicly touted ‘definitive’ Mk II line-up that, uh, doesn’t include him. “I think they look like the bleeding Moody Blues’ fan club!” he snapped at last, before hurriedly taking his leave. Three feet from certain escape Dave was collared by weirdo Teutonic chanteuse Nina Hagen, who is also on the festival bill. They stood together and exchanged pleasantries, and when they parted Nina breathed into Coverdale’s ear: “You are such a nice man. If I had known what a nice man you are I would have washed before meeting you…”

Around the same time, in room 855 of the Rio Palace Hotel, Rod Stewart had just walked in to be greeted by half-a-dozen toothy grins from the assembled Brazilian press hierarchy. Only the crème de la crème is granted an audience with Rod The God, and, for once, in my role as Sam Spade fidgety fly on the wall Wall, that includes me. I’m under orders not to participate in this knotty little gathering, with the semi-promise of a few words with his Royal Haircut afterwards, but figure I might just sling a few verbal right hooks his way anyway, if the opportunity presents itself.

Huh! Fat chance! Not with the assembled heavenly chorus of hungry hacks all begging for priceless gems like: “Eeezze eet troo that yooo were once a grave digger, Rrooddd?” Or: “Why deeed yooo leeewe Innland to live inna ELAAAAY?” The moment the inane questions have dried up, Rod is whisked out the door faster than a greyhound out of a trap. I knit my eyebrows and wonder why I wasted my time on this media-Mephisto. Michael Jensen shrugged his shoulders and whispered those famous last words no journo likes to hear: “Maybe tomorrow…”

Much later that night me and Ross are among a party of guests having dinner with Ozzy. The restaurant is Muiro’s, reputedly one of the finest meat-eateries in town. While the waiters continuously throw huge skewers of barbecued flesh onto our yawning great plates, Ozzy is reminiscing about his time in Black Sabbath.

“It was such a laugh in the early days,” he recalls. “We treated nothing seriously. Let’s face it, we couldn’t treat anything seriously outside of playing, we were all too bloody thick! I remember Tony [lommi] and Bill [Ward] doing this live radio show once, and the interviewer asked Tony who the biggest influence was on his guitar playing, and he just sat there and went: ‘Er… um… ah… er… well… er… let’s see… er… Bert.’ 

The DJ was like: ‘Bert? Bert who?’ Stupid sod was talking about Bert Weedon! Then Bill, who’s been sat there saying nothing for the last half an hour, suddenly leans over and asks the interviewer if he minds if he just clears his throat. The bloke says: ‘No, of course not.’ So Bill leans into the microphone and goes: ‘Bollocks! Fuck! Cunt! Piss! Shit! Bollocks! Fuck! Bastard!’ Honestly, it cracked me up.”

He went on to talk about those rock stars who pretend to hate being recognised but secretly love it. “You see these fuckers hanging out in all night clubs in New York or somewhere, and they’re all walking around wearing bloody sunglasses. They can’t see a fucking thing and spend two hours talking to a bloody brick wall, acting cool. 

Actually, that reminds me of the time I was just leaving this club pissed out of me brains. As I got to the door Roger Taylor from Queen was standing there with his shades on, and he stops me and says hello. I looked at him and said: ‘Who the hell are you?’ And he shoves his bloody sunglasses down his nose, peers over the top of them and says; ‘It’s me, man, Roger.’

And of course I knew who he was, I was just pissed out of me head. So I looked at him and goes: ‘Bollocks! Queen just ripped off everything they ever did from Sabbath!’ And I walked out the door. Can you imagine his face?” he roars with laughter. “You should have seen him trying to figure that one out! Queen ripped off Sabbath! What a fucking joke! He hasn’t spoken a word to me from that day to this…”

Finally, it’s our last night at the festival. There’s still another five days to go before things draw to a close, but Ross and I have an important don’t-be-late date in New York and, frankly, we can’t wait to leave. We’ve had enough. The Daily Mirror and The Sun might reckon this city to be a riot of rude orgies and winter sunshine, but me, I’m here to tell you that’s a load of crap. Rio is hot, dirty, dangerous and devoid of civilised recreation. Jesus, of course I’m glad I was there, but not half as glad as I was to leave. Sod what all the other posy press pussies wanna tell you.

So anyway, it’s the last night. Two shows: Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart. There have been waves of consternation from the Rod Stewart camp over the prospect of following Ozzy on stage. On the one hand, Rod’s guitarist Robin Le Mesurier has already confessed to me that the band are dead chuffed that they and not Ozzy are headlining the show.

In the States Rod and Ozzy are approximately neck and neck in purely commercial terms, with Ozzy likely to be the one who will eventually gain the more impressive lead. On the other hand, though, Ozzy Osbourne is one of the greatest rock’n’roll performers in the world when it comes to delivering the goods to vast open-air festival crowds. Rod ain’t no slouch either, but it’s going to be far from straightforward converting the excitement Ozzy’s metal-plated music generates from the crowd into the more melodic groove-along Rod’s confidence thrives on.

“I dunno what he’s worried about,” Ozzy shrugs. Stewart’s jitters smack of superstar soft-soap, and Ozzy knows it. “I’m the one that should be nervous. This will be my first time on stage without a drink inside me for 16 years!”

Classical music fills the night. The lights die and 150,000 people open their throats and howl. Suddenly, flash-bombs ignite, guitarist Jake E Lee stabs his fist into the beating heart of his flaming guitar and… Christ! It’s Ozzy! Sober… and three times as crazy!!

I Don’t Know opens the deal and the crowd are going mad. Ozzy looks fantastic, pounding the stage with a new-found vigour derived entirely from his own unnatural energy. Your eyes just follow every move he makes. Mr Crowley and Bark At The Moon chunder and boom; the band are choke-tight and the joint is jumpin’. Ozzy’s voice never sounded cleaner, and he sings his arse off like a choirboy on speed. Revelation Mother Earth, which follows, is just that; a revelation… really. A monster opening and closing its fantastic jaws. The slow build-up, the stake-through-the-heart rhythmic charge of the middle section, then the all-out nuclear strike of the big finalé. A real adrenalin fix; the best blood transfusion in town.

Live, Suicide Solution has become the Jake E Lee show and no mistake. Ozzy throws an arm round Jake’s neck halfway through the number and hurls him to the ground. Jake bounces onto his back, still playing, still making magic, points his toes to the sky, arches his spine and begins tipping into a solo that hits the back of your throat like nerve gas. 

Springing back onto his heels, still playing, still grinning, all his cat-like mobility is shaded in rock’n’roll malevolence, his guitar a sub-machine-gun strafing between the eyes of the crowd. Back up on his padded feet he is flying, fucking flying across the boards, still playing, still edging closer to the limit. Iron Man and Crazy Train close the show in a bloodbath of flash-bombs, and animal screams from Ozzy. Forget last year’s Donington. Compared to Rio it never happened… and Ozzy was the best thing all day at Donington.

January is traditionally when the rains fall the hardest in Brazil. Sure enough, towards the end of Ozzy’s set the first showers begin to fall and quickly start to grow in strength and sheer bloody-minded persistence. For the opening of Rod Stewart’s set we’re talking torrential. 

Built on swampland, the festival site turns swiftly into a bubbling vat of mud-glorious-mud: strictly quick-quag alley. Before he leaves for his hotel Ozzy blinks into the rain and says: “People aren’t leaving this place, they’re just sinking into the mud. It must be a plot hatched by Queen. What they do the day of their second show is, they turn sun-ray lamps on the ground and up pop about 100,000 punters waving hello out of the mud!”

Dressed in a canary yellow shirt and blue strides, Rod comes dancing out of the wings as the band strike up a greasy, trucking version of Hot Legs. The band are tight, guitars swaying in the night, horn section rolling. Rod’s in good voice and, despite the thousands leaving the festival because of the appalling weather, those that remain forget the rain and get into it.

The last time I saw Rod Stewart was back in the days when he was still singing Jimi Hendrix’s Angel and Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Rock And Roller… ah, but that was more than 10 years ago. How was I to know back then that the next time I saw him perform it would not be with The Faces, and all my favourite songs – with the obvious exception of Maggie May – would be consigned to the history books.

Funnily enough, it didn’t matter. Whatever magic Rod Stewart possesses as a rock’n’roller will be his for the rest of his life. These days the songs are more Las Vegas – You’re In My Heart, Baby Jane, Tonight’s The Night, Young Turks, Passion – but on stage the athleticism is still all there, the voice still carries that edge and, well, he did throw in a very tasty version of Otis Redding’s Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.

By the end, after half-a-dozen footballs have been shot with Dalglish-like precision into the goal mouth of the crowd, he’s into Maggie May and the time-warp is complete. I’m jigging at the side of the stage, plonked right next to the roadie who chucks out the footballs. And I figure, what the hell, it’s my last night. So I stoop down and pick up one of Rod’s footballs and… this is my chance… this is what I came to Rio to do, I’m convinced of it…

One mighty, drunken kick later and the ball is travelling through the air. Then I turn my back on the stage and pick my way through the dark to the waiting limo…

This feature was first published in Kerrang! in 1985.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.