Riots, arrests and a knocked out Geezer Butler: the most chaotic concert of Black Sabbath's career

Photo of Bill WARD and Geezer BUTLER and Ronnie DIO and BLACK SABBATH
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

As the unsavoury events of Netflix's new documentary on Woodstock's catastrophic 1999 instalment filters its way through the conversations of aghast music fans, similarly disastrous occasions are called to mind. One such instance was Black Sabbath's chaotic concert in Milwaukee in 1980.

Although it was less apocalyptic overall, it certainly held its own in terms of riots, violence and dangerous behaviour. 

On October 9, 1980, a Dio-fronted Black Sabbath played Milwaukee Mecca Arena with Blue Öyster Cult, as part of the bands' co-headline US trek, titled the Black And Blue Tour. The show included an almost one hour change-over time between Cult and Sabbath, allegedly caused by both bands demanding their own PAs and stage equipment, including separate lighting rigs.

Following Blue Öyster Cult's set that night, tensions seemed to grow within a crowd apparently unhappy at waiting an hour to see the Brummie metal heavyweights. Then, when Sabbath finally took to the stage, disaster struck. 

Just two songs in, as newly instated frontman Ronnie James Dio began to introduce N.I.B., one person present took it upon themselves to lob a glass bottle at the stage, hitting Geezer Butler in the head, drawing blood and knocking him unconscious. Due to the bass player's inability to continue, the concert was immediately called off.

The shocking moment can be heard in bootlegged footage recorded from the night, which also reveals Dio's immediate reaction to Geezer falling to the ground (recognisable via the sound of a 'thump' in the audio).

"I just wanted to say one thing, perhaps the last thing I say" he begins. "The stage is not a trash can. We don't appreciate things being thrown at us.

"You've thrown something for the last time," he continues. "You hit Geezer on the head. We don't appreciate that either. We wanted to give a lot for you, but not our blood. If you don't want to enjoy it, then tough shit!".

Soon after, as Geezer is carted off to Mount Sinai Hospital (now Aurora Sinai Medical Center) for treatment, Black Sabbath's production manager, Hew Price, takes to the stage, stating: "Good evening! I am Black Sabbath's Production Manager of this crew. And I'd like to tell you that all that Black Sabbath really wants to play here in Milwaukee tonight. Black Sabbath wanted to rock and roll!".

At this point, Hew appears angry at the crowd, and shouts: "Black Sabbath do not appreciate being hit by flying objects!". As the audience starts to boo, he continues, "Please, please. 1776 was a long while ago!" (likely referencing the period in time which saw 13 American colonies separating their ties to Great Britain)). "Let's cool out and have a good time, okay?".

Then, sharing the news that Geezer and the band won't be returning to the stage as  "he's really badly injured", he continues, "Whoever the arsehole was that threw their glass at him, you fucked it all up completely, so screw you".

At 11:15pm, the lights on the stage returned, and as the crowd erupted into an angry chant, demanding that they "want Sabbath", the beginnings of a riot began to unfold, which allegedly saw the venue doors knocked right off its hinges and the entire space trashed. Chairs from the arena were thrown around, windows were smashed, fights broke out, rails were thrown at the stage, and payphones were even ripped off the walls. The resulting damage to the venue was estimated to be around $40,000.

The damage didn't stop there, either. Reportedly, the riot continued onto the streets. "Windows were broken out of several of the Milwaukee police and county sheriff's squad cars ringing the Arena," the Milwaukee Sentinel reported at the time in a front-page story. "Scuffles continued on the streets outside the Arena for at least a half-hour after trouble was quelled inside the building …Police were seen dragging youths by the hair and throwing them into patrol wagons."

Police had arrived on the scene in riot gear and wielding batons, resulting in numerous fans spending that night behind bars. In fact, according to the Milwaukee Record, more than 160 people were arrested, half of which were for riot-related charges and the other for pre-show drug charges. 

Years later, in 2007, Geezer recalled the incident in an interview with Maximum Ink, revealing that he didn't actually think the bottle throwing was meant to cause any harm. 

“It’s all a big misunderstanding, really" he explains. "The lights were down, first of all, so unless the fellow was some sort of incredible quarterback, I don’t know how he could have hit me on purpose.

"But I was knocked out, and the band was busy getting me off the stage and to a hospital. When the lights came back up, there was no band on stage. And of course, the crowd freaked out. Someone should have gone out and explained - the promoter or someone.

"I mean, the band was worrying about getting me to the hospital, you know? So the crowd freaked out because there was suddenly no band on stage, and things got worse from there.”

In the day following the concert, Police Chief Harold Breier ordered a ban on heavy music and beer at the venue, although neither restriction lasted all that long. The next show to play at the arena was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on October 14 that same year, and although it was carried out without any mishaps (or riots), the MECCA board sustained the ban on beer only until the end of the year. Heavy acts also made a quick return, with AC/DC and Van Halen playing at the venue in 1981. 

Listen to the amazing footage of the chaotic moment in Sabbath's career below.

Liz Scarlett

Liz works on keeping the Louder sites up to date with the latest news from the world of rock and metal. Prior to joining Louder as a full time staff writer, she completed a Diploma with the National Council for the Training of Journalists and received a First Class Honours Degree in Popular Music Journalism. She enjoys writing about anything from neo-glam rock to stoner, doom and progressive metal, and loves celebrating women in music.