“The band thought I was dead. My neck was bent like it was broken”: the time Frank Zappa was severely injured after being pushed offstage by a fan

A close up of Frank Zappa’s face
(Image credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Frank Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels dealt with the craziness of life on the road in a surreal fashion. But would soon prove to be stranger than semi-autobiographical fiction, as a subsequent European tour with his band The Mothers Of Invention descended into chaos and potentially life-threatening injuries.

Things started to take a downward turn on 4 December that year, when they played a show at the Casino de Montreux in Switzerland. An audience member set off a flare that burned the place to the ground, as the song has it. The incident was immortalised in Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, but while it may have inspired one of rock’s most iconic riffs, it wasn’t good news for Zappa and the Mothers. The band’s gear was all destroyed save (legend has it) for one solitary cowbell, leading to them cancelling planned shows in France and Belgium.

Determined to make two dates at the Rainbow Theatre in London on 10 and 11 December, they rented all the equipment they needed. Only the first of those planned shows would come to pass as, during an encore cover of The Beatles' I Want to Hold Your Hand, an audience member ran up a set of steps and onto the stage. He pushed Zappa off the stage and the singer fell 12 feet down into the venue’s orchestra pit, sustaining horrific injuries in the process.

Recalling the incident in his 1989 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book he recalled: "The band thought I was dead. My head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken. I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib, and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed."

The attacker, Trevor Charles Howell, was caught by fans as he attempted to flee the scene and passed to the band’s roadies. They none-too-gently kept hold of him until police arrives. In the meantime, Zappa’s bandmates were not the only ones left in the dark about the extent of Zappa’s injuries.

In his book Zappa: A Visual Documentary, writer Barry Miles recalled: “A chaotic scene ensued outside The Rainbow where the audience for the second concert were joined in the street by the audience from the first show. Wild rumors that Frank had been killed flashed through the massive crowd, and for upwards of at least an hour no one knew what was happening.”

Frank Zappa lies in the pit after being pushed offstage at the Rainbow in London

Frank Zappa lies in the pit after being pushed offstage at London’s Rainbow venue (Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Zappa survived but he suffered serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck. He also crushed his larynx, which permanently lowered his vocal range. He was confined to a wheelchair for weeks and still had to wear a leg brace when he eventually returned to the stage nearly a year later. Zappa would reveal that one leg ended up shorter than the other – a fact he would reference in the lyrics to 1979 track Dancin’ Fool. He would also suffer chronic back pain for the rest of his life. Left in limbo, that particularly line-up of the Mothers drifted apart, although certainly not for the first or last time.

Howell was charged with assault with malicious intent to commit bodily harm. He was sentenced to 12 months in jail and claimed in court that he carried out the attack after his girlfriend became obsessed with Zappa. The singer himself gave the claim short shrift, writing in his autobiography that Howell had given different stories to the press. One was that Zappa had been “making eyes at his girlfriend”, which the singer claimed was impossible with the orchestra pit between them and a spotlight in his face. “I can’t even see the audience in those situations—it’s like looking into a black hole,” he explained.

“Then he told another newspaper that he was pissed off because he felt we hadn’t given him value for the money. Choose your favourite story.”

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer