Skip to main content

Relive the majestic moment Keith Richards clubbed a stage invader with his guitar

The Rolling Stones onstage during a balloon drop
(Image credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images )

Stage invasions can be terrible things. Just ask Frank Zappa, who was pushed from the stage at North London's Rainbow venue in 1971 by an audience member, Trevor Howell, who was annoyed because his girlfriend was "in love" with Zappa. The frontman broke his leg, while Howell was beaten by some roadies and charged with malicious intent to commit bodily harm. He was later sentenced to a year in jail.

Or ask hippie activist Abbie Hoffman, who took to The Who's stage at Woodstock while high on acid, and began to hector the audience about jailed White Panther and MC5 manager John Sinclair. Pete Townshend, clearly annoyed by what he later called "a violation of the sanctity of the stage," whacked Hoffman with his guitar and announced, “The next person who walks across this fucking stage is going to get fucking killed.”

Sometimes stage invasions don't land anyone in jail or hospital. Sometimes they're joyous affairs. And occasionally, just occasionally, they can add to the legend of those involved.

We're thinking of Keith Richards, of course. It's 1981, and the Rolling Stones are playing the final show of the American leg of their Tattoo You tour at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. It's Keith's 38th birthday – Mick Jagger has already led the crowd in a chorus of Happy Birthday – and the band are rounding off the evening with an exultant version of their 1965 classic (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. 

Jagger is wrapped in a combination union jack/star spangled banner cloak as he struts and pirouettes and peacocks across the stage, and a minute into the performance there's a balloon drop. It all looks like the climax of a particularly successful political convention. 

And then, from nowhere, comes an interloper. 

It's all over in seconds. A shot from the back of the room shows some unexpected, fleeting movement, and by the time the camera cuts back to a close-up of Jagger and Richards, the guitarist is already moving to take his Fender off and turn it into a weapon.  

"The only reason I did it was because security was not there," Richards later said. "They were two steps behind. I'm watching Mick's back. I don't know where this guy's going to go, and a Telecaster is a damn good club."

By the time the invader has reached centre stage, Richards is primed, and uses his guitar like a scythe to keep his foe at arm's length. 

"My only problem for the moment was: did I put him too far over towards Charlie's drums, so that I would screw up the drumming?," remembered Richards. "But I didn't, and the guitar was still in tune. It's kind of an automatic, instinctive thing, you know? I could see security running up but I know he's going to get to Mick or get to the centre of the stage before any of them. So what I watched my man's back, you know?"

Richards later bailed the fan out of jail, meaning he didn't even spend the night under lock and key. "He still owes me 200 bucks," complained the guitarist.

The complete set (the show was the very first pay-per-view broadcast of a live concert), was released in 2014 as the DVD From The Vault – Hampton Coliseum – Live In 1981, but it's that 10-second clip from the encore that's passed into legend. And while it might be tempting to make light of the incident, Keith was quick to point out that it could have been much more serious.  

"What if he had a fucking gun in his hand? Or a knife?", he asked. "I mean he might be a fan, he might be a nutter and he’s on my turf. I’m gonna chop the mother down.”

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 36 years in music industry, online for 23. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.