Disaster! Eight times rock stars got it completely wrong

Rolling Stones onstage in 1975
(Image credit: Fin Costello / Getty Images)

In an age when even the average rock star has the media training of a senior politician and every career choice or public pronouncement will have been approved by a team of youthful marketing executives, it's sometimes worth looking back at the good old days, when even the most famous musicians were given free rein to make decisions that made them look utterly daft in public.

Here, we salute the warped genius of those choices. 

The Rolling Stones, dead butterflies and an inflatable cock

“We will piss anywhere, man,” Mick Jagger apparently said to an outraged garage mechanic who took umbrage at the band using his Romford forecourt as a urinal in 1965. This was the band’s ultimate Grundy moment, defining them as public enemy number one in the eyes of polite society. They were fined £5.

Jagger continued to stoke the band’s reputation for foolhardy acts the following year when, during a concert in Berlin, he goose-stepped around the stage dispensing Nazi salutes. He may not have actually mentioned the war but he certainly didn’t get away with it: the first 30 rows of seats were instantaneously demolished.

But of all the Rolling Stones’ ill-judged actions, one single event stands out as their most public folly of all, and it transpired in the wake of the aforementioned death of Brian Jones.

Wishing to celebrate the life of a man that they’d only just sacked, the band decided to play their free Hyde Park concert as a tribute to their fallen former colleague. Mick Jagger wore a dress and recited Shelley – two follies for the price of one right there – before releasing thousands of white butterflies into the sky.

At least, that was the plan. Not being the keenest of lepidopterists, no one in the Stones camp realised that butterflies needed air and so, after being cooped up in cardboard boxes all day in the heat of the English summer sun (and crushed by a Hells Angel who apparently fell on one of the boxes) the majority of the unfortunate insects simply fluttered stone dead onto the stage as Jagger capered about on their corpses. In a dress. On national television.

Of course, Sir Mick went on to compound any embarrassment he might have felt in Hyde Park by spending a significant amount of the Rolling Stones’ 1976 tour riding around on an enormous inflatable penis, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time but, in retrospect, seems almost as foolhardy as accepting a knighthood.

Motörhead make like the dove from above

It’s 1982, and even at Hammersmith Odeon front-stalls Motörhead tickets only cost a fiver. You elbow your way to the front and yell impatiently at the curtains drawn across the stage, which you imagine hides a black-clad road crew beavering away with torches and gaffertape on the drum riser and towering black backline. But when the house lights go out, the roar goes up – Lemmy, Philthy Animal and ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke start playing – and the curtains part to reveal… nothing. Except a giant mechanical fist, a 3-D realisation of the one on the album’s cover, flexing its spotlight-tipped fingers.

This was surprising, likewise the sound of the then-unreleased Iron Fist’s title-track, but above us there was more. As the searchlights built into said enormous iron fist’s fingers raked our bemused eyeballs the penny dropped… the band were above us, being lowered from the roof over the stage!

Touring the UK to promote Iron Fist during March and April 1982, Motörhead were determined to make an impact. No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith (cunningly recorded in Newcastle) had made them – if possible – an even bigger noise than they had been before, so they decided to up the ante even further when they took to promoting the largely disappointing follow-up album. Everyone had loved the Heinkel 111 bomber-style lighting rig that had been flying and nose-diving on tours since 1979 so, after a bit of Motörheadscratching, it must have seemed a natural step to take the concept of the tried-and-tested hydraulic-winch-plus-bag-of-chains concept to some ridiculous new level.

Being Motörhead, this couldn’t be anything poncy, like individual members dangling foolishly in a Peter Pan style. Instead, it meant the whole band descending ominously onto a platform creaking under the weight of drums and their full backline. God only knows why the roof didn’t follow it and bury the front stalls in a twisted pile of rubble, riffs and Rickenbacker.

The descent, which took just about a minute of the opening number, was never without peril, though.

Lemmy noted that sometimes the chains on one side of the stage would lock, tilting everthing to one side – then they’d unlock and a sudden drop would get everything on the level again.

Guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie was cooly dismissive: “It was a little over the top, wasn’t it? A bit naff…”

Lemmy thought the same about him when he walked out on Motörhead to form Fastway. The rig followed Eddie out of the exit door and was never used again.

Love/Hate singer ‘crucifies’ himself on Hollywood sign

Around 3pm on June 1, 1992, the KABC news-chopper pilot took a call on his radio. “There appears to be some kind of stunt going on over at the Hollywood sign…” Banking over the city he flew north and sure enough, as his cameraman recorded, a 20-foot high crucifix had been attached to the letter ‘Y’ and perched – if not exactly nailed – on it was a shirtless long-haired man whose belt buckle spelt out the name ‘Jizzo’.

The performance art stunt had been dreamed up by ‘Jizzo’ – singer Jizzy Pearl (not his real name, either) and his Love/Hate bandmates years before being signed by Columbia as a statement about what it took to make it in Hollywood. But with the label soon to drop the band after just two albums, it served perfectly well as a reminder of their current plight. And so it was that Pearl found himself in the wash of rotor blades, waiting to be arrested but staring down at a 60-foot drop above a cliff of the Hollywood Hills, fearing he might leave the scene in an ambulance rather than an LAPD squad car…

It was bassist/songwriter/artist/pothead Skid’s fault. The stunt was being filmed for the final scene in a never released Love/Hate movie. “I was willing to do anything to get my career back on track, even at the risk of my own hide,” Pearl wrote in his online history of Love/Hate. “I thought maybe this little demonstration would make a difference. So Skid went about building the cross. It was fucking huge…”

So huge it had to be smuggled onto the site in pieces then assembled and erected under the cover of darkness. Behind the scaffold supporting the ‘Y’, Skid and drummer Joey Gold helped Jizzy up on a chain ladder then left him alone. No need for them all to go to jail to make the point.

“I was really holding onto that cross for dear life,” says Pearl. “It wasn’t constructed with safety in mind. After the first hour or so it was getting surreal. I was so high off the ground that I couldn’t get off the cross even if I wanted to.”

When the police finally arrived, they laughed and called out a fire crew to get him down, then slapped on the cuffs. Down at the station, a police psychiatrist asked the singer why he’d done it. Jizzy deadpanned: “I’m making a plea to the Rock Gods.”

The stunt got the band publicity they sought on the day but Columbia Records were not amused. Today, Jizzy is still smiling as he tells Classic Rock: “In retrospect, I’m glad I did it. My sentence was small and the view from the letter ‘Y’ was thrilling!”

Steve Harley Walks On Water. Or At Least That Was The Idea…

It’s June 7, 1975. Steve Harley and his new-look Cockney Rebel have just gained their first No.1 single – Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) – and their first Top Five album: The Best Years Of Our Lives. Now they’re headlining a big outdoor festival at London’s Crystal Palace Bowl. Unusually, there’s an ornamental lake right in front of the stage. But Mr Harley has a crafty plan…

More than 30 years on, Steve reflects on that fateful day: “I had a secret ramp – a fibreglass board, like a diving board – built out of the stage and into the water. It was three inches below the surface and I was going to walk on the water – ha-ha!

“I was being heavily criticised in the music press at the time for being an arrogant so-and-so. It was going to be so self-mocking, so amusing.

“We were going to play our song Death Trip and, during the long section in the middle where I didn’t have much to do except bang a tambourine, I was going to step out into the water and pretend to be the Son Of God!” A Jesus Christ poseur, if you like..“I just thought I’d have a laugh. At the end I might’ve jumped in and pretended I was drowning. That was in my mind too, to go under the water and not come up again. We also had pyrotechnics under the lake – bombs that would have blown the water hundreds of feet into the air.” But Harley’s cunning stunt was doomed to failure when overheated fans jumped into the lake to cool off. Steve can afford to laugh about it now: “It was a heatwave and it was hotter than hell out there. So loads of people waded into the lake.

“They wouldn’t get out and they found the board. They were sitting on it, looking at me on stage. Shit! Ha-ha. The board and the fireworks cost a huge amount of money.

“I think my entire fee for the gig went down the tubes – or at least a good wad of it.”

Diamond Head and the bad fancy dress

By 1993, many people assumed Diamond Head’s time had been and gone. The Stourbridge band had originally been one of the most exciting exponents of British heavy metal, with releases like Lightning To The Nations (1980), Borrowed Time (1982) and the undervalued-but-excellent Canterbury (1983) going a long way to having the band being described in some quarters of the press as the natural successors to Led Zeppelin.

It didn’t all go to plan, however. The band famously turned down major US management in favour of being handled by singer Sean Harris’s mum when Foreigner’s manager Bud Prager expressed an early interest, and their deal with MCA swiftly turned sour, forcing the band to disband in 1985. However their legacy was to become notable on the burgeoning thrash scene, with Metallica and Megadeth constantly citing the band as a major influence.

It was this patronage that helped bring Diamond Head back to life in 1991 around a nucleus of Harris and guitarist Brian Tatler. Everything fell perfectly into place, it seemed, when the band were invited to open a huge Metallica show in the summer of 1993 at Milton Keynes Bowl, with Megadeth and The Almighty.

New album Death And Progress was viewed as a welcome return to form and the appearance with Metallica might have opened up a younger group of fans… were it not for Sean Harris’s inexplicable appearance at the beginning of Diamond Head’s appearance prancing around the stage fancy-dressed as the Grim Reaper.

From the guffaws of the press to the quizzical and swift disinterest of the crowd, Diamond Head’s chances swiftly faded away before everyone’s very eyes.

“Sean appearing as the Grim Reaper was his way of saying Diamond Head is dead and he was moving on,” explains Diamond Head guitarist Brian Tatler today. “Sean thought we could not break away from NWOBHM, so it would be best to kill it off! I think he also hated the idea of having to sing Am I Evil? at every show.”

That line-up never performed again and split in 1994. Harris more recently bailed on a new line-up, still featuring Tatler, who perform to this day. But 1993 was Diamond Head’s major chance to fulfil their potential. “I don’t think Sean’s fancy-dress costume helped our performance,” says Tatler ruefully.

Judas Priest, Bon Jovi & the ill-advised ‘dance’ remixes

“Pop music should be clear, simple and accessible. I’m not interested in anything else, though that doesn’t mean that we won’t work with other types of groups. Judas Priest have just been on the phone and we’re planning to produce them next year. We’re writing three or four songs for their album.”

When Mike Stock, of conveyor-belt pop pap merchants Stock, Aitken and Waterman, uttered these words to Record Mirror back in 1987, you can imagine the shudder that went down Judas Priest’s collective spine – let alone that of their fanbase, albeit for different reasons.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, as long as we have a strong degree of control over the sound,” Stock went on. “Whitesnake have recently been doing well with a clean heavy metal sound. Judas Priest want the same.”

Judas Priest released the patchy Ram It Down in 1988, a risibly lightweight affair and possibly one of their worst albums, but the fruits of any labour with SAW failed to materialise. Rumour has it the band did indeed record three tracks with the men better known for working with Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley – including a cover of The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hanging On – but the fruits of their labour allegedly remain under lock and key at Priest HQ. Little wonder the band followed Ram It Down with the powerhouse Painkiller in 1990.

In 1992 US stadium rock sensations Bon Jovi followed a similar path, asking singer Mike Edwards and keyboard player Iain Baker of Jesus Jones to remix Keep The Faith in the hope that their new image - shorn of the poodle hair - might help attract the younger, dance-rock orientated crowd.

“It’s got that shuffly, baggy, Jesus Jones/EMF beat to it,” recalls Baker, now an XFM DJ. “I remember we got five grand to do it. Their management phoned ours and they sent a tape over. Then we got the master tape and the five grand.

“It ended up being very poppy hardcore dance, I think. Lots of breakbeats, a bit like that U2 remix of Even Better Than The Real Thing.”

Needless to say, the fruits of Edwards and Baker’s labour – like SAW’s and Priest’s before them – proved too much for Jon’s gang.

“What made them say no? I think we altered the song structure too much for them,” laughs Baker. “It was full of bloated rock clichés like the line: ‘Everybody needs somebody to hate/Everybody’s bitching ’cause they can’t get enough’ and us both falling about laughing. That went straight away.

“They probably didn’t like us altering their songwriting. And we chopped up one of Ritchie Sambora’s precious guitar solos into 18 parts and replayed it on a keyboard!

“The vocal tracks, when we broke them down and listened to them were just ludicrous. There’s a line in the song that goes, ‘I am broken like an arrow’ and we just sat there and looked at each other going, ‘What?’

“To this day I can’t listen to that song without hearing the line, ‘I am broken like a marrow’!”

Kiss go solo. All of them. At the same time

As an impressionable platform-booted bairn back in 1978, this Classic Rock writer found himself greatly looking forward to the release of four separate solo albums from the individual members of Kiss – Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss.

The records were all due to hit the stores on the same date – ‘Kissmas day’, September 18. They all had cool covers painted by Eraldo Carugati, reputedly right-hand man to Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. They were being backed by a hefty $2.5 million promotional campaign. And they were all ‘shipping platinum’. Whatever that meant. It certainly sounded impressive.

I was working on Sounds music weekly at the time and I received a giant poster promoting the solo albums from Kiss’s record label, Casablanca. The poster was emblazoned with the headline: ‘KISS: A MILESTONE.’ But as soon as I pinned it up on the office wall someone whipped out a bottle of Tippex and defaced it to read: ‘KISS: A MILLSTONE.’ It was a prophetic piece of wanton vandalism.

‘Shipping platinum’, I was soon to learn, was merely a term used to indicate the number of solo albums Casablanca were sending out to the shops. Once they got there, they mostly languished in the racks before being shipped straight back atcha again. Drummer Criss, so legend has it, woke up one morning to find 999,999 copies of his on the doorstep.

We’re being unfair. Peter’s sappy R&B effort notwithstanding, the others weren’t half bad. Frehley’s was closest to Kiss’s glitter-metal schtick and spawned a hit single to boot: New York Groove. Stanley’s was full of tear-jolting AOR songs like Take Me Away (Together As One). And Simmons’ mixed Beatles influences and thunder rock to fine effect. It was the most successful, reaching No.22 in the US chart.

But looking back, this was the first sign of decline in the career of the ‘classic’ Kiss. The solo albums’ lack of success meant the band had hit the bargain bins for the first time – and let’s face it, no one wants to rub shoulders with dog-eared copies of Frampton Comes Alive.

Shortly afterward the tacky movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park went on release. Kiss’s 1979 album Dynasty (produced by the aptly named Vini Poncia) was as lightweight as the Space Ace in, er, space. An attempt to go disco by enlisting Donna Summer’s mentor, Giorgio Moroder, and piling on the synthesisers for I Was Made For Lovin’ You was greeted with howls of derision. Poncia stayed for 1980’s lacklustre Unmasked (although the track Shandi remains a personal fave). Then Bob Ezrin, who had masterminded 1976’s classic Destroyer, returned for the 1981 concept album (Music From) The Elder. But the results were completely baffling.

Eventually, Kiss unmasked for real. That’s when things turned really ugly…

How many people does it take to stage King Arthur… On Ice? Oh, only 130 or so

Mid-70s progressive rock has a reputation for pomposity, grandiosity and excess all areas. Many of the name acts of the time were guilty as charged, but it is generally held to be true that, with one particular show, one particular artist went one further and one dafter than anyone else: The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur & The Knights Of The Round Table, as presented over three consecutive nights in July 1975 at the Wembley Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena) by Rick Wakeman.

In addition to the flaxen-haired wizard of the ivories himself, resplendent in Merlin cape and pointy hat – there, on his podium, ’twixt keyboard stacks in the custom-built castle – the show, like the recently released album, featured his six-strong band the English Rock Ensemble (ERE), narrator Terry Taplin, conductor David Measham and the 46-strong New World Symphony Orchestra (NWSO), chorusmaster Guy Protheroe and the 46-strong English Chamber Choir (ECC), and the eight-strong Nottingham Festival vocal group. And to take the performing personnel up to 130 or so, what the programme notes described as ‘a host of ice stars’.

Yes, ice stars. King Arthur… was presented on ice. But you knew that. Because, as already hinted, the Wembley ice shows are to Wakeman and prog what decapitated bats are to Ozzy and heavy metal. They are locked into the public consciousness, part of rock mythology. We look back on all rock’s milestones through a series of distorting lenses, but the two lenses responsible for doing the most distorting with regard to King Arthur… at Wembley are punk rock and Spinal Tap.

The overwhelming consensus was: ‘Ice spectacular? What a load of bollocks.’

The entire King Arthur… on ice episode was indeed a spectacular rock folly. It put ‘X-rated’ into Excalibur, and it send Wakeman’s career into a near-terminal nosedive.

“We were always deadly serious about the music, but not much else,” says ERE bassist Roger Newell. “The idea of mixing skating with rock was another ‘first’, but it was also hilarious…”

“I wanted to do the King Arthur… show at Wembley,” recalls Rick. “And they said: ‘You can’t, there’s an ice rink installed.’ I said: ‘Sod it, I’ll do it on ice.’”

“The ice was needed for a spectacular immediately after our apparance,” confirms Newell. “As the iced area was like a barrier between the audience and the band platform, something had to happen there…”

If not exactly improvised, then, the styling and choroegraphy of the ice stars’ contribution was inevitably something of an afterthought. When Wakeman’s manager Brian Lane asked the band what they would like the female skaters to wear for one particular number, “being red-blooded males”, they suggested basques and stockings. And lo, it came to pass. “Result!’ laughs Newell. “The audience loved it. Especially when one girl lost her top. That’s when we realised how cold it was in there.”

According to Rick, a skating knight failed to turn up for one show. At first no one noticed. All went well until the sequence where the knights were supposed to pair off and kill each other… whereupon an odd-knight-out could be seen skating forlornly around the bodies of his fallen comrades. Eventually, a moment of inspiration occurred, and he fell upon his own sword, to much ironic applause from the audience.

Guy Protheroe and Ann Manly - then, as now, stalwarts of the English Chamber Choir - recall that the ever-generous Wakeman had laid on a free bar for performers. “Back then, certain sections of orchestras used to be fairly heavy drinkers,” says Ann. “At the dress rehearsal, one of the horn players had obviously had quite a lot at lunchtime. The very talented young blonde lady skater playing Guinevere came into view, skating her way around the castle. At which point this particular musician leaned back to try and get a continuous view… and he, his chair and his horn all disappeared. There was this wonderful sight of him sliding backwards across the ice at some considerable speed, holding his horn in the air to protect it.”

For all his warmth, generosity and good humour, though, Rick was a perfectionist, a man so driven that he repeatedly put his health and wealth at risk to achieve what he wanted to achieve. Forced to record his second ‘solo’ album Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (released in 1974) live because A&M UK refused to fund a studio version, he’d had to call in verbal support from A&M USA, and bankroll the project himself with his Yes earnings and by remortgaging his home.

Not long afterwards, at the age of just 25, the pressure, combined with his enthusiastic intake of alcohol, caused Rick to suffer a heart attack. The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur & The Knights Of The Round Table was written as an oblique musical autobiography while he was recovering in hospital.

“I had been told that I would not be able to work again, and if I did my heart would give out,” Rick states. “The Last Battle I wrote after being advised by the specialist that I stop playing and retire in order to give myself a chance of a reasonable recovery.”

The album is therefore far more personal and heart-felt than its presentation would suggest.

Rick returned to work – and drink – with even greater intensity. Despite having spent at least as much touring Journey… as he made from it, he insisted that A&M fund a studio recording of King Arthur… in the same flamboyant style. Another tussle ensued. Rick tended not to dwell on the negative, and shielded his collaborators from the economic situation and the state of his health.

Although they were well-attended and – mostly – well-received at the time, when the Wembley shows were over, Rick discovered he was now seriously in debt. In the UK, King Arthur… reached an impressive No.2, but in the USA it climbed no higher than No.21.

Rick’s follow-up, No Earthly Connection, was ERE-only. Originally conceived as a double album, it was reduced to a single during recording by record company edict. “It hit Rick hard,” says Roger. “He became quite inward-looking, and started to question his judgement on musical elements, which he never had before.” Reviews for the completed album were harsh, and – although it reached No.9 in the UK and sold over four million copies worldwide – it stalled at No.67 in the USA.

As Roger points out, it was not really the emergence of punk, then, but the withdrawal of record company support – effectively a self-fulfilling prophecy – that brought about the break-up of the original ERE, Rick’s return to Yes, and the end of the high-profile stage of his solo career. Even thereafter, punk’s role in changing attitudes towards the type of music for which he was famous was just one of the factors that kept him in the doldrums for so long.

For a good few years, another factor was Rick’s alcohol consumption. After becoming seriously ill again in 1985, he gave it up, and turned to God instead. He also had a run of bad luck in his personal relationships. Between 1980 and 1984, there were three different Mrs Wakemans.

He might have learned his lesson when it came to the bottle and - eventually - the altar, but even when times were hard, he was never truly able to resist the lure of the big production. At the rustle of an opening cheque book, he would dive right back in there again, often with painful results. In the 80s, the Tim Rice collaboration 1984 was supposed to be a stage musical, until the backers backed out. And 1988’s Time Machine was conceived as a touring…. wait for it… ice spectacular. That was tempting fate. And fate showed no restraint. Even before Polydor rejected the album (it was released a year later on a small independent), the lolly had again fallen off the live show’s sponsorship stick.

In the 90s and noughties, Rick serially revisited and reworked earlier projects. In 1998, he got his chance to both go back and go large when EMI Classics funded a remake of Journey… as Return To The Centre Of The Earth, involving a new ERE, the LSO and the ECC. Predictably, Rick worked so hard on it that he contracted pleurisy and double pneumonia, was given 48 hours to live, and took six months to recover. The album was released in 1999, but due to Rick’s incapacitation, the intended major live presentation did not happen at that time.

Return… reached No.34 in the UK, but made little impression elsewhere, especially in Canada, where it wasn’t even released. Naturally, then, its live premiere took place in Quebec, Canada, in 2001. Five years after that – with a multi-car high-speed crash on the M40 and a double hernia operation helping to liven up the hiatus for Rick – Quebec also hosted the next performance – in front of an appreciative audience of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000. It was worth the wait. Rick described it as the “biggest high I have ever had” and the “performing night of my musical life”.

Even by 2002, he was sounding more bullish about his ‘live extravaganzas’. “Yes, I have invested much of what I have earned in them, and why not? I like to do things properly, and if people have bought an album with an orchestra on it then, wherever possible, I try to give them that orchestra in a live setting.”

In 2005, asked if he’d like to revisit anything else, Rick replied: “Yes, King Arthur… Simply by adding some new music to the original and playing it live.” Following the triumphant second Quebec performance of Return… the following summer, he announced he’d found an orchestra interested in performing King Arthur… in the UK. The ECC are up for it. Rick’s life-insurance brokers are unavailable for comment.

Many thanks to rwcc.com, punk77.co.uk, Gary Hill, Richard Jinman, Maani, Henry Potts, Josh Turner and Jeb Wright.

Can you believe these happened?!

Three more rock follies over which we still guffaw

1. In July 1997 Kiss played at Finsbury Park. Paul Stanley was winched high over the crowd from the stage to a platform in front of the mixing desk. Fine, except for what must have seemed like an eternity to the hapless and helpless Star Child, the winch got stuck and stranded him in mid-air. To compound the embarrassment, the spotlight was shining on Stanley all the time - as japesters just a couple of feet below him hurled anything they could find in his direction.

2. Venom had this great idea in 1989. They’d play a secret show at the Marquee Club, under the pseudonym Sons Of Satan. Great idea, except nobody turned up. Someone had forgotten to tell Venom that if you’re gonna do a secret gig, make sure everyone knows about it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.

3. You’ve got hand it to Mercury Records. When Kingdom Come’s self-titled, debut album came out in 1988, the American company had a brilliant marketing wheeze. They sent out white labels of the record to radio statins across the country with no info. They then started the rumour this might be Led Zeppelin back together. This sent airplay into overdrive. Cunning plan, except that when the stations found out they’d been duped guess what? They stopped playing Kingdom Come on air. Result? Sales hit a blank wall. And the band’s career went into a tailspin, from which they never recovered