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When bands fight: The 40 bitterest bust-ups in rock history

Two boxers fighting
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Poke any band and you're almost sure to find a hornet's nest of acrimony, jealously and bitterness. It just goes with the territory, along with a steadily accumulating Air Miles account.

It could be anything. A simple clash of personality. An unfair royalty spilt. A guitar amp turned up too loud. A singer turned down. But it's always there. 

That tension. That unease. That volatility.    

So bands fight. And when they do, it can get real ugly, real quick. Here are 40 examples.  

 

Van Halen

If David Lee Roth were capable of embarrassment – and Eddie not quite so drunk – one imagine both parties might have squirmed as the reunited Van Halen reconvened for rehearsals in 2007. 

Lest we forget, at the time of the original split in 1985, you could have warmed your hands on the animosity between the members of America’s biggest band, and after the cooling of his solo career, it was mainly the frontman’s talent for extravagant abuse that kept him in the headlines. 

“Old Van Halen – when I was in it – made you want to drink, dance and screw, right?” spouted Diamond Dave in one interview. “And the new Van Halen encourages you to drink milk, drive a Nissan and have a relationship.”

Pink Floyd

Things were turning nasty by 1975’s Wish You Were Here, but Roger Waters and David Gilmour really regressed to the playground after 1983’s The Final Cut, which marked the bassist’s departure and the start of rock’s most middle-class mud-slinging campaign (“we should have called it The Final Straw,” reflects the guitarist). 

Publicly, at least, it was Waters who started it, badgering the High Court in 1986 to prevent Gilmour ‘sullying’ the name of Pink Floyd (he failed), dismissing 1987’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason as a “pretty fair forgery” and describing the guitarist’s decision to consult his wife on Division Bell lyrics as “so Spinal Tap”. 

But Gilmour, in his own ever-so-respectable way, has been no less childish, once offering the bassist out via the unlikely medium of a Financial Times interview, although it didn't come to blows when the pair reunited for Live 8 in 2005.

The Doors Of The 21st Century

The world was sceptical, but in the end it was former drummer John Densmore who put the kibosh on the Doors lineup fronted by Ian Astbury, winning an injunction that stopped Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek touring as The Doors Of The 21st Century. 

Densmore claimed he played the litigation card out of respect for Jim Morrison – the same reason he turned down $15 million for Break On Through to appear in a Cadillac advert – though the admission he hadn’t been asked to participate hinted at sour grapes.

Smashing Pumpkins

By all accounts, working for Smashing Pumpkins' leader Billy Corgan was a living hell, with the Pumpkin-in-chief displaying a level of control-freakery that meant guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretsky were virtual bystanders in the recording process, and alienating his entourage to the extent that manager Sharon Osbourne was moved to call him a “baldy twat in a dress”. 

Wretsky had already been fired “for being a mean-spirited drug addict” when Corgan announced the end on a 2000 radio show. Only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin could be tempted back for the reunion in 2005, and James Iha finally returned in in 2018.

The Beatles

In the end, all it took to hobble The Beatles was a Japanese artist named Yoko Ono. With Ono sticking to John Lennon’s side during 1968’s White Album, directing his material and even contributing a line to The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, the friction between the members grew, with first Ringo Starr, then George Harrison, briefly leaving the lineup – before Paul McCartney made it official in April 1970. 

Even then, the Fabs continued the abuse in song, with Lennon’s How Do You Sleep sneering that ‘those freaks was right when they said you was dead… the only thing you done was yesterday’, Macca shooting back with 1971’s Ram, and Harrison recalling the headaches of the later years on Wah-Wah.

Sex Pistols

Given their blanket contempt for animal, vegetable and mineral, it was inevitable that the Sex Pistols would turn on themselves, with 1978’s last-ditch US tour finding Johnny Rotten thinly disguising his hatred for moribund bassist Sid Vicious (“a waste of space”) and clashing endlessly with puppet-master Malcolm McLaren (“the most evil man in the world”). 

McLaren would get short-term revenge following the band’s last gig in San Francisco – leaving Rotten feeling distinctly cheated, stranded in LA with no plane ticket or money – but his charges got the last laugh, suing their former manager for £1 million in 1986.

The Kinks

“Of course, Ray was very upset,” recalls the Kinks’ Dave Davies of his older brother’s reaction to news of his 2004 stroke. “But I couldn’t help feeling it was like when you beat someone at tennis, and you say ‘never mind’, but really you’re saying ‘fuck you’.” 

The incident might just be the sole occasion in six decades in which the warring Kink brothers have declared a ceasefire, with normal service including punch-ups, emotional blackmail and mind-games. “It’s the same old thing,” Dave told Classic Rock. “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” But cut to 2019, and it looks the Davies are working together again.

Guns N' Roses

It takes a special kind of ego to turn the best band in the world into a punchline, but by 1997, Axl Rose had just about managed it, thanks to a systematic programme of alienation that cleared out the original lineup of Guns N' Roses and established his reputation as an obsessive hermit. 

For daring to challenge Rose’s dilettante interest in industrial loops, guitarist Gilby Clarke was first out, and he held the door open for Slash, who had pitched material, been turned down flat, contributed it to his side- project, and been threatened with a lawsuit. Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum were gone by 1997, leaving Axl to helm Chinese Democracy with a cast of musos. 

“Axl was the catalyst in breaking up a fuckin’ great band,” Slash sighed in 2005, but in 2016 they all made friends again, albeit without Izzy Stradlin. Or original drummer Steven Adler.   

Metallica

To understand the white-hot resentment between San Francisco thrashers Metallica and Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, you’d have to revisit the proto-lineup of the early-80s – when Mustaine briefly held down the post of lead guitarist – and one fateful incident involving two pit-bull terriers. 

“Dave brought them round to my house and they were jumping all over my car,” original bassist Ron McGovney told Shockwaves. “James [Hetfield] came out and said, ‘Hey Dave, get those fucking dogs off Ron’s car!’ Then they start fighting, and I see Dave punch James in the mouth and he flies across the room, so I jump on Dave’s back and he flipped me onto a coffee table.” 

Mustaine was sent packing on the next Greyhound bus.

The Clash

You didn’t have to squint to see trouble on the horizon for The Clash writing partnership of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones – particularly if you’d attended the 1980 gig at Sheffield’s Top Rank where the frontman lamped his guitarist for refusing to sing an encore of White Riot

With the plasters frequently peeling off their relationship, and Strummer memorably comparing him to “Elizabeth Taylor in a filthy mood”, it’s a wonder Jones hung on until 1983, at which point his preoccupation with hip-hop and weed exhausted his leader’s patience. 

“I got this incredibly vitriolic call from Joe,” recalls drummer Pete Howard, hired after Topper Headon was ousted for heroin abuse in 1982. “And he was saying ‘I fuckin’ sacked the stoned cunt! Whose side are you on, mine or his?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yours, Joe, yours!’”

The Black Crowes

“Oasis, my ass!” Black Crowes' man Chris Robinson told Rolling Stone in 1996, when pressed on his volatile relationship with brother Rich. 

“We’re from Georgia; we fuckin’ knuckle! Literally, me and Rich have fought a lot, but we have one rule: you can have fuckin’ body punches and fuckin’ choke-holds, and fuckin’ throw bottles at each other, but we never crack each other in the face.”

Saxon

The story of Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson’s exit from Saxon – and subsequent formation of a rival group named Oliver/Dawson Saxon – is one of the more farcical in British metal. 

Biff Byford, for one, is not amused; having failed to recapture the name by legal means, the ‘real’ Saxon frontman is reduced to puffing in the press. 

“You can laugh, but it costs us a fortune in lawyers,” he said in 2000. “I mean, they’re doing a show this week but they’ve got our picture on the fucking posters! It’s not fair to some kid who’s driven to see us and then some berk playing his version of 747 shows up.”

Status Quo

As omens go, the fact that Status Quo replaced bassist Alan Lancaster with a dummy in the Rockin’ All Over The World video was not a good one. 

Worse was to follow. After a series of bust-ups with Francis Rossi, the hapless Londoner found himself squeezed out in the wake of the band’s 1985 Live Aid set – an experience he likened to “waking up to find your wife has put a knife in your back” – and was unsuccessful in his attempt to stop the remaining members using the Status Quo name. Two decades later he was part of the Frantic Four reunion, but it didn't last. 

Warrior Soul

After initial success, Warrior Soul would soon fall foul of drug abuse and infighting. Things came to a head between singer Kory Clarke and then guitarist, Johnny Ricco while the band were rehearsing. 

“Johnny and I were arguing,” says Clarke, “Then he grabbed my hair and started smashing my head in on the stairs so I ran for a garden hoe, but he came down with nunchucks and as I was about to swing he caught me in the jaw. I carry the scar to this day which I always like to point out to people.”

The Police

As their profile rose, the bickering between Sting and Stewart Copeland escalated – culminating in the incident when the drummer broke one of the singer’s ribs for stealing his copy of the New York Times, and suggesting their 1984 split was permanent.

“There were fights and there still are,” confessed Copeland during the 2007 reunion tour. “These days, we’re on a three or four-day cycle. We’re playing nicely, then the little rubs and grinds start: you know, ‘Stewart, don’t play that’. It drives me nuts.”

Suede

‘Stay together!’ whooped Suede frontman Brett Anderson in the 1994 single of the same name – but the sentiment didn’t extend to guitarist Bernard Butler, who stormed out of the recording of that year’s Dog Man Star and returned to find his instruments waiting in a binliner in the gutter. 

According to Suede biography Love And Poison, Anderson received crank calls after the split in which whispered voices and sharpened knives could be heard at the other end of the line.

Little Angels

With 1991’s Young Gods album expected to establish them as serious contenders, Scarborough’s Little Angels performed at a Polydor Records conference at Christmas in 1991. 

Drummer Michael Lee had, on the sly, auditioned for The Cult, who were offering considerably more money than he was getting from the Angels. The rest of the band learned of his betrayal, and, with Classic Rock with Lee in his hotel room after the show, slipped a piece of A4 under his room door informing him his services were no longer required.

Blondie

The new-wave favourites remained financial partners upon their split in 1982 – a fact that came back to bite Deborah Harry and her players in 1998, when former rhythm guitarist Frank Infante and ex-bassist Nigel Harrison attempted to sue the reunited Blondie lineup for $1 million in damages. 

They failed, but the shit-storm continued apace at the 2006 Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame, where Infante took the stage and begged to be allowed to play with the remaining members: “I thought the group was being inducted?” 

Ever the queen of the acid one-liner, Harry fired back: “Can’t you see my real band is up there?”

Thunder

In 1992, rumours of a split in the Thunder ranks – notably between long-standing pals Danny Bowes and Luke Morley, over an alleged overture to Morley by Whitesnake’s David Coverdale – came as something of a shock. 

In the pages of the press Bowes raged while Morley kept an uncomfortable silence as the whole scenario blew out of all proportion. 

“I let it get to me more than I should have done,” Bowes later admitted. When once asked if writing all the songs for the band, thus giving him a bigger slice of royalties, ever caused problems within the band, Luke Morley replied, tongue firmly in cheek, “Not unless they crash their Fiats into my Ferrari!”

Black Sabbath

Ronnie James Dio’s original tenure in Black Sabbath can still have die hard fans debating for hours over which was better – the Ozzy years or the new guy. By the time the band got round to working on their first official live album, Live Evil, the rot had set in. 

Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler accused Dio of sneaking in to the recording studio to tamper with his vocal levels. “When it comes time for the vocal, nobody tells me what to do,” raged Dio. “Nobody!” And so he, and drummer Vinnie Appice went off to form Dio. 

“I refuse to listen to Live Evil,” claimed Dio, who went on to work with Messrs Iommi and Butler again on 1992's Dehumanizer, and again in 2006 as part of the Heaven & Hell project. Oh, how the evenings must have flown by.