Magazine

A time when gigs were violent

Punk rock fans at the Rainbow, London, during a gig by bands The Jam and The Clash, May 1977 Image copyright Getty Images

In the 1970s and 1980s rock concerts - like football matches - could be dangerous events to attend.

These days gig-going is a generally peaceable business. Dads go with lads, mums with their daughters, or vice versa - to quote Sly Stone, it's a family affair. But it wasn't always like that.

In the late 1970s and 80s rock concerts were almost still exclusively youth events - anyone over 30 would have been regarded as a "weirdo" - and violence was commonplace.

"There were riots all the time at gigs," recalls Peter Hook, former bass player with New Order and before that Joy Division. The worst he saw was at Bury Town Hall.

"There was a massive riot there and I got beaten up. I got beaten up all over the place," he ruefully adds.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Trouble breaks out at a Slits concert in the 1970s: "There were riots all the time at gigs"
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 1976: Fans at a gig featuring the Clash and the Jam rip up the seats at the Rainbow Theatre, North London

"It was tribal in all sorts of ways… it was very, very aggressive. It's hard to rationalise."

The era was defined by industrial strife and the politics of class and race, with the far-right National Front enjoying high levels of support, as Neville Staple of multi-racial ska band The Specials recalls.

"At the time it was 'no Blacks, no Pakis, and no Irish'. It was the National Front against us - black and white joining and being on stage together. We used to get a lot of conflict at our gigs."

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption The Specials in concert, 1980

As Britain's traditional industries declined throughout the 1970s and early 80s and the old certainties of life and politics started to splinter, so did the music scene - prompting an era of unprecedented tribalism in youth culture.

If punk's breakthrough in 1977 represented an acrimonious divorce with rock tradition it also heralded a seemingly never-ending wave of new and increasingly polarised music cults.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A Sex Pistols gig at Leeds Polytechnic, 1976

By the early 80s psychobillies, soul boys, trendies, goths, skinheads, rockers, and mods all co-existed, often uneasily. They were followed by new romantics and electro kids. Different musical tastes were amplified by clothes and haircuts.

There were no computers, no internet or social media back then and fans lived for the weekly updates and style tips offered by the music press.

According to former NME journalist Paul Morley, that lent a peculiar intensity to the pop world: "The kind of music you liked was a matter of life and death. You really made a commitment to it. It wasn't just about taste or lifestyle, it was really about who you were."

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption New Romantics, 1980: "If someone wore the uniform of a different tribe there's no way you'd even consider going out with them"

And if you were a music fan, you were liable to make instant judgements about people, based not on what they were like or what they said but on their record collections. In 1982, Bernie Woods was an 18-year-old mod.

"Music defined who you were… You very quickly associated with people who had the same record collection as you. Everyone is wearing a kind of uniform and you're easily identifiable like that."

This even extended to potential boyfriends: "If someone wore the uniform of a different tribe there's no way you'd even consider going out with them."

This tribalism had a positive side, allowing music fans to choose from a wide palette of styles and ideas. For Clare Grogan, then a young gig-goer from Glasgow, it was an empowering time, giving her the confidence to form her own band Altered Images.

"It was coming out of that Charlie's Angels era... There was a notion of what was attractive or interesting and suddenly it was OK to not look a certain way. It was really liberating"

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Claire Grogan singing with Altered Images, 1982

But if it was a time of liberation it could also be dangerous - sometimes absurdly so.

"I remember going to a Secret Affair show at the Rainbow," says Morley. "I was going as a reviewer so I wasn't part of the tribe that had gone - they were the post-Paul Weller mods. I left early and was slashed by a gang of skinheads with a Stanley knife who assumed I was a mod. Rather futilely as I fell to the floor with my lip bleeding I said, 'I'm not a mod, I'm post -punk!'"

Some of the fighting at gigs in the 80s spilled over from football rivalries where trouble on the terraces was commonplace. And Peter Hooton, lead singer with Liverpool band The Farm, argues that violence was generally more accepted in British culture.

"The security wasn't great. There was no real CCTV. It had just been introduced in football grounds, probably not in concert halls and definitely not in pubs so there was an acceptance that you would see on a night out casual violence, sometimes extreme violence. It was almost par for the course."

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Crowd trouble at a Jesus and Mary Chain gig, North London Polytechnic 1985

The development of more professional security arrangements contributed to an eventual decline in violence at gigs, but the real turning point came in the late 80s when a new scene emerged combining Chicago House music with the drug ecstasy. Rave culture saw the nation's youth forgetting its differences and dancing together in "the second summer of love".

Peter Hooton went to one of the first raves. "We couldn't believe what was going on. Everybody was happy... hugging each other… getting on famously. There wasn't a hint of any trouble. It was like a 'Saul on the road to Damascus' experience. It was euphoric."

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Manchester's Hacienda club during the rave period

And since then? Well, there's no doubt about it - going to a gig now is generally much safer than it used to be.

As Peter Hook says: "In [late 1970s and 80s] England the audience was predominantly male. In America it was 50/50 male and female and there was very little trouble there. Nowadays, the audience includes a lot of older people. Young and older people. I regularly go to concerts with my children sharing the music."

And there's a lot to be said for the new world of family-oriented gig going. The violence of the late 70s and 80s should not be romanticised. People were hurt, sometimes seriously, falling victim to a tribalism that spiralled out of control.

Yet there's also a sense that some of the renegade excitement and adrenaline of the music scene has been lost too. And we can reflect now on an often troubled era that, paradoxically, left us with an outstanding musical legacy.


More from the Magazine

Image copyright Getty Images

He was a skinhead and the poster boy for one of the 1980s' most notorious far-right movements. But Nicky Crane was secretly gay and led a precarious dual existence - until it fell dramatically apart.

The secret life of a gay neo-Nazi (December 2013)


Too Much Fighting on The Dance Floor is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 10 September at 11:30 BST - or listen on BBC iPlayer Radio

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.